Why Teenagers Make Poor Life Decisions

teenage brain

Recently, I have been in conversation with a rental scam artist. Well, several, in fact, but one that was pretty convincing for a time.

He was advertising a one bed flat in Cambridge, for £640 a month. Anyone who knows anything about Cambridge would know that the price in itself is worthy of causing suspicion. Daughter of a frugal father, I still messaged the poster to see what the deal is.

He opened with some nice photos of the flat, and an explanation that he’s in Denmark. He had someone waste his time last week; he came all the way from Denmark to Cambridge to show someone the flat but they didn’t turn up! He wanted to know if I’m serious about the flat. I told him I’m as serious as any person judging a flat on some photos on the internet – that I’m keen to see the place.

He told me if I see the place, he wants me to sign the contract then and there, and to pay the deposit in cash. He would give me a receipt.

Hmmmm. It’s a scam…but I couldn’t see where it was a scam. If I had the contract and a receipt, then even if I did pay in cash, I’d be protected, right?

I replied and said, yes. If I like the flat then I could pay in cash and sign right there – but that I was looking at two other flats.

Angry, he told me that I promised him, that I was interested in HIS flat. I’d said so right here! And in any case, there was a system for proving that I had the money for the deposit…

Rental Scam

Of course, I’ve not done this. I had half a mind to mock up a receipt (I just found there’s a generator online where you can make them!!!) but it’s probably not a good idea to move this forward. If I met with the guy, he might attack me, or get me in trouble.

So, even though I really really want a flat in the centre of Cambridge for £640 a month, I have the forethought to make sure that it’s a good decision, that there’s nothing wrong with me going down this route.

That’s because I have the brain of an adult.

The Teenage Brain

Let me explain. The frontal lobes of the brain is where things like decision making, planning, organising and emotional intelligence happen. In teenagers, this area isn’t fully developed.

Back when my mum was around one of the things she would bring up over and over again was a time when I was 18 and she gave me some of her boots that she didn’t wear anymore. I took them to uni, but in truth didn’t like them as they were the boots of an older woman and not a teenager. So I kept them in the cupboard but then threw them out when I was moving back for the summer – I didn’t want to lug around these boots I didn’t like. It turns out the boots were from a big designer and mum cared about them very much. It didn’t even cross my mind that this would be a bad decision because it would make mum upset – for me it was dead weight, one more thing to pack.

This event came about because my brain hadn’t developed the ability to see things from another person’s point of view (emotional intelligence) or look into whether it was a good decision (planning ahead).

There are many studies that have been conducted looking into the young brain and what it can and cannot do. One of the most famous ones is the marshmallow test.

It was conducted at Stanford University in America in the late 60s and early 70s, where children are given a marshmallow and told that they’ll be left alone for a while, but if they leave the marshmallow alone then they get two on the adult’s return. The study found that it was really hard for children to do this, but those who did wait had the most successful life outcomes.

Here’s a cute YouTube video of a similar test:

Because young brains aren’t able to plan forward, it’s really hard for them to delay taking something good in front of them on the promise of more good later.

I think this is one of the biggest challenges when speaking with young people about their futures. Ones who have a good idea of where they want to be are able to put aside the Fortnight and the Netflix and get their heads down to study. But many of them who haven’t been able to plan, or aspire yet will struggle to think ahead to where they want to be, and why it’s worth buckling down for now.

Seeing things from another’s point of view

Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore looks into the minds of teenagers. She conducted some really interesting research where participants were asked to move objects on two-sided shelving units. There was a director stood the other side, who, due to partitions, was not able to see some of the objects. The participants had to anticipate the objects that he could see, and so “top right truck” might not be the same item to the participant as with the director.

She then conducted the research again, but without the director – this time saying to the participants to discount any items with a partition behind it. She found that teenagers made more mistakes with the first test, when they had to take into consideration the director’s view, but did better when they just had the rule of ignoring some items.

Here’s her TED talk where she explains it further:

Teenagers aren’t able to make decisions or perform actions when they have to think about someone else – but the exact same task in different parameters where they don’t have to think of others has a much higher success rate.

This is why you probably won’t find your teenagers asking you how your day was, or checking to see if you’re ok. Like when I threw out my mum’s boots, I couldn’t anticipate how my action would make her feel.

When young people are stressed making their own life decisions it can be even more frustrating for them when other people chip in – or, even worse, explain how it was when they went through the same. All they want is for the right answer to be obvious.

So what does this all mean?

I think the current way we ask teenagers to learn and grow in the UK isn’t optimised to suit how their brain works. There’s already lots of talk about how the school day (usually from before 9 to around 3) is not suited to the sleep patterns of teenagers (more on that here) but also I think the things we ask them to do at school is also not suited.

For example, we ask them to narrow their choices from GCSE onwards; most young people pick their GCSE choices (there are compulsory subjects like maths, English and science, but then they can choose, for example history OR geography, and then other options like dance, photography, art, PE) within year 9 (13 years old) but many schools are getting them to choose from year 8 so they can start the studying earlier.

When I work with young people one of the biggest stresses they have is the worry that they’ll choose the wrong thing and that their life will be ruined for it. Of course, we as adults know that no matter which subjects you take, you can pretty much still do what you like. But to teenagers who don’t always have the ability to think and plan ahead, this is very stressful.

