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Teens' Brains Key To Their Impulsiveness


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Teens' Brains Key To Their Impulsiveness

As you read this article, think about how this information relates to the characters in Romeo and Juliet.

NEW YORK (AP) ― The teenage brain, Laurence Steinberg says, is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.

And, perhaps, a crime.

Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, helped draft an American Psychological Association brief for a 2005 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.

That ruling relies on the most recent research on the adolescent brain, which indicates the juvenile brain is still maturing in the teen years and reasoning and judgment are developing well into the early to mid 20s. It is often cited as state lawmakers consider scaling back punitive juvenile justice laws passed during the 1990s.

"As any parent knows," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the 5-4 majority, youths are more likely to show "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility" than adults. "... These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions."

He also noted that "juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure," causing them to have less control.

Some child advocates have pointed to the Supreme Court decision and the research as evidence that teens - even those accused of serious crimes - should not be regarded in the same way as adults in the criminal justice system.

Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who has testified before legislative committees on brain development, says the research doesn't absolve teens but offers some explanation for their behavior.

"It doesn't mean adolescents can't make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong," he said. "It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions."

Experts say that even at ages 16 and 17, when compared to adults, juveniles on average are more:

  • impulsive.

  • aggressive.

  • emotionally volatile.

  • likely to take risks.

  • reactive to stress.

  • vulnerable to peer pressure.

  • prone to focus on short-term payoffs and underplay longer-term consequences of what they do.

  • likely to overlook alternative courses of action.

Violence toward others also tends to peak in adolescent years, says psychiatrist Dr. Peter Ash of Emory University in Georgia. It's mostly likely to start around age 16, and people who haven't committed a violent crime by age 19 only rarely start doing it later, he said.

The good news here, he said, is that a violent adolescent doesn't necessarily become a violent adult. Some two-thirds to three-quarters of violent youth grow out of it, he said. "They get more self-controlled."

Some of the changes found in behavioral studies are paralleled by changes in the brain itself as youths become adults.

In fact, in the past few years, Steinberg said, brain scans have given biological backing to commonsense notions about teen behavior, like their impulsiveness and vulnerability to peer pressure.

It's one thing to say teens don't control their impulses as well as adults, but another to show that they can't, he said. As for peer pressure, the new brain research "gives credence to the idea that this isn't a choice that kids are making to give in to their friends, that biologically, they're more vulnerable to that," he said.

Consider the lobes at the front of the brain. The nerve circuitry here ties together inputs from other parts of the brain, said Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health.

This circuitry weighs how much priority to give incoming messages like "Do this now" versus "Wait! What about the consequences?" In short, the frontal lobes are key for making good decisions and controlling impulses.

Brain scans show that the frontal lobes don't mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve to at least that age, Giedd said.

The inexplicable behavior and poor judgments teens are known for almost always happen when teens are feeling high emotion or intense peer pressure, conditions that overwhelm the still-maturing circuitry in the front part of brain, Giedd said.

As Steinberg sees it, a teenager's brain has a well-developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake.

By around 15 or 16, the parts of the brain that arouse a teen emotionally and make him pay attention to peer pressure and the rewards of action - the gas pedal - are probably all set. But the parts related to controlling impulses, long-term thinking and resistance to peer pressure - the brake, mostly in the frontal lobes - are still developing.

"It's not like we go from becoming all accelerator to all brake," Steinberg said. "It's that we go from being heavy-foot-on-the-accelerator to being better able to manage the whole car."

Giedd emphasized that scientists can't yet scan an individual's brain and draw conclusions about his maturity. Brain scans do show group differences between adult and teen brains, he said, "but whether or not that should matter (in the courtroom) is the part that needs to be decided more by the judicial system than the neuroscientist."

In any case, experts say, there's nothing particularly magic about the age 18 as a standard dividing line between juveniles and adults in the courtroom. Steinberg noted different mental capabilities mature at different rates, but added it appears age 18 is good enough to be justified scientifically.

Steinberg said he thinks courts should be able to punish some 16- or 17-year-olds as adults - generally repeat violent offenders who've resisted rehabilitation and could endanger other youth in the juvenile system. "I don't think there are a lot of these kids," he said.

For the rest, he thinks it makes sense to try rehabilitating young offenders in the juvenile justice system.

Ash said that to decide whom to treat as an adult, courts need some kind of guideline that combines the defendant's age with the crime he's accused of. That should leave room for individual assessments, he said.

