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Inside the high schooler's brain

What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a high schooler?

By Hank Pellissier

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The high schooler's brain

"OMG! When my parents tell me to be careful, I’m like LOL! Then I do whatever my BFFs do . . ."

Why are teenagers insane? Why is it that high-schoolers who are brilliant enough to check-mate us in ten measured moves can't remember to walk the dog before running off for a night of reckless lunacy with their maniacal friends? By 16, our children have attained adult ability in logic, so what's their excuse, neurologically?

Frances E. Jensen, MD, Senior Associate in Neurology at Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School's primary teaching hospital notes that adolescent brains are, "about 80 percent of the way to maturity." This may sound reassuring, but that half-baked 20 percent can launch moms and dads into spasms of despair. A large percentage of the final fifth still in development is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the "executive" of cognitive functioning. The PFC is involved in planning, organizing, impulse suppression, and weighing consequences. Remove this inhibitory center, toss in excitable hormones, and presto! You get a risk-taking, peer-pressured mammal that's hungry for novelty, thrills, intensity, and romance. At the dark end of this equation there are fast cars, alcohol, drugs, and unsafe sex in multiple, nerve-wracking combinations.

During this traumatic time for our darlings (and ourselves), parents need to do their best to be exemplary guides, offering often-ignored support, love, and advice. That's why it's helpful to know, anatomically, what's occurring in the high schooler's evolving noggin, and how best to accommodate the cranial crises. Here are some explanations and tips:

Photo credit: {Carol Elliott}

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/8/2011:
"To the person asking about regaining authority, just keep your word with your teen. No means no, and your rules are your rules. Eventually your teen will follow your rules regardless of your ex's behavior. A therapist told me that my words must be golden. In other words, my son must know that I mean what I say and I say what I mean. If I said no t.v., it means no t.v. I'm not going to yell, just be persistent. Find a "lever." What is it that your son wants most? The keys? To have his buddies over? To go to that big upcoming party? New clothes? New shoes? Special cologne? If you don't keep or word, or as the article said, "follow through," then your teen will walk all over you and may even grow up not trusting you. Also, it's important to practice what you preach. No drinking for your teen? That means no drinking in front of your teen. One more thing, do not be afraid to share any of your own experiences with your teen. My son loves hearing about my past mistakes or about pe! ople I knew in high school who made good or bad choices, and while it's sometimes painful to admit that I made such horrific mistakes, it enables him to see me as human and someone he can talk to. "
08/1/2011:
"Thank you for this informative article. PBS had a program on this subject that was more detailed that I'd seen. The info guided my parenting skills.But since my ex had'nt seen it, he disregards my efforts, leading of course, to our son ignoring all my guidance and advice. I'll email this article to them in hopes that it helps them understand my rules. Any other advice for regaining my authority to parent before its too late? "
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