Empowering Teens to Make Healthy Choices

Written by Harriet Fagan. Posted in Featured

Published on March 13, 2012 with No Comments

Research shows teen brains evolving

You may recall that last month’s column centered on brain development in and parenting of teenage boys. We discussed recent National Institute of Health research that indicates the male brain may not be fully developed until age 30. This month, we’re going to delve into the implications of the overall findings, which include “young women reach full maturity in terms of brain development between 21 and 22 years of age.”

Having been a teen girl myself and having survived parenting two lovely young women, I find the comments made on PBS Frontline in an interview with one of the researchers involved in the National Institute of Health study particularly interesting and affirming.

 Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said, “What teens do during their adolescent years-whether it’s playing sports or playing video games-can affect how their brains develop.”

In other words, what goes into those teen minds comes out in some fashion. Forgive my immodesty, but I must say that I arrived at this conclusion on my own long ago. My unfailing response to a daughter’s request to do something her father and I deemed inappropriate for her age or maturity level was always, “I didn’t feed you steak before you had teeth.” In spite of the eye rolling the phrase inevitably produced, the pronouncement was the final answer to the request.

Giedd puts it another way:  “It’s not that teens are stupid or incapable of doing things. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built.”

He further notes, “Right around the time of puberty and on into the early adult years is a particularly critical time for the brain sculpting to take place.”

Wow! We’ve been bombarded with the importance of brain development and stimulation during the first three years of life, but now we learn that it’s still possible to literally mold that mind throughout the teen and young adult years as well.

In fact, Giedd describes a “use it or lose it” situation. How the teen uses his brain determines “what cells and connections will survive and flourish and which will wither and die.”

In the Frontline interview, Giedd points out that, unfortunately, just when the brain is most vulnerable “they (teens) are most likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol.”

In working with teens then, Giedd shows them how brain development curves at puberty. He tries to reason with them “that if they’re doing drugs or alcohol that evening, it may not just be affecting their brains for that night or even for that weekend, but for the next 80 years of their life.”

Sadly, a report by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Stanford University confirms how irreparable the damage caused by a teen making one wrong decision can be.

The report, “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research,” reveals that teenage girls who binge drink have an even higher risk of long-term harm to the brain compared to boys of the same age who also binge drink.

Now we know that how teens spend their time does influence the development of their brains. Where do we go from here? Much research remains to be done on just what activities most influence the changing cerebellum but scientists tend to credit physical activity. Since our society tends to be far less active now than ever before, what will the long term effect be on the futures of our young people?

Science is certain to provide parents and educators with more information that will aid in developing teen brains to their highest capacity. In the meantime, though, consider Giedd’s remarks:

Sometimes it’s disappointing to people that, with all the science and all the advances, the best advice we can give is the thing that our grandmother could have told us generations ago: to spend loving, quality time with our children.

Take heart, dear parents! Your teen still has an enormous capacity for change, and you can still mold the direction his life with two things that cost nothing—your love and your time.

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About Harriet Fagan

All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Harriet Fagan is a mother, grandmother, freelance writer and former educator; she creates this column under the auspices of A Positive Approach to Teen Health (PATH, Inc.).

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