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Web Resources

National Institute of Mental Health – “Teenage Brain: A Work in Progress”

Frontline - "Inside the Teenage Brain”

ABC News – “Teen's Brains Explain Mood Swings”

New Scientist - “Teen Brains Show Low Motivation”

Family Education - “Your Teen's Brain: It Really Is Different!”

Public Health Agency of Canada - “The Parent-Teen Relationship: Life through a Teenager's Eyes”




Reporter
Michelle Chyatte
Teenagers: The Millennial Generation: How Their Brains Develop


Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The common image of adolescents is of extreme emotions, irrational decision-making, and risky behaviors all fueled by raging hormones. But it is not all about hormones. Research is revealing the complexities of adolescent brain development and a teen's ability to make decisions.

WKSU's Michelle Chyatte reports:

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Adolescents are often labled wild, irrational, and too emotional. It's a time thought to be full of storm and stress. Dr. Robert Findling is the Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals in Cleveland. He says teenagers as a group are often misrepresented in popular culture:

FINDLING: "As a general rule of thumb, most teenagers actually go through their adolescence, their second and early third decade of life, 15 to 25, actually reasonably well."

Not only do most teens turn out to be just fine, but they are often at the pinnacle of health. Dr. Rondald Dahl, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh:

DAHL: "Almost everything you can measure improves from middle childhood into late adolescence and early adulthood. Kids are stronger, they're faster, they have better reaction time, they have better cognitive abilities, they can think, they can reason, they can understand consequences... But yet, despite all these physical and mental strengths, overall morbidity and mortality - death and disability - goes up 200, at least 200 percent between elementary school ages and early adulthood."

What has puzzled many parents and scientists for years are the 20 percent or so of kids who seem emotionally charged. The human brain doesn't grow very much after childhood so it was long thought that development of the brain was complete during adolescence. Some of the theories are partially based upon the work of biologist Jean Piaget, who argued that by the time a teen is around 15-years-old, they should have the ability to have rational thoughts. But many parents of teenagers know this is not the case.

Dr. Ellen Rome is the head of adolescent medicine at Cleveland Clinic and says certain behaviors may occur because a human brain doesn't reach maturity until a person is in their mid-20s:

ROME: "Early adolescence is a time of concrete thought processes, you can't foresee consequences. And then by late adolescence, which is like college age - senior year of high school and college age - abstract thought becomes more normative, so you can start seeing the big picture and the forest for the trees. So if you talk to a 14-year-old about cancer from smoking, that's too far away. Long-term relationship may mean three weeks. But if you talk to an 18-year-old, they get the concept of forever."

Recent research from The Centers for Disease Control indicates there are two developmental growth periods for the brain. One occurs while in the womb and the other happens during late teens. Dahl says that helps explain teenagers' higher rates of suicide, accidents, alcohol and substance abuse, and reckless behavior:

DAHL: "There is in general an increase in risk taking, novelty seeking, sensation seeking, and status seeking that has a biologic underpinning. In fact, even in animals, at the time they leave their safe boroughs and nests and have to go out into the world, there is a natural shift in their brain system to make them more risk taking and reward seeking in this interval of time."

A teen brain processes information and emotions differently than adults and therefore teens end up reacting differently. In the past, the inexplicable teen behaviors might have been blamed on hormonal changes:

ROME: "You can't blame hormones for all kids' behavior."

Dr. Ellen Rome says hormones do rev up and develop during adolescence, but society and parents influence and shape a teen's reactions:

ROME: "I think it's nature and nurture. I think that children live what they learn, and if they always are yelled at in response to whatever behavior, they'll learn to yell. If they're used to getting the bejeebers slapped out of them, they'll learn to hit, or they'll learn to cut themselves or be depressed."

Societal changes are where the Millennial generation is different from previous teenagers. Dr. Carolyn Landis of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, says today's teens are on their own more often because both parents are working. Landis says teens, just like toddlers, need to have family time and need to be supervised:

LANDIS: "Family time has diminished in terms of there's not as many family meal times. People don't do activities as families as much... And children have many organized activities, even on the weekends, so that people are not together with their families doing activities like going hiking or going camping with the family as they might have, you know, 20 or 30 years ago."

That leaves teens relying on other influences like their peers or television. Rome says kids have to make tough choices just as they are undergoing enormous physical changes:

ROME: "If we bombard our kids with ambiguous messages about sexuality, we are hitting them right where biology and social mores are hitting them. Here they are, becoming of reproductive age at 12, 12 and a half is the average age of menses for girls, a little bit later as far as pubital development for guys. But we're not expecting them to be reproductive beings until their mid-20s or 30s."

If brains are being shaped in adolescence like they are developing during the toddler years, brain researcher Ronald Dahl says it's important that teens have just as much support as toddlers:

DAHL: "I think there's the analogous story for puberty and early adolescence. If this is a natural time of re-shaping and sculpting strong feelings, it may be really important what happens to kids. Having positive experiences, having social support, some of this is common sense. But I think there's a deeper scientific story to support that, in terms of thinking about early adolescence."

It's because of the societal changes that Professor Landis urges parents to have an authoritative style when dealing with teenagers. But she also suggests allowing them the flexibility to make decisions:

LANDIS: "For example, what might not be negotiable is that you have a curfew of 11 o'clock on the weekends, okay? But what's negotiable about that is maybe where you go, what the teen does, and there might be exceptions if the... teen is going to be at someone's house where the parent knows there's going to be another adult supervising them. So you have to find every chance you can to let the teen have some wiggle room and let the teen have some say. For example with chores, the teen might be able to pick what chores they do, and what are their responsibilities, and think about how to do them, maybe when during the day to do them or when during the week - you know, all chores have to be done by Friday night. So that's the way of working with teens where they feel like they have some say, but still you're establishing firm rules and boundaries."

And Dr. Rome would add that the stigma of storm and stress of the teenage years needs to be dispelled. She says teens should be seen as positive contributors, not problems:

ROME: "I think that we need to look at adolescents as assets rather than liabilities, as resources to be cultivated and nurtured, especially since they're our adult population of tomorrow."

Empowering teens with positive roles, says Rome, builds a better country in the future.

I'm Michelle Chyatte, 89.7 WKSU.