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Developing Teen Brain Can Lead to Poor Choices

How often have we read in the newspaper about some escapade involving a group of youth and had the thought “What were they thinking?”  The question has been asked myriad times throughout history.  Even Shakespeare noted the idiosyncrasies of youth, “I would that there was no age between sixteen and three-and- twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting” (The Winter’s Tale).  The fact is that the teenage brains are different than adult brains.  Parents have long known this from close encounters with adolescent behaviour but now science has offered proof.

New research has produced quite a bit of new information about the adolescent brain that may help to put their behaviours in perspective.  The teenage brain is still developing and will do so for well into their 20’s. During this maturing period, the frontal lobe that controls executive functions like critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, impulse control, and emotional regulation is not fully developed. This accounts for some very poor choices on the part of our youth.  At the same time adolescents are processing emotions differently than adults.  Tests show that youth more often identify facial expressions based on their gut feelings rather than a developed awareness of  emotional responses in themselves or others. This can lead to misunderstanding and we all know what happens to communication when we are not on the same page.

As if a developing brain wasn’t enough to deal with, our youth have other developmental hurdles.  The years from 12 to 18 are filled with changes: physical, emotional, and mental.  It is a time when kids want to constantly be with and merge with their peers.  They are totally bored with “nothing to do” but they are also driven to take risks and experience new things.  They are compelled to find their own identity and separate from their parents.  They have increased conflict with authority in order to establish independence. Sleep patterns change.  Teens stay up late, get less restful sleep, and sleep till noon.  They don’t talk and when they do they want to argue.  They disappear into their rooms for several years.  Sound familiar?  This is typical adolescent behaviour.

Take heart parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours.  Each and every one of these behaviours has a higher purpose.  Nature has designed the process to prepare our children to advance into adulthood prepared to meet the challenges.  They are developing social skills (peer preoccupation), independence (conflict with authority), coping skills (risk/experience), and becoming sexual beings to propagate the species (puberty). 

It is our responsibility as adults to provide a safe place for kids to test the waters.  With love and support they will come out on the other side full of strength and promise.

Deborah Joyce is the Executive Director of District 69 Family Resource Association serving children, youth and families in Oceanside. Contact her at 250 752 6766.