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Biology Explains Why Your Teen Seems ‘Crazy’

March 20, 2018, 10:57 PM UTC

The “crazy teenager” is one of the oldest social tropes around. But adolescents aren’t really crazy at all—in fact, they’re usually acting pretty rationally considering the biological earthquake raging inside their heads, prominent neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen explained during the 3rd annual Fortune Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, CA.

“Teenagers are not adults with fewer miles on them,” said Jensen, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Brain development and “remodeling” occurs from the back of the brain to the front; the latter portion is what contains the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for critical skills like decision making, the way one expresses his or her personality, and helps dictate social interactions.

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“Early in life, children’s brains aren’t as connected,” said Jensen. So reactions to certain situations may come off as extreme even when they seem unwarranted. “They’re kinda like Ferraris with weak brakes at that point.”

But modern society is also affecting these behaviors. “The brain hasn’t changed in the last millennia, but our environment has,” as Jensen puts it. Stressors such as the pressure to succeed and social media anxiety, normalized drug use, and other factors may well influence the structuring (and restructuring) of the teenage brain.

Jensen’s ultimate piece of advice? “Be a better parent and give that frontal lobe an assist.”