Teen brain: Why is it scary?; by Elaine Kennedy

Your worst fear: You get a call from a police officer at 2:00 am. Your teen has been arrested for speeding and drinking. Why are teens attracted to this risk-taking behavior? What do I do?

The following three pieces of brain research have great implications for how we can support our teens:

  1. First, teen brains, more so than adult or child brains, are attracted to novelty. This means that they crave experiences and want to explore anything that is novel or new. This works well if they’re exploring new forms of literature or being challenged with new math topics; however, as teens are attracted to anything that is novel, they also seek to experience life choices we find undesirable – sex, drinking and drugs.
  1. Second, to further exacerbate the matter, teens are attracted to risk-taking behavior; the parts of the brain that are affected with risk-taking behavior are the same neurons impacted by cocaine. The resulting cascade of chemical reactions when teens are exposed to risk is a powerful “feel good” experience.
  1. Third, as if the information above is not startling or concerning enough, the part of the brain responsible for making good judgments, anticipating consequences, and engaging in positive decision-making is not fully developed at adolescence. The frontal lobe of the teen brain is not fully developed in females until the early 20s and in males until the late 20s. As parents, we’ve got our work cut out for us!

At the same time that adolescents are attracted to novelty and risk-taking behavior, they have not yet developed the capacity to always make good choices. What are the implications for parenting these special beings?

  • Teens need structure and guidance even though they may be asserting their independence. My strategy as a mom of two teenage girls was to “pick my battles.” I gave my daughters, Heather and Lauren, autonomy in areas where they could be successful (homework, sports, college choice) or where the decision was not life-altering (bedtime). But, I held firm in my expectations for appropriate behavior and experiences in which I would not allow my children to participate (mixed sex, overnight parties).
  • Don’t back off. You’re not wrong even if your teen thinks you can’t do anything right or that “all the other kids get to do it.” In one study, scientists found that teens actually want and need guidance from adults (Schneider &Yung, 1996). It’s interesting, because we see teens pull away at this time, isolating themselves in their rooms or wanting to be with friends. Don’t give up; keep connected to your kids.
  • Put forth clear, consistent expectations while showing empathy for the feelings of your teen. Adolescents hear information quite differently from adults (Spinks, 2002). They hear a disproportionate amount of criticism and rejection. Think back to a time when you told your teen that she could watch TV after her homework was done. Suddenly you have an explosion as your teen rants about how you’re always picking on her, none of her friends have so many rules, and you’ve ruined her life! We can’t condone these behaviors, but knowing that teens experience a greater reaction to criticism helps us to understand what’s going on. Stay firm on your expectations while acknowledging, “Yes, I hear that you feel like I’m always picking on you, but I still need you to complete your homework.”

There is a lot to learn about adolescent development. Stay tuned for my next blog on matching your child’s development to his/her school experience. And, let me know what you think. ©

Article source: Feinstein, S. Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Today’s Adolescents.