Category Archives: The Adolescent Brain

The Generation (of males) That Never Grew Up

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Image by kai kalhh from Pixabay

Once per month we host openings at our art gallery, with music and wine and food, and a few years ago a man attended, looked around and concluded that this was the right demographic and asked me if we would like to offer our guests samplings of craft ale. “Wow,” I said, “Free beer. Where were you when I was 18?”


Meanwhile our Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, the one with his middle aged body always straining against his white shirt, clearly retains the priorities of an 18 year old male:

  • Cheap beer. (free would be better)
  • Beer available in every corner store, at all hours.
  • No more police raiding our tailgate and bush parties.
  • Higher speed limits.
  • Cheap gas.
  • Fewer teachers.
  • Larger classes (no one notices when you skip class or look at porn)
  • Fewer silly artsy classes.

And who needs ambulances, trees, day care, endangered species, cooler climate and health care if you have cheap beer?

And then I see that it’s not just Elon Musk who wants to visit the moon. Branson and Bezos as well. With all the money and resources at their disposal the best these billionaires can come up with is flying a rocket to the moon? Perhaps becoming honorary colonels in Trump’s Space Force? A cool idea when you’re 18 and you have not yet noticed our population is inching toward 8 billion and our planet is suffocating.

And then we have derogatory nicknames and ill founded declarations of extremes and of certainties flowing from the mouths of politicians. “It’s a disaster.” “The worst.” Taunts and threats and chest beating. It is High School all over again.

There is one irony in all this I just noticed. The man who lost over a billion dollars “building” hotels and golf courses and grand casinos in the decade between 1985 and 1994, is now reduced, in his building ambitions at least, to erecting a tax payer funded wall.

Meanwhile, we are now able to serve samples of an exquisite assortment of craft ales at our gallery openings during which we sometimes engage in intelligent adult conversation.

Donald Trump’s Mental and Emotional Age?

By Dr David Laing Dawson


The recent revelations about Donald Trump, especially his barging into the dressing room of pageant contestants, left me wondering about emotional and mental age; specifically, at what age in a boy’s development would we find some of Trump’s behaviour, if still not laudable, at least common?

1. Peeking in the dressing room to get a glimpse of girls in partial dress: age 13 to 15

2. Complaining that the moderators are unfair and gave Hillary more time: 6 to 12 (preteen sibling rivalry)

3. Name calling repeatedly: age 6 to 12 (the school yard taunt)

4. Use of single word hyperbole to describe something: Age 14 to 16 (“It was like horrible, horrible.”)

5. Lying even when it is not necessary: 14 to 17 (Some teens get so used to shading their responses to questioning by parents that they lie even when the truth would get them kudos). Donald could have said, truthfully, that he decided, within a year or so of its onset, that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and he would have sounded thoughtful and mature.

6. Never taking responsibility; it is always the fault of someone else: age 10 to 15. (“The teacher hates me, I wasn’t doing nothing when…”.)

7. Boasting about sexual prowess: 16-18 (Actually at that age males usually boast about sexual prowess to an audience of peers who know the story is fiction. It’s more of an in-joke than a real boast. We all understand the deep level of insecurity that lies behind a real boast.)

8. Groping or kissing women without consent. Perhaps 15 to 25 but only if the young man is brain damaged, severely inebriated, or mentally handicapped.

9. Denying the obvious truth. Perhaps 13 to 16. (“The marijuana you found in my sock drawer – it’s not mine. I have no idea how it got there.”)

10. Broadly lashing out at unfairness when challenged. Perhaps age 3 to 10, and beyond that into teens when the boy has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

11. Just a few days ago, Mr. Trump said something I haven’t heard since I was privy to post football game teenage drunken banter:  “Look at her.” he said, implying clearly that he would only consider assaulting a more attractive woman.

