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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Teen Brain

“Oh, I forgot.” How many parents and teachers have heard that response from a teen after the frazzled question of “Why didn’t you make your bed?” or “Where is your assignment?” or Why didn’t you do XYZ like I asked!!? The answer is most likely, all of us. What is it with teens? Can we do something about it? They answers are complex, and yes we can do something about it, but we need to be patient.There is a reason.

courtesy of UCLA
If you look at the picture of the brain to the left, you will notice that the human brain matures from front to back. The back is where the more basic functions occur. The color purple indicates a time lapse of neural maturation from five to twenty years of age.  The last major area of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex (the right side of the image). This area controls higher-order functions (emotions, self-control). The adolescent brain is undergoing major changes, usually between the ages of ten and fifteen. 

According to neuroscientist Richard Restak he states “it is helpful to keep in mind that the adolescent’s failures in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort result not from willfulness or laziness or God forbid, “stupidity,” but from poor integration of the frontal lobes.” 

 My advice on how to help counter this is my advice on how to improve anything you do, do it often. What the brain does best is what the brain does often. Dr. Restak's statement is not an overarching excuse for all teen behavior. We know when in fact our children are being stubborn or lazy. But there are times where the directives given by parents bounce off the child's auditory processors like a racquet ball off a wall. It never sticks. I've gently held my son's face in front of me while calmly telling him to take out the trash before we leave the house. I waited for his eye contact and verbal response of "OK Dad, I will take out the trash". As I place my arm over the car's headrest while backing out of the garage, I asked my son if he did what I requested. His clumsy and surprised look foretells his answer. "Are you kidding me?!" "Patience, patience, patience" I repeat this mantra while waiting for his hurried actions to get the task done. Sound familiar?

It gets better. It takes time, but yes, the brain matures and teens are able to better manage these tasks. Each year, as more connections are made and the rewiring of the adolescent brain starts to come to completion, you will notice a change.

One of the most important facts that runs through any literature on cognition and improving cognitive functioning is that the brain requires repeated (practice) input. If you wish for your child to improve his organization and focusing skills, then teach him. We as adults assume that youngsters innately know how to organize and plan. This is not the case. They need instruction, guidance and reinforcement. This will develop and strengthen pathways to help themselves.  Equally as important is to limit your child's extended idleness, specifically, long periods of time doing nothing but playing video games, watching TV or texting. This too will create and strengthen the areas of the brain that oversee these tasks. I'm not telling you to eliminate the activities from their lives, but as I stated before, the brain does best what the brain does often.

A final thought. It is important for teens, and anyone else for that matter, to realize that learning and practicing are not "easy". It requires concentration, frustration, repetition and motivation. Children need to understand that working hard at something does not mean they are stupid, weak or have a lack of talent, working hard is the norm and also the quickest method of improving.

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