Most experts also conclude that rehabilitation works better for juveniles than for adult offenders. And just as parents know how irrational juveniles can be, Ash said, they also know that rehabilitation is a key goal in punishing them.

"What we really want," he said, "is to turn delinquent kids into good adults."

2008 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


  1. How would you describe the behavior of Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt in Act III?

  2. Explain how peer pressure and high emotion played a part in the outcome of Act III?

  3. Pretend you are a lawyer defending the actions of one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet. Write your best argument be to convince the jury of your client’s innocence?

Act III, scene ii questions:

  1. When Juliet learns that Romeo has killed Tybalt, she cries, “O, how can he hide such an evil heart with such a beautiful face?”

Juliet is saying that there are opposites in Romeo’s nature. List two other

examples where Juliet says that Romeo is not what he appears to be.

  1. What is the word that Juliet fears? ______________________

  1. What does this word mean to Juliet?

  1. What promise does the Nurse make to Juliet?

Act III, scene iii questions:

  1. Describe Romeo’s mood as he reacts to the news of his punishment.

  1. How does the Nurse save Romeo?

  1. According to the Friar, what does Romeo have to be thankful for? List 2 ways Romeo is fortunate.

  1. The Friar advised Romeo to do three things. List the Friar’s advice to Romeo.

Act III, scene iv-v questions:

  1. In Act I, Lord Capulet said that Paris had to win Juliet’s consent to marry. Why then does Capulet now agree to Paris’ request without Juliet’s approval?

  1. This day is Monday. Paris will wed Juliet on _______________________.

  1. In scene v, Juliet says to Romeo, “It was the nightingale, and not the lark, that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear…Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.” Explain why Romeo and Juliet would rather hear the nightingale sing as opposed to the lark.

  1. As Romeo leaves, Juliet has a feeling of doom. What does Juliet see that frightens her?

  1. What does Lady Capulet tell Juliet she will do in order to get revenge for Tybalt’s death?

  1. When Juliet says that she will not marry Paris, how do her parents react?

  1. What advice does the Nurse give Juliet and how does Juliet respond?

  1. What does Juliet decide to do?

Response Log:
Juliet challenges her father’s authority. She argues with him and begs him, but he will not listen to her. In turn, he threatens her. However, she will not change her mind. Neither person listens to the other in this conflict.
Pretend that you are Juliet. What could you say to change your parents’ minds?

Complete a few lines of dialogue between father and daughter. Try to get your father to understand your feelings.

Lord Capulet:
If you don’t marry, you can hang, beg, starve, and

die in the streets,

For I swear, I’ll never recognize you

as my daughter again.

And I’ll never give you anything.

Count on that! Think about it. I won’t go back on

my word.

Lord Capulet:


Lord Capulet:

Advice to Parents from 1616 England

The Ordering of Maides from Twelve Yeare Old and Upward (Excerpt)

It is then no disgrace, but great good to keep the daughters well busied in honest labor, at home or in service abroad. And at this age of twelve years and forward, the parents, and namely the mother, is to use her self more familiarly with the daughter (always keeping the gratitude and authority of a mother) that so the child may love her company and be more apt to open her mind to her mother, and not by severity to cause her to delight in a stranger and to open her mind to such: for by kind usage, they shall see further into their natures, and more easily learn what need they have of marriage and so prevent the stealing away of their child, or at least of their heart. And thus observing their natural disposition, on the one side they may in due time seek out an honest match for their child: and handsomely on the other side choose such a man, as their daughter may be best able to content, and be contented.

Translate the advice you can use to convince Lord and Lady Capulet to stop or at least delay the marriage between Paris and Juliet:

Ordering of Children in the Matter of Marriage (Excerpt)

Notwithstanding I do not take the authority of parents in this case to be absolute, and without limitation. For first nature teach that he must use his children like a parent, that is kindly and lovingly as son and daughter, and not as slaves or as beasts, tyrannically; for if nature teach (as is before showed in this chapter) that when children grow to ripeness of age they should be applied to such trades as they, by natural inclination are fit, apt and liking; then, much more in the matter of marriage, the children ought to have their liking, wherein the child is to forsake father and mother, that they two should be one flesh; for what comfort is it to the child to forsake their parents and to cleave to her to whom he hath no liking. You shall have parents when they make their children a coat, they will bid them choose the color and yet think they lose no authority over their children: much less shall their authority be diminished, if they suffer their children to view well, and consider of the husband or wife they choose for them, that they like as well as their parents. The child must do the service which marriage require; therefore the parents have great reason to grant the child free liberty to like or not to like, that it may, the more cheerfully perform the duty which is unchangeable during life.

