How Do You Survive the Teen Years…If Brain Development Isn't Complete until 25?
Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D.
New research is now indicating what you and I have long suspected: the human brain is not fully developed at 16 (when your darlings become legal to drive 5,000 lb. vehicles down our highways at 65 miles per hour) nor at 18 (when they are entitled to enter the polling booth and choose the leaders of the western world), nor at 21 (when they can legally purchase and consume alcohol in thousands of venues across these United States).
Even though our children mature physically earlier than previous generations, and their hormonal development seems more and more precocious, the human brain is not fully mature until about age 25. You and I both know a few people who had several children before their brains were fully developed.
The synapses in the brain, those magical connections that link one tidbit of information to the next, that organize information between cause and effect, risk and consequences, continue to develop well into the 20s, according to Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Teen brains blossom with new brain cells and neural connections, something that was formerly thought to happen only in the first 18 months of life. Their "frontal lobes - responsible for 'executive' functions such as self control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization and planning - undergo wholesale renovation", according to a report by Sharon Begley, published recently in Newsweek magazine.
"Teens have the power to determine their own brain development, to determine which connections survive and which don't, [depending on] whether they do art, or music or sports or video games," says Giedd.
Isn't it true that about the age of 25 most young people "get it"? They finally realize that Mark Twain was right: "When I was 17 my father was stupid, but by the time I was 25 my father had learned a lot!" The new research on human brain development may explain why in the mid 20s the consequences of risky behavior, wasted money or a lack of purpose finally register in those precious frontal lobes.
Managing Complicated Choices without Well-developed Brains
On top of these neurological considerations, our society presents mind-boggling choices, daunting to even the most mature: where to live, which car to buy, vacation to take, college to choose, whether or not to work in the family business, which man or woman to love, how to manage money, what political beliefs to support, which faith to live.
Our internetted, cell phoned teens face more choices than any other generation in history, along with heightened physical development through improved nutrition, emotional stimulation through perpetual media, and psychological sensitivity because they really do live in a global village. They learn instantly the details of triumphs and tragedies not only among their own family, classmates and neighbors, but in Colorado, in Uganda, in the Barents Sea.
Our human family (and our brains) evolved over thousands of years in villages of about 200 people, with lifetime travel restricted to walking distance from home, and the pace of life (and time to sleep) determined by the sun and the seasons, not bandwidth and international time zones. As citizens of the 21st century (our era may become more significant than our ethnicity) we all probably experience more stress than our predecessors, because our physiology has not caught up with our 2000 lifestyles - and this phenomenon is compounded within immature brains.
As adaptive as our young people are, they still think within a developing, but immature human cranium. They will, at times, be overwhelmed by more information and more expectations than they can process. So some of them will sleep too late, flunk calculus, lose a no brainer job, decide to walk to Arizona, become pregnant too early, drink too much at a college party, or fail to take out the garbage on time. Parents will continue to lie awake at night praying that the risks they take will not be ultimately destructive.
Vulnerable Brains Facing Complex Choices Benefit from More Structure
If we understand how complex our world has become, relative to our capacity to manage it, and how vulnerable the evolving human psyche is, we will provide more structure and more guidance for our teens, rather than giving them more and more freedom at younger and younger ages. Their brains are not fully developed.
We will focus on the two most important jobs parents have, beyond providing food, shelter and health care: we will set limits (establishing curfews, cutting off abused credit cards, linking work to spending money, following the law re: serving alcohol, enjoying at least one family meal a week) and we will nurture (listening, comforting, teaching, sharing, making popcorn together, hanging out until they are ready to talk). Teenagers continue to say that the most influential voices in determining whether or not they will get involved with drugs are their parents'.
In the midst of our complicated culture, healthy adolescents will remain focused on their #1 job, clarifying their own unique, individual identities, sometimes upsetting their parents' expectations, usually differing from their siblings. Especially in an entrepreneurial family, the process of allowing teens time to sort out thoughtfully who they are as individuals will pay great dividends in the future. Better to do it in the teens than in the 40s.
Here are practical suggestions that parents of teens may want to discuss together to determine what will enhance the teen age experience for them and their children:
- Encourage them to do something independent.
