Adults tend to remember their teenage years as easier, since they only remember it as a time when they didn't have three kids and a mortgage. But ask any teenagers who are considering suicide over a bad relationship or SAT score and you'll find them just wishing that the shit would end so they could be grown-ups already. So who's right? Both of them.
Because while 16-year-olds don't have decades of debt and regret weighing them down, they do have a long list of biological and social pitfalls making their lives hell. So before you find yourself longing for those simple teen years, consider that ...
#5. Teen Brains Haven't Developed to Fully Understand Risk and Reward
Here's how stupid adults are: They all know that a human body goes through massive and often grotesque changes during the teenage years, but can't grasp that the brain is just another organ in the body, and as such, it's also undergoing horribly awkward changes. During the teenage years, every little calculation the brain makes is affected by a system that is in the process of trying to upgrade itself to adulthood.
So while grown-ups like to bemoan how modern teenagers are always running around doing stupid shit while high on bath salts, it's not totally their fault -- the teenage brain is hardwired to make it crave what adults write off as "idiocy." It's not that the teenage brain doesn't understand risk; when teenagers look at a dangerous situation -- say, riding a shopping cart down a steep hill flanked by cacti -- they know that there's a risk of winding up in the emergency room having barbs removed from their asses. But whereas an adult is likely to consider this an unacceptable risk, teens consistently put more weight on the possible positive outcomes, like impressing everyone and getting laid.
You can still bone with broken legs, right?
That's because, by design, the teenage brain is built in such a way that impressing other people is more or less the prime imperative, and when you combine this with the thrill of risk-taking, their brains are flooded with excitement. They literally get high off it. In general, this is a good thing for the continuation of the species since, you know, otherwise kids would never move out of their parents' basements and into the real world full of STDs and paperwork.
But before you say "This isn't a downside to being a teenager! This is what makes the teenage years awesome!" keep in mind that this same mechanism makes the brain predisposed toward mental illness and addiction. Advertisers know this, by the way -- that's why they pour millions into specifically advertising alcohol to teens, even though they can't legally buy it. They know that teenagers are insecure by nature and employ psychologists to help design their ads specifically to exploit those insecurities.
And holy shit, does it work. The meager reward that an adult might get from, say, taking up smoking doesn't compare with the thrill that a teen gets out of it, thanks to brain chemistry. So the period in your life when you're most likely to try a crazy new drug is also the period when you're most likely to develop a chemical dependency that could last the rest of your life. And even worse, the urge to seek some kind of chemical escape is stronger because ...
#4. Teenagers Experience Stress as Being More Stressful
Like Grandad always says, these damn kids today don't know how good they have it. They act as though their lives are so hard even though they've never had to deal with a mortgage, or with yelling at people to get off their lawn. But there's a reason why teens are so whiny about their relatively insignificant problems -- quite simply, they actually do feel stress more strongly. It's another symptom of the not quite fully formed "risk vs. reward" part of the brain we mentioned above.
The part of the human brain that makes you stop and reconsider doing stupid shit is called the prefrontal cortex. It regulates decision-making and helps control impulses. So let's say a girlfriend or boyfriend breaks up with you, and in your emotional distress you are considering doing something that could get you thrown in jail (such as spray painting the word "SLUT" on his or her car). It's the prefrontal cortex that lets you stop and look into the future and weigh whether or not a criminal record is worth the short-term satisfaction of turning that Honda Civic into the Slutmobile.
"Dude, quit fucking around and hand me a dictionary. If we do this, we do it right."
Now, when the cops arrest an adult who has done something like that, there's a good chance he or she was drunk -- alcohol messes with the prefrontal cortex. But in a teenager's brain, that part is still growing. It's more fragile and sensitive to stress -- you can put a stressed-out teenager under a brain scan and watch his prefrontal cortex activity shut down. And with it goes his ability to accurately calculate risk.
So when the dad goes to pick up his kid at the police station after hearing that he got caught pooping on the lawn of the math teacher who gave him a bad grade, the dad may be tempted to say something like "What are you, high?" (since narcotics also mess with the decision-making part of the brain), but he doesn't realize that a stressed-out teenager's brain is working with impaired judgment. It's not just a failure to listen to all of Dad's lectures on the subject.
"What did we tell you about dongs and babies?"
#3. The Adolescent Brain Can't Process Multi-Step Instructions
Remember when your parents used to tell you to do the dishes, take out the trash, brush your teeth, feed Uncle Ernie and then go to bed, and how you would never get around to all of that? Remember how pissed your parents were when they found out that Uncle Ernie got out and ritualistically murdered your neighbor's cat?
Or if you're too old to remember your teenage years, do you at least remember the last time you bought a cup of coffee and had the pimple-faced kid behind the counter seem to get really confused trying to keep track of both the size and flavor of your beverage (until you finally just rolled over the counter and made it yourself)?
"I swear to God, if there's cream in this, I'm funneling it into your rectum."
Once again this comes back to the fact that it's the awkward years for the brain, too -- a new study shows that teenagers' brains don't have the part that handles multi-tasking yet. The frontal cortex is the part of your brain that figures out what to do when you get a whole mess of information at once and how to sort through it all, and the problem is that it doesn't finish developing until after you're old enough to drive.
This doesn't mean that teens have trouble remembering all that information; your memory is just fine by the time you get to high school. But what's still developing is "strategic, self-organized thinking." That would be the ability to prioritize -- being able to juggle six different assignments while still training for the big game.
"Wait, do I eat it, or ... I'm confused."
And when they do it wrong, that's when the grown-ups start yelling at them. Now remember the previous entry about how stress completely wrecks the teenage decision-making part of the brain and you can start to wonder how any of us make it out of our teens alive.
Not that the brain is the teenager's only enemy ...