‘What were you thinking, oh, that’s right, you weren’t’ is something I hear when adults are talking to teenagers about another internet blunder, stupid behaviour or risky stunt. And we smile and shake our heads muttering, ‘teenagers!’.
Yet that question is not only directed at teenagers. What about celebrities and naked selfies, politicians and sexual indiscretions, sportsman and another alcohol induced brain failure, and road ‘ragers’ regardless of age? What were they thinking? The truth? They weren’t.
Remember back to your last regrettable moment and try and work what was going on there. How did you find yourself in that unthinkable moment? What were you thinking? If we are honest, there was in fact little thinking going on.
We were being led by our emotions. Dan Ariely, in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’, outlines the roles of emotions in negating our reasonable selves. Ask a teenager in a classroom about safe sex, safe internet rules and safe drinking and they will provide you with all the rational and appropriate replies. They will declare that they would always engage in safe sex, that they follow internet etiquette and do not, under any circumstances drink to a dangerous level.
So what goes wrong when they find themselves in a close embrace with a school friend of the opposite sex and they haven’t a condom, on facebook and are angry about being dumped by their girl/boy friend, at a party where everyone is getting tanked and their friends pester them to go for a drive? The odds are they will end up having sex, post an inappropriate image of their ex, drink too much and drive too fast.
Why? Because their emotions are hot. Emotions over-rule the logical brain in these circumstances. It really is about, ‘if it feels good, just go for it’. Peer pressure, opportunity and lack of boundaries, or those who will police the boundaries, means that higher order thinking goes out the window.
If you look closely at your last regrettable incident, you will see that you were responding emotionally to the situation you found yourself in. Something somebody said or did, opportunity to experience the forbidden or overindulge, self pity, feelings of powerlessness and loneliness, grief and loss and more have conspired you to do something without engaging your brain and behaving in line with your principles.
It is the reason essentially good people behave badly.
When we say, ‘What were you thinking, oh, that’s right, you weren’t’ to a teenager, let us remember that not only are they struggling with the stages of brain development, they are also in the midst of a highly emotional period of life. They are see-sawing back and forwards between rational thought and their emotions in a way we adults have forgotten.
While it is important we educate them about relationships, bullying, internet etiquette, safe sex and socialising we must also educate them about the power of the moment, their emotions, to over-ride everything they believe they believe. Emotional education is often missing from education programs aiming to address behavioural issues.
This is a plea to educators to remember the power of their own emotions, to translate that to the out-of-control emotions of a young person struggling with adolescence and all its intricacies, and to unmask the role emotions will play in what they do.
It is their feelings that lead them, not their thinking. Just like it does for adults.