Ever wonder why adolescents seem a bit… up and down? Ya know, one minute they’re sweet as can be, but the next they’re totally unhinged, acting out their very own über dramatic Britney Spears head-shaver-moment?? These fluctuations in mood can be maddening for parents to witness and painful for girls to experience– but they’re not unusual. If you’ve ever wondered what’s really behind these personality swings and poor behavior choices, this article’s for you!
There are two critical factors that influence adolescents at any given moment. First, let’s get acquainted with the frontal lobe of the brain– the area that is associated with a variety of important faculties like attention, planning and motivation. The executive functions of this brain region involve the ability to accomplish three critical tasks:
1. Recognize future consequences resulting from current actions
2. Choose between good and bad actions
3. Override and suppress socially unacceptable responses
Pretty important stuff, huh? This part of the brain is vital to smart decision making and maximal functioning.
But here’s the problem: the frontal lobe is not fully developed until approximately 25 years old!! This is CRUCIAL information, indicating that mature self-regulation skills often don’t kick in until the mid-20s or later. Thus, when it comes to making mistakes, mismanaging emotions and acting out, teens (and even young adults) are full blown experts.
Don’t get me wrong– by no means is this an excuse for poor behavior and emotional meltdowns. But it certainly does provide a context for some of the confusing ups and downs most adolescents exhibit.
The second important puzzle piece is so simple that it often gets overlooked: the basic human need to belong. Needs are a major source of human motivation and often drive people to take actions that get those needs met (sometimes at all costs). Although everyone wants to feel accepted at every age, adolescents in particular tend to use some really crappy strategies for satisfying this need.
For example, I consistently see parents who are shocked by their daughter’s choices to engage in risk-taking or out of character behaviors like drinking or skipping meals. “She knows better,” they say, appealing to their daughter’s greater intelligence. What they fail to recognize is that rational thought is not driving the bus, but rather something more innate: the needs to belong, be accepted and fit in.
Once again, I don’t offer this information as an excuse, but simply an explanation. Understanding the power of these two important factors, frontal lobe development and the need to belong, can begin the process of deepening one’s self-awareness around damaging choices and behaviors. And yet, while self-awareness is a beautiful thing, it’s only half the battle.
As a coach, I’m always interested in answering the question, “So what are you gonna do about it?” It’s imperative that we arm girls with tools that set them up to succeed in overcoming these obstacles. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Mentally Prepare: Because frontal lobe development doesn’t support most teens in making smart, self-honoring choices in the moment, advanced mental preparation can mitigate poor decision making and acting out behaviors down the line. Help your teen to think through consequences before they’re in the moment and instant gratification takes over!
2. Choose Smart Strategies: In every situation there are a variety of strategies teens (and adults!) can employ to get their needs met– some are effective and self-honoring, while others cause more harm than good. When it comes to satisfying the need to belong, encourage teens to choose join or associate with groups that share common values. In this way, their actions will be both in alignment with their core values and cultivating meaningful connections with others.