Hundreds of graduating seniors from around North Central Washington will march across stages this weekend, out of high school and into their futures.
Many of these graduates will attend parties, and some of those parties will no doubt involve alcohol. And the rest of us — the adults who care about these young people — will hold our collective breath and hope for the best. We hope these teenagers use good judgment. We hope we don’t wake next week to headlines about accidents, injuries or worse.
Because everyone has seen far too many of those in the past — stories about young men and women killed or injured this time of year, in lakes, on highways or winding back roads. It was exactly a year ago when one 18-year-old Eastmont student died and another was badly hurt in two separate accidents on Colockum Road, following a party for graduating seniors.
Local law enforcement agencies are working hard to prevent tragedies like those from happening this year. Police broke up a group of teenagers partying past the end of Burch Mountain Road early Saturday morning. Late Tuesday night, police busted a barn party in Cashmere and cited dozens of minors for underage drinking.
These busts are part of a coordinated local campaign — dubbed “Everybody Walks” — to stop large graduation parties before someone gets hurt. It’s a commendable effort. Our kids need to be protected from themselves sometimes. I say this as someone who spent at least one night in the 1990s perched on the window sill of a friend’s fast-moving Cabriolet. I say this as someone who once duct taped 40-ounce bottles of beer to my hands. Teenagers can be idiots. Good for law enforcement for stepping up their efforts.
As adults, it’s easy to look at teenagers being reckless and wonder: What is wrong with these people? Why do they act this way?
The answer comes, at least in part, from modern brain-imaging technology. It turns out that the human brain takes much longer to develop than we’d previously known. According to a National Geographic report, “as we move through adolescence (between the ages of 12 and 25), the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.”
The frontal lobe — where our planning, self-awareness and judgment come from — doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. Impulsivity peaks in the teen brain, which is wired to place more importance on the rewards of risky behavior than on any negative consequences. At the same time, the nucleus accumbens, which is sometimes called the “pleasure center,” grows to its largest size. As researcher and author Laurence Steinberg puts it: “Nothing — whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music — will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.”
In addition to being utterly depressing, this idea helps explain why adolescents so often engage in risky behavior.
Taken all together, underdeveloped brains, oversensitive pleasure centers and end-of-school parties make for one dangerous cocktail. But, as appealing as it may sound to parents, we can’t simply ground our kids until their frontal lobes are firing on all cylinders.
So we talk to them. We try to make them understand how precious their lives are, how fragile. We explain that some actions have terrible consequences that reach across lifetimes, across families and whole communities. We tell them duct taping alcohol to any part of the body is not advisable. We tell them local cops are on the lookout for underage drinking this weekend. Then we send them out into the world, and we hope they heard us.
Kelli Scott’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org