Jewish World Review
By Kristen Gerencher http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Modern science is proving what parents have suspected for years: Teenagers' brains aren't like those of adults.
Teens who routinely get sidetracked and forget to take out the trash or who show other lapses in judgment that lead to household mayhem may be doing more than just tweaking an adult authority figure.
Far from being hard-wired at puberty, teen brains are still growing, affecting everything from risk perception to their ability to plan and control impulses, health experts say.
"We used to believe that children's brain development occurred very much early on during uterine growth and within the first six years of life," said Vaughn Rickert, professor of population and family health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
"What we have discovered in the last two to three years is adolescent brains do change, and there is a wave of growth that does occur during the adolescent years."
Just as kids go through a growth spurt where they shoot up in height and fill out into more adult-like proportions, the brain has its own timetable, which varies among teens. Changes in the brain's frontal lobes, largely responsible for controlling impulses and measuring risk and reward, are among the most dramatic, according to brain scans performed on teens at the National Institutes of Health.
"It appears that reasoning and problem-solving skills are among the last abilities to mature in the brain," Rickert said.
The research may have implications for a wide range of social and health-related concerns, including why teens can't seem to get enough sleep and how parents can help them make decisions that protect their safety.
The route to full adult abstraction from child-like concrete thinking may be bumpy at best, but there are things adults can do to make the transition as healthy for kids as possible.
The first is identifying what constitutes "normal" teenage behavior, which comes in three stages: early, middle and late adolescence, said Dr. Barbara Staggers, director of adolescent medicine at the Children's Hospital & Research Center at Oakland, Calif.
Early adolescents tend to deal with situations on instinct and hang out with same-sex friends, she said. They may be monosyllabic and giggle a lot, especially when under stress.
Teens in the earliest phase may perceive the social risk of not going along on a joyride or joining a gang as higher than the physical risk, making them particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, Staggers said.
"These are kids you have to repeat and role-play with so when something happens they can" respond appropriately, she said, suggesting parents ask, "'How are you going to say no to me? How do you not get into a situation where you feel like you have to do something?'...The fact that they don't think about consequences puts them at risk."
MIDDLE AND LATE ADOLESCENCE
Teens in the middle stage are trying to separate from adults, and can present the biggest challenges by pushing their buttons with all manner of rebelliousness, Staggers said. "This is the age group you want to duck and cover."
But turning away from them when they get confrontational is a mistake, she said. "They can give you the beginning of a plan and the end of a plan but the middle makes no sense. They want to be a lawyer, but they're getting Cs and Ds."
"What you have to do is present options and opportunities and help them through the decision-making process," Staggers said. "Getting them to make good decisions is critical."
By late adolescence, kids are less concerned about fitting in with peers and more able to plan and follow through, she said. What they lack is experience from which to draw life lessons.
Kids who mature faster than their peers may face as many social challenges as those who develop later, Rickert said. "If you have a daughter who's a very mature-looking young woman, she's going to be approached by older teens. She needs to understand while it may be flattering and provide a degree of popularity, it also may cause her some amount of pain because...she may be expected to respond 1/8as a 16-year-old would3/8 when she's only 12 or 13."
Parents should make sure they're treating each child based on his or her individual needs, said Dr. Andrea Marks, president of the Society for Adolescent Medicine and a New York-based teen-medicine specialist.
"One of the most important things for an adult or parent is to tune into the individuality of the child, to try to get to know the child's interests, temperament, strengths, weaknesses," Marks said. "Very often a parent will have two children and they're extremely different but the parent wants one to be like the other."
TEENS, HEALTH AND CARS
Safety is a natural concern as kids test the waters of adulthood. Accidents and unintentional injuries were the leading causes of death for kids age 15 to 19 in 2001, followed by suicide and homicide, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The risk for car crashes is higher among those 16 to 19 than any other age group, and auto wrecks account for two out of five deaths among U.S. teens, the CDC says. More than 4,700 kids ages 16 to 19 died of car-crash injuries in 2001.
And it's not just teenage boys driving the problem. Teen girls have been catching up to their male counterparts in terms of accident rates, said Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group.
While insurance rates decrease with age if a teen avoids having an accident, parents first adding a teen to their policy can expect their initial rates to go up as much as 50 percent to 100 percent on average, she said.
"Unfortunately, what we're seeing is not that teenage boys are getting better, but young girls are getting worse," she said, noting she doesn't know if that's been reflected in the rates yet.
Accentuating the positive
Adults can help teens by rewarding them when they show good judgment, Staggers said. "We are very good at socially punishing kids. We're not good at giving rewards."
A study from Tufts University published in the February edition of the Journal of Early Adolescence suggests a model for positive youth development that highlights "the five C's:" Competence, confidence, connection, character, caring and compassion. The report says adults need to develop a vocabulary to discuss positive youth development as more than the absence of problem behaviors.
Here are some ways to help your teen have a healthy transition to adulthood, according to experts.
Love your kid. That doesn't mean you always have to like what your teen is doing, but unconditional love is imperative, Staggers said. "It's easy for me to kill a whole lot of people or myself if I don't feel I'm worth anything."
Don't try to be friends with your teenage. And don't assume he can handle things because of his size. Teens surround themselves with plenty of peers. They need parental guidance, even when it doesn't appear to be welcome.
Set boundaries. Identify what's negotiable and what's nonnegotiable. Decide where you stand on big issues such as sex and drug use, as well as when your child can go on dates, wear make-up or drive your car.
Model the kind of behavior you want your child to imitate. And give her gradual responsibility for her own choices. "Kids really do want to please their parents and generally conform with the parents' values," Marks said. "Listen to your child, model to your child, tell your child how you feel, but at the same time prepare your child to go off in life without you."
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Kristen Gerencher is a writer for MarketWatch.com. Comment by clicking here.