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What's Up Magazine

What Are They Thinking?

Mar 31, 2011 11:20PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Ah, to be the parent of a teenager. For many of us, it means living in a perpetual state of exasperation: jaw forever clenched, nostrils flaring, voice constantly asserting, “No, you may not do that!” or pleading “Why did you do that?”

Teenagers have always done impulsive things—some relatively harmless, others veering into the danger zone. And as parents, we’ve coped by rolling our eyes, scolding, or simply asking ourselves “Why? Is it their raging hormones? Or something I did (or didn’t do) when my child was younger?”

For many years scientists studying the brain did not offer any answers. The size of the brain doesn’t change much after childhood, so scientists assumed the brain’s structure was already fully developed, too. But if a teenager already has a brain like an adult’s, then why do teens do some of the nutty, even dangerous things that they do?

It turns out that the brain does indeed change during the teen years—in fact, quite dramatically. These dynamic events may account for much of the behavior we associate with adolescence. Thanks in large part to tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which picture the brain in unprecedented detail, scientists have learned that different parts of the brain mature at different times. Among the last areas to mature, they’ve discovered, are the frontal lobes, often referred to as the brain’s CEO. This part of the brain plays a key role in judgment, planning, and decision making and also helps to put the brakes on impulsive and emotional behavior.

“So if you think, ‘Gosh, kids don’t seem to be able to think very far ahead,’ well, they don’t,” says Anna Rose Childress, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.  Their brains aren’t ready to.

To Annapolis therapist Kathy Miller, this finding makes a lot of sense. During her 30 years of clinical practice, she says, she’s heard the same stories over and over. A teenager doesn’t study for a test and then is surprised when she doesn’t get a good grade. Another teen invites a few friends over for a party while his parents are away, and then is unprepared when each friend invites a few more friends who invite more friends until the situation gets out of hand.

“Parents are constantly baffled by the lack of thought process that goes into kids’ decisions,” says Miller, who developed courses on adolescent psychology for Anne Arundel Community College. A teenager may look grown up, and even act grown up a lot of the time, but still make immature choices because his brain is not grown up. “In terms of brain function, they are closer to childhood than they are to adulthood during adolescence,” says Miller.

Childress, the research findings on the teen brain also help to explain another observation about the teen years—that they are risky ones. Childress sees this most noticeably in her field as an addiction researcher. Most addictions, she notes, have their roots in adolescence. In addition, many other sobering facts are associated with the teen years. Consider: Compared to any other age group, teen drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash. The rate of drowning for teenagers ages 15 to 19 is right up there after that of infants, toddlers, and the elderly. The list goes on.

Overall, teenagers have higher death rates than adults, says Linda Spear, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York in Binghamton. “Most result from risk-taking: drowning, accidents, fights, taking chances, doing stupid stuff and not having it work out well.” In fact, risk-taking characterizes adolescence across species. Whether you’re a rat, a nonhuman primate, or a person, being an adolescent means taking risks, even if those risks prove perilous. The desire seems to grow out of an urge to try new things. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, says Spear, who studies adolescence using a rat model. Driven toward novelty, an adolescent will leave the nest, go out on his own, seek a mate, and thus perpetuate the species. But the instinct might also contribute to some of those sobering statistics.

In the teenage brain, says Childress, two events help explain this inclination toward risk. First, the frontal lobes, which serve to put the brakes on impulsive behavior, are still maturing. At the same time, ancient brain systems that are involved in pleasure seeking are well advanced, perhaps even functioning more actively. Childress refers to these two systems as the brain’s “stop” and “go” mechanisms. The “go” system motivates us to act in return for a reward, while the “stop” system says, “Whoa! Think before you act.” In adolescence, sometimes “go” overwhelms “stop,” says Childress. “We have a brain very out of sync.”

Obviously, though, adolescence offers more than 7 years of unmitigated peril. Many of us can recall in our own youth moments of great joy and exuberance, when everything seemed possible, wonderful, and new.

In fact, the adolescent brain offers extraordinary opportunities for learning and creativity, say brain researchers. The reason has to do with tremendous changes that occur at the cellular level in the brain’s gray matter.

Just before puberty, these cells multiply profusely. So too do the synapses, or connections between brain cells, that enable these cells to communicate with one another. Then, during adolescence and into early adulthood, the brain culls the cells it no longer needs and strengthens the synaptic connections among the cells it retains. This process apparently makes the brain more efficient. This period of development excites scientists because it is then that the brain has a great degree of “plasticity.” Like a highly malleable lump of unformed plastic, it holds almost boundless options. The decisions a teenager makes and the activities she focuses on could sculpt the quality of her adult brain.

“All of these changes are really quite positive,” says Sara Johnson, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of pediatrics. “So what your teenager is interested in, exposed to—all help to change the brain.” Parents can help teenagers to gain the most from these years by encouraging them to learn new skills or sharpen old ones.

But since there is a degree of risk that comes with adolescence, possibly as a result of their changing brains, what can you do to protect your children during these turbulent years?

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is the simplest: Be there. Don’t check out of your parenting role just because your child turns 13. Learn what interests your teenage children, know who they hang out with, know where they are, advises Johnson. “It’s tempting to think that the time of greatest need in the role of parents is when kids are very small. Being a parent of an adolescent is much more difficult than what many people recognized when they had an infant. But the time when they need our guidance the most is during the teens.” Numerous experts in the fields of adolescent psychology and neuroscience underscore this piece of advice.

Granted, many teens are rebelling and trying to free themselves from any sort of parental control, so parents should give teens some degree of autonomy, says Meyer. “You don’t have to hover, but it’s important to recognize that a kid still needs supervision even though he may be 6 feet tall.”

During this balancing time between childhood and adulthood, Johnson believes, the adolescent brain may need to practice making significant decisions. “Parents can help by guiding teenagers through the process of making mistakes.” Of course, we don’t want our children to hurt themselves or others during this practice time, so parents have to guide the process. Johnson suggests that the graduated driver’s license can serve as one model of how this might work. Teens are given limited driving privileges when they first get their license, and gradually receive more privileges—being allowed to drive at night, for example—as they demonstrate safe driving skills. Likewise, says Johnson, parents can set clear and reasonable limits about what is and is not allowed, and then make adjustments to these privileges as a child demonstrates more maturity and responsibility.

It’s also important to realize that not all teenagers get into serious trouble; in fact, most don’t, say Johnson and other experts. Yes, some kids will break every rule, abuse drugs, end up in jail, or worse. But others are paragons of virtue. Likewise, some teenagers seem to lose every homework assignment and sock, but others have organizational skills that rival Martha Stewart’s. While the adolescent brain might incline toward risky behavior or poor planning, there is a large range of difference from one teenage brain to the next. Some of it may be puzzling or even infuriating, but most of it is normal, a reflection of a brain busily growing up.

When a 13-year-old girl bursts into tears because her friend didn’t talk to her that day, a mom or dad might see only an irrational melodrama. “But it’s real, and it’s important for parents to understand there is a biological reason for all this,” says Bonnie Nagel, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.

So try not to sweat the small stuff, suggests Johnson—the outrageous haircut, the messy room, the tattoo. Yes, keep a watchful eye for any signs of recklessness. But remember to pause to notice and enjoy the blossoming talents and exhilarating growth of this time. Read the cartoon Zits to appreciate the humor that exists even in those trying moments. 

Finally, take a deep breath. Relax that clenched jaw. And remember, they won’t be teenagers forever.

-- Sarah Hagerty