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By Sally Torbey

The teenage brain

Uploaded: Feb 21, 2015

Recent studies have shed light on what is happening in adolescents' brains that make this a uniquely fascinating, but also perplexing and concerning life phase. Now that our third daughter is age twelve going on sixteen, we are in the midst of round three of bedroom-door slamming, so we are grateful for these new insights. Understanding her brain development somehow makes the door slamming more tolerable, or maybe it is only less aggravating because my hearing is significantly worse. One advantage of late-in-life parenting!

Last week, I had the pleasure, along with a standing-room-only crowd of district parents, of hearing Dr. David Walsh speak about the development of the adolescent brain. The talk was sponsored by PAUSD Student Services. His talk shared a title with his book, "Why Do They Act That Way?" Dr. Walsh is an engaging speaker who, per his website, "translates brain science into helpful strategies for raising resilient children and youth." He explains the neuroscience, but also uses anecdotes from his own family to illustrate his points, and there is an appealing folksiness and intimacy to his manner (which I attribute to his being a fellow Minnesotan!) He sets a wonderful tone of acceptance and reassurance. Although I recognized only a few faces in the audience, and the evening was primarily a lecture, I left feeling supported by the community of parents around me and inspired by our common purpose.

Dr. Walsh spoke at length about the immaturity of the connections from the rest of adolescent brain to the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of "executive function" that considers consequences, makes plans, controls impulsive behavior, and assesses risk. This rewiring is not complete until the mid-twenties, so in the mean time, parents must serve the not-always-welcome role of a surrogate prefrontal cortex for their teens. As a newborn requires the connection to a loving adult to learn to self-calm, teens also need that connection to caring adults to establish the appropriate neuronal pathways to navigate life. "Relationships are a powerful protective factor that shields youth from risk and allows them to build on their strengths?the neurons that fire together, wire together". Whatever the brain does a lot of, it gets good at, and guidance from parents and other invested adults is an essential part of establishing the pathways for decision-making and social-emotional health.

He also discussed how, in the absence of the fully connected prefrontal cortex and its capabilities, teens interpret non-verbal cues in the amygdala instead, a part of the brain that tends to escalate emotional response and interpret others' actions as threats or perceived insults, which explains how teens can tend to misinterpret their environment and why the oft-recited teenage refrain of "my (fill in the blank) hates me!"

The information Dr. Walsh shared on addiction in teens was also interesting. In the same way that teens' brains have the amazing capabilities to learn calculus and memorize countless lines of Shakespeare, these capabilities make it easy for their brains to "learn" addiction. As little as a single exposure to an addictive substance can lead to changes in a teen's brain that make going without that substance difficult. In addition, the warning signs of alcohol toxicity, such as slurred speech, somnolence, nausea, and motor impairment, are delayed in teens as compared to adults, which contributes to teens' binge drinking and possibly suffering permanent brain damage or worse. The research Dr. Walsh described challenges complacency about exposing the teenage brain to alcohol, marijuana or other addictive substances. Behavior that was once viewed as harmless experimentation, and even a right of passage, is now understood to have the potential for causing measurable damage to the brain or creating a life-long struggle with substance abuse.

I liked his analogy of viewing our relationship with our teens as a bank account. Seize the opportunities for joy, goodwill and affection, all deposits in the account, so that there will still be a positive balance after the withdrawals of adolescence. He described parenting teens as, at times, an exercise in delayed gratification: the sleepless nights, endless negotiations, moodiness and disrespectful behavior. But he also shared his gratitude for the presence of his amazing now-adult children in his life. Our two much-missed adult children are currently working or studying eleven time zones away, but they and their almost fully-formed prefrontal cortexes continue to delight and amaze us as well.

Dr. Walsh concluded his talk with the advice that "adolescence is not a problem or mystery to be solved. It is an experience to be lived." Adolescents' passion, idealism, loyalty, creativity and energy are to be enjoyed and admired!

Other upcoming community and school events discussing student wellness can be found in this recent Palo Alto Online article.