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Teen Brain Baffles Parents

Being a teenager is tough, and so is parenting one, especially in today’s fast-paced, high-tech world where, for the first time, kids are the ones teaching us about social media and how to navigate our way into the future. Honestly, without their help, I’d never figure out how to operate the television remote control or know how to add new contacts into my cell phone. Teenagers consider themselves masters at multi-tasking. They do homework while they watch television, text their friends, play on the computer, and listen to music, all at the same time.

“It helps me relax and focus on my studies,” says my son Jack, 15, who used to collect baseball cards and now accumulates apps on his iPhone.


Let’s face it. It’s challenging enough for moms to endure pre-menopause without having to deal with raging hormones and mood swings of their growing children. I feel sorry for husbands. I really do. I just hope mine doesn’t add a mid life crisis to the mix anytime soon. As long as we have enough chocolate (and Stridex) in our house to boost everyone’s dopamine (the feel good hormone) my family will get through this challenging stage called adolescence.

The transformation from child to adult is complicated, to say the least. To begin with, puberty starts younger than ever, between ages 8 and 12 for girls and in boys between ages 9 and 14. I’m convinced the growing up process lasts until they marry and reap the same grief from their own children. Some call it karma; the Rabbis call it tzar gidul banim, the Hebrew phrase that refers to the inevitable pain of raising children. Seriously, if we as parents truly appreciate all the physical and neurological havoc that happens inside our children as they prepare for their bnei mitzvahs, we would be in awe of them, really.

As neuroscientists discover that a crucial part of the brain undergoes extensive growth and change during puberty, adolescence can make the terrible twos seem like, well, child’s play, or a piece of cake. For example, the same characteristics of a toddler—stubborn, impulsive, self-centered, emotional, rebellious—resurface in later years as a teenager. Only this time when a teenager throws a temper tantrum, a timeout is no longer a valid discipline. Not only that, the consequences of their defiant actions are more serious, especially if they put their lives and the lives of others at risk by being sexually active or using drugs and alcohol. Of course not all teenagers engage in this high risk behavior, but their unpredictable personalities are bizarre nonetheless.

For example, they no longer hang onto our legs like little monkeys; instead they hang out with their friends at the mall. They no longer run into our beds because they had a bad dream; instead they lock themselves in their own bedrooms, and we can’t tell if they’re dead or alive. They no longer read Eric Carle board books; instead they read trash on the Internet. They no longer call us on the phone; instead they text us, if we’re lucky. They no longer play Hi Ho! Cherry-O with their siblings; instead they play video games with virtual strangers. They no longer socialize with their pals in the backyard; instead they socialize with their friends on Facebook. They no longer wake up at the crack of dawn; instead they want to sleep all day. They no longer give lots of kisses and hugs; instead the only one who gets their affection is the family dog.

For generations, adults have pondered the mystery of the American teenager. Hormones? Rap music? Boredom? Drugs? Violent video games? Overbearing Jewish mothers? Pictures of bare-chested models on Abercrombie bags?

In order to better understand why teenagers act the way they do—and this includes the annoying habit of mixing black with blue clothes—parents need to literally get inside their teenager’s head. Good luck with that when their ear buds blast Lady Gaga and block any contact with the outside world.

With the aid of new technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers are finding evidence that the brain is actually under construction for decades. The vast majority of brain development takes place in two basic stages. The first stage is called “blossoming,” which occurs in utero and throughout the first several months of life. At that time the human brain grows at a lightning-quick pace and produces millions of brain cells. The second wave occurs roughly between ages 10 and 13 and is quickly followed by a “pruning” process in which the brain breaks down its weakest and least used connections. A favorite phrase of neuroscientists is “neurons that fire together wire together,” explains David Walsh, Ph.D., a nationally renowned psychologist and author of the highly acclaimed book, “Why Do They Act That Way?”

In Walsh’s practical parent survival guide, in which I’ve highlighted almost every paragraph in orange, Walsh explains, “The more they (neurons) fire together—pass on an electrical charge from one cell to another—the stronger the connections between the neurons become. By firing repeatedly, the neurons that do the work of thinking make the connection strong enough to hold, such as when we learn a foreign language. If we don’t use certain neurons, they don’t get wired into the networks and, as a result, they are expendable.”

For example, if teens are involved in music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If all they do is lie on the couch and watch television or play video games, those are the cells and connections that will survive. The brain cells used most during puberty and adolescence are the ones that will become hard wired and most used in adulthood, so unless their future career is inventing the latest video game for Nintendo, they’re wasting their time. This “use it or lose it” principle rationalizes why parents should introduce their children at an early age to the concept of helping others so that community service becomes a way life, which is the Jewish tradition of tikun olam.

As adolescents physically grow into their adult bodies, their nervous systems are still very immature. So what exactly is going on inside a teen’s kepala? To start with, fireworks explode in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the part of the brain located just behind the forehead and is key to understanding adolescents. The PFC, by the way, is the last brain area to develop.

