Education Family

The Teenage Years: It's All in the Brain

photo by c.a. muller @

My son just started middle school after Labor Day, and everything seems to be going really well. So why am I already battening down the hatches? Because I remember how I was in middle school. I was evil. Just impossible. Everything my parents did was horrifyingly embarrassing. My friends were my world. I wanted the blue Fair Isles sweater that Jodi wore, the Bermuda bag that Marla carried, the clogs that Melissa had on her feet. I wanted to hang out with Dina and Noelle and Todd and Adam as much as humanly possible. We lived to torture our poor, pathetic French teacher. Every moment was filled with emotion and drama. I look back sometimes and wonder: Seriously, what was I thinking?

Apparently in the last decade,  a fair bit of research has been conducted to gather biological evidence as to why teenagers go a little bit haywire. Apparently, the teenage brain begins a massive shift around the prefrontal cortex around 12-13 years of age. The pre-frontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain that allows us to consider the consequences of our actions, and that part of the brain kind of stops working as well as it had before. Parents don’t always understand the neurological changes that their children’s brains are undergoing: changes that can cause their once docile children to take big risks and make big mistakes. The following article is an excerpt from a fabulous piece of reporting by Patti Neighmond for You can read it, or you can listen to it here.

Laura Kastner, who along with Jennifer Wyatt has written a new book, Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens. For more than 30 years, Kastner has helped parents and children work toward greater calm in the home. In the book, Kastner presents a typical scenario:

Your child goes to a sleepover. The kids sneak out, go to someone’s house, and spray shaving cream all over the house and cars. The police come, give them a tongue lashing and send them back to the host family, who promptly delivers them home to you in the middle of the night.

“Sometimes, parents say, ‘What were you thinking?'” says Kastner. “And the joke’s on us. They weren’t thinking. They were running like wildebeests in the canyon. Just go, go, go. You know, they were flooded and excited and not really thinking through the consequences of their actions.”

In situations like this, Kastner says the first line of defense for parents is to stay calm. Tell the teen to just go to bed and that you will deal with consequences tomorrow. Ask them to write a note of self-reflection — about their regrets, why they went off track, what they would do differently if given another chance, and what skills they might need to avoid the situation in the first place.

Kastner suggests even writing a letter of apology to the host family, the family that got shaving-creamed, and maybe even the police officer who wasted his time responding to the incident. Based on the quality of this self-critique, Kastner says, parents can then determine discipline or consequences.

“It will be small, medium or large, based on the quality” of the self-critique and how much the parents believe their children learned from the mistake, she says. Parents might even have the teenager suggest their own discipline. And there’s an added benefit to the teens’ writing. It engages the “thinking” part of the brain, and gets the teenager away from the emotional frenzy of the night.

I, of course, love the idea of integrating writing as a way of getting kids to connect with thoughts to their actions. This is a strategy I have used in my classroom when students have been misbehaving. I simply hand the offending student a pre-written sticky note which instructs that student to sit out in the hall and write a full-page explanation as to why he/she has been asked to leave my class.

The exercise works for several reasons: First, it immediately eliminates the distraction from the classroom. Second, the student has to go outside and really think about what he/she was doing. Sometimes it is the first time the student has ever had the opportunity to even consider that what he/she has been doing might be considered annoying/bothersome, anti-intellectual, etc. Third, once the student is done, he/she returns to the class where we calmly conference. There has been time to cool down. I get to read the student’s words. The student generally recognizes his/her behavior as problematic to the larger group dynamic and we come to some kind of understanding. Sometimes, adjustments need to be made: maybe we decide to move the student’s seat so he/she is closer to me and further away from a friend or a loud hallway. Always, we have a clearer understanding of the other. And last, I have a piece of paper documenting the student’s infraction so if the behavior recurs, well . . . I have proof from the student’s own hand that establishes there has been an ongoing problem.

I have done all this for years, however, until I heard this report on NPR, it had never occurred to me to use this same kind of writing technique as a kind of disciplinary technique with my own child. (Not that I have had to. Yet.) But I love the idea of it.

So guess who has a blank composition notebook in the kitchen cupboard ready to go, should that moment of crisis arise. (Note: if you act fast, those notebooks are twenty-five cents at Target. If your peeps are just entering middle school, I suggest you pick up a few!)

And while we’re on the subject, anyone brave enough to share an example of a “wild and crazy thing” you did when you were between the ages of 13 and 17 years old? Anyone? Anyone?

29 thoughts on “The Teenage Years: It's All in the Brain

  1. Thanks for letting us know about this book, Renée…as parents/stepparents of 12, 14, 16 and 17-year-olds, it sounds like it could be very useful to us!


    P.S. I left home at 17 to move in with my much-older boyfriend who lived three hours away…it’s a good thing my parents took me back after it didn’t work out!

  2. “…why teenagers go a little bit haywire.”

