What Was MY Teen Thinking? (What’s really going on in that Undeveloped Prefrontal Cortex)
My family loves to tell stories. One of my favorites is when my sister was 13. My dad, sister, and I were down at Memorial Park in Houston. We had hiked down to Buffalo Bayou. The bayou is brown and murky and God knows what is in there. There was a rope swing connected to a big pine tree that swung over the bayou. My sister asked my dad if she could use the rope swing and jump into the water. My dad told her the water was full of sewage, diseases, and poisonous snakes, and then he said, “It’s your decision, just use good judgment.” My sister said, “thanks” and jumped into the water. Thank God, my sister survived jumping into the disgusting water. Today, my sister at age 50 would never think of jumping into that bayou.
There is a reason for that.
My sister’s prefrontal cortex at age 13 is undeveloped. In fact, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed till age 25. This is why, after you explain the dangers and consequences to your daughter, she still jumps into her teenage sewage hole. With no help from her prefrontal cortex she makes impulsive ‘Woo Hoo, this sounds like fun’ decisions.
“What is the Prefrontal Cortex?”
Behind the bone of your forehead is the prefrontal cortex and is typically known as the CEO of the brain.
But here’s another way to say it. The prefrontal cortex is like the brakes on a car. The problem with teens is that they get the gas (the impulses) but they have a faulty brake system. Here’s why.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for:
- Planning ahead
Developed:“I have a lot going on this week; I better not schedule anything else.”
Undeveloped PFC: Your daughter asks you if she can go to 2 concerts during the school week. She has 2 tests on Friday, a term paper due, and a big history project. Obviously, she is not planning ahead.
- Managing emotions and delaying your responses
Developed: You’re driving to work and someone cuts in the lane before you. You feel like ramming into their car but you control yourself.
Undeveloped PFC: You are making dinner and your daughter Jane walks past. Jane had a tough day at school. You ask her if she wants a salad with the meal. She yells back, “Whatever MOM,” and slams the door. She is not managing her emotions or delaying her responses.
- Empathy — which helps you accurately read the emotions of others
Developed: You’re having lunch with a friend you know that she is exhausted and discouraged before she opens her mouth.
Undeveloped PFC: You’ve had a long day. You walk in the door and you tell Jane that you are exhausted and you need help with dinner. Because Jane is 14 she does not accurately read the emotions of others which makes it hard to have accurate empathy. Jane says, “Mom I always help you. Why are you so mad?” You are not mad at all, you just need help.
Developed: You come home from work and snap at your daughter. Twenty minutes later you come in and apologize. You realized that you were tired and took out your frustration on her.
Undeveloped: You are trying to have a discussion with your daughter. You are calm and ask about her weekend plans. Jane gets all worked up and says, “I don’t know mom.” You ask one more question and she blows. You say “why are you so upset?” She yells “I’m not upset; you’re the one who’s upset. “Jane does not have insight or awareness of how she comes across.
Developed: You get pulled over for a ticket and the policeman asks you if it’s an emergency. You hesitate for a second and tell him no.
Undeveloped: Your daughter wants to go to the party because a guy she likes is there. You ask your daughter if the parents are going to be home. She lies and says yes. She does not feel bad that she lied. She only feels bad if she gets caught. Her morality and conscience are flaky during the teenage years especially when opportunity knocks.
- Big picture: cause and effect
Developed: Another important function of the prefrontal cortex is the ability to see the big picture and understand cause and effect. Adults know if you are going to be successful in work, you need to be reliable, and trustworthy. You know if you do not follow through with a client, you will lose that client. You want to keep a good reputation in the community.
Undeveloped: You don’t consider the big picture or cause and effect. When that is absent, you act impulsively. Jane is angry at Lisa because she likes her ex-boyfriend. She spreads gossip about Lisa all over school. Jane didn’t think about how that would backfire on her. Now, Lisa is spreading rumors about Jane. Jane’s friends stop calling and start hanging out with Lisa.
Mom, there are times that you have to be your daughter’s prefrontal cortex.
Your daughter thinks she knows everything, but she has an undeveloped prefrontal cortex and needs your protection and guidance. With an undeveloped PFC, your daughter is not going to plan ahead, manage emotions, delay her responses, have empathy or insight, display consistent morality, understand cause and effect, and see the big picture.
Even though your daughter thinks she can do it on her own, she can’t. There are some major holes developmentally. She needs you, to help her think through her actions and consequences. You fill in the gap, as her prefrontal cortex continues to develop.
You have to be her brakes when she has put the pedal to the metal and is ready to drive off into the sunset or over a cliff.
If there is tension between you and your daughter, there’s a good chance you are doing something right.