6 Reasons Teenagers Struggle with Long-Term Thinking

A teenage boy looking confused

Teenagers sometimes seem incapable of long-term thinking.

They get home and spend hours on their phone instead of starting their homework. They go out and play with their friends instead of doing their chores first, even though they’ll get in trouble for it. They stay up late playing video games instead of getting a good night’s sleep. They procrastinate on big projects, resulting in last-minute panic, late penalties, and low grades. They appear unconcerned about how their decisions impact college and career opportunities.

For parents, it’s worrying to watch them make choices that will hurt them down the road. And it’s frustrating because their behavior doesn’t seem to make any sense. I mean, the better long-term choices are so obviously better.

But as baffling as it may be, it’s actually quite normal. And, critically, there are things we can do to help them become more skilled at making wiser decisions. So here are six reasons teenagers struggle with long-term thinking and what we can do about them.

1. They Have a Developing Prefrontal Cortex

The most basic reason teenagers struggle with long-term thinking is neurological. The part of the brain in charge of long-term thinking, delayed gratification, and executive function in general is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is still developing until you’re 25 years old, and it undergoes massive changes during the teenage years.1 Imagine an “Under Construction” sign posted on your teenager’s prefrontal cortex and lower your expectations accordingly.

a black and yellow under construction sign

Now, I’m not suggesting that they can’t use that part of their brain or that you shouldn’t encourage them to do so. Quite the opposite. Since the brain is like a bunch of muscles, the more they use their prefrontal cortex, the stronger it will get. That’s why it’s essential for teenagers to be given responsibilities like chores, to be put in charge of their own learning, and to be given the freedom to make choices. Those choices will often be bad, but the pain of failure is a powerful motivator to learn.

2. They Keep Getting Rescued

Of course, they can’t learn from the pain of failure if they keep getting rescued by well-meaning parents who don’t want to see their child suffer. Rescuing comes in many forms: reminding them they have homework to do, helping them with projects that they’ve put off too long, letting them stay home “sick” to delay taking a test they’re not ready for.

One of the most important things parents can do to promote long-term thinking in teenagers is to allow them to fail. They need to learn sometime, and the stakes of failure just keep getting higher as they get older, so the longer you wait, the worse it will be. Failing a test isn’t that big of a deal, and it might be what motivates them to study. Failing a class is embarrassing and comes with the natural consequence of summer school, which might be what motivates them to start doing their work.

So please, stop rescuing them.

3. They Haven’t Lived Long Enough

Another reason teenagers struggle with long-term thinking is they simply haven’t lived long enough. It can take many years to experience the consequences of bad choices – years they haven’t lived yet.

As adults, we take for granted the wisdom we’ve accumulated over decades. And we routinely forget how hard-won that wisdom was. We screwed up, it hurt really bad, and we learned our lesson. Or, we didn’t learn our lesson, screwed up again – only worse this time – and then finally figured it out. (Sometimes it takes many rounds of failure before we learn.) Think about how many difficult life lessons you learned during your 20s. Your teenager can’t have learned those lessons yet because they haven’t even turned 20.

However, it is possible for teenagers to learn from the experiences of adults (despite what you’ve surely experienced when you’ve tried). It’s all in the delivery.

a mom trying to give advice to her teenager

Most adults use their life experience to give advice. They say things like, “You should ______ or you’ll experience ______.” This usually backfires because “You should…” feels like criticism, so it gets resisted.

A better approach is to tell stories from a first-person perspective: “I used ______ and it kept leading to ______. Eventually, I got fed up and tried ______ which led to ______.” This approach presents the same lesson without sounding like judgmental advice.

4. Human Nature Doesn’t Predispose Us for Long-Term Thinking

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have GPAs, resumés, or 401Ks. They had more pressing concerns, like finding their next meal and not getting eaten by leopards. They were lucky to live to 35. Thus, it’s not in our genes to be particularly good at long-term thinking. So, like other recently* invented skills – such as reading and math – long-term thinking is something you have to practice to become adept at.

*Recently in anthropological terms. Humans have existed for about 300,000 years,2 but reading and math are only about 6,000 years old.3

We can’t change our genetic predispositions, but we can get a better handle on them. Knowing about human nature is a good first step; it’s easier to mitigate an innate tendency if you know you have it.

