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Q&A with Dr. Frances Jensen

The teenage brain is all revved up with fewer brakes on it, says author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.

Janice Biehn: Is it different being an adolescent today than 40 or 50 years ago? Do you think “helicopter parenting” or the tendency to over-protect kids is leading to this prolonger adolescence and delayed adulthood?

It’s a combination of what’s going on inside and outside. It’d not like human biology has changed over the generations and suddenly their brains are developing slower. But our environment and society is prolonging this process of becoming independent. Some of it is economic of course. There are less jobs available; data says 40% kids return home to live for a prolonged period of time. But I think that the difference is that the environment is much more busy, much more complex, a lot of choices, and decision points that weren’t even available before. Two or three generations ago children were in a boarding school or on a farm. Now with the Internet and social networking and so many distractions, they’re exposed to a lot. They have a relative weakness in controlling impulses and judgment because there are too many choices.

The basic paradox of the teenage brain is that it’s all revved up but with fewer brakes on it. The synapses – the connections between nerve cells – are much more plastic, they’re absorbing and morphing in response to good and bad stimuli, more so than in adults. That’s a fact that people didn’t really realize. After puberty the brain is not done. You are not an adult with fewer miles. You’re still going through a process where your brain structure and chemistry is going to change. It’s not going to get there until mid to late 20s.

JB: When I was reading your book, I thought I should give it to my own teens. There’s a lot of interesting memoir-type stories.

A lot of the other books are sort of mocking teenagers, or a negative tone or degrading them in some way. That was not what I wanted to do. A lot of books about teen development are very psychosocial, but they don’t get to the meat. Teenagers want to hear facts. And so do parents. We’re a data driven group too, maybe not as much as our teenager but it helps to have facts.

This book is supposed to bring real facts that can be used in conversations or used to keep parents a little more patient and maybe stop overreacting, and things to share with the teenagers. When I used to give these Teen 101 talks, I couldn’t leave the room. They had so many questions. They are fascinated about themselves, and who they are. They learned that just because they maybe made bad decisions, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a criminal for life, maybe it’s just a natural mistake.

The brain is changing and growing. A lot of countries by age 13 will stream kids into scholar or unacademic programs. To close the door on people by then may be a bit premature. Kids can really come into their own and become smarter in high school.

JB: What do you hope to teach parents and teens?

This is a miraculous time, I wish we knew that when we were younger. Your IQ can change one way or another. There is a reason you were sleeping late. You shouldn’t feel bad because you can’t get up on a Sunday morning. I want the book to help parents understand what may seem like bizarre behaviour, and help kids understand why they do some of these things, and also, when a parent is trying to tell something to a kid, it’s not ‘just because I told you so.’

I want to always make sure there’s a positive message in all this. It’s not all doom and gloom. There at a natural point in their lives where they’re impulsive, novelty seeking. This is a natural state, can we do something with this? Can we start a conversation?

JB: Do adolescents have too much stress or is it that they’re not learning how to handle the stress?

60/40, there’s more stress than not knowing how to handle it. There’s an unprecedented opportunity for more stress than before. Schoolyard pranks that would have stayed in the schoolyard now go viral and become cyberbullying. That causes way more stress. The consequences for the bullied is going to be a cajillion times more. It’s cumulative too. If you have a lot of baseline stress and you add one more thing… it’s worse. I think that it’s ratcheted up significantly, and I don’t think we as a society have figured out how to manage this.

Applying to post-secondary school can be stressful for example. Parents can help make it less stressful by not pressuring kids. That’s learning and memory. Not only do you increase the chances that they’ll have anxiety or depression later, you’re actually impairing their current ability to learn. We know that stress impairs learning.

JB: Are teens more prone to addiction?

Addiction is a form of learning, and drugs are so much more accessible thanks to the internet. It’s a real challenge for teenagers to say no. That’s what your frontal lobes are for.

There is some evidence that video gaming can be addictive. Digital interaction can get somewhat addictive. Their brain is adapting to the environment, and they do a much better job than making those connections than adults. 

JB: Should parents be on top of teens, or should we let them make their own mistakes?

There’s a balance. Be connected. Of course they have to make their own mistakes, but hopefully not ones that can have lifetime repercussions. You won’t see it unless you’re connected to them. Our world is much more socially isolating now and it’s a perfect storm for these things to get a little worse.

I don’t want to be Pollyannaish. We as adults actually have our frontal lobes hooked up. And it’s our responsibility to use them to help our kids.

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