The Teenbage BrainThe brain does not fully mature until many young people are in their late twenties.

The centre in the brain for impulse control, decision-making, judgement, and planning is the last to develop. Not only is this centre the least mature in the teenage and young adult brain, it is the last to connect with other parts of the brain responsible for seeing, tasting smelling, hunger, aggression, emotions, sexuality, and language among other things.

In her book,  “The Teenage Brain – A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults” Author Frances E. Jensen explains this is why most young people do not  make sound judgements and good decisions.

Jensen also provides information about other aspects of the teenage brain that can be useful to parents. Based on hers and others research, we learn that:

  1. The more stimulation and experience, the more the brain grows. Physical changes to the brain continue well past the mid-twenties. Although adult brains also can also change, it does not happen as easily as during childhood and adolescence.
  2. IQ can change during teen years. Research shows that between 13 and 17 years, one-third of people stay the same, one-third decrease their IQ and one-third improve their IQ.
  3. Smoking affects IQ. One study revealed that there is a decrease of two to five IQ points for children with high levels of cotinine (a breakdown product of nicotine).
  4. Social isolation for girls and a lack of extra-curricular activities for boys increases risk taking behavior.
  5. The average adolescent needs nine and one-quarter hours of sleep because so much development is occurring in their brains.
  6. Teen brains get more of a sense of reward than adult brains because the release of and response to dopamine is enhanced in the teen brain. Dopamine helps motivate, drive and focus the individual. It is the “I want it!” neurochemical.  This not only reinforces activity leading to what the young person wants but it can even lead to addiction.
  7. Brain damage can occur even without a concussion. It can occur from repetitive strikes to head of moderate intensity.
  8. Girls sustain concussions nearly 70 per cent more often than boys, even though boys participate in contact sports at a slightly higher rate. It takes girls longer to recover from their symptoms of concussion and return to action. After a concussion adolescent girls score significantly worse on visual memory task than boys and show greater reductions on reaction times on mental tests.
  9. Adults are better at learning from their mistakes because their developed brain helps detect mistakes.

As a result of the science on teenage brains, Jensen has some specific advice for parents:

  • Stuff kids’ minds with real stories and real consequences so they don’t do certain things. If you hear about a child who died as a result drinking while driving or from a failure to wear a bicycle helmet, tell them about it over and over again.
  • Remember that teenagers are not very good at multitasking. Limit instructions to one or two points, not more.
  • Engage in conversation about smoking, drug use, sex and other topics to increase communication between you and your teenagers and to also appeal to their sense of adult responsibility. Talk about costs, media manipulation, and appeal to their vanity.  For instance, tell them that smoking stains teeth, makes them smell bad and will leave them winded when trying to do sports.
  • Because teenage brains are not capable of self-discipline, set limits with everything, including use of internet.
  • Keep tabs on what your kids are doing. Check as they do time on the computer and homework.
  • Don’t ridicule, be judgmental, disapprove or be dismissive. Use data to convince your child about risky situations.

Jensen is clear that the fact that teen and young adult brains are not fully developed is no excuse for them not to be responsible.  But it does help explain why sometimes they sometimes act in an irresponsible way. And since the brain is partly defined by experience, I would assume that the more responsiblity you give them, the more responsible they will become.

Jensen’s book is very dense.  It takes a lot of time for non-scientists to understand the detailed material she supplies about the functioning of the brain.  None the less, it provides fascinating material and great insight into why teens and young adults behave as they do.

For more information, you can listen to the CBC interview of Frances Jensen or read the longer summary of her book in the Globe and Mail. 

What is your experience with the teenage brain? I would love to hear from you, so please don’t hesitate to leave your comments in the Reply Box below. 

Book Reviews, Theories and Research

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