Health & wellness

MD MAMA

Why teens do crazy and dangerous things

Excerpted from the MD Mama blog on boston.com.

Anyone who has parented teenagers would agree that there is something, well, different about their brains.

Just recently, there was a story about teens drinking hand sanitizer. Apparently you can get drunk off the stuff. And what about the cinnamon challenge, where kids (usually teens) eat a spoonful of cinnamon (which can be dangerous) just to see if they can? You really have to wonder about the brain of anybody who would try this stuff.

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But all of us, if we think about our youth, can think of something colossally stupid we did. (Ihave no idea why my friends and I stood up in the back of a speeding pickup.)These things seemed, I don’t know, exciting. That they could possibly kill us didn’t seem to matter.

I remember a lecture in my freshman Shakespeare course in college. The professor was talking about Hamlet. Suddenly he stopped. He looked out at all of us silently for a few moments, and then he said, “You can’t possibly understand this, because all of you think you are immortal. To understand this, you have to understand that you could die.”

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It turns out that there is actual physiology behind this: The brains of adolescents are different. They have the capacity, like children, to learn a lot of information quickly. But their brains are maturing and creating the connections that allow for more reasoned decision-making. This maturation happens from the back to the front of the brain, with the frontal lobe the last part to mature. And the frontal lobe happens to be the part of the brain that controls judgment and insight. This means that adolescents are wired to be quick learners with limitations on their, um, common sense.

As I’ve thought about this, as a pediatrician and a mom of teens, I think it makes evolutionary sense. I mean, think about what adolescents need to do. They have to not only learn a tremendous amount, but learn about and do things they know nothing about. Imagine having to take physics as an adult — or learn French, or how to drive, or how to be an electrician or a lawyer. Adolescents routinely take on things that are new and unfamiliar ­— without any guarantee of success. It’s a lot easier to take chances when you are wired to be impulsive and confident than when you realize your limitations — and mortality.

So whether it’s standing up in a moving pickup truck or drinking hand sanitizer, these crazy things that kids do aren’t only normal, but — as weird and scary and dangerous as they may be — are part of something good.

Dr. Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston. Read more from her blog at boston.com/lifestyle/health/mdmama.
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