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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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Tainted love

What's a brief, ecstatic activity that can result in sobering, long-term consequences? Unsafe sex, with its high-risk of pregnancy, STDs, or both. The teen brain is uniquely prey to a risk-taking libido because it has a well-developed nucleus accumbus that seeks pleasure, but it's weak in assessing probability (due to immature frontal lobes). This leads to over-valuing short-term benefits, while underestimating enduring damage, also known as "leaping before you look." Throw in alcohol, drugs, and peer group pressure (see below), and the probability of unsafe sex shoots even higher.

A study published in the journal Developmental Science indicates that high schoolers behave far more recklessly when their friends are watching. Researcher Laurence Steinberg opined to the New York Times that teens, "do a lot of stupid things with their friends that they wouldn't do when they are by themselves," partly due to the fact that their "brain system involved in reward processing is also involved in the process of social information." Since teen craziness is both epidemic and contagious, try to convince your children to associate with buddies who have demonstrated at least a shred of self-restraint.

Photo credit: Datingammo_king

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 readers

"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. "
"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? "