"Truth is, the teenage brain is like a Ferrari:
It's sleek, shiny, sexy, and fast,
and it corners really well.
But it also has really crappy brakes."
(Judith Newman, "Inside the Teenage Brain," Parade, November 28 2010)
It is a very common misconception to view teenagers as adults. And, no wonder -- so many young people today look mature, handle tough schedules, successfully multitask activities, ace difficult courses in high school (and college), and exhibit many other characteristics associated with adults. HOWEVER, TEENS ARE STILL DEVELOPING, EXPERIMENTING, AND LEARNING. To assume they need less guidance and less structure than younger children can lead to some dreadful consequences.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
"Your teenage daughter gets top marks in school, captains the debate team, and volunteers at a shelter for homeless people. But while driving the family car, she text-messages her best friend and rear-ends another vehicle.
"How can teens be so clever, accomplished, and responsible—and reckless at the same time? Easily, according to two physicians at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School (HMS) who have been exploring the unique structure and chemistry of the adolescent brain. 'The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it,' says Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology. 'It’s a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.'
"Research during the past 10 years, powered by technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, has revealed that young brains have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior, even without the impact of souped-up hormones and any genetic or family predispositions." (Debra Bradley Ruder, "The Teen Brain," Harvard Magazine, September-October 2008)
Human and animal studies have shown that the brain grows and changes continually in young people—and that it is only about 80 percent developed in adolescents. The largest part, the cortex, is divided into lobes that mature from back to front. The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment. Normally this mental merger is not completed until somewhere between ages 25 and 30.
A Few Findings About the Teen Brain
1. Teen brains are more susceptible to external stressors and alcohol or drug induced toxicity than their adult counterparts. (Debra Bradley Ruder, "The Teen Brain," Harvard Magazine, September-October 2008).
3. With the tremendous amount of cognitive input that’s coming at teens, they need practical strategies for making in-the-moment decisions, rather than mere lecture teens about behaviors themselves. (Have you ever met a pregnant teenager who didn’t know biologically how this transpired?)
4. Cognitive control over high-risk behaviors is still maturing during adolescence, making teens more apt to engage in risky behaviors. Teens are at risk for addiction vulnerability, and mental illness, as different parts of the brain mature at different rates. ("The Adolescent Brain," Brain Briefings, Society For Neuroscience, January 2007)
5. Since teens' prefrontal cortex is still developing, they are prone to have trouble organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses.
6. Amy R. Wolfson, PhD, of the College of the Holy Cross, and Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, of Brown University Medical School, found that beginning in puberty and continuing into the early 20s, adolescents need from 8.4 to 9.2 hours of sleep on average a night, compared with 7.5 to 8 hours for adults. (Siri Carpenter, "Sleep Deprivation May Be Undermining Teen Health," American Psychological Association Monitor, October 2001)
What Is a Parent To Do?
Here are some questions parents may want to consider concerning their children's risky teen years. Thanks to Denise Witmer ("Top Ten Things You Can Do To Prevent Your Teen From Taking Drugs," About.com Guide) for the advice. Aren't these practical suggestions considering the state of the teenage brain?
1. Will your teen CALL YOU if the party he/she attends makes drugs available?
2. Do you know your TEEN'S FRIENDS AND THEIR PARENTS on a FIRST NAME BASIS?
3. If you can't be home with your teen, do you CALL and LEAVE NOTES while ESTABLISHING A ROUTINE to keep him/her busy?
4. Do you TALK OFTEN with your teen about drugs?
5. Do you encourage your teen TO GET INVOLVED in positive extra-curricular sports, clubs, and community organizations and LIMIT TIME HE/SHE SPENDS JUST HANGING OUT?
6. Do you ASK QUESTIONS when your teen makes plans to go out such as -- Who with? Where going? What doing? -- AND CALL OTHER PARENTS to check up?
7. Do YOU EVER USE ILLEGAL DRUGS or ABUSE LEGAL DRUGS (Including alcohol)?
8. Do you use strong family beliefs to UNITE YOUR FAMILY with healthy ways to enjoy life AND FIX PROBLEMS INSTEAD OF PROVIDING A MEANS OF ESCAPE?
9. Do you DO THINGS TOGETHER as a family, even as simple as EATING FAMILY MEALS TOGETHER?
10. Do you drop any baggage you carry and NOT ALLOW MISTAKES YOU MADE AS A TEENAGER TO INFLUENCE YOUR TEEN IN A NEGATIVE WAY?