The Teenage Mind and Study Abroad

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Sam Turner.  I asked him to reflect upon a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “What’s wrong with the teenage mind?” referenced below.  I hope you enjoy his reflection on this subject as much as I did!

Teenagers have notoriously done “bad” things. They congregate in public places; they stay up late at night texting friends and chatting on IM; they have car accidents and tell lies; and they struggle to find their place in life. They come into our lives and leave so quickly.

One of the best documented cases is the actress Lindsay Lohan. On top of posing nude in this month’s issue of Playboy magazine, her record includes two drunken-driving arrests, five jail sentences, and five rehab stints. Despite her fame and wealth, she has demonstrated perpetual reckless and self-defeating behaviors.

In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, UC Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik asked the question, “What’s wrong with the teenage mind?”  According to Dr. Gopnik, even good kids make inconsistent mistakes—committing actions that they had previously suggested were wrong. This includes the child who rejects drinking and driving, only to end up in a drunken accident or a daughter who knows about birth control, only to become pregnant with a guy she doesn’t even like.

So, given all these risks, who would even fathom sending their child abroad? Clearly, the freedom to sunbathe on the topless beaches of the French Riviera or the temptation to hitch hike through the Swiss Alps combined with budding pubescence, must be a recipe for disaster.

The mysteries of teen behaviors are further complicated by the variety of teens and their behaviors. John Hughes’s 1985 portrayal of teens in the movie the Breakfast Club included five different kids representing many of the common stereotypes—the popular girl, Claire; the study geek, Brian; the alternative goth-like character, Allison; the jock, Andrew; and the thug, John. The common theme among these characters was generalizable to many teens—uncertainty, ambiguity, and struggling to find the future.

Increasingly, neuroscience, medicine, and psychology are starting to fill in some of the gaps we have in understanding the development of adolescents and have contributed to cracking the mystery of inconsistent teen behavior. Between the ages of 10 and 18, our bodies undergo a variety of physical, cognitive, behavioral, and psychosocial transitions. These changes lead teens to favor risky behavior, prone to emotionality, and sensitive to rewards, novelty, and stimulation.

Since the mid to late 19th century, researchers have observed an earlier onset of physical development (e.g., menarche) in the Western world while we postpone starting careers, getting married, and having children. This means we have an increasing lag between our physical development and the acceptance of adult roles. Yet, adolescents crave new experiences, greater freedom and independence, and responsibility. Teens score higher on sensation seeking than adults, exhibit more impulsiveness, and suffer from a striking inability to delay rewards for personal gain.

The intuitive response to teenage weirdness is a lack of worldly experience. And indeed, this is partially true. But in addition, neuroscientists have discovered dramatic changes in gross morphology in the brain—reductions in gray matter, growth in white matter, and myelination in the frontal areas associated with executive function, planning, and self-control.

The impact of the volatility at this age is clear. The question then naturally presents itself, what is the ideal thing for teens to be doing during this time period of growth to satisfy their need for independence and exploration while they await the rewards of adulthood? Can you hear the interculturalist in the room raising their hand wildly while exclaiming, “Oh, I know! I know!”

The case for study abroad

Studying abroad involves prolonged periods away from home and the comforts of a well worn social network. Sometimes it involves second language acquisition; and almost always exposure to cultural differences that challenge, yet broaden the repertoire of knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of a budding adolescent.

Satiating the intellectual growth, I would propose, is the beauty of studying abroad. This allows the freedom of easy travel without the burden of house payments or job commitments and capitalizes on a teenager’s yearning to know the world and its curiosities. “Cosmophiles”, a term coined by Park in the 1920s captures the essence of multiculturalism that results from studying abroad. People are wiser from their experiences and the challenges to the closely held cultural paradigms they grow up with.

Students living abroad develop dual reference points that help them interpret rich cultural symbols that their fellow students who opt not to study abroad wouldn’t necessarily develop. In fact, this extracultural cognition, a fancy term researchers use to denote this cultural problem-solving, doesn’t come from just travel—rather digesting the day-to-day issues associated with learning the norms, values, and customs of a new culture.

The question should then be, why are there not more teenagers studying abroad?

About the author: Dr. Sam Turner is a social psychologist specializing in organizational, leadership, talent development, organizational change, team-building, executive coaching, and cultural consulting. His talents are built on ten years of entrepreneurial experience from managing a family-owned business, study and extensive travel abroad, and advanced degrees in psychology. He has taught a number of undergraduate courses, including group dynamics and interpersonal processes as well as social psychology. As an executive coach, Sam develops a plan that capitalizes on strengths and works on weaknesses. He has an unwavering commitment to developing the best employee and organization. Sam has lived abroad and has traveled to more than twenty countries. Feel free to visit his website, Piedmont Leadership, LLC.



  1. I completely agree with this – not only study abroad, but travel (especially extended family travel). The sooner that people grasp how complex and wonderful and exciting and challenging the world is, the better for ANY kind of personal development and growth. Bravo!

  2. Lisa says:

    Very good post with spot on comments.
    I believe that exchange can change the world. Exchange can bring about peace by creating connections among people with common events, activities, issues. Cultural exchange is transformative and forces people to think beyond their own perspective and consider someone else’s. Study abroad is perhaps the best place to start because young people all over the world are studying in other countries, both in high school and college, and these students are the future

  3. mike says:

    As a British company in Spain, we see many students studying over here and integrating successfully. As far as I can see most of them benefit immensely and we have had several international interns working with us and they have always had positive experiences-


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