Bad Judgment – The Peril of Adolescence

In this space I’ve often written about how the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that exercises judgment, is “under construction” during adolescence. And that the only way to wire this area more extensively – to produce a lifetime of intellectual strength and benefit – is to exercise critical thinking and judgment as often as possible during adolescence. (See my free ebook: How to Give Your Teen a Superior Mind).

Kids learn to walk the same way. But until a child masters this skill, the toddler will suffer a lot of falls, even if she’s trying hard to succeed! The same thing happens to teenagers. They suffer a lot of falls, even if they’re motivated and trying hard to think things through (which all too often, they aren’t). My favorite book on this topic is Why Do They Act That Way? by psychologist David Walsh. Teenagers are famous for doing dumb things that get them in trouble and sometimes, cost them their lives.

Like many days, today there were stories all over the news about teenagers who exercised monumentally poor judgment, with horrible results.

I found story #1 online on Shine. An 18-year-old Oregon boy named Jacob Cox-Brown was thrown in jail because he did three really dumb things in rapid succession. First, he drove while intoxicated. Unfortunately, along the way, he hit a car. But two, instead of rendering assistance, he took off – hit and run. And then three, he felt compelled to post about it on Facebook: “”Drivin drunk … classsic ;) but to whoever’s vehicle i hit i am sorry.” Not worthy of a Darwin Award, but a pretty amazing series of bad judgments.

On FoxNews.com  I read about three Arizona boys who decided it would be cool to test the ice around Fool Hollow Lake, which had frozen over. One of the boys, because he was afraid or had better critical thinking skills, stayed on the bank. But the other two tried the ice. When it started to crack, they clung to the branches of a dead tree. The boy on the bank called for help and two hours later, emergency personnel got to exercise their rescue skills and equipment.

Also, I read report on GulfLife.com about three Alabama teen boys who died in a twin-engine plane crash. The plane crashed about a mile from the airport because the pilot was one of the teen boys. Jordan Ryan Smith had his student certificate, but he wasn’t licensed to pilot the plane. And oh by the way, it wasn’t his plane. And they didn’t have permission. You have to wonder what they were thinking. Why would they think it would be a good idea to joy-ride an aircraft they weren’t qualified to fly – at night, with a low cloud ceiling.

Whenever I tell parents about the perils of adolescence, I share shocking examples of the near-term consequences of the failure to ingrain the thought patterns related to good judgment. But I nearly always worry that they’ll think I’m exaggerating when I say I come across stories like these several times a week.

And I wonder what parents think when I tell them that as sad and scary as these consequences are, they aren’t more awful than the long-term consequences, which begin after the end of adolescence and the sensitive window of development of the prefrontal cortex has closed; and young people who haven’t exercised good judgment during adolescence will have to live with a minimal foundation for critical thinking and judgment for the rest of their life.

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