March 29, 2014

(Updated) Urban Climbers and that Dangerous Teen Brain

I'm often asked by frustrated, sometimes overwhelmed parents, "Why is my teenage guy so (foolish, angry, impulsive, restless, etc.)? If you have a teen male in your life, or work with them in any way, I'm sure you've had the same thoughts and felt the frustration. When it comes to civilized behavior, responsiveness, great decisions, mature conversation, and a stable emotional life from a teenage male, be prepared to wait patiently, for years!

The very short story about the teen brain is if you remove environmental factors, such as parenting deficits, education, community effects, and economics, you're left with the problem of an under-developed pre-frontal cortex. The parts of a young guy's brain that evolve initially are the parts that deal with physical coordination, motivation, and even emotions. It's part of the reason our guys love physical challenges, excitement, competition, and why they get so fired up about winning and crushed when they lose.

Sadly, we really are dealing with
a developmentally disabled person!

Unfortunately for everyone involved, contemporary research tells us the pre-frontal cortex, where good decisions are made, is not fully developed in young males until the mid-twenties. Our young guys are wonderful, funny, and energetic, but the hard truth is their teen brains are just not fully wired when it comes to clear thinking and judgment. Sadly, we really are dealing with a developmentally disabled person! One really good book for parents on the topic is, Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, by Dr. David Walsh Ph.D.

Below is a video, sent to me by more than one blog reader, each in their own way expressing awe and horror at the degree of foolishness being demonstrated by so many young men. In it you'll hear both young male bravado and their "I can do it" rationalizations. You'll also experience the peer pressure to go extreme which really compounds the danger. In the beginning you'll hear the fears and frustrations of a single mom (with a more fully developed brain) and she tries to understand and cope with her son's behavior. This is a hard video to watch on a whole bunch of levels.

If this clip doesn't show up above use this link.

What's really scary is that this one clip has had over 2.5 million views. The copycat videos by young men seeking to build their urban climbing credentials, and even urban climbing business opportunities, are now proliferating. In the video, what was made clear is the places so many of these young men live, there isn't else much to do. Another way to think about it is there are few other reasonable outlets for this powerful young male energy. The young guys, in a way, have no choice. Their powerful bodily chemistry and rapidly developing physical strength and capabilities are driving them to take challenges and validate the warrior energy they feel. Sadly, they don't yet have a brain capable of thinking through the consequences. As inexplicable as it is to adults, doing these crazy stunts makes perfect sense to them.

This is another example of what's been true about adolescent males for ages. If we don't very intentionally support, guide, and initiate our young men, you can be sure they will find ways to initiate themselves in to their own and often tragic version of manhood. Michael Mead in his book, Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men (1993-Harper San Francisco), paraphrased an old tribal proverb, "If the fires that innately burn inside youths are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth." It means if we don't channel this powerful young male energy, there will increasingly be adolescent-driven chaos in our communities, and too many of them will be jailed or lost just like the urban climbers who have been killed.

On my Man-Making Blog I've written a number of posts on the topic of the adolescent brain. If you go to the blog and enter "brain" in the search box on the right, you find 3 or 4 articles which will point you to other resources. A Google search on teen brain also brings up a lot of great content. One website on the topic I really like is from the National Institute of Mental Health.

As to the more general topic of teen development, the book list on the Man-Making website suggests many books that explore the different forces, physical and environmental, working to shape the lives of our young men for better and worse.

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  1. Earl, one thing you didn't mention and from what I saw of the video is the sense of invincibility young people have, both male and female. Developmentally, there is a sense it will never happen to me. That doesn't come along until well into someone's 20s. Even then, some people don't get it. We need to teach young people they are vulnerable because it only takes one mishap to change or even end someone's life. Personally, I can't stand these so-called "extreme sports" because they never show the downside of what can happen to someone.

  2. UPDATE: New book Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain


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