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  • Writer's pictureTing-yi Huang

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

By Frances E. Jensen, MD and Amy Ellis Nutt. (2015). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

I came across this book when I was browsing around inside Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon. I am also naturally drawn to neuro-psychological books because it offers scientific studies on human behaviors.

Dr. Jensen and Ms. Nutt offer a wealth of scientific knowledge about teenager behaviors. This book offers practical and concrete tips on what parents can do to

1) help their teenagers optimize their learning potential;

2) address the sleeping problems so prevalent among teenagers;

3) reduce the chances of risk-taking behaviors pursued by their teenagers;

4) talk effectively with their teenagers about alcohol and other drugs issues;

5) manage stress their teenagers are experiencing;

6) distinguish normal teenager behaviors from symptomatic behaviors of mental illness;

7) negotiate an appropriate amount time for technologies

8) identify the differences in raising a teenage girl vs. a teenage boy

9) monitor the impacts of sport-inflicted concussions on your athletic teenagers; and

10) support their teenagers transition into young adulthood.

As my eight years of practicing progresses, working with pre-teen, teenagers, and transitional-age youths feels like a second nature to me as a therapist now. This was not the case when I was first handed three groups of at-risk youths in a county juvenile correctional facility. Drug-related offenses, robberies, thefts, gang affiliations, domestic violence, anger management, sleeping problems, teen pregnancy, mental illnesses, suicidal and homicidal attempts, peer pressures, mood swings, penitentiary, absent parents, all came at the same time. There was no such luxury as dealing with one at a time.

The challenges that teenagers coming from financially stable and affluent socio-economic backgrounds are no less chaotic. Academic performance stress and anxiety, future career decision, athletic and popularity competition, parental conflicts, bullying, sleeping issues, underage drinking and illicit substances issues, dating violence, eating disorders, peer relationships (gossips, group fights), digital invasion, are all omnipresent in the teenagers' worlds.

Parents undergo anxiety because of not knowing

1) whether their teenagers really get their message/points

2) how to balance between "being nice," and "teaching"

3) if their teenagers are taking advantage of their kindness

4) what causes the changes they've seen in their teenagers

5) how their teenagers would turn out to be

6) how to manage the request from school staff

7) whether to treat their teenagers like a child or like an adult

8) whether they are right or wrong in disciplining their teenagers in a certain way

9) what is the best way to raise their teenagers

10) how to mitigate the conflicts with their teenagers

One common myth associated with parenting a teenager is that teenagers do not need their parents as they did when they were child.

Truth is your teenagers need you, the parents, to protect them and to connect emotionally with them. Their emotional part of the brain is reaching its peak development throughout the teenager years, but yet their logical part of the brain is not holistically maturing until later in their 20s. What this means is that they need to feel emotionally safe with you to share about their views and perspectives about their world, to help them integrate their experiences with social involvement to generate a sense of self and self-competence. What would be harmful to them at this stage is your judgment and your lack of emotional presence. They need you to say "I would like to play video games with you this weekend." "How did you successfully resolve that problem?" They need to know that they are worth of your time. They need to know that someone is curious and paying attention to them.

Another common myth associated with parenting a teenager is that teenagers are just rebellious and disorganized and they make no sense.

Truth is your teenagers are exploring how they can collaborate with you. Transitioning out of childhood, teenage year is the first time they are grasping and trying to master personal will and independence, but they are not quite well equipped yet because their logical part of brain is not yet fully mature. The frontal lobe, known as the executive part of the brain responsible for insight, judgment, decision, memory, integration, moral development, is far from full maturity. That's why they talk back but they sometime sound like lacking insight to you. We, as parents, are very influential in helping our teenagers reach the full maturity of their logical brain. Thus, when you catch your teenagers experimenting with drugs or alcohol, you would not want to yell at them. Remember they need to feel emotionally safe with you to be talking and reasoning with you. Instead, you would want to calmly explore the reason your teenagers choose to do what they chose to do, calmly listen to their analysis about pros and cons of their drug use, educate yourself about different drugs such as how they impact the teenagers' brain, the differences in the identical substance packaged in our time and in your teenagers' time (the pot they smoke nowadays is much more potent than the ones we did with friends at the corner of the street outside our high school), repeatedly state your expectation of a drug-free policy, remind your teenagers how sometimes the impact of certain drugs are not immediate, then work with them (as opposed to having them figure it out themselves) to explore alternative coping strategies to the initial reasons that they chose to use drugs.

My years of practice have provided me with countless examples of specific steps we can take to effectively manage the issues that our teenagers are presenting. One key point is that there is no one size fits all. It truly takes a village to raise our kids right. When working and parenting our teenagers, you want to make sure you know your children for who they are. What makes them happy? What makes them sad? What makes them panic?

Also, as a parent, do you have additional resources of support such as your kid's family physician, your neighbor who also has a teenager at home, your spouse, you extended family, your accountant who is also a parent, your kid's friend's parents, who would not just sharing their experiences but also tell you that you've done a good job in supporting your teenagers?

What's your current challenge in parenting a teenager?

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