A comment I often hear from parents is, “She is so smart, how could she (get pregnant/ take drugs/ drive drunk/ shoplift/ send out naked pictures of herself/ trust a man she met online/ get that tattoo when she’s going to job interviews…)?” Obviously, the options are endless, but the real issue is- how do teenagers who are very intelligent, often do well in school, and obviously understand many adult concepts, do something phenomenally short-sighted, impulsive, or just plain dumb?
We are tempted to associate academic intelligence or cultural literacy with other forms of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence or maturity. To us, it makes sense that a teen who excels in one form of intelligence would be advanced in others.
It’s true that successful teens do tend to have positive character traits. Many teens who excel academically, or in more intellectual hobbies such as debate, youth government, or social justice work, possess more organization and tenacity than your average teen. However, teenage emotional regulation, judgment, and impulsiveness are usually underdeveloped at best. It’s not their fault- their brains are still developing full adult capacity for these traits.
Adolescent brains develop until roughly age 25. Our bodies are developing earlier; the average age of first menstruation in girls has dropped from about 16 to a little under 12 in the past 150 years. But despite outward appearances of early maturity, our brains mature at the same rate they always did.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect teenagers to show self-control, discipline, and good judgment; it does mean we shouldn’t expect an adult level of functioning. It means that we should expect- and try to help guide them away from- impulsive, uninformed, or irrational decisions.
If I was driving my car at night, and my friends urged me to turn off my headlights and coast, I would refuse. A teen is much more likely to be swayed by peer pressure. If I didn’t want to get pregnant, I wouldn’t have unprotected sex. Teens aren’t always making the same connections regarding long-term consequences. If someone online tries to befriend me or talk to me, I make sure a friend of mine can vouch for them, or I ignore them. A teen may not look past surface appearances.
However, brain development does not automatically translate into hard-wired behaviors. You affect your teen’s behaviors, too. Talk to them about risk, about what risks they may want to take (trying out a summer program, befriending someone from a different peer group, attempting to take a difficult class) and what risks they should avoid (unprotected sex, not obeying traffic laws, experimenting with drugs). Make it very clear what the consequences could be (and will be from you) for taking these risks or making these choices.
You may be lucky enough to have a teen who consistently makes good choices. Pat yourself on the back, because you probably have something to do with that. While I wouldn’t recommend allowing this teen an adult level of trust (i.e. “Here’s the car, be back in three days”), there is nothing wrong with gaining confidence in your teen’s self-control and judgment.
Teens may be short on impulse control, but they do have a memory. If you are regularly discussing safety and consequences with them, they may remember that conversation at a very critical time. You can’t touch on every possible behavior, but there are opportunities to discuss many safety measures. “I wanted to let you know that if you set up a skateboard course using the pickup truck and some planks of wood and then do backflips, not only will you be grounded but you might break your skull and die” is not something you will think to say. But “Let’s talk about safety on that new skateboard” definitely should be!