The Wacky Teenage Brain

I am not a neurologist who specializes in adolescent brain development.

I’m not a neurologist. Period. But I’ve read a lot about the wacky teenage brain for the 2nd edition of my book, Dead Serious, a book about teen suicide and what to do about it. (Plug:  You can pre-order the book for an enticing discount beginning November 23, 2017.) Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.

If you’re a teen, I don’t have to tell you how wacky your thinking and actions can get. (At least, that’s what we adults think.) If you’re a parent—well, having a teen in the house may make you wonder how you’ll survive and get along with this “new” person who has invaded your home. You suddenly have no idea who this child of yours has become. The good news: this transformation generally lasts only a year or two. So, hold on!

Without getting too technical, the experts tell us that adolescence is the “most tumultuous time” for the brain since birth. The area right behind the forehead, called the frontal cortex, thickens and continues developing. This is the thinking, planning, strategizing part of the brain, and it is still not “on board”. So, teens often don’t make the most responsible decisions. Duh!

As Frances Jensen, a pediatric neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital commented,

“It’s the part of the brain that says: ‘Is this a good idea? What is the consequence

of this action?’ It’s not that they [teens] don’t have a frontal lobe. And they can use it.

But they’re going to access it more slowly.”

The nerve cells that connect teen’s frontal lobes with the rest of their brains move as slowly as whey they get out of bed in the morning.

The frontal lobe affects mood and risk taking.  This may explain why teens teens take risks like experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol, driving like Indy 500 drivers — the list goes on.  (BTW, my then sixteen-year-old son did the race car driver thing, totaled his dad’s car, and broke his back. I’ve lived this nightmare.) The sluggish frontal lobes make it more challenging for teens to correctly read feelings. One study showed that three-quarters of teens were unable to read fear in others’ faces. If hey can’t see fear, for example, in their peers, they are perhaps more likely to be involved in risky behavior. Teen brains don’t take in and organize information the same way adult brains do. Still, adolescence is a time when the connections teens make with people in their lives can make a huge difference as they move toward young adulthood. Contrary to what teens say, they are “yearning” for more time with their parents. But it’s hard for teens to own up to their needs when their “job” is to become independent. Message to parents: your kid still needs you. They will eventually come around. And message to teens: it does get better. All those crazy things you do are part and parcel of a brain that is still forming. You might think of it as a growth spurt; eventually, you grow into your brain the same way you grow into your body.

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