Not only do choices about their subjects create detrimental stress, but also the method they want to learn. Since they’re not geared up for self-reflection, it’s hard for the teenager to understand HOW they want to study; through an apprenticeship? College? Sixth form? Uni? While having options is a good thing (especially when they’re all as good as these) but again the choice creates stress as the young person can’t easily plan ahead to see where each route will take them.

Because of this situation – stressed young people looking for quick wins – many adults who are pitching paths (such as apprenticeship recruiters, university recruiters etc) use dodgy “facts” and “stats” about how much money their route would get the young person, as opposed to the other. Much like my rental scam artist, they’re hoping students will sign away something valuable (in this case, their time and attention), without looking into to details. There are great educational routes out there – we don’t need to hoodwink young people into taking them.

With young people being naturally self-centred, it’s even harder for them to listen to guidance from other people who might be able to help them. Teachers’ begs for them to have a structured study plan can fall on deaf ears. Those professionals you bring in to the schools to talk about their career journey can be totally for nothing.

The solution?

When I studied at uni in Japan, I compared my language skills to those of the American girls who were on my programme. Mine was much higher, but that made sense because I had a dedicated Japanese programme at my home university – they studied a variety of things that included Japanese.

For years I’ve thought the American system to be inferior to the British system of applying to one (or two) subjects and focusing on those.

However, I think that this may be the answer to the stress our young people face. If you remove the need for them to narrow their studies at 16, at 18 and also at university, they would be less stressed about their next steps.

What’s more, where we have girls dropping out of STEM subjects at A Level, if we all had a system where students carried on studying a wider range of subjects with STEM being a core (like in the IB system) then we can retain girls in these areas and have more time to persuade them that this is a good route.

If a young person chooses to go to university, having an open and broad programme like in America can help create more transferable skills, and a wider field of knowledge. With the future of work and skills being so changeable, it’s probably not a good idea to be so restricted in what we learn.


This was a long post. Here’s my summary:

Teenage brains can’t make good choices very well, and they aren’t emotionally developed enough to see things from different perspectives. Because of this, we should stop trying to make them make huge life choices so young and keep their education broad and open. Not only would this help with stress but help with skills gaps as well.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Would be great to hear from Americans on how they see their own education system!


  1. I don’t know anything about the US system but, as I’m sure you know, in Germany you carry on all subjects up to Abitur. I’m convinced if I’d grown up in Germany I would have failed at least a couple of subjects and been kept back seat from all my friends. If course, that’s if I was even food at enough subjects to be allowed into Gymnasium in their first place. A system where you’re expected to be good at everything seems wrong to me – it’s natural for people to have different talents and abilities. Maybe there should be something in between, like carrying on with everything until the end of GCSEs then having options at A-level but with more than 3-4 subjects (or however many they do now)? If I’d been forced to carry on with sciences (which I only got Cs fir at GCSE) I doubt I would even have stayed on to do A-levels. Finally being allowed to concentrate on what I could actually do well and not having too work really hard in my “bad” subjects was such a relief to me. And I wasn’t even awful at anything, except music and art. I’m sure those who really struggle at their worst subjects are even happier to finally drop them and concentrate on doing really well in subject they love and are good at. Three or four is definitely too few though. Maybe there could be GCSE- style options at A-level but without the rule that you *must* pick a science subject, an English subject, etc. That way people have a broader education but those who struggle with science and geography but are amazing at English and history aren’t forced to do science and geography until age 18 – getting bad grades in them the entire time – and vice versa.
    Confuzzled Bev recently posted…A Photo an Hour: 17 November 2018My Profile

    • Ah – you see, you’re looking at this through a lens of having to be good at everything. You don’t! What if we studied things, but results of tests only mattered in the things you cared about. If you don’t want to study maths academically, you can be taught in maths classes how to do taxes, or budgeting? If you don’t want to continue English lit then you can use English lessons learning about fake news and how language is used to change opinions.
      Just because people aren’t as good at some things doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them – many things are linked to really useful life skills, after all.

      • That’s why I added the disclaimer that I can only speak from the perspective of the German (Gymnasium) system where you *are* expected to be good at everything – they even get a grade for P.E. (although I think that one’s supposed to be based on participation more than ability). I’m 100% certain I would have failed the German Abitur – at the very least in chemistry and biology.
        Confuzzled Bev recently posted…A Photo an Hour: 17 November 2018My Profile

  2. I don’t really have anything to add since this isn’t my area of expertise, but this was such a fascinating post and as I got further forward, I got really amused by how angry my response had been to £640 Flat Man! That’s my adult brain – cynical from the start. Although the marshmallow test has come up loads in my reading and podcasts recently, and I often wonder how I would get on. I do love a marshmallow…
    last year’s girl recently posted…dressing for success with (the new!) hotter glasgow;My Profile

    • But think of the extra marshmallows you’d get if you waited!!
      I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I tend to be nervous when writing these kinds of posts as I don’t want to put non-education people off. Really appreciate your feedback, thank you!

  3. Super-interesting read!

    I’m not qualified to speak on the educational system over here- I have no formal education training, and the last time I was part of the system was nearly twenty years ago.

    That being said, I think I may still have a teenaged brain. I have terrible problems with instant gratification. LOL.
    Steven recently posted…What I Spent In Linz, Austria (Just kidding.)My Profile

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