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The Teen Brain: Beyond the Old Adage “Patience is a Virtue” and Toward Understanding and Coping

July 20, 2012

Ever been at a car wash for one cause or another with a group of teens?  Soapy water, suds, and slippery pavement combined with energetic, spontaneous and very excited teens, and then add every so often a moving vehicle rolling into that picture!  YIKES!  What I noticed, too, was that I had to keep reminding them of the procedures (the “rinse, wash, rinse, dry” mantra) or I found myself holding up hoodies and sweaters (“somebody left this nice jacket, to whom does the black sweater belong? “, etc).

Each week I work with a delightful group of young people with really big hearts and some great ideas around fundraising for a medically challenged child and family facing some extraordinary circumstances.  These young people develop fundraising ideas and then do the necessary work to execute those ideas.  I am fortunate enough to work with them both as a parent and as a performance coach assisting the group, among other things, in setting goals, articulating the group’s purpose, and assessing the outcomes of their fundraising in a neutral way so that the “lessons” learned may be applied to future fundraising events.  They are doing a terrific job.  And I continue to take a nap after spending an intense Friday session with them!

Working well with teens – our own or in a larger group – requires us to remember that teens do have challenges remembering important information.  Their brains are not yet developed enough to remember key information and keep track of their stuff.  We will have to wait until a person reaches his or her mid-to-late-20s for that while in the initial stages of the development phase nerve cells (neurons) are occupied with creating connections with each other.  So, the ability to perform planning tasks, paying attention and to reasoning – executive functioning –  and attributed to the development of the frontal lobe and parietal cortex – is not completely developed until the late teens or early 20s.  What that means is that while a teen can plan and remember, it is also likely for them to have a glitch in this process as well.  A good thought to remember as one of the car wash teens applied a soapy loofah to a very dry and dirty 4x4!

Other than reciting the adage “patience is a virtue,” in such potentially frustrating situations, below are three tips we parents can put into play:

Set limits – Remember a teen’s brain is still developing in response to experience, so we can actually help shape it by setting clear limits and providing precise guidelines for what is and is not acceptable.

Model behavior – Lead by example and demonstrate reasoning skills for your teen, contemplating what might be the consequences of possible actions.

Consider cause and effect – Let them consider for themselves the possible consequences of actions before they do them!  Thinking beforehand is a vital “executive function” and teens can be assisted if we encourage them first to brainstorm and then to list some of the potential outcomes that might result from a particular action.

After a successful (and safe!) car wash fundraiser, I admit I am probably not ready to abandon my Friday afternoon nap after working with these teens.  However, I remind myself when things go “a little crazy” that a certain amount of forgetfulness and scatteredness is part and parcel of a developing healthy teenage brain!  Setting clear limits for them, demonstrating my own reasoning skills, and having them consider for themselves the effects of their actions allows not only an understanding of them but patience and coping for me!

Susan David

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