Temptation and the Adolescent Brain

There is much debate as to whether or not it is possible to teach ‘character’. Whilst character is undoubtedly unique to the individual, the vast majority of schools purport to develop characteristics such as resilience, self-belief and confidence. Some characteristics such as a capacity for empathy and compassion are surely innate within us and I doubt that they can be manufactured. For example, tutored sincerity is anything but sincere!

As parents, we believe that our children are infinitely vulnerable. We fret and worry about their every move. The first sleepover at a friend’s house can be a cause of major anxiety. Sometimes it can feel as if our children have embarked upon an everlasting journey away from us and yet it is our natural instinct to hold them close and place them within a protective cocoon. We should not do this too fiercely for as they progress towards adulthood they will increasingly find themselves in situations where they have to make choices for themselves. However, experience tells us that adolescents are not always desperately well equipped to make considered choices. There is a scientific reason why people refer to the ‘recklessness of youth’. We often may be drawn to ask teenagers ‘what were you thinking?’. In some cases, the answer might reasonably be ‘very little’.

Frances Jensen, a neurologist at a Children’s Hospital in Boston reflects upon the day that her son Andrew turned 16, dyed his hair black with red stripes and went off to school wearing studded leather and platform shoes. She reflects that his grades went south and ‘I watched my child morph into another being, and yet I knew deep down inside it was the same Andrew. Suddenly my own children seemed like an alien species’.

Scientists used to think that the brain’s development was pretty much complete by the age of ten. Perhaps that is why the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is set so young. Older readers will remember the debate that ensued after the tragic murder of James Bulger. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that the area of our brain which controls impulse and emotion, the frontal lobes, are not fully connected to the rest of our brain until early adulthood . Neural insulation, as it is termed, is not complete until our mid-twenties. Put simply, teenagers do not have as much of the fatty coating called myelin or ‘white matter’ as adults have in this critical area of the brain. Nerves need myelin in order to enable signals to flow freely. Insufficient myelin causes poor communication between one area of the brain and another. It is just a shame that it happens to be these frontal lobes that control our assessment of risk and emotional development.

Poor connections between the frontal lobe and other areas of the brain are not the only problem that adolescents have to contend with, for their brains are also more excitable to external stimuli. Brains are wired up to form new connections in response to the environment. If the stimuli are positive then they bestow young people with a developmental edge and they learn more easily. However, if the stimuli comes in the form of a drug such as cocaine, cannabis or ecstasy, then that heightened neural receptiveness is more likely to lead to habit-forming behaviour and even addiction. It is an unfortunate quirk of evolutionary fate that the cognitive development of an adolescent provides a perfect storm within which a potentially poor grasp of risk is complemented by a heightened likelihood of addictive behaviour.

Driving back from dropping off Teigan at Nursery yesterday morning, I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Reflecting upon the recent news headlines, he reflected that:

People, sometimes very intelligent people, can throw away their whole lives, their careers, their reputation, their future happiness, because they can’t resist temptation, and because they think they can hide, they can cover up what they’ve done. They start by deceiving others; but they end by deceiving themselves.

Which is why morality matters and why we should always heed the inner voice we call conscience. It is there to guide us from principle to practice. It’s our satellite navigation system as we chart our course through the wilderness of time. Being honest with others is the best way of being honest to ourselves.

Oscar Wilde famously quipped that he could resist everything except temptation and according to Abrahamic religions, the first man and woman placed on the earth came a cropper when presented with ineluctably delicious fruit.

Oscar Wilde had plenty to say on the matter of temptation!

It is inevitable that young people will occasionally succumb to temptation. They are physiologically and neurologically predisposed towards making rash decisions. This does not mean we should hold up our hands in despair and simply accept that ‘what will be, will be’. Rather, it highlights the importance of parents and schools working together to ensure that children receive outstanding PSHE education which serves to empower young people by promoting healthy living.

Messaging from home is as important as the lessons taught in School. Parents who are flexible on issues such as drugs frame ambiguous contexts within which boundaries become blurred and defences weakened. Morality is an unfashionable word in today’s world because it has connotations of righteousness and judgement. In a permissive, liberal and progressive society, morality can be seen as the preserve of those who make binary judgements or seek to control. However, in truth, it is our responsibility as parents and educators, to inculcate in our children an ability to distinguish between life-affirming actions and those which are destructive on a personal or collective level. In times of temptation, the tension between resolve and indulgence becomes especially strained. We should be proud of the fact that Rossall children demonstrate, repeatedly, that they possess strong moral compasses. Occasionally these compasses might need remagnetizing and, in such circumstances, it is incumbent upon School and Home to work together compassionately but decisively to provide a framework within which children are more inclined to make positive decisions which demonstrate a regard for others and a belief in their own self-worth.