Why do teens make foolish decisions?


Q: I have a hard time understanding why my 16-year-old son makes such foolish decisions. I find myself often asking him "What were you thinking?" He recently skipped school, and I was furious. Lecturing doesn't seem to help. What can I do?

 A: It's a familiar scenario for many parents of teens. Understanding how your teen's brain is working differently from an adult's may help to give you a new perspective on the behaviors of teenagers. Over the past 10 years, research of adolescent brain development has made great advances and has changed our understanding of the teen brain.

Scientists used to believe that the brain fully matured by age 10 or 12, but that's no longer so. New research by neuroscientists using MRIs shows that brain development isn't complete until the mid-20s. In fact, the teen brain experiences a dynamic time of change - the first of its kind since infancy.

According to Dr. Jay Giedd with the National Institute of Mental Health, the area of the brain called the frontal cortex sees an overproduction of cells, or gray matter, and the synapses that connect the cells just before puberty. Then throughout adolescence, a period of pruning begins where connections that are used are strengthened, and those that are not used fade. Giedd says this is the "use it or lose it" principle.

In addition, there is another key developmental process still occurring in the adolescent brain. Dr. Francis Jensen, a neurologist, explains how teens' frontal lobes are less connected, leading to an inefficient communication between different areas of the brain. Teens have less of the fatty coating - myelin, or white matter - than adults. This myelin acts like insulation in an electric wire and helps the nerve signals travel from one part of the brain to another. These are just two examples of the many developmental processes that researchers are beginning to uncover in the teen brain.

So, how does the impact behavior? The frontal lobes are associated with decision-making, problem-solving, insight, judgment, self-control and emotional regulation.

In essence, the frontal lobe is where the executive functioning occurs in our brain.

Teens have immature frontal cortexes and therefore exhibit behavior that parents find most frustrating: acting impulsively, exercising poor judgment, having dramatic mood changes and engaging in high-risk behaviors.

As a parent, it is important to remember that this is another developmental process and supporting healthy development is crucial. Remember, because of the process of pruning, that teens will strengthen the pathways in their brains that they use. If they are involved in music, sports, reading, the arts, abstract thinking, etc., then these are the pathways in the brain that are strengthened. If they are immersed in video games, watching TV, using alcohol and drugs, then these connections in the brain will be reinforced.

As a parent, you play a role in supporting activities and interests that reinforce wanted pathways and limiting those unhealthy activities through monitoring and communicating with your teen. It is important to inform your teen of the increased risks of alcohol and drug use and their effect on the developing brain. It's important not to shelter your teen from having to make decisions, as he needs the opportunity to practice while there is still parental guidance. Then, when your teen does make one of those poor judgments (and he will), respond using your adult brain and approach the situation modeling emotional regulation. Keep your cool, and instead of lecturing, give your teen the opportunity for self-reflection, allowing him to write about his experience, what went wrong, what he would do differently, etc. This will help exercise wanted pathways better than any lecture. Then as a parent, you can decide how much he has learned from his mistakes and the appropriate consequences.

Leanne Yates, LPC, works for Moses Cone Behavioral Health Center. Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by e-mailing sherri.mcmillen@mosescone.com.

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