Ben, aged 18, borrows his father’s car to go on a trip with some friends. At 2am, he’s driving at more than 80mph down a country lane, the music belting out, the white lines marking the road ahead just like a video game. Behind him, in the back seat, the girls have fallen asleep, their heads leaning on their boyfriends’ shoulders. Speed, music, girls. Ben has a feeling of total control, a perfect moment.
Then comes a tight bend that he wasn’t expecting. The car goes straight on, plunges over a ditch and smashes into a tree.
It’s a miracle that no one is seriously hurt. Ben’s father, Henry, can’t believe it — how on earth could Ben have taken such an appalling risk? A taste for risk, a search for an adrenalin rush, an inability to feel any motivation about the important things in life, an unquestioning following of the group, bouts of rage.
What is actually going on in an adolescent’s mind? A new generation of neuroscientists are asking themselves exactly this question: is a teenager’s brain the same as an adult’s?
The surprising answer — absolutely not. Since the work of Jean Piaget, it has been thought that the development of the brain and its associated functions were complete by around 12 years of age. It’s true that by this age the brain has grown to full size. Improved brain-imaging techniques have now proved, however, that the brain does not actually reach maturity until 20 or 25 years old.
The prefrontal cortex, which gives the human head that domed forehead, is responsible both for controlling our impulses and for our ability to project ourselves into the future.
However, according to Dr Jay Giedd, of the American Institute for Health in Washington, the ‘cabling’ of its white matter sheathing the neurons, which transmits brain impulses, isn’t complete until around 20 years of age. On the other hand, our ovaries and testicles become active at puberty. Hormones released into the system stimulate the need to assert oneself, to be taken seriously, to explore outside the limits of the family and to test one’s role within the peer group. We can therefore see a lag between hormonal activity, which pushes children to take risks, and complete maturing of the brain, which would allow them to think before they act.
This certainly helps to explain why the two principal causes of death among adolescents are accident and suicide.
So how can we support our children through this delicate phase? To help them overcome their lack of self-control, we can guide them with structured activities (homework periods, mealtimes, sports). We also need to be able to communicate with them on sensitive subjects such as problems with friends, breaking up, going out, alcohol and drugs. Yet that’s exactly what adolescents most resent — being nagged by their parents, who go on and on about the same old thing — and they respond by sulking or subsiding into silence.
We must therefore learn to listen to them before we talk to them. One study from the University of Illinois suggests that the more adolescents feel they are listened to by their parents, the more receptive they are to what is said. So let’s start with what’s bothering them, rather than what is worrying us. And there’s no getting round the key ingredient in all our most important relationships in life — a healthy dose of patience and love.