The Inter-Workings of the Adolescent Brain

“I just wasn’t thinking.” How many times have we heard this line come from the mouth of an adolescent? Conventional wisdom suggests that “not thinking,” and it’s close relative, impulsivity, are undeniably linked to adolescents’ thought process when it comes to decision-making. Certainly, there are times when negative behavior is the result of hasty and reckless choices, but there is research to suggest that the opposite might be going on as well.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teenagers are four times as likely as adult drivers to be involved in an accident and three times as likely to die in one. Those statistics might not be surprising, but the reasons behind them might be. Due to lack of experience and personal insight, adolescents tend to think – or “over-think” as a lot of adolescents with whom I’ve worked have said – longer about decisions they are about to make. In other words, the action lever that adults know to pull when it comes to a danger signal is not experienced in the same way in adolescents. For example, if someone were to ask both an adult and teen to go for a ride on a motorcycle without a helmet, the adult is much more likely to promptly state, “Nope, not a good idea.” But the teenager, lacking in both experience and prefrontal brain development (the part of the brain that controls logic, reasoning and problem-solving) is more likely to think about whether or not this may be a good idea. Thoughts like the following might arise:

“Well, he [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][or she] is probably a safe driver.”

“It sounds like a fun experience.”

“Is it REALLY that important that I wear a helmet?”

“How am I going to look with a helmet on?”

Now, there might be times that the answer a teen arrives at is a logical one, but only after having asked him/herself various questions in order to best determine. There’s also a good chance that the answer is not so logical, as can be seen by the aforementioned crash stats. According to Nicole Garber, MD, “Adults rely more on patterns and produce quick responses, whereas adolescents slow down their thinking and consider all the possibilities.” So, that moment of “just not thinking” might, in fact, be the opposite.


Written by Ann Kellogg, MS, LPC



Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. (2014). Beginning drivers and crash risk. Retrieved from