A teenage guide to the adult brain

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
I’m down with the kids, writes Liz Breslin.

I am. Sometimes I’m like, literally down with them, like last time I went to a book launch at the University Book Shop and sat and did colouring in the children’s section.

In my day job, the highlights generally include teenagers. Sometimes I forget that I’m not one myself. When I’m dancing, or tramping, or attempting to wear make-up. Shopping for pyjamas. Singing. I love the yoof. To paraphrase Whitney Houston, I do believe the children are the future. 

Like, duh, of course. But I’m also trying to get through the present. And a recent flurry of articles layered with neuro, social and pseudo sciences about understanding the teenage brain and how to be better behaved and more responsible around it is just not helping.

It’s not that I don’t want to understand the teenage brain, social construct as it is. It’s just that this sort of research doesn’t do anything to make the yoof any more resilient or tolerant. It puts the boot very firmly further on to the adult foot of responsibility and laces it up extra tight, while the yoof skip off in the other direction, carefree and footloose in super-expensive trainers and it’s whatevs.

So, boot on the other foot and all that. Here’s a handy guide for yoof as to what might be going on for the adults of today.


Most adults have all systems go in their prefrontal cortex. Bits of their brains link up where yours haven’t learned to link up yet.  Which means that adults can usually draw conclusions faster and more logically than you can. Which means that their opinions and ideas might be worth listening to, especially if you’ve got a last-minute deadline or whatevs.

It also means that they are quicker at processing information about just about any given situation in front of them. Which means they will notice the dirty dinner dishes faster than you will, and they will probably comment on them. Because they’re just trying to get stuff done around here. And not meaning to be mean.


Yes, adult bodies and language are like, totally archaic. But they’ve had bodies and language for longer than you’ve had bodies and language, before you even knew what bodies and language were, you young whippersnappers.

Adults have ultra-sensitive in-built detectors to tell when attitude is creeping into your body or language, or both. And they knew all those euphemisms for like, body parts and sex and stuff before you were even a thing. So.


Sometimes when an adult’s mouth is drooping down at the corners, it is because they are mad at you. Mostly it is not. Earth, as you may remember from social sciences or whatevs, revolves around the centre of mass of the solar system. And the adult with the droopy mouth is just as subject to all the planetary forces as you are.

They may have forgotten to buy something crucial on their shopping list (which is, incidentally, the mechanism by which food gets into the house). Someone might have said something nasty to them at work. Possibly they haven’t had enough Facebook likes recently, so their nucleus accumbens (the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward) is all numb from not feeling worthy.

Perhaps their favourite team lost a match and they feel responsible because they weren’t wearing their lucky sweater because they didn’t look for it properly/couldn’t find it in the monster washing pile. Or they could be sleep deprived or merely feeling crushed by the weight of the patriarchy. Any of these things can make an adult mouth droopy.


Adults get mad when you call them out on risky behaviour that they didn’t know about when they were younger because nobody did helpful studies on the teenage brain back then. Like drinking to excess because they already destroyed their hippocampi and they’re trying to forget what they don’t want to remember. Or driving too fast because it sounds really grunty. Skidding because it’s cool. Saying cool. Who says cool?

But you should still absolutely call them out on it. Because you’ll learn much more than they’ll ever know, as Louis Armstrong sang. (He was a thing before autotune and grinding.) A lot of adults know now they’ve behaved in ways that are going to be harmful to themselves and their people and their planet. They didn’t think. They didn’t know. And now we all do. And that’s a heck of a responsibility. 

Grown up is a misnomer. We’re all still just making it up. Which is why some of us get mad when you get all the attention. But we’ll grow out of it. Or we won’t. Whatevs. 



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