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Adolescence: A Period of Temporary Insanity

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Author:  Patrick C. Friman, Ph.D., ABPP, Boys Town

What do teenagers have against mailboxes? Why do they mow them down? What do teenagers have against cars? Why do they throw snowballs and eggs at them? Actually, teenagers don’t have anything against mailboxes or cars. They attack them simply for the thrill of it. 

Adolescence is the time in life when the developing brain produces more emotional than rational responses. So, teenagers often do things because they feel like it and frequently don’t think rationally as they do them. Usually, this is very difficult for parents and adults to understand and accept.  Adults generally have lives governed more by rationality than emotion and whenever the reverse happens, things seem to, and often do, go wrong.  As a result we come to treasure rational thinking, expect it in others, and disapprove when it is not there. 

The problem with our expectation of rational thinking in others is that it extends to teenagers—we expect them to see the wisdom of our rational view and quickly adopt a similar view. Unfortunately they are slow to do so and, even when periods of rational living occur, these moments are all too temporary. 

The reason for limited rationality in teenage life is an imbalance in the teenage brain. The emotional part of the brain is usually fully developed by the early teens but the rational part is often not until the early to mid twenties. It is hard enough for the rational part of the brain to control the emotional part when both are evenly matched (e.g., road rage, marital squabbles, political chat rooms), but when they are overmatched as they are in teenagers, it is often no contest. Emotions drive and rational thinking sits in the back seat — if it comes along at all. 

Because this problem is temporary and based in development, I am hesitant to characterize most nutty teenage behavior as abnormal. Rather, I prefer to view it as a form of temporary insanity. I have classified this temporarily insane teenage behavior into several categories, a sample of which includes rationality in abstentia disorder (RAD), woe-is-me-nia,  situational mutism, and truth relativitis. To learn more about these forms of temporary insanity, and to more fully understand teenagers in general, please plan to read the following articles on loony teenage behavior. 

This content was created by Boys Town expert Pat Friman. To learn more about him, visit his expert page here.

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