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Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

The Teenage Brain

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Ever wonder why some teens do not seem very competent at long-term planning, empathy, or in-depth conversation? Ever feel like you are asking for some introspection and quizzing your child about how they feel and getting a blank stare? If so, it will not help to nag or worse, scream, just blame it on their neocortex -- the part of the human brain responsible for language, planning, empathy, and executive functions. The neocortex has not fully developed, so teens rely more on the amygdala, the gut-instinct part of the brain that manages emotions and memories associated with emotion - duh!

This particular developmental fact suggests that teens are not great at reading emotions on a face, either. A long frustrating day can show on your face without them getting the first clue that this would not be the night to ask for something special and forget to pick up their shoes. Their brains are undergoing a major neurological tune-up, and "I don't know" may be very honest and the best answer you will get to many questions including, "how could you forget," "where is it," "why isn't it done," or my favorite, "why did you do that?"

If you want to read more, there is a book called "Engaging Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reading Middle and High School Students" by Raleigh Philip, at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Philip suggests that parents and teachers be both patient and persistent. The point at which tweens or teens withdraw and ask to be left alone is precisely when it is the most important to engage them.

Philip suggests that we all recognize that most kids cannot be consistent. One day they love you, one day you are the enemy - that is reality. The assurance that you are doing OK as a parent will not come from your teen. This inconsistency can be found in their school work, too, and teachers and parents cannot assume that the instructions and expectations we feel are clear actually made it into the kid's brain without a major shift in interpretation.

Here are some classic examples:
Teen 1: Mom, I did the wrong page of homework in Math.
Mom 1: Well, put your name on it and the page number, and turn it in, too.
several minutes later
Mom 1: Why aren't you doing your Math homework?
Teen 1: I did enough Math.
Mom 1: You did the wrong page, now you have to do the right page.
Teen 1: That is ridiculous - I already did Math.

Another example:
Mom 2: This progress report says you have a quiz not completed - what's up?
Teen 2: I missed it the day I was sick.
Mom 2: Don't they do make-up tests on Friday after school?
Teen 2: Yeah, but I forgot to go last week, so she gave me the test to complete at home.
Mom 2: And yet, this says it is not done.
Teen 2: I could not do it because I lost my book.
Mom 2: Have you checked lost and found?
Teen 2: No.
Mom 2: (Now in a controlled squeak) What is the plan for getting it done?
Teen 2: I don't know.

The advice I have is "be patient," do not take this personally, do not assume the behaviors reflect a lack of caring, and take these situations on as an opportunity to provide a little character education. Explain why the teacher is probably annoyed beyond belief and feels disrespected by having to put so much energy into helping the teen make up the quiz.

Remember that the brain of a 12 - 14 year old is going through the same level of change it did at two or three - there are bunches of neurons that are being pruned away (the unused ones) or strung together into their neural network as a result of experience. This is when your teen really needs you!

Unfortunately it is at the time when it might be much easier to let them go sit in front of TV all day and ignore them, which will be the worst possible thing for the development of their brains We need to not give up. We need to encourage them to participate in things at school and then attend everything, find leisure activities to do with them, talk with them about character, spirituality, and politics. Engage them in music, drag them to the arts, travel with them, get those neurons firing!

Photo credit: Michael Waterston

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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