May, 22 2018
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Teen angst? Blame their brains.
A memo to parents of teenagers: Don't blame your angst-ridden Rebels Without a Cause if they're spending the summer sleeping in and testing boundaries. Blame their brains.
Scientists used to believe that teenage brains were like adult brains. Now we know differently. New research shows that teens' prefrontal cortex -- the area that controls judgment, organization, emotions -- is largely immature. So when he or she forgets the list of chores you just told him or explodes when you ask her to turn down the music, there's actually a scientific explanation.
"Kids are the worst between 15 and 17 -- I call those the 'hell years,'" says Becki Eikevik, a mother of seven who, with husband Ike, has raised five teens and is about to embark on another wild ride with her two youngest, twins Keith and Todd, 12.
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who has led groundbreaking research on the teen brain, says parents shouldn't assume that because they've "laid out an argument or presented an idea that teenagers are interpreting it the same way you do. The frontal cortex is continuing to develop, and if you don't have the neural structure in place, the adolescent cannot really think things through at the same level as an adult."
The good news: Teenagers' brains are still pliable. What happens during these critical years can shape teenagers into adults -- and possibly turn around a life headed in the wrong direction.
Many parents have embraced the zero-to-three movement, the recognition that the first three years of a child's life are critical in brain development. They've bought classical music, flashcards and mobiles for babies.
It's easy to fawn over a sweet-smelling infant, but a teenager with attitude can be another story. Yet neuroscientists say the greatest spurts of brain growth after infancy occur just around adolescence.
"I would not want to take attention away from those early years because they're critical, but we need to have recognition that adolescence is an equally important time of life," Yurgelun-Todd says. "We need more focus on teaching our kids skills for decision-making, planning and organizing. Where this could really make a difference is in the juvenile justice system. There are kids who can be reversed and get back out there and function well."
How the brain grows
The brain of a baby grows by overproducing brain cells, or neurons, and connections between brain cells called synapses. The infant brain starts to prune synapses around age 3. The process is compared to pruning a tree: By cutting back weak branches, others flourish.
Scientists have long known about the early years of synapse overproduction but were surprised to find evidence of a second spurt of synapse formation in the frontal cortex just before puberty, followed by a pruning in the teen years.
The prefrontal cortex, where all this activity is occurring, is just behind the forehead. It acts as the CEO of the brain, exerting control over planning, working memory, organization and regulating mood. As the area matures, teens can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make judgments better.
Teens who exercise their brains by learning to organize their thoughts, weigh their impulses and understand abstract concepts are laying their neural foundations. In other words, do you want your teen studying and exploring art, music and sports or lying on a couch watching TV?
"The brain is like a muscle -- the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets," says Alan Delamater, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development. "They may have an adultlike body, but inside, these teenagers are kids."
Why we disagree
When adults and teens don't agree, it may be due to biology more than rebellion. In one study led by Yurgelun-Todd, a small group of adults and teens were shown standardized pictures of fearful faces. All of the adults correctly identified fear in the facial expressions, but many of the teens guessed wrong at least once, picking emotions such as anger, shock or discomfort. Brain scans showed the teens relied more on the primitive emotional center of the brain and less on the region tied to judgment than adults did.
"When I started this work, my kids were 7 and 5. It was a nonissue," says Yurgelun-Todd, whose children are now 17 and 15. "Everybody would come up to me and say, 'My teenager is driving me crazy' and I didn't know what they were talking about."
That's changed -- and so has Yurgelun-Todd's parenting. She and her husband, a psychiatrist, are "more on the conservative side" when it comes to curfews and keeping tabs on their kids.
"We try to keep them engaged in sports and activities, so they're not just hanging out," she says. "They would complain that we're overly controlling, but I do think that part of the problem is that our culture has become too permissive.
"There's this assumption that teenagers can decide for themselves. Parents will say, 'Well, they need to learn to choose well.' I agree, but how do they do that if they don't have the tools yet?"
Adding to the emotional liability: a burst of hormones coursing through kids as they enter puberty. The hormones affect not only a teenager's sex drive, but also lead to temporary aggressiveness and moodiness, researchers think.
"Teenagers are awash in hormones, and that affects their brains and behavior and ability to concentrate," says Andrew Brickman, a clinical researcher who heads a Miami-Dade County health initiative called HealthConnect. Spearheaded by The Children's Trust, part of the project aims to address kids' mental and physical health by placing teams of nurses, health aides and social workers in public schools.
"There's probably no way to avoid conflict," Brickman says. "It's the adolescent's job to keep pushing the boundaries. It's the parent's job to make sure those boundaries don't put a child in a place that is dangerous."
Teens love to push the boundaries. Driving without a seat belt, sneaking out at night, drinking alcohol until they get sick or pass out.
Some researchers think teens' risky choices tap into neurons that can produce feelings of intense pleasure. They are particularly vulnerable to drugs and alcohol because the balance of chemicals in their still-developing brains can be altered.
Just because there's a neurobiological explanation for irrational teen behavior doesn't mean teens shouldn't be held accountable.
Although research is still needed, most scientists believe human brains aren't fully formed until the early 20s.
"I don't think anybody would say, 'Hey, you're done at 17,'" Yurgelun-Todd says. "The question is, 'Are you done enough?' Should we be sending people this young to war? Giving them licenses? Allowing them to be lifeguards? We give a fair amount of responsibility to people in their late teens. ... is that OK?"
Most teen pressures -- to be liked, to get good grades, to make important decisions about school and careers -- are unavoidable, and worrying about them is natural.
But in adolescence, mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders, and schizophrenia can become apparent. Eating disorders are serious problems among teenage girls.
Here are some warning signs that your teen may be having a serious problem, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Family Physicians:
Anger most of the time; cries a lot or overreacts to things
Agitated or restless
Weight loss or gain
A drop in grades
Not caring about people and things
Fatigue and lack of interest in activities
Low self-esteem; feeling worthless or guilty a lot
Trouble falling asleep
Run-ins with the law
Constantly concerned about physical problems or appearance
Frightened that his or her mind is controlled or out of control
Feels life is too hard to handle
Needs to wash, clean things or perform certain routines dozens of times a day
What to do
Parenting experts offer these suggestions:
Stay calm and consistent about your values. Don't just say no; explain why your decision is in the teen's best long-range interest.
Listen without judgment sometimes. Show interest in your teen's feelings and opinions, even when you disagree. Resist the urge to know everything your teen is thinking or planning.
Show intimacy. Teens are kids inside; they still need hugs.
Praise genuinely; be specific.
Give them responsibilities with every privilege.
Teach them to make decisions and accept the consequences.
Be accessible. Teens often blurt out things or want to talk at inconvenient times.
Teach them to think critically about what they see or hear, as well as prioritizing information.
Cling to family rituals, such as traditions or nicknames. They can give teens strength during difficult times.
Keep your sense of humor. Sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh.
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