“The PFC, or executive center of the brain, regulates how the brain and other parts of the body function. Think of it as the conductor of the symphony or the CEO of a company,” says Dan Weinstein, Psy.D., a St. Louis licensed psychologist who specializes in children, adolescents, and young adults struggling with difficult emotional, behavioral, and relationship issues. “This area is responsible for understanding cause and effect relationships, drawing from past experience to guide future behavior, planning, sequencing, making decisions, sustaining attention, controlling impulses, regulating mood, and other vital brain functions,” adds Weinstein, also known as “Dr. Dan” in our neck of the woods and a valuable local resource for families.

No wonder why smart kids do stupid things. Here’s a perfect example: Last summer my son was staying at a hotel with his high school baseball team for an out-of-town tournament, which can get rowdy at times. A few guys decide to pull a seemingly harmless prank on the coaches. The 16-year-old ringleader (not my son) devours a couple of fiber bars and then proceeds to poop in a paper bag. It gets worse. He microwaves his own excrement, breaks into the coach’s hotel room, and leaves behind the foul smelling evidence before he narrowly escapes down the hallway. Needless to say, the culprit is caught and suspended for the rest of the season. Apparently, this dude hasn’t adjusted to his onslaught of new cells. Either that or he really is stupid.

Another area of the brain that experiences rapid change is the amygdala, which is associated with emotional and gut responses. New imaging studies suggest that teens interpret emotional information with this reactive part of the brain whereas adults rely more heavily on the more thinking regions, the frontal cortex. Scientists speculate that this may explain why teens have trouble modulating their emotional responses. In other words, when my daughter Sari, almost 12, has a hysterical fit because she can’t find her Uggs and accuses everyone else of hiding them, I blame it on her amygdala.

Other brainstorms throughout adolescence occur in the corpus callosum, which is a cable of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain and is believed to be involved in creativity and problem solving, and the cerebellum, which involves the coordination of thinking processes, as well as muscles and physical movement.

Still another puzzling aspect of adolescent behavior—sleep—really hits a nerve for many parents. “During puberty the way the brain regulates sleep changes and the amount of required sleep starts to change,” says Weinstein. “Also the sleep/wake cycle makes a shift. Melatonin—the hormone that helps regulate sleep—changes in terms of when it activates and causes fatigue. Teenagers in general do not become tired until later in the evening and are less alert early in the morning. They also tend to stay up later in response to body cues, plus using social networking, chat rooms, and video games late at night in their bedrooms doesn’t help either. Consequently, they do not receive the nine to nine and- a-half hours of sleep recommended, and yet they are expected to wake up early for school.”

In addition, Weinstein says that sleep deprivation can impair memory and compromise the immune system. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. No wonder adolescents fall asleep at their desks during first hour classes. I know my son doesn’t wake up until after lunchtime, which is why middle school and high school should start later in the morning. Research shows that after we go to sleep the brain consolidates and practices what we learn during the day, which means for teens that sleep after a lesson is as important as a good night’s rest before a test or exam.

So what does all this mean to parents and, most importantly, how can we motivate our teens to throw their wet towels in the laundry basket as effortlessly as they dunk a basketball into a hoop?

Thousands of years before the positron emission tomography (PET) and other powerful machines were invented to study the brain, the wise Jewish scholars foresaw the best way to deal with teenagers. In the Talmud, for instance, the centuries-old advice on modern family dynamics is written, “Be it your way to thrust him off with the left hand and draw him to you with the right hand.” In other words, practice tough love, baby.

Despite all the new scientific advances, researchers suggest that the most beneficial thing for teenagers is family support and a loving relationship with their parents. Even though our teens seem to push us away, they want us to be there for them. The developmental task of a teen is to begin to separate from their parents and connect with us in a more adult way. It’s our job as parents to provide structure, guidance, and help keep them on the right track as their brain undergoes major construction. Weinstein suggests good communication is essential, and so is striking a balance between boundaries and freedom.

“Parents need to set firm and consistent limits and consequences, provide clear expectations, and follow through with those limits and consequences,” says Weinstein. “Logical consequences are best, and they also need to be realistic and enforceable, not just empty threats. For example, a teen can write a letter of apology after causing a serious insult or an injury to someone, lose text privileges for a period of time if homework is not complete, or lose the privilege of the car if an agreed upon curfew is broken.”

As parents we need to hang in there, keep our cool, and practice what we preach, says Weinstein. “Even though the changes in the teenage brain can be a strong contributor to behavioral and emotional disruption, parents are responsible to help their teenager gain better self-control,” says Weinstein. “How teenagers manage their own impulses, emotions, and behaviors later in life is strongly shaped by experience that occurs in adolescence.”

Finally, I’ll know my job is done when my teens grow up to become independent, loving, well-educated adults. Then again, I’ll always be their mom.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com. “Dr. Dan” can be found at www.doctordanw.com