12. And he keeps giving us fodder to think about. The latest: “I think she’s actually getting pumped up, you want to know the truth.” Now beside the bizarre accusation (he’s referring to Hillary) he uses one of his favourite phrases, “you want to know the truth.” There are many variants to this: “To tell the truth.” “I have to be honest.” “If you want to know the truth.” “Gotta be honest with you folks.” Now these kinds of qualifiers are not limited to adolescents, but they are precisely the phrases boys between the age of 14 and 19 use just before they lie. And addicts of all ages.

Fortunately Donald Trump’s candidacy is foundering on his behaviour and attitude toward women. The threat of having him in the White House is diminishing. But really, by my calculations, if Donald Trump were to be elected, we would be giving an immense amount of power to someone with the judgment and emotional age of a 7 to 15 year old boy, and not a sober, stable, empathic, conscientious 7 to 15 year old at that.

On Adolescent Suicide

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Adolescent suicide is a tragic event. It can have a devastating and life long impact on others: parents, siblings, teachers, relatives, counselors, friends.

Five Woodstock, Ontario  teens have taken their own lives since January this year. A very high number for a small community.

If this were a cluster of deaths from respiratory causes we would surely investigate with a team comprised of a respirologist, an epidemiologist, and the public health officer.

Thus our first step here should logically be an investigation by an epidemiologist, a  psychiatrist, and the public health department. Let us first see if these deaths are a result of undetected, untreated mental illness, if the teens know one another in real life or through social media, if they are all browsing the same toxic websites, or if each has been the target of bullying or something worse, or a combination of these. Let us try to understand before rushing into awareness programs, school assemblies, more crisis lines.

There are several good reasons to not rush to “talking about it” as the answer. These are teenagers, not adults. We know from anti-smoking programs, when we gathered our high school students into the auditorium to talk to them about the horrors of smoking and showed them videos of cancer-ridden lungs and COPD sufferers gasping for breath, the number of teens taking illicit puffs at the local smoking pit increased. Increased. Not decreased, increased.

We are also living with the paradox of contemporary times when kids are inundated with suicide awareness programs, when every school counselor and nurse asks every troubled kid the question, when each community has an advertised crisis line, when the question “do you ever think of harming yourself?” is asked on countless questionnaires and surveys, when our teens are communicating with each other around the clock, when information on any and every subject is as available as the nearest smartphone, and when we are in the midst of public discourse about assisted suicide. It is in these times, not in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s ( when the word suicide would only be said in the same whisper as syphilis), that clusters of teens are committing suicide.

Or so it seems.

But what I am trying to say is that we should investigate these phenomena before we rush to “solutions”, especially with teenagers. They are not adults. They often do things just because they have recently learned those things are possible to do. They are often more intrigued when adults bend over backwards to warn them of danger.

The adolescent brain has lost some of the intuitive avoidance and fear of the child’s brain. It is developing some reasoning and analytic processes to replace these. But it does not have the breadth and depth of experience of the adult brain, nor the ability to consider the distant future and the effect on others. The adolescent brain tends to live entirely within its present context.

“Would you swim with sharks?” When a child is asked this question he or she will answer with an emphatic NO. An adult will also offer a very quick negative, though with some adults and a few adolescents the questioner may need to add that ‘sharks’ is meant in a literal sense. But the teenager. Ah, the teenager. He or she asked that same question will ponder it. You can see and sometimes hear the analytic reasoning kicking in: “Well, humans are not the sharks’ natural prey, so….and though I am not a good swimmer….and depending on…”

So far, with teens, my own informal survey has resulted in answers of “yes or maybe or I’d consider it” 100 percent of the time.

I am not saying we should downplay suicide and it’s tragic consequences. I am saying that we should treat an increase, a cluster of suicides like any other serious outbreak of illness. We should study it without pre-judging. And when teens are involved we should take into account their contrary minds.

The Woodstock cluster may be a problem of inadequate resources; there may be a contagion factor at work;  there may be a local stigma about seeking help; there may be some cyber bullying occurring; the means to kill oneself may be too readily available; there may be untreated mental illness involved; they may all have been fans of the same toxic Web site; they may know one another, or not; they may be using or misusing the same drugs; they may be all attending the same counselor; or this cluster might be simply a statistical anomaly…

We should help family and friends cope with these tragedies, but we should investigate before we plan a preventive intervention.


