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Supporting Biological Passageways

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Many myths and stereotypes shape our views of the teen passageway into adulthood. Teens have been characterized as reckless, rebellious, unmotivated and lazy.  Yet we know stereotypes and labels such as these are damaging to youth and they distract from the task of meeting the true developmental needs of youth.

For many years we blamed “raging hormones” for the drama and experimentation of the teen years.  But what is the truth behind the teenage developmental journey?  Is teen behavior biologically or socially determined?   Thanks to advances in brain research, generally, and teenage brain research specifically, many of the myths about the biological determinants of teen behavior have been dispelled.  Researchers such as Dr. Frances Jensen at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Daniel J Siegel at UCLA are providing the facts about the teenage brain and giving us more positive ways to view teen development.  The following are just a few of the myths they are dispelling and how.

Myth:  Teens are impulsive because of their raging hormones.

While it is true that there is greater production of hormones in the teen years, there is also critical brain development under way which determines teenage behavior.  We know that only about 80% of the brain is developed by adolescence, and that the prefrontal cortex, the area which controls executive function like self-discipline and memory, is the very last part to develop, at around 25 years of age.  What is in large supply in the teen years is gray matter, or neurons, while in short-supply is white matter (connective wiring) which helps information flow quickly from one part of the brain to another.  As a result, the teen brain is “like a Ferrari primed and pumped but doesn’t know where to go” (Daniel Siegel in Mindsight).  

Other research shows that the teenage brain is less able to process negative information than is the adult brain and better wired to process reward.  As Dr. Jensen explains, “The chief predictor of adolescent behavior is not the perception of risk but the anticipation of the reward despite the risk.” (Jensen and Nutt, The Teenage Brain).  These factors are compounded by the fact that the frontal lobes are only loosely connected to other parts of the teen brain, so teens have a harder time exerting cognitive control over potentially dangerous situations.  So the very mental functions of discipline, safe behaviors and good choices that we are hoping teenagers are refining in their high school years are actually biologically still wiring.  

Myth:  Teens are able to handle stress and drug use because they are young.

Teens do not have the same tolerance for stress as adults.  In fact, there is hormone that modulates anxiety in adults but actually raises it in teens. So is said that anxiety begets anxiety in the teen brain.  This is compounded by the fact that most teens get significantly less sleep than is needed, an estimated 6.25 rather than the needed 9.5 hours.  

The temptation to use drugs should not surprise us then.  For the tired and stressed teenage brain, drugs offer a dopamine surge that can literally not be surpassed.  Unfortunately, we also know marijuana and alcohol block the process of learning and memory so that users are less able to lay down new neuronal pathways.  Because the brain has more space for the cannabis to land, it stays longer than in adults, having an impact on teen functioning for 4-5 days.  We also now know that early and chronic marijuana use among teens is also linked to increased rates of psychosis and schizophrenia.  So the teen years are the worst years for exposure to drugs and alcohol, as their impact is more detrimental and permanent.

There are several other negative myths dispelled by these and other scientists who are, thankfully, altering our understanding of teen biology and behavior.  This work should compel us to look at the power and creativity of the teenage years not as a phase to get through, but as a phase to support and uplift.  The engaged, rule-challenging, creative period of the teen years have produced exceptional invention and new ways of thinking for thousands of years, as Dan Siegel points out.  Instead of constraining this capacity for creative evolution, we should be uplifting programs that enhance the biological trajectory of the teen.  We should be developing programs that engage youth in active, outdoor, reasonable risk-taking that builds functional neuronal pathways and relationships. We should match the needs of the hearts and minds of youth with programs that actually address these biological and social pathways.

About the Author: Leslie Clarke

Leslie Clarke, Ph.D. is a youth and parent coach and trainer, with Conscious Youth Coaching, and is a facilitator with Courageous Hearts Youth Services and Courageous Hearts Educational Consulting Services, based in Los Angeles, California (CourageousHearts.org). She delivers drug prevention education to educators and self-awareness training to youth. Leslie is also co-founder of the nonprofit, Conscious Youth Global Network, which promotes youth development through the arts.

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