Dealing With Magical Teenage Thinking

I remember from several years ago, an unfortunate and disheartening situation with one of my former students. Despite his mother’s directives, and eventually her earnest pleas, despite my counsel, the intervention of other school officials, and county officials; despite many academic interventions, alternative schedules, an alternate building with an alternate teaching approach, wrap-around meetings, and other interventions lasting over a year, this student ended up dropping out of high school. In one of my last meetings with him I offered up the alternatives again and the opportunities they held. He looked at me and said, “Mr. Hendricks, I know that dropping out is not the way that people say I should go, but I believe that somehow, it’s just all gonna work out.”

“Somehow, it’s just all gonna work out.” Adolescence can be a dangerous place. Some teens more than others end up with a kind of serendipitous thinking. They think things like, “Something wonderful is going to happen, it’ just around the bend, I just know it!” They say things like, “I know, I know, I’m failing a required class, we’re two days away from graduation, I haven’t done much work in the class to date, but somehow I’ll pass and graduate.” One of my students told me, “I know, my girlfriend and I are only in high school, but we’re gonna go to the same college. And I know we’re too young to be thinking about marriage but, I figure we’ll graduate from the same college and we’ll end up getting married – and we won’t get a divorce.” To which I responded with a smile, “Yea, so let’s focus on 10th grade right now, okay?”

Of course there are biological reasons behind this kind of serendipitous thinking; what I call “Teenage Magical Thinking.” They tend to think things like – I just know some incredibly amazing stroke of luck is going to happen to me. That windfall is just around the bend. This is why adolescents are so prone to take risks. Excessive speeds while driving because “we’re not gonna get into an accident.”  Drug experimentation because, “I won’t get hooked.” Imprudent sexual decisions because, “I won’t catch anything.”  The prefrontal cortex in the human brain is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid twenties. This does not mean that a 14-year-old and a 24-year-old should have similar behaviors. There is a continuum of growth that brings increasing levels of maturity during human development.

Below, I’ve included a link to a short list from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The list has eleven behaviors that are governed by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It’s no surprise that nearly half of the behaviors on the list involve the words “future”, “planning”, “foresight”, “delayed gratification” “predictions”, and “goals”. In other words, the adolescent brain is not fully capable of planning for the a future with appropriate goals, predictions, and foresight. They need guidance otherwise they’ll create some of the most fantastically magical dream-worlds you can imagine. And yes, I confess, sometimes I find myself laughing at the sheer ridiculousness and absurdity of some of these kids’ ideas. Mostly because I remember some of my absurd adolescent dreams.

What’s a Parent To Do?

1.Tell Them Stories

Tell them real stories of your own personal experiences or of people you know or have read about. Real stories help keep them ground in the real world. My dad told my sister and me stories that have impacted us to this day. I run a teen boys group and they love stories. They ask every time we meet, “Tell us about the time you….,” Or, “Tell us about that guy who….” Stories of mistakes that people have made, stories of successes that people have experienced. This resonates with them and they carry it with them more than me saying, “You know you better not fail this class.” Let the character’s life situation in your story do the ‘preaching’ not you.

2. Listen

Yes their ideas may not be feasible but still at least let them share it. You can’t help them unless you try to understand them. Aside from your understanding, patient listening makes a kid feel valued.

3.What Did You Expect?

For your own sanity, readjust your expectations. Your teenage son or daughter is supposed to be immature. They are juveniles. We can’t expect our 14 and 16 year-olds to have behavior like Mr. Rogers and Miss Marple. Unmet expectations can be a source for high parental frustration. Step back take several deep breaths. Take several more deep breaths and remind yourself, “She’s 16 years old, I can’t expect her to behave like she’s 36 years old.” This doesn’t mean smothering your adolescent and stunting their social development. It does mean providing appropriate guidance as they undertake adult tasks.

Click the link below for information on the prefrontal cortex from the US Department of Health and Human Services.


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