The Adolescent Brain, The Bible and The Koran

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In our teenage years and often well beyond them, the adolescent brain struggles to form a map, a system of cause and effect, a number of certainties, a group of expectations, some rules and criteria that might guide it through this life, and sometimes beyond. A very healthy brain settles on a few absolutes, and leaves the rest quite flexible, able to adapt, change, and grow with new awareness and understanding.

But a very significant aspect to this journey involves the acceptance and/or rejection of the received wisdom of our parents and teachers. And in this process, in this process of the adolescent brain picking and choosing what to believe, invariably it (the adolescent brain) perceives the inconsistencies, oftentimes the hypocrisies to be found in our parents’ and our teachers’ instructions.

This leads to one of two reactions, sometimes both at the same time: one is to reject it all, the other to swallow it all, to become more of whatever it is, than our parents. And this may be a phase that ends in a healthy compromise and adaptation.

In its benign form the teen may shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself Christians when you only go to church at Easter and Christmas?” or “Is there any archaeological evidence this actually happened?”

Or it may lead to the teen and post-teen joining a commune, “going back to the church”, declaring himself atheist, finding solace in the Hare Krishna cult.

And today, as we know, it might lead a young man or young woman, raised in a “moderate” Muslim family, into the arms of ISIS. Perhaps these young people are especially vulnerable, unable to otherwise find their way, to fit in, to belong, to succeed.

But in the process of adopting a strict, conservative, oppressive, violent, rigid, immutable code they are also overcoming, reacting to, the perceived hypocrisies of their parents and teachers.

These teachers and parents are preaching from ancient texts, the Bible or the Koran. And they are choosing only the nice parts, all the while claiming that the whole book is the word of God. I’m not really sure how they do it. “We think of those as parables today.” “But the message is evil.” “Well we don’t really believe that part anymore.” “But you said the whole book is a holy book.” “Well yes but…..”

Let’s face it. Both the Bible and the Koran contain truly evil, ignorant passages, advice, instruction, and rules to live by. If we really believed all of what is in these ancient texts we would stop reading this now and gather some rocks to stone adulterers and apostates, to kill a few homosexuals, get our kitchen knives sharpened to cut off a hand or two, choose a small flexible branch to beat our wives; we might all make it our life’s work to spread the gospel and to fight the infidels, the unbelievers, and worse yet, the fallen believers.

But the point of what I am saying is this: When that moment comes in the adolescent brain in which her angst, his quest for certainty, their struggle to find a community, a set of rules to live by – when this is floundering – and when that young man or young woman sees the abundant hypocrisy, or at the very least, the paradox of claiming to be a true believer in a particular ancient text, but not really, not all of it, though it is the word of God…..well…there is the solution right there, spelled out in the early pages of that ancient text sitting on the bedside table. “It would be righteous to kill abortionists. An eye for an eye. The damnation of homosexuality. The closed door of heaven…….”

So, here is one thing we could do. Our churches and mosques could do. Tear out those pages. Stop teaching the whole book. Select the parts that time and enlightenment and education have proved valuable. Discard the misogynistic, racist, intolerant, violent passages.

Do this now. Please.

It is telling, I think, that the young women who left the very conservative Muslim school in Mississauga to join ISIS  felt that the teachings of this school were not sufficiently “conservative.” Well, in the eyes of most of us, what that school is teaching belongs in the 13th century.

But, they are using as their instruction book, their text, their Holy Book, the unadulterated Koran. And even though they were teaching those girls to behave as if living in the 13th century, they must have been skipping the more outrageous passages of the Koran – which is, to that adolescent brain, a tad hypocritical.

For humanities sake, let us rip out the stupid pages of both the Koran and the Bible. And, if you would like to test your knowledge of religion, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has this test you can take.