Does your teenage child’s behaviour seem irrational or just plain weird to you? If so, science might offer an explanation as to why your child’s cavalier approach to life seems so natural to them – and so irresponsible to you.

This is not an excuse, mind. Just because there might be an explanation doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. It’s merely understandable and there is a world of difference between the two.

So, whats going on?

The Psychological Journal posted the conclusions by Roper, Z. et al in June, 2014, the title of which was called Value Driven Attention Capture in Adolescence. The scientists lead by Vaidya, J. G. trained both adolescents and adults to engage in a computer ‘spot the object and receive a reward’ program, hence the title of the research: Value Driven Capture.

The research showed that both adults and adolescents responded well to receiving a reward so no surprise there. Both age groups were then given a different target to identify. What might be surprising was the residual effect of the previous task on the two age groups. Whereas the adults’ reward mechanism for the initial target quietened allowing them to more easily adapt to the new target, the adolescents’ reward mechanism for the original target remained high and they experienced considerable difficulty adapting. It was as if the original reward desire was still firmly in their mind.

There are implications here for adolescents suffering from ADHD since the lack of self-control often experienced by people with ADHD might be tied in with their lack of reward system adaptability. The research may also offer insights into why teenagers can persist with something when to the rest of us it’s over or just no point pursuing. For example, a teenager laughing at something, the situation ending, but the teenager still ‘goes on and on’ about it. Or, what about teenagers’ love of texting and social media? It’s a ‘moth to a flame’, as the value driven reward is sought over and over again when adults would have let go and moved on ages ago.

It seems that the very means by which teenagers process rewards may be the key to their extraordinary behaviour and not the previously thought cause being the under-developed frontal lobes of the brain that are responsible for self-control.

So, listen out for: “Sorry, mum. My irrational behaviour is as a result of a value driven attention condition and not, as previously thought, because of my under-developed frontal lobes in my brain. Can I have some more money to top up my phone?”

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