Parents

Why teens make bad decisions: Blame the brain

June 20, 2011 at 3:36 PM ET

Wonder why some teens make not-so-great decisions?  (And yes, Junior, staying out past curfew falls into the "bad choice" category.) Turns out it has nothing to do with how smart they are, and everything to do with their brains' (lack of) ability to control impulses.

A new study in the journal Child Development finds that while adolescents have the knowledge and reasoning ability to make decisions as rationally as adults, they still lack a key component of wise decision making: they don’t think before they act.

The study, conducted by researchers at Temple University, tested people between the ages of 10 and 30 in a series of puzzle-building tests. Participants had to rearrange a stack of colored balls in order to match different pictures, using as few moves as possible.

Older test takers did best because they had better impulse control, which helped them plan ahead. (On the hardest problems, mature performance wasn't seen until at least age 22!) Researchers also found that solving difficult problems makes strong demands on the brain’s frontal lobes, and teens’ frontal lobes are still maturing. Combine this with normal teen emotions and peer pressure, and it’s no surprise that poor decision-making can be the end result.

So the next time your teen uses the “I lost track of time,” argument for staying out too late, chalk it up to immaturity. And maybe give them a copy of this study to read -- while they're grounded.

Do you see evidence of your teen's immature brain? Or have they wowed you with their foresight and careful planning? Tell us about it in the comments! 

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