May 23, 2006, 12:40

Highland Park, Illinois
By: Donalee Markus, PhD

Adolescence is a time of tremendous change. Growth spurts occur in bodies and minds. The world suddenly expands in ways unimaginable to the pre-teen. No longer children but not quite adults, teens struggle to discover and identify themselves. As adults we recognize and empathize with what teenagers are going through. We have been there, done that. Nevertheless, as parents we want to protect our young people. We know many of the temptations they will face. We know that today there are also many dangers that we did not have to encounter. Because we love our children, we do our best to prepare them for the future. We nurture, educate and pass on our values to them. We know that some day our children must go out and face the world without us. How do we assure their safety and success?

Throughout their childhood, we gave our offspring the best we could afford. We fed them, clothed them and schooled them. We made more sacrifices and gave more of ourselves than we would have believed possible. Then just as our children reached an age where we felt we could relate to them, adolescence changed them. Almost overnight they transformed from the delightful children who eagerly waited by the door for us to return home from work to insolent, sullen creatures of shadow and mystery. A typical conversation with them goes as follows:

  • ADULT: What did you learn in school today?

  • TEEN: Nothing.

  • ADULT: Where are you going?

  • TEEN: Nowhere.

  • ADULT: When will you be home?

  • TEEN: Don't know.

The good news is that in the long run the vast majority of people eventually embrace the values they learned from their parents. However, in the time between then and now, we know from experience that even bright people from good families can end up doing really dumb things-things they know they should not be doing but do anyway because of peer pressure.

"Peer pressure"-a simple two-word phrase that makes the staunchest parent's blood run cold. We can deal with the raging hormones, the mood swings and the ache, but we are defenseless against adolescent peer pressure. Or are we? Before we can help our teens deal with peer pressure, we need to understand what is going on inside their heads. More specifically, we need to understand how the teen brain differs from the adult brain.

Often the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde dichotomy of adolescent behavior baffles adults. In the blink of an eye, teens can switch from mature rationality to childish impulsivity. This is because, although teens look a lot like adults on the outside, on the inside they are very much a work in progress. Just as their bodies change in size and shape, their brains change in structure. The child's brain is significantly different from the adolescent's which also differs from the adult's.

The word "brain" conjures up the image of a walnut-shape mass of pink and gray tissue, but on the inside, human brains are much more complex. Working from the bottom up, we find the brain stem, which sits atop the spinal cord. The brain stem regulates body functions such as respiration, digestion, heartbeat, etc. All our senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and movement) connect to the brain stem as well.

Sensory stimuli go from the brain stem to the thalamus. The thalamus sends the signals to different parts of the cortex (that pink and gray mass we think of as the brain) depending on the type of stimulus it is. What we hear is sent to the primary auditory cortex. What we see goes to the primary visual cortex. What we touch triggers the primary sensory cortex. The thalamus also sends sensory input to the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure that holds the secret of peer pressure, but we will get to that shortly.

Contrary to popular belief, neuroscientists now know we are not born with all the brain cells or subsequent intelligence we will ever have. Of course, the basic structures are there at birth, but different parts of the brain mature at different times. The amygdala is almost fully mature within the first couple of years of infancy, and when activated we experience emotions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which also contains the hippocampus, a structure involved in memory, learning and recognition. Throughout childhood, the sensory cortices are maturing. By puberty, the limbic system is fully "on-line." However, the frontal lobes, which differentiate the adult brain from the child brain, are just beginning to activate.

Frontal lobes receive signals from all parts of the brain and can also send signals back into the brain. This capability enables us to think before we act. Mature frontal lobes enable adults to analyze, prioritize and evaluate before we react to something. In other words, frontal lobes enable us to make conscious decisions and act intentionally. Mature frontal lobes are the reason why adults are not as susceptible to peer pressure as teens.

Adolescence is a time of great uncertainty. An unknown future looms in front and the security of the past slips away. Children who once wanted to be just like mom or dad become teens in search of their own identities. Ironically, to achieve their own identities, teens form peer groups. These cliques are the cauldron of peer pressure.

Neuropsychologists call peer pressure the "principle of social proof." Social proof requires two ingredients: uncertainty and similarity. When people do not know what to do, they instinctively look around to see what other people are doing. Most of the time, this instinct works well and helps produce orderly and cooperative behavior, but in times of severe stress, such as adolescence, anxiety can trigger a mob mentality. Within the teen brain, emotional signals from the mature amygdala can quickly overwhelm the developing frontal lobes and shut down logic and reason. When this happens, it feels safer to go along with the group than to resist.

This is not as discouraging as it sounds. Parents can help their teens resist peer pressure by developing critical thinking skills. Just as cross-training muscles improve strength and coordination in an athlete, the practice of making decisions and solving problems enhances mental flexibility and improves intellectual functions. Emotional maturity is really about impulse control. Impulse control comes from the ability of the frontal lobes to correctly access the situation. The teen brain has this capability--it just needs practice.

[For nearly 20 years, Dr. Donalee Markus and her Designs for Strong Minds associates have been maximizing intelligence for individuals and corporations throughout the U.S. Dr. Markus earned her Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1983. She did post-doctoral work under Reuven Feuerstein at the Hadassah-Wizo Research Institute, Jerusalem, Israel. For additional information on how to change the brain and the new science of teachable intelligence, visit To experience thousands of exercises designed to enhance concentration, focus, planning and critical thinking, visit]

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