One aspect of the developing adolescent brain

Not all functions of the brain are fully developed in the early stages of adulthood.

When using the RELAX: Alternatives to Anger curriculum, Michigan State University Extension educators teach anger management classes in a group setting throughout southeast Michigan. Oftentimes, classes are full of older teens, ages 17 – 19, and their parents.  The majority of these young people have been court ordered to attend the class as part of satisfying a probation requirement. These teens are on probation for some illegal act that was marked with impulsive or aggressive behavior. While it is disheartening to see so many older teens involved with the criminal justice system at such an early stage in their lives, it is uplifting to know that the same system is working with them and their families to gain some much needed education and support to reduce the likelihood of further illegal behavior. These young people are given a second chance at getting it right because of being referred to programs that can help.

For the parents and families who accompany these older teens to the class it is very apparent they come with heavy hearts, lots of unanswered questions and a lack of understanding or insight as to why their child has behaved in a way that has gotten them into this mess. The situations, questions and answers are often very complex and there are many different factors including developmental, social, emotional, environmental and genetics that impact human behavior.  However, there is one factor that is true for all of these young people - their brains will not be fully developed until around the age of 25.This could be a contributing factor in the circumstances that led to the teen exercising poor judgment, impulse control or not thinking things through.

Brain research shows that the human brain goes through a slow growth and maturation process between the ages of 10 and 25. The parts of the brain that control physical coordination, motivation and emotion develop first. However, the pre-frontal cortex that controls reasoning, inhibits impulses, planning and organizing behavior to reach a goal is not fully developed until about age 25. Therefore, prior to complete maturation, individuals may not display the following behaviors with any kind of consistency according to a Dartmouth College Study:

  • Use of appropriate judgment
  • Rational thinking
  • Integration of emotional and critical thinking
  • Sound decision making
  • Ability to think about long-term consequences linked to behavior
  • Global thinking vs. self-centered thinking

About 90 percent of the time, program participants are surprised to hear this and parents often say things like, “but they are old enough to know better” or “he or she is an adult now.”  MSU Extension quickly reminds them that although the legal age of adulthood is 18 in this country, it doesn’t mean that our minds are capable of all adult functions by that age. It is difficult to have all of the answers these families seek, but by offering them this information, it can help them gain some insight in to why their older teen has behaved in a way that has gotten them into this sort of trouble.  

Perhaps the most important lesson is the one that comes after gaining this knowledge about brain development – the important role parents and other caring adults play in guiding an older teen to use their developing brains to make good decisions and use appropriate judgment. Through acts such as consistency, enforcing consequences and modeling appropriate behavior, parents can teach their older teens to avoid risky behaviors and reduce the likelihood of further involvement in the criminal justice system.

For more information on the developing brain and other health related topics, visit MSU Extension.

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