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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Teens: Helping Install Brakes

  The Teen Brain - A Stimulating Project Under Development

"It seems almost arbitrary that our society has decided 
that a young American is ready to drive a car at 16, 
to vote and serve in the Army at 18 
and to drink alcohol at 21. Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging 
in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health,
says the best estimate for when the brain is truly mature is 25, 
the age at which you can rent a car. 
'Avis must have some pretty sophisticated neuroscientists,' he jokes." 

(Claudia Wallis, "What Makes Teens Tick," Time Magazine, September 26 2008)

Scientific evidence has shown that the adolescent brain is not equivalent to that of an adult in many important ways. In fact, some legal scholars and child advocates argue that minors should never be tried as adults and should be spared the death penalty. In an official statement that summarized current research on the adolescent brain, the American Bar Association urged all state legislatures to ban the death penalty for juveniles.

"For social and biological reasons," it read, 
"teens have increased difficulty making mature decisions 
and understanding the consequences of their actions."

This comes as no surprise to parents of teens."There's a debate over how much conscious control kids have," says Giedd, who has four "teenagers in training" of his own. "You can tell them to shape up or ship out, but making mistakes is part of how the brain optimally grows."

The reality -- 
teens live at risk, 
do not have the ability to live independently, 
and are bound to make mistakes. 

The challenge -- 
adults must reduce risks that threaten teens, 
help teens to live with increasing independence, 
and reduce the number of mistakes they make.  

Society (You and I) Must Help Teen Brain-Lapses 

It might be more useful to help them make up for what their brain still lacks by 

1. Providing structure, 
2. Organizing their time, 
3. Guiding them through tough decisions (even when they resist), and 
4. Applying those time-tested parental virtues: patience and love.

The Limbic System = the Brain's "Tinderbox of Emotions" (Racy Engines Need Better Brakes)

The limbic system is the brain's emotional center. This is where the sex hormones are especially active. Adolescents experience flash points of intense feelings, and they tend to seek our situations in which they can allow their emotions and passions to run wild.

"Adolescents are actively looking for experiences to create intense feelings," says Dr. Ronald Dahl, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's a very important hint that there is some particular hormone-brain relationship contributing to the appetite for thrills, strong sensations and excitement."

This thrill seeking may have evolved to promote exploration, an eagerness to leave the nest and seek one's own path and partner. But in a world where fast cars, illicit drugs, gangs and dangerous liaisons beckon, it also puts the teenager at risk.

In adolescents, the brain regions that put the brakes on risky, impulsive behavior are still under construction. "The parts of the brain responsible for things like sensation seeking are getting turned on in big ways around the time of puberty," says Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg. "But the parts for exercising judgment are still maturing throughout the course of adolescence."

"So you've got this time gap between when things impel kids 
toward taking risks early in adolescence, 
and when things that allow people to think before they act come online."
It's like turning on the engine of a car without a skilled driver at the wheel," explains Steinberg.

Some Group Activities Can Encourage Teens To Take Dangerous Risks

Steinberg has been studying another kind of judgment: risk assessment. He has discovered, in an experiment using a driving-simulation game, that teens and adults make safe choices when playing alone.
But, Steinberg found, in group play, 
teenagers start to take more risks in the presence of their friends, 
while those over age 20 don't show much change in their behavior. 

"With this manipulation," says Steinberg, "we've shown that age differences in decision making and judgment may appear under conditions that are emotionally arousing or have high social impact." Most teen crimes, he says, are committed by kids in packs. (Claudia Wallis, "What Makes Teens Tick," Time Magazine, September 26 2008)

Blame Drug Experimentation On Changes In Dopamine? 

Other researchers are exploring how the adolescent propensity for uninhibited risk taking propels teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Traditionally, psychologists have attributed this experimentation to

1. Peer pressure,
2. Teenagers' attraction to novelty, and
3. Their roaring interest in loosening sexual inhibitions.

But researchers have raised the possibility that rapid changes in dopamine-rich areas of the brain may be an additional factor in making teens vulnerable to the stimulating and addictive effects of drugs and alcohol. Dopamine, the brain chemical involved in motivation and in reinforcing behavior, is particularly abundant and active in the teen years.