    Love the description! Fascinating information about changes in the brain. Thank you very much! Things are a bit more toned down in the Asian setting, but working with adolescents is something I consider to this day to be something most divine! There is always something to laugh at, and as long as the teacher learns to keep the laughter to appropriate moments, I think he/she will discover that it is adolescent laughter that is the veritable fountain of youth. My own high school teachers hardly seemed to have aged when I joined the teaching force of the same high school I went to!

    Rex Raymond

  3. What didn’t I do that was wild and crazy between the ages of 13-17?

    Let’s see….

    There was the time I wrote on a bathroom mirror in ketchup (that one i actually felt really bad about).

    “Boat jumping”: that was brilliant. Get a boat moving about 20-30mph and jump out. It was all fun and games until I got run over and trapped under my friend’s boat. Fortunately he had the motor shut off. Valuable lesson here was I learned how to not panic in the water.

    Of course we all snuck out of our cabins while working at camp to pull nasty pranks on the other bunk houses. You know, to tie a guy to a tree, smear him with honey and dance around yelling, “Here bear! Here bear!” Or go streaking throughout camp…

    And of course we did the usual hand in warm water, shaving cream in the hand, and tickle the nose gags.

    Biking down a ski hill without helmets or any protection at all really.

    That’s just the start.

  4. The only thing we got 50 years ago for pre-frontal cortex was a rap to jaw/craniumex and kick in pre-rear-buttex. All rules of home/school beat us into repression of psycho/physio changes. At least you’re a mom knows this impact youth development and will deal with it better than the ignorant brutality, yelling and screaming endured my generation. Sports, music, art, church group good. I did not have custody but mine were already on and dealing dope 5th grade. That and guns parents’ biggest fear Miami these days. Seems from your writing much better your environment . Best wishes from this grandpa.

  5. So that explains it! This is why my kids have all had a short term memory problems between the ages of 13-17! Thanks Renee 😉

    Funny story, I remember being kicked out of the house by my mom, over something stupid, curfew or something, called my friend Paul and Chuck they came and got me and we spent the night in a cemetery (I was going to teach my mom a lesson for sure). What???? It was cold, scary and totally uncomfortable! What was I thinking!

  6. Good advice – the go-to-bed-we’ll-talk-about-it-in-the-morning approach. I also approve of the written apology. However, one has to be careful these days. Who knows where the note of apology will end up? (I’m thinking a blog.)

    Silliness?…Errr… accidentally prompted the cordoning off of my friend’s street by armed cops who suspected an assassination attempt on the judge next door. Happily was oblivious until it was brought to my attention at gunpoint in the hallway. Various thoughts:
    1. How did he get in?
    2. Better turn down the music.
    3. Hope he didn’t shoot the smokers lurking in the bushes out back.
    We had some time to clear up the party debris before his parents returned because the cordon prevented them getting home. When they did though, they weren’t best pleased.
    However, it was a very good party until that point.

    1. With a few very clever friends, we actually got away with a crazy party. Got nabbed with the evidence (read: beer bottles and scantily clad boys all over the house). But we invoked Students Against Drunk Driving (we were all members), and we were thus deemed “smart, responsible girls” for not letting the drunkies drive. All we teens had to do was clean up the mess. Still cannot believe we got away with that one. Parental denial is a powerful thing.

  7. I remember having friends sleep over, waiting until my parents went to sleep, then sneaking out and driving to a party or two, staying out super late (and doing all those things we did at HS parties), then coming home at like 5 am, crawling into bed and sleeping in half the next day. The parents never knew a thing!

    Also once we convinced my parents that they deserve a weekend away just by themselves. We had the HUGEST bash at my house complete with several kegs (bought with fake ID’s), and lots of music, food, drinks, and fun until the police came. My father was not happy to say the least when he found the empty keg in the truck of my car the next day.

  8. Very informative bloggie. Will get/borrow/steal the book (joking -won’t steal the book).

    I really like the example from the book…brilliant! I am sure I wouldn’t have considered handling it that way in the moment unless I already had that tool in my tool-box…so I shall read ahead and plan ahead for those moments I am sure will arrive with my now-13-year-old.

    I recently read an article about a book that came out recently called “My Teenage Werewolf” by Laura Kessler. She followed her 7th grade daughter around 24/7 for some weeks (?) or months(?)…sounds quite informative in regards to the life of a tween-ager.

  9. I had a biology teacher who used the “time-out-and-write-out-what-you-did-wrong-and-why-you’re-sorry-in-a-page” method for discipline in his class. It was so entertaining to read the confessions of troublemaking sophomores during free class time!

    It’s such a shame to hear parents discuss the bumps (or major canyons) in their parenting experiences with teens. As a teen, I can relate to a lot of ‘teen’ feelings, but by God’s grace, I can relate far more with the woes of their parents.