It also helps to normalize the struggle of long-term thinking by framing it as something natural. Many teenagers think there’s something wrong with them, which is depressing, demotivating, and disempowering. Knowing that the problem is not you encourages you to seek out strategies for overcoming it.

5. Modern Culture Discourages Long-Term Thinking

a megaphone blasting out internet icons

Despite the value of long-term thinking in modern life, our culture doesn’t actively encourage it. We love stories of overnight success. Advertisers promise an endless supply of quick fixes for our problems. And kids dream of getting rich quick by going viral on TikTok.

The adult world is just as guilty of this mindset. Congressional representatives have to get reelected every two years. CEOs have to generate a profit for shareholders each quarter. 24-hour news networks lurch from scandal to scandal, forgetting today what was “major news” yesterday. All of this discourages long-term thinking in favor of short-term wins, cash grabs, and appealing soundbites. It’s no wonder we can’t seem to effectively address long-term problems like climate change, crumbling infrastructure, and the national debt.

So when your teenager appears to be deaf whenever you talk about long-term planning, consider that they might be thinking, “But what about you (meaning grown-ups in general)? You’re not solving any of the world’s long-term problems.” If you want them to listen to you, you’ll probably need to take more steps that show you’re a part of the solution.

6. Tech Addiction Probably Inhibits Long-Term Thinking

Studies have shown that addiction can inhibit long-term thinking, possibly because addiction is associated with prefrontal cortex dysfunction. 4

When researchers “asked people addicted to opioids and healthy controls to complete a story that started with the line: ‘After awakening, Bill began to think about the future. In general, he expected to …’ opioid-addicted study participants referred to a future that was on average nine days long. Healthy controls referred to a future that was on average 4.7 years long.”5

In other words, when an addict considers “the future,” they’re not thinking long-term at all. Or, perhaps, what an addict considers “long term” is radically shorter than what a healthy person considers “long term.” This makes sense. When you’re addicted to something, your top priority is always getting another hit. And while this study used opioid addiction, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar pattern with other addictions.

a teenager on her phone

About half of American teenagers say they’re addicted to their phones.6 Thus, it’s likely that tech addiction is inhibiting teenagers’ ability to pursue long-term goals and make wise decisions about their future. And it’s not just because they’re spending too much time on video games and YouTube at the expense of studying; it’s that addiction itself inhibits long-term thinking.

Helping young people manage technology in a healthy way is one of the trickiest things modern parents have to wrestle with. It’s the #1 topic of discussion in the Q&A sessions of our Parenting for Academic Success course. There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.

First and foremost, parents need to lead by example. If you’re always on your phone (even if it’s checking email for work) your kids will learn that it’s normal for people to always be on their phones. But if they see you put your phone into Do Not Disturb Mode or Airplane Mode or leave it in another room sometimes, they’ll learn that it’s okay to not be constantly connected.

Secondly, you need to establish family values around tech. Not punitive restrictions, but healthy norms based on what you, as a family, see as important. That could mean a rule where there are no phones at the dinner table. Or it could mean leaving your phones behind when you go for a walk in the park.

Lastly, instead of tech-based entertainment being the default option, you can create alternative rituals, such as board game nights, after-dinner reading time, and fun outdoor adventures. It’s not enough to say “no screen time.” You have to provide an appealing alternative to fill the void.

a family playing charades

Parents Need to Think Long Term Too

None of the advice I’ve just given offers a quick fix. It’s natural for you to wish that your teenager would just figure it out, so you could stop worrying about their choices. But developing the capacity for long-term thinking takes, well, a long time.

So you need to get out of the fix mindset and into the grow mindset. You’re not repairing a robot; you’re tending a garden. This takes patience.

Rescuing them from failure and telling them what to do might lead to better results on paper today, but they don’t produce independence and good judgment down the road. The slower path – giving them responsibilities, letting them face the consequences of failure, and modeling – is ultimately more fruitful.

1 “The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know.” National Institute of Mental Health.

2 “What does it mean to be human.” Smithsonian National Museum of National History.

3 Kennedy, Lesley. “6 Early Human Civilizations.” History.com. February 6th, 2024.

4 Goldstein RZ, Volkow ND. “Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2011 Oct 20;12(11):652-69. doi: 10.1038/nrn3119.

5 Lembke, Anna, MD. “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.” Dutton, 2021.

6 Wallace, Kelly. “Half of teens think they’re addicted to their smartphones.” CNN. July 29, 2016.

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