Childhood Family

Unlocking the mysteries of the teenage brain

I read an article recently about a study in which researchers analyzed the brains of teenagers. In this experiment, they had the kids listen to a 30-second clip of their mother criticizing them. Here is a sample of one of the critiques: “One thing that bothers me about you is that you get upset over minor issues. I could tell you to take your shoes from downstairs. You’ll get mad that you have to pick them up and actually walk upstairs and put them in your room.”

What the researchers found was the the teen brain, when exposed such rather gentle critique, pretty much shut down the parts of the brain that deal with processing negative information, emotional regulation and understanding other people’s perspective.

I think I speak for every parent of a teenager ever when I say, “You needed a brain scan to tell you that?”

I shared this article with my teenage daughter, who responded, “See? I can’t help it if my brain is turning off.”

Not sure I was intending to give her a hall pass for the next time we ask her to take her shoes upstairs.

But the point is, this study merely affirms what generations of parents raising teens have experienced: teenagers brains turn off at the most convenient times. My daughter is a kind and caring teen, a good student with a good sense of humor. However, it is clear that, sometimes, her brain clearly shuts off.

Take, for example, the water glasses. My daughter likes to get a glass of water before bed. Fine enough. Each evening as she is heading to bed, I say something to the effect of, “Make sure you bring the glass down in the morning.”

Clearly, the sound and tone of my voice has made part of her brain shut down, because that glass is just as likely to begin levitating as it is to end up downstairs in the morning.

I don’t go do routine glass inspections, so I forget about the glass the next day. Then, after realizing we have almost no clean glasses available, I will go to her room to find roughly 400 glasses strewn about her room, each about ¾ full of water.

This tells me two things: (1) She does not need that tall of a glass of water and should perhaps pick a smaller cup and (2) The sight of the glasses in her room trigger that horrible time when I suggested she bring the glass down in the morning, and her brain goes into shutdown mode.

At that point, I will ask her why there are enough glasses in her room to hydrate Ohio, and the shutdown continues, which also causes a reflex which causes her eyes to roll back in her head and for her to exhale, “Ughhhh.”

Fun fact: Teen girls’ eyes spent 65 percent of their waking hours staring at their eyelids.

Fortunately, I have seen these behaviors before, as I have three older sisters, all of whom experience eye-rolling brain shutdowns as outlined in the study. Also, my wife spent seven years as a teenage girl, and can confirm the conditions may have existed with her, a supposition that was most definitely confirmed by her father.

By the time my son reaches his teen years, my daughter will be halfway through hers, so we may get the fantastic luxury of having two kids whose brains shut down on a routine basis. Of course, based on my tenure as a teenage boy, I can safely say that there is a good chance the brain pretty much shuts down for good for that duration. What teenage girls are to eye rolling, teenage boys are to decisions not normally made by intelligent life.

In all, my wife and I will experience a combined total of 14 years of teenagery, which will conclude in 2022. It may seem like a long way off, but I am confident that if we can make it through the brain shutdown years, we can make it through anything. And we’ll finally have all of our glasses downstairs.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C., and now lives in Charleston. A graduate of the University of Alabama, you can e-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.


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