January 20, 2018

3 Myths About Troubled Kids

By Meredith White-McMahon, Ed.D

In the past, we believed many things about troubled kids and how to deal with them.  We now know that many of these beliefs are not accurate. However, these myths just won’t go away. Here is the low-down on some of the misguided beliefs.


1. Their brains are fully formed by the time they are teenagers. Change is not possible.


Neuroscientists have known for decades that through experience, the brain was changeable or neuroplastic in the early years of development. Over 50 years ago, neuroscientists realized that brain cells, or neurons, were able to change and modify their activity in response to environmental experiences. Neurons that fired together, wired together [1].  The problem was that they also believed that after the critical period of those early years, the brain was no longer capable of change. Based on these ideas, most research and therapeutic efforts focused on early childhood, believing that by the teenage years, learning and behavior were entrenched and there was little hope of change. Fortunately, new science is emerging and shaping a more positive outlook of our ability to change throughout our lifespan.


The advent of advanced neuroimaging technologies in the last 30 years has shown us that while natural developmental milestones and sensitive periods of enhanced neuroplasticity exist, new neurons continue to appear in parts of the brain related to new learning and that new neural networks appear and grow throughout life. Instead of our brains being the individual, isolated, self-organizing systems that neuroscientists assumed them to be, we now know that our brains are dependent on interactions with others and supportive ecologies for survival, growth, and well-being throughout our entire lifespan.


Change is possible and we can be a part of it. This is great news for anyone working with troubled kids.


2. Troubled Kids Need to Be Punished  – or – Nothing a Good Spanking Wouldn’t Cure


Reactive behavioral approaches make bad neurorelational sense. The brain systems involved with punishment and pain are primitive and any animal can feel the impact of pain.  Humans are unique in that they have a highly evolved logical system that can work through the challenges given to us by life. Using primitive strategies to change behavior is primitive in and of itself.  Wise adults utilize the brain’s ability to think and decide to guide youth to logical choice that will serve them well in the moment and later in life.



Reducing the human experience to a primitive level will only breed a primitive response from kids and will ensure that a cycle of non-thinking, reactive behavior will be demonstrated by both the young person and the adult.


We often attempt to “punish children into goodness” [2] or doing the “right” thing. Rooted in our most primitive brain systems is this natural reactionary style that is common across animal species. However, this approach is quite primitive in that it bypasses the greatest gift a human has…the logical, thinking and caring brain.


Punishing children is quite different from disciplining children (More about that in another blog).


3. Troubled teens (all teens for that matter) are “missing” a part of their brain.


A 2007 ad from a large well-known, well respected insurance company that was promoting graduated licenses reads: Why do most 16 year olds drive like they’re missing a part of their brain? – Because they are! That was “their stand” – but they are wrong.


In fully mature adults, various parts of the brain work together to evaluate choices, make decisions, and act accordingly in each situation. The teenage brain doesn’t appear to work this way. One reason is that the prefrontal cortex (the thinking/logical part of our brains) is a work in progress.


The primary part of the logical brain that helps adults make good decisions is immature and under-developed in teenagers. In fact, it may not fully develop and mature until the mid-20s or later. In addition, teenagers experience a wealth of growth in synapses during adolescence. Following the boom, just as happens in the earlier remodeling periods, the brain starts pruning away the synapses that it doesn’t need in order to make the remaining ones more efficient in communicating. In humans, this maturation process starts in the back of the brain and moves forward, so that the prefrontal cortex, that vital center of control, is the last to be pruned and mature.


This means that, oftentimes, teenagers are not using the part of their brains that play an essential role in impulse control, decision-making, planning, and prediction. Adult brains are also better wired to notice errors in decision-making and pick up on them more quickly. This comes from a more mature frontal lobe that is used more extensively.


Graduated licenses for teens are probably a very good idea. Ads like that are not. That is my stand!


[1] Hebb, D. O. (1949). The organization of behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.

[2] Morse, W. C. (2008). Connecting with kids in conflict: A life space legacy. Sioux Falls, SD: Reclaiming Children and Youth & Starr Commonwealth.


If you enjoyed this post “Like” us on Facebook for updates on more posts like it.  


Meredith White-McMahon, Ed.D is a veteran educator of troubled and troubling children and youth. She has been teaching for 33 years at all levels K-12 as well as supervising University Masters level school counselor practicums. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  


Dr. White-McMahon has contributed to the development of numerous scientific writings and textbooks currently used in the university setting. In 2011 she co-authored The Hopeful Brain: Relational Repair for Disconnected Children and Youth that incorporates brain-based strategies that are practical, effective and supportive of youth. Her experience as an educator has earned her wide respect for innovative and positive supports in the transformation of challenging youth.


Dr. White-McMahon is a certified Response Abilities Pathways (RAP) trainer for Reclaiming Youth International, a Senior Trainer of The PersonBrain Model™ and a Senior LSCI Trainer for the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute providing training to a wide audience. She also provides training and consultation services in crisis intervention and relational areas such as attachment, trauma, attention, depression, anxiety, and oppositional-defiance. See drmwhitemcmahon.com


Speak Your Mind