Why Do Smart Students Do Dumb Things?

It is hard to understand how a teen can use reason and logic to successfully solve complex problems and then turn around and make a terrible decision. That is why it helps to understand what is at work in a teen’s brain. According to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, teen thinking (cognition) is like “driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes.”

You can break it down to cold thinking and hot thinking. Cold thinking is pretty much fully developed in a teen brain. This is what allows them to solve complex equations. It is the reason they can develop solid, logical arguments. And, it is perhaps the reason they can outsmart us in many ways.

Hot thinking on the other hand is still developing. Hot thinking is what is used when making decisions that involve emotion. These are often the on-the-spot decisions that result in devastating consequences. Examples include the teen that drives recklessly to impress a friend despite the fact he has always obeyed all of the traffic laws until then; The teen that in the excitement of the moment throws a punch or becomes a little too sexually aggressive; Or, the teen who chooses to drink alcohol or do drugs when they have assured you and perhaps promised themselves it would never happen.

There are several developmental issues that feed this deficiency. First, brain cells are not fully protected (myelinated) causing slower processing and longer lasting impacts. Second, everything a teen experiences (music, drugs, sweets…) is felt more intensely because the number of brain cells receptive to a key neuro-chemical (dopamine) is at an all-time high. Third, the region of the brain responsible for decision making, impulse control and goal setting (the frontal lobe) is still developing in your child through high school and beyond. This is particularly problematic when alcohol is introduced because the same area is the first affected by alcohol. In other words, teens who drink are further impairing an area that is already underdeveloped. The combined effect of these three influences is that a teen’s “brakes” (judgment) will not always be as effective as it is when sober.

For these reasons, it is very important to plan ahead with your teen. Help them think through potential situations so they are not just operating with hot thinking when a dangerous situation presents itself. And, remind them, friends are their number one risk factor. It might be best to avoid some situations entirely. An unchaperoned party or a night out with friends who are known to drink are examples of situations in which our teens could be setting themselves up for a problem. By talking about it ahead of time, teens and parents can consider the risks and, if teens go to the event, have plans of what to do if the potential risks start to become reality.