Health & Fitness

The teen brain: A work in progress

Preparation: Maria Gabriela Salas, with sons Armando, left, and Gabriel Torrealba, helps the teens stay focused.
Preparation: Maria Gabriela Salas, with sons Armando, left, and Gabriel Torrealba, helps the teens stay focused. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

For parents of teenagers, the start of a new academic year can often usher in old problems:




Staying up until all hours of the night — and then not getting up in time for school.

Yes, this kind of behavior is disheartening, but here’s the good news. This is just a developmental phase and knowing the science behind the teen brain can help you help your child.

“When you use science and fact to explain why they’re behaving the way they are,’’ says Frances E. Jensen, a neuroscientist and author of The Teenage Brain, “it’s a way for both of you to feel validated and vindicated.’’

For years, scientists — and parents — believed the adolescent brain was like an adult brain. In fact, the accepted theory was that brain growth was relatively complete by kindergarten. But science has proven differently. Teens behave the way they do because the part of the brain that controls judgment and emotion — the prefrontal cortex — hasn’t developed fully and won’t until they reach their 20s.

So that behavior giving you gray hair? There’s a good explanation for it.

Jensen, who is chairwoman of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes it in these terms. “Think of the teen brain as a Ferrari with weak brakes. It’s revved up, but doesn’t always know how to stop.’’

In other words, the teen brain is a work in progress, yet sometimes parents expect teens’ actions to match their developed bodies. They won’t, always. Here’s why:

The pre-frontal cortex, the area in the brain right behind the forehead, controls our executive function: the ability to plan, organize and use memory. It even regulates moods. But it hasn’t fully matured in a teen and his behavior will reflect that.

What’s more, as a teen’s brain gets “re-wired,’’ their decision-making is rerouted to the amygdala, a part of the brain that reacts immediately to any perceived threat. The amygdala is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure.

“There’s a mismatch between what we expect of them and what they can truly do,’’ explains Margaret Sibley, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Supporting Teens’ Academic Needs Daily (STAND) program at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families.

“And the connection between the two varies from child to child. Some kids struggle more than others and for others, these executive function skills click earlier.”

This, however, doesn’t mean parents should throw up their hand and sit out those teenage years. In fact, scientists say adolescence provides a window of opportunity to help guide a teen through tumultuous times. Many situations provide teachable moments.

“Our job is to get them to the point that they’re making good decisions on their own,’’ says Alan Delamater, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development. “The idea is to constantly work with our children so they can perform to the best they can be.’’

Some South Florida parents have learned to do this through trial and error. Elaine Karbonik of Plantation says parenting her 14-year-old daughter Grace is relatively easy — but it hasn’t always been so. Getting her up and out of the house in time for school has meant setting up “a lot of alarms’’ and “ignoring the morning grumpiness.’’

“Everything is my fault in the morning,’’ Karbonick laughs, “but I don’t take any of it personally. She’s always been a night owl and I’ve learned to pick my battles.’’

Determining what’s important and what isn’t also has been instrumental for Maria Gabriela Salas, a personal coach who lives in Miramar. Her two sons, 13-year-old Gabriel and 15-year-old Armando Torrealba, have different personalities and interests — but both need help focusing and organizing. Sometimes they wait until the last minute to complete an assignment. To help them, she has a family calendar on the refrigerator marked with various deadlines.

“Consistency,’’ she adds, “is key. They have to know what’s expected of them and what the consequences are for their actions.”

What’s more, she tries to help them establish “reachable goals’’ for the school year. “As a parent you have to be reasonable but firm,’’ she says. “You don’t want to set them up for failure.’’

Jensen, the neuroscientist, calls these strategies “frontal lobe assists,’’ when a parent helps a teen connect the dots to achieve acceptable behavior.

“Some things just don’t occur to them,” Jensen explains, “so you have to help them get there. You have to ask the right questions: When do you have a test? What should you do first? How do you plan to tackle this? How much time are you going to need?”

Here are other frontal lobe assists to help teens through a smooth school year:

▪  Be an active listener. “Talk to kids about what their goals are, what’s important to them, what they want to accomplish,” UM’s Delamater says. “Don’t lecture.”

▪  Be consistent. Be specific. Let your teen know what is expected — and what the consequences will be if those expectations aren’t met.

▪  Stay calm. Don’t overreact and learn to distinguish between what’s an emergency and what isn’t. “Count to 10 [before reacting],” Jensen says. “That was my mantra with my sons.”

▪  Establish a morning and evening routine.

▪  Don’t just say no. Explain why. Ask for suggestions on how certain situations should be handled.

▪  Emphasize sleep. Teens need about nine hours of sleep but most don’t get it. Help your child get organized enough that he or she will keep to a schedule that promotes sleep hygiene.

▪ Encourage the kind of discussion that will help stimulate new ways of thinking about and answering a problem. “Let the kids define the goals with your help,” Delamater says. “It should be about them and what they want.”

▪ Don’t expect perfection. Learn to pick your battles. No one can be “on’’ at all times.

▪ Praise them when they do something right. Be specific about what and why they deserve that praise.

▪ Role model the behavior you expect from them.

“At this stage,” Delamater says, “parents are more like consultants. They can be the bridge to adulthood.”

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