Arizona State University lecturer Denise Bodman began with a quiz.
Myth or fact? Adolescents are in mass rebellion against their parents and their parents’ values.
Myth or fact? Adolescence is the most difficult stage of development, fraught with upheaval and stress.
Myth or fact? Working at a job for 20 hours a week is good for adolescents.
If you answered "myth" for all of the above, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class. And while you’re at it, give your teenager a gold star, too.
When Bodman spoke to Scottsdale parents a few days ago about adolescent brain development, what impressed me most was her insistence that teenagers are typically excellent young humans. They tend to work hard and behave responsibly. They seek their parents’ advice and respect their parents’ values.
That’s not to say adolescents don’t make some poor choices that leave us shaking our heads and making unscheduled visits to the assistant principal’s office (yes, I speak from experience). Most of Bodman’s presentation focused on research that shows critical areas of adolescent brains are still developing and helps explain why they sometimes behave the way they do.
But under it all was a warning that if we pigeonhole our kids as erratic, irresponsible, impulsive, hormone-crazed accidents waiting to happen, they may very well rise to the challenge. If we expect the best from them, rejoice in their successes and provide guidance and encouragement through the rough spots, they’re likely to navigate the road to adulthood with only minor detours.
Teen brains are hot right now. The Tribune had a cover spread last week in the Living section, Time magazine had a cover story a few months ago, and over the past year or two, every other major news outlet has done something on teen brain research.
The media, including the Tribune, did the same thing with early childhood development a few years ago after research showed that most of the brain’s growth takes place in the first few years of life. What we overlooked, however, was that size isn’t everything.
Sure, the brain may be 95 percent of its adult size by age 6, but that doesn’t make the child a finished product. Adolescent brain research shows that the brain is still cooking into the 20s.
Parts of the brain that control things like organizational skills, planning and decisionmaking are still developing, so it’s unfair and unwise to expect teens to have adult-level skills in these areas. The limbic system, home to emotional responses, is still forming — at the same time that testosterone and estrogen levels are surging — so we can’t rely on teens to use the same emotional judgment and impulse control that we have, hopefully, mastered as adults.
Like the work done on infant brain development, adolescent brain researchers say this is a period of enormous potential. A remarkable opportunity for growth and change. Bodman suggests helping your teen get organized and make good decisions, encouraging them to try a variety of activities and find healthy sources of stimulation, laying down clear rules and expectations, making sure they get enough sleep and just being available to them.
It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to see there’s a lot going on inside the head of an adolescent. But maybe understanding why can help everyone make the most of it.