    On behalf of the teen race, I apologize for our bad behavior. We are stupid and willful and short-sighted. Please forgive us and structure us the way you wish you had been structured. (:

    1. Felicity: How I wish you could be cloned and shipped to my zip code. If your blog is any indicator, you are one heck of a writer, thinker, and – if I may be so bold – I kinda doubt you are one of the demon seeds. And don’t forget, I was a teen once, too. I did all kinds of stooopid things. Just ask my friends. They’ll be glad to tell you.

  10. Your page-to-explain-poor-behavior exercise sounds a lot like the RTP (Responsible Thinking Process) our school has implemented – except you are missing The Questions:
    1. What are you doing?
    2. What are you supposed to be doing?
    3. What are the rules?
    4. What happens if you break the rules?
    5. Is that what you want to happen?
    6. What would you like to do now?
    7. What will happen if this behavior continues?

    If the kids go to the RTP person (think “former detention supervisor) they write up a plan – what the behavior was that landed them there, what choices they will make that will be better for them/the class, etc.

    I’m enjoying the reading of the stories posted here – but have to admit I was, generally,a good kid. “Generally” implies that there are stories to tell, but – I’m afraid of blackmail! ha!

    I do know there were a few sleep-overs that weren’t exactly filled with sleep, and possibly some neighborhood wandering in search of boys we had crushes on.

    1. Because I teach at the college level, I don’t feel I have to be so explicit as to give my students the questions 1-7. Believe me, they know when they are bein’ bad. I do think it is great to hear that some schools are integrating this strategy into the disciplinary structure. I really do think it works, plus it is really fun to read the responses years later. (Even more fun to show them to the people who wrote them ten years down the line.)

      If you were a good girl, I doubt you would have liked me very much in middle school. I was hardly interested in being good. I just wanted to hang out with my friends. Mostly I wanted one boy to pay attention to me.

      I did enjoy going to the mall in the winter to play a weird little game a bunch of us invented where we would try to touch all the old women in their fur coats. If they snagged us touching them, no points were awarded; however, if we stroked them undetected, we got a point. Such fun! It would be hard to do now; so few people wear fur! 😉

      1. You send college-age students to the hallway? WOW! I’m fascinated by the fact that people would actually misbehave in a setting they are paying big bucks to be in…Of course, if I go back about 18 years to a kiddie psych course that was required to expand my secondary degree to include elementary certification, I wonder if it was similar? One-hundred people in a lecture hall, 5-8 p.m., and probably only 1/2 dozen of us were older than 19. (I was in my mid-20’s.) I was appalled at the talking and note-passing going on…pre-cell phone days, …and annoyed because I was paying for that class out of my own pocket and didn’t enjoy the immature antics…

        But, to go back a few more years into junior high and high school…

        Going to sleepovers and playing ball games in the street, in stocking feet, because it would’ve taken too long to put shoes on…leaving sleepovers in the middle of the night because we were ticked at the host, sleeping in patio chairs at another guest’s house, and having to walk back in the morning to retrieve our things (and be picked up by our moms)…going to sleepovers and walking all over the neighborhood, stuffing leaves in mailboxes, soaping car windows and TP’ing trees of people we couldn’t stand…please note that none of these sleepovers occurred at MY house, because I was scared to death of my parents!…leaving football games to go hang out at the pizza place 1/2 mile away and returning in time for parents to pick us up…prank phone calls–but only to friends…going to boys’ houses when parents were gone, but only when you wouldn’t be alone–too risky!…drinking parties…Chinese fire drills (pardon the un-PC-ness of the era)…getting my ears pierced without parental permission–who would’ve thought of it then?

        My college years were much more interesting and risque than junior high & high school…but THOSE years will stay under wraps. My kids don’t need to know!

  11. I’ll leave my teenage stories for another time, but I definitely agree that middle school kids don’t think. I’ve heard about this research many times, even talked about it with students. I found it to help explain the insanity we all know. Of course, that doesn’t make the actions any less maddening. Letter writing as discipline may work until a certain age, but I suspect it will be a tough sell into the teenage years. Good stuff as always!

    1. I use letter writing with my college students… but I imagine it might be harder to get kids to do it from home base. (You know, the place where they feel the most free to rebel and act out.) Hard to force a pen into a kid’s hand and force him to produce a well-written note. That said, if the child has something he/she loves, a quick reminder that the privilege can be revoked at any moment usually gets results – in this house anyway.

  12. While camping in the backyard at a friends house we skinny dipped in a next door neighbors pool after T.P. ing the neighbors across the street. We were seen because we forgot to be quiet while swimming, but we somehow managed to not get caught. Ha ha, fun times.

    I often have my daughter write about what she’s feeling when she gets in trouble and she often writes a letter of apology when she feels she has been wrong. I do think it helps her separate her emotions from what really is happening.

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