Why is it so hard to get a teenager off the couch and working on that all important college essay? You might blame it on their immature nucleus accumbens, a region in the frontal cortex that directs motivation to seek rewards. James Bjork at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that teenagers have less activity in this region than adults do.

According to Bjork,
"If adolescents have a motivational deficit, 
it may mean that they are prone to engaging in behaviors 
that have either a really high excitement factor 
or a really low effort factor, or a combination of both." 

Sound familiar? Bjork believes his work may hold valuable lessons for parents and society. "When presenting suggestions, anything parents can do to emphasize more immediate payoffs will be more effective," he says. To persuade a teen to quit drinking, for example, he suggests stressing something immediate and tangible — the danger of getting kicked off the football team, say — rather than a future on skid row. (Claudia Wallis, "What Makes Teens Tick," Time Magazine, September 26 2008)

 Let's Apply This To Scioto County

1. Are parents and guardians assuming teens (especially older 16-19 year olds) are mature enough to handle and undertake MOST adult responsibilities because they are allowed SOME adult privileges?

Yes - adults assume a teenager can make critical decisions that require complex reasoning. The child receives little help and guidance about matters such as substance abuse, sexual conduct and consequences, childcare, finding and building positive relationships, and the real short-term and life-long impact of early behaviors.
Parents and guardians are guilty of diminishing a child's innocence while, instead, rushing him/her toward maturity. We should be structuring a transition that eases a child into independence

2. Do parents and guardians realize their teens will engage in risky behaviors and attempt to cut the risks by (a) providing structure, (b) organizing time,  (c) taking the role of parental guidance counselor, and (d) exhibiting patience and love?

No - If anything, parents are busy in the workforce and rely upon their teens to take adult roles of ever-increasing responsibilities that the children are not prepared to handle. The adults think of this as positive teenage progression, but increased age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity (due mainly to some very important biological factors). Teens tend to be under tremendous pressure at school, at home, and in the community, so they are already under stress to grow up quickly without regard for their relative lack of knowledge and experience.

Teens require both adult help and supervision just as much as younger children. Too often, parents and guardians think they are contributing to their teen's independence by letting the teen organize and structure his/her own time 24/7. The result is often disastrous.

3. Do parents and guardians understand that teens desire thrill-seeking behaviors and teens are especially prone to engage in risk while associating with groups?

No - Adults warn teens to avoid all danger and run with the "good" group. Parental warnings may draw a child's boundaries but warnings do not insure compliance. Also, most parents do not take the responsibility of discovering the personality of the individuals in their teen's peer groups. They rely on second-hand information about their teen's friends and make assumptions based on incomplete information.

Chances are the excitement experienced by teens during thrill-seeking adventures will fuel their desire to experiment even more, and they will continue to test their limits. Adults must give priority to safety and even offer alternative activities that provide acceptable thrills. More attention must be given to immediate risks, and this can be accomplished partly through adequate structure.

4. In the face of dangerous teen actions that tend to be fueled by young, lightning emotions, do parents employ advice that illustrates immediate and tangible effects risked by the teen instead of those more akin to the far-off future?  

No - Parents and guardians use this line: "This behavior could ruin (affect you) for the rest of your life." What does that statement really imply to a sixteen year old? The bullet-proof attitude possessed by most teens overrides threats about their future. 

What does matter to a teen is "today" -- the moment. Concrete examples and immediate concerns strike home to teens because they structure their priorities different from adults. Adults must engage in the real world of adolescents and educate themselves to ever-changing risks that threaten their teen. They must be willing to help a teen sort out his/her immediate decisions, all the complications of situations, and the possible effects of both good and  poor judgments.

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