What parents can do
Sunday, October 10, 2004
by Peggy O'Crowley, Star-Ledger

While brain research is in its infancy, experts believe there are definite lessons parents can take from the knowledge that the teenage brain is still a work in progress: [list][*]Just knowing that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates impulse control and organization, is still developing in teenagers can help parents be a little more understanding. "The message for parents is that a lot of the behaviors that are so frustrating, in terms of shifting moods and being so grown up one moment and five minutes later acting like a child, may be the way it's supposed to be. The brain is choosing which connections to use," said Jay Giedd, the National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist conducting brain scans of teenagers. "Parents have to be a little more tolerant of the little stuff." [*]Understanding teen behavior doesn't mean you always condone it. It's up to the parents to help guide their teenagers, to be a "surrogate" for their still-developing executive brain, said David Walsh, a clinical psychologist and author of Why Do They Act That Way?. "That's the role of a curfew, of family rules, of standards in how we talk to one another," he said. "Those are the things that go into parenting teens." Drinking, drug use or smoking should not be shrugged off as just a little experimentation. The bottom line is that your job is not to control them, but to teach them to control themselves, said Michael J. Bradley, author of Yes, Your Parents Are Crazy! and Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy!. [*]Keep communicating. Teenagers are still greatly influenced by their parents, even if they don't show it. "In this culture, we cut kids loose when they're 12, 13, like they're small adults. Now's the time to be there more than ever before," said Bradley. Sometimes that means meeting them on their own ground, he said. "You may have to adjust your schedule. Talk to your kids at midnight, lie down in bed and they'll chat. Their brains become much more alert late at night," Bradley said. [*]Don't take their criticism too personally. Studies show that young teenagers often misinterpret surprise or fear for anger. If you ask them why they're half an hour late, they may translate your apprehension for their safety as yelling or nagging. Bradley offered this example: "A kid comes in from doing a risky thing, and the parent says, 'My God! You could have been killed!' The kid says, 'Stop yelling at me!'" The parent can say, 'I love you and I was scared to death and that's why I'm so upset.'" [*]Keep monitoring their media consumption. Teenagers are affected by the culture around them, and parents can help stave off potential negative effects of too much sexual or violent content by keeping tabs on what they're doing on the Internet, checking the ratings of movies they want to see and setting limits on how long they can play a video game. [*]Help them get enough sleep. During puberty, the body produces melatonin, a hormone that helps induce sleep, later and later, so teenagers tend to be alert late at night and have difficulty getting up in the morning. That means they're not getting the sleep they need. Walsh recommends cutting down on stimulation -- watching TV, talking on the phone, drinking caffeinated sodas -- and hour before bedtime to help an adolescent wind down.[/list:u]