Translate the advice you can use to convince Lord and Lady Capulet to stop or at least delay the marriage between Paris and Juliet:

Pretend you are Juliet. Compose a letter to your parents in order to convince them to stop or delay this marriage. Use at least 4 points from the 1616 Advice to Parents to receive full credit.

Act IV Romeo and Juliet Vocabulary

Column A contains words Shakespeare used in R + J
Column B contains synonyms for the words in column A.

Column A

Column B


to reduce, make less


orderly display


to deceive or trick


structure for coffin


funeral hymn


deeply worried, tense, or bewildered


to develop pus, rot


kneel or fall flat




To overwhelm with something


burial cloth

Act IV, scenes i-v questions:

  1. Describe two things that Juliet says she’d be willing to suffer through rather than marry Paris.

  1. What does Friar Laurence propose to Juliet?

  1. After Juliet apologizes to her father, he moves the wedding day up to Wednesday! How will this impact the Friar’s plan?

4.What concerns does Juliet express in Scene iii? How does she handle these concerns?
  1. Write down some descriptive words that Juliet may have used to describe what it was like in the tomb:





  1. Describe the reactions to Juliet’s apparent death in scene v.

Act V Romeo and Juliet Vocabulary

Column A contains words Shakespeare used in R + J
Column B contains synonyms for the words in column A.

Column A

Column B


hate, detest, loathe


Showing no interest, withdrawn






Mean, evil person


to plan secretly with someone


to plan, think up


kill, get rid of


Not promising


Impossible to persuade, to change or halt




Funeral ceremonies






To examine




offensive, unclean, morally bad

Act V, scene i-iii questions:

  1. What preparations does Romeo make in scene i when he learns of Juliet’s death?

  1. Why does Romeo believe that the pharmacist will sell poison to him?

  1. What happened to the letter that Friar Laurence was going to send to Romeo?

  1. Friar Laurence enters the tomb and finds the bodies of Paris and Romeo. As Juliet awakens, what does he plead with her to do?

  1. Instead of doing what the Friar wishes, Juliet ___________________________


  1. The Prince says, “We’ve all been punished.” Explain whom he means by “we” and how these people have been punished.

  1. What will the two fathers do to honor Romeo and Juliet?

Film Analysis

50 points
Shakespeare’s plays are wonderfully adaptable, and many directors throughout the years have changed the settings and time periods of many of his plays. Even today, many directors use Shakespeare plays to inspire modern movies such as…

  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was inspiration for West Side Story.

  • Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was inspiration for 10 Things I Hate About You.

  • She’s the Man was based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

  • O was inspired by Othello. (starring Julia Stiles)

Some viewers have enjoyed the updated versions of Shakespeare’s original plays, but others think that directors should stick to tradition and not adapt or update his plays. After viewing the balcony scenes from both the 1968 version of the play (directed by Franco Zeffirelli) and the 1996 version (directed by Baz Luhrman) use your notes from the graphic organizer to answer the following:

  • Which film version was more successful and why?

    • The answer to this will be your thesis statement.


What should you include?

  • Introductory sentence about Shakespeare and his plays or the plot of R&J

  • Possible reference to R&J’s popularity among television shows, movies, etc.

  • Sentence or sentences briefly describing the two versions of the balcony scene (modern vs. classical)

  • Thesis statement (which version you enjoyed more and why).

Body paragraphs: Start with a topic sentence in which you will address a few of the categories from the charts.

  • For example, you might write something like: “Baz Luhrman’s use of stage space and modern setting help to contribute to a successful film version of Romeo and Juliet.”

  • Then, use the details from your chart to support your opinion.


In your opinion, is Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, adaptable to a modern setting? Was the director successful in translating this classic play to a modern setting? Although you may think the 1969 film version was more successful, you can still state in your conclusion, that Shakespeare can be modernized.

Romeo and Juliet Film Comparison Chart

1968 Zeffirelli

1996 Luhrman

Scenery details

Directors’ use of “stage” space

Delivery of lines

Characters’ body language


Elements of tension/comedy

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