Unravel the mysteries of the teen brain

By Stephen Bogan

For The Beachcomber

The gap between teens and adults seems to be getting wider and more contentious as each of us tries to understand why the gap is there and what can be done about it.

One youth I recently spoke to said he thought that “adults are afraid of us, and I don’t think they even like us.” It is hard to hear words like this, but youth look into our adult eyes and often do see fear, confusion and sometimes a strong lack of appreciation.

Adults may remember their own teen years with longing or dread, but that does not make us experts at understanding what it is like today for adolescents.

Our views of adolescents can range from seeing them as beautiful to belligerent, without really understanding why. Another youth I interviewed told me that he was sitting on the ferry with some friends the other day “and many adults moved away and glared at us, … and we were just talking and having a good time, and we weren’t messed up.”

Adults often fear what they don’t understand, and the normative, developmental edginess of youth can force us to look at our feelings and intentions in relating to youth.

But in fact, we can have both high expectations of youth as well as an understanding of the “construction zone” processes their brains are undergoing. “Adolescence is not childhood, and it is not adulthood,” as David Walsh, author of “Why Do They Act That Way?”, put it. “Adolescence,” he adds, “is a heck of a time for the impulse control center — the prefrontal cortex — to be under construction. Just when adolescents need it most, the PFC’s ability to act rationally and think through problems and challenges breaks down.”

Youth may naturally be distrustful of the adults that are there to love and support them because their capacity to trust is also being “constructed.”

Understanding the wonders, complexities, and natural limitations of the adolescent brain can foster empathy, support and openness to the teens in our lives.

Parents can feel some relief and validation for just how difficult it is to raise an adolescent and learn to be assertive about setting limits as well as patient, caring and hopeful.

Teens’ still-developing judgment and decision-making skills may limit their ability to assess risks accurately and make sound decisions about using alcohol and other drugs.

Drug and alcohol use can disrupt brain function in areas critical to motivation, memory, learning, judgment and behavior control — areas where they’re already under-developed and that are the source of a lot of adult frustration with teens.

Would it help to know they are not able to accomplish these tasks rather than believing they don’t want to or don’t even care? I think our level of understanding makes a big difference in how we communicate with youth and how impatient and upset we get.

Understanding both the wonders of a teen brain and its developmental stage can make it easier to figure out how to set limits, particularly around substance use.

It’s good to know, for instance, that a one-time drug high can flood the brain with two to 10 times the amount of dopamine — a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria — than natural rewards do. Substance use and abuse may affect feeling, thinking and safety, and those are pretty much the most critical aspects of teen life.

By learning more about the development and mysteries of the teenage brain we can begin to walk in their shoes, and hopefully not look so afraid or confused when they look into our eyes.

— Stephen Bogan is a therapist on Vashon.

The teenage brain

Victoria Tennant, a highly regarded educational consultant, will speak about the mysteries of the teenage brain from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 25. Her talk, focusing on recent research about teen brain development, will take place at the Vashon High School theater. See page A12 for more information about a series of events about teen drug and alcohol use.

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