Especially in business-owning families, teenagers mature by doing something that doesn't depend on the family name or fortune: hiking the Appalachian Trail, taking a summer job in another industry, learning to fly an airplane, volunteering to rehab low income housing in the inner city.
- Don't try to keep secrets from them.
Because of their intense scrutiny of the world around them, and especially the people closest to them, adolescents sense what's happening long before they're told, like lightning rods picking up the electricity in the air long before the storm hits. If you want them to be honest with you, you have to be honest with them, even about topics that are tough to discuss.
- Catch them doing something good.
The self-doubt that most of us can remember (Am I too tall? Too shy? Not in the right crowd? ) can be challenged by the observable facts that only a parent can recognize, because they do know the whole story. Find the unique gift in each child, and without fake flattery, tell them the truth about their goodness.
- Schedule time to share their dreams.
Your teenagers' concept of time is not confined to your palm pilot. They will be ready to talk at unpredictable times, and their quality time may not be yours. But sometimes you can create opportunities to talk one-on-one (without the little kids in the back seat) on a camping trip, a long drive to visit a college, a church mission project in Nicaragua.
- Tell them the family stories.
Part of figuring out who you are, is knowing where you came from. Especially in busy families, sometimes the stories that define the family's values can get lost - especially for the youngest children. Knowing what grandpa really did in WWII or how the family survived the 1937 flood can still be sources of inspiration to teens, because they own this history too, in their bones.
- Make Time for Grandparents.
In some mysterious way, personalities seem to skip a generation. Sometimes a child will have more in common with the grandfather he never met - his gestures, his choice of a hammer for a toy, his sports ability - than he has with his parents. Grandparents can support the parents' decision-making, and still offer a more mellow love, perhaps baked into macaroon cookies or a lazy afternoon game of Hearts.
- Don't rush them into the family business.
Even though you invested $100,000 in a first rate college education, don't promise a job on June 15. They will know more about technology than you and I ever will, but why not let someone else challenge them to mature? One business-owning family I know required each successor to work elsewhere first, but, if they wanted to join the business, to do so before they were 30, so their sibs would know where they stood. Another business, a complex, multi-national corporation, decided they would not hire any family members until they were 30. What norm will work for your family business?
- If it's not immoral, illegal or harmful, don't even bring it up.
In my opinion, some family rules are non-negotiable (violence, drug abuse, skipping school illegally), but many are negotiable (bed time, when to be home after the prom) because they depend on the maturity of an individual child and the circumstances. How often does conflict erupt in your home over issues that are essentially matters of taste: how they wear their hair, where they put earrings, what music (beyond the obscene) they play? Select the battles that will matter in the long run, so that your home becomes a place where the hierarchy of values is clear.
- Enjoy their sense of humor!
During a previous incarnation as a high school English teacher, my colleagues and I noticed that an adult sense of humor emerged in most teens about the age of 16 (probably related to cognitive development). Their humor is no longer quite so corny, and their imaginations can recognize the incongruities of human experience. The joke may sometimes be on you, but it will probably be quite funny, especially if you can laugh too.
- Remember that someday you will be former parents.
In our complex society, the overwhelming majority of 18 year olds cannot function independently as "adults". You still co-sign the car loan, welcome them home to do their laundry, comfort them after the loss of their first serious love. But at about the age of 25, most former children decide to write the check for the rent on time, and begin making commitments in love and in work. Then it's time to stop giving advice unless asked, because they are then responsible for their own lives, just as you are for yours. They will always be your sons or daughters, but they are no longer your children: their brains are fully developed! And now they can become your friends, sharing in ways you never could when they were 13 or 18 or even 21.
Teen agers are designed to be enjoyed, as wonderful, surprising works in progress. They can add new vitality to the family business, especially if, after about the age of 16, they join other stakeholders in the Family Forum to help develop policies defining the family's future participation. As they begin to think about college and career, they can learn objective information (beyond Dad's supper table frustrations) about the potential behind the balance sheet. They bring fresh enthusiasm that more tired participants may miss. They represent the future in blue jeans, and are worth every minute you invest in them.