Q. Whenever I ask my teenagers, “Why did you do that?” they just shrug and mumble, “Don’t know.” Their bodies are a foot taller than mine but what’s with their brains?

A. What’s with their brains? They’re still in the oven, so to speak. Physician maturity equals does not necessarily indicate brain maturation. Just because a teenager’s body appears somewhat adult-like, it’s an error in judgment to assume that the same is true for his/her brain!

Myelination of the brain (the process of coating nerve fibers with a cholesterol sheath known as myelin) likely continues until age 20 or 21. Maturation of the prefrontal lobes of the brain may continue until the mid-twenties. Practically, this means that the way in which your brain processes information may be very different from the way in which your teenager’s brains function.

PET Scan studies have shown that when individuals were asked specific questions or were asked to solve problems, portions of the brain that were activated differ based on age. To comprehend the significance of this, it’s important to understand that what is commonly referred to as “the brain” actually consists of several different, although interconnected brains.

For example:

  • The action brain layer—that includes the brain stem and cerebellum and is the home of reflexive and instinctual behaviors (no conscious thought)
  • The emotional brain layer—that is sometimes referred to as the pain/pleasure center, limbic system, or relational brain (no conscious thought)
  • The thinking brain layer—that is also known as the cerebrum, gray matter, or cortex (conscious thought)

Conclusions of the study were that, in general, individuals below the age of 21 tended to process information in the emotional brain layer where there’s no conscious thought (especially in the presence of any type of fear). Those over the age of 21 tended to process information in the thinking brain layer where there is conscious thought.

When you ask why questions of individuals (e.g., Why did you do that?) who are below the age of 21, they may want to respond and may even try to do so. However, because they tend to process in the emotional brain layer they may become defensive and be unable to articulate effectively. This negative outcome can be further compounded if they perceive the situation to be adversarial or stressful.

If the adult is processing information from the conscious thinking brain, while the adolescent is processing information from the subconscious emotional brain, it’s no wonder there can be a definite disconnect in the communication process (often referred to as a generation gap)! Avoid why questions if at all possible. They’re difficult for adults, never mind those under the age of 21. Rather, try speaking in terms of cause and effect. For example, Raquel (not her real name) stayed out past college curfew. She spent the night in her car, triggering a missing persons search, anxiety in a number of family members, and suspension discipline from the college. She could not answer the typical why questions that were asked of her. Finally her favorite aunt said, “Perhaps you didn’t realize, Raquel, that by failing to return to the dorm on time you risked negative outcomes that included...”

Eyes wide, the girl responded, “Those possibilities never occurred to me!” That opened the door for nonthreatening cross-generational discussions about what she could learn by this experience and how she could make a different choice in a similar situation in the future. The more you role-model this type of cognitive processing in your own lives, the more effective your communication is likely to be.