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The Teen Brain: Strengthening the “Decision Muscle”

I once heard someone describe the teen brain like a car where the engine is fully developed but the brakes are not working perfectly. Put that way, it sounds pretty scary, right? But, in terms of sheer intellectual power, the adolescent brain matches an adult’s. You see an awesome machine (or brain) that is at its peak lifetime capacity, yet the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which contributes to executive functioning including attention, predicting consequences, impulse control and future planning, has some maturing to do. The more we learn about brain development we know that so much change is happening under the surface as compared with the physical changes which stare us in the face every day. So we all need reminders of those changes we can’t see but that are equally important.

Huge discoveries have been made in the last decade that have revolutionized the study of the brain. Gray matter, which is the folded gray layer where thoughts and memory are based decreases in volume during adolescence and reaches its full volume in the early 20s. Why? No one is quite sure. In humans, the first parts of the brain to become fully developed are areas involved with basic functions and survival (movement, interaction with the environment) while the reasoning center (PFC) develops later, which makes sense in terms of species survival, right? Add to that, huge increases in testosterone (males) and estrogen (females) production during puberty and you have a young person that is full of energy, emotion, has tremendous brain power and might have trouble making completely logical decisions. No wonder we often describe teen behavior as unpredictable, sporadic and sometimes inappropriate – there is a lot of change going on in that body and brain that is nearly adult size. I caution to not let this become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of behavior- practice “using” one’s PFC to weigh out decisions and consequences helps to develop it’s abilities like building any skill or muscle. Parents, you can be on the lookout for “teachable practice moments”- take a real time decision and walk your child through the process by asking them open ended questions to work towards a thoughtful decision. Praise and reminders that no decision is a perfect one are important!

So as adults and teens, how can we help our friends and family members get through this challenging time all in one piece? First, just being aware of these issues is half the battle. Here are some concrete things to think about:

● Make sure teens get enough sleep – they need more than adults do.

● Eat well, and drink lots of water, get plenty of exercise.

● Take plenty of time to get things done, try not to rush; give it a “minute”.

● Keep the communication lines open-talk about feelings, however large or small.

● Refrain from using drugs or alcohol to “feel better”. They damage cells in the teen brain that is growing and making connections that might never be regained.

● Decision making – Take a moment to STOP and evaluate the situation and what you feels right. That brief delay may make all the difference in what you decide.

**Dibby Olson is the FYI Youth Program Coordinator

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