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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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The teenage brain

Uploaded: Feb 21, 2015
Recent studies have shed light on what is happening in adolescents' brains that make this a uniquely fascinating, but also perplexing and concerning life phase. Now that our third daughter is age twelve going on sixteen, we are in the midst of round three of bedroom-door slamming, so we are grateful for these new insights. Understanding her brain development somehow makes the door slamming more tolerable, or maybe it is only less aggravating because my hearing is significantly worse. One advantage of late-in-life parenting!

Last week, I had the pleasure, along with a standing-room-only crowd of district parents, of hearing Dr. David Walsh speak about the development of the adolescent brain. The talk was sponsored by PAUSD Student Services. His talk shared a title with his book, "Why Do They Act That Way?" Dr. Walsh is an engaging speaker who, per his website, "translates brain science into helpful strategies for raising resilient children and youth." He explains the neuroscience, but also uses anecdotes from his own family to illustrate his points, and there is an appealing folksiness and intimacy to his manner (which I attribute to his being a fellow Minnesotan!) He sets a wonderful tone of acceptance and reassurance. Although I recognized only a few faces in the audience, and the evening was primarily a lecture, I left feeling supported by the community of parents around me and inspired by our common purpose.

Dr. Walsh spoke at length about the immaturity of the connections from the rest of adolescent brain to the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of "executive function" that considers consequences, makes plans, controls impulsive behavior, and assesses risk. This rewiring is not complete until the mid-twenties, so in the mean time, parents must serve the not-always-welcome role of a surrogate prefrontal cortex for their teens. As a newborn requires the connection to a loving adult to learn to self-calm, teens also need that connection to caring adults to establish the appropriate neuronal pathways to navigate life. "Relationships are a powerful protective factor that shields youth from risk and allows them to build on their strengths?the neurons that fire together, wire together". Whatever the brain does a lot of, it gets good at, and guidance from parents and other invested adults is an essential part of establishing the pathways for decision-making and social-emotional health.

He also discussed how, in the absence of the fully connected prefrontal cortex and its capabilities, teens interpret non-verbal cues in the amygdala instead, a part of the brain that tends to escalate emotional response and interpret others' actions as threats or perceived insults, which explains how teens can tend to misinterpret their environment and why the oft-recited teenage refrain of "my (fill in the blank) hates me!"

The information Dr. Walsh shared on addiction in teens was also interesting. In the same way that teens' brains have the amazing capabilities to learn calculus and memorize countless lines of Shakespeare, these capabilities make it easy for their brains to "learn" addiction. As little as a single exposure to an addictive substance can lead to changes in a teen's brain that make going without that substance difficult. In addition, the warning signs of alcohol toxicity, such as slurred speech, somnolence, nausea, and motor impairment, are delayed in teens as compared to adults, which contributes to teens' binge drinking and possibly suffering permanent brain damage or worse. The research Dr. Walsh described challenges complacency about exposing the teenage brain to alcohol, marijuana or other addictive substances. Behavior that was once viewed as harmless experimentation, and even a right of passage, is now understood to have the potential for causing measurable damage to the brain or creating a life-long struggle with substance abuse.

I liked his analogy of viewing our relationship with our teens as a bank account. Seize the opportunities for joy, goodwill and affection, all deposits in the account, so that there will still be a positive balance after the withdrawals of adolescence. He described parenting teens as, at times, an exercise in delayed gratification: the sleepless nights, endless negotiations, moodiness and disrespectful behavior. But he also shared his gratitude for the presence of his amazing now-adult children in his life. Our two much-missed adult children are currently working or studying eleven time zones away, but they and their almost fully-formed prefrontal cortexes continue to delight and amaze us as well.

Dr. Walsh concluded his talk with the advice that "adolescence is not a problem or mystery to be solved. It is an experience to be lived." Adolescents' passion, idealism, loyalty, creativity and energy are to be enjoyed and admired!

Other upcoming community and school events discussing student wellness can be found in this recent Palo Alto Online article.
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Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 21, 2015 at 8:59 pm

Thank you Sally for sharing this. I love the conclusion that adolescence is "an experience to be lived"! Understanding more about a teenagers' brains should make the difficult moments easier.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 21, 2015 at 9:22 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Debbie, for reading and commenting! The newest research does provide a lot of insight into the inner workings of the teen brain.

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Feb 22, 2015 at 8:37 am

Whenever I read articles like this, I read them thinking that the teenager is a strange animal so hard to understand and as adults we need to do studies and read articles to find out exactly how this unusual animal functions.

Unlike many of the so called experts, I actually remember that I was once a teenager. I once was moody and got upset. I would cry myself to sleep. I would be jubilant for some small reason and then the bubble would burst by something else that happened and I would be angry, upset and miserable. Adults would talk about me, sometimes in my hearing, as being "at that difficult age". I was told I was "still a child and could not make my own decisions" and to "wait until I was older" before doing something. I was also told that I was "old enough to know better" and to "stop behaving like a child". It seemed to me that whatever age I was, it was too young for some things and too old for other things.

I remember reading teen magazines that told me to have patience with my parents as they had problems I didn't know about, e.g. enough money to pay the bills, concerns about their aging parents, etc. These periodicals told me to give my parents some space and let them see I was trying hard to be what they wanted in a daughter.

I doubt very much if my parents read anything to help them be a parent to me, my mother had a pregnancy/baby book which I have read and am greatly amused by the simplistic advice and information, but this is all she claims to have read or seen.

So when it comes to dealing with teens, my advice for what it is worth, is to delve back into your own teen years and gain some insight from the younger you. If you have some old journals, diaries or even schoolwork, you may start remembering that you went through the same thing.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 22, 2015 at 8:55 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, Mother of 4, for reading and commenting. I often wish I could "tap into" my inner teenager in dealing with my kids, although I think I find it more challenging to do that than you do. Actually, one of the interesting things about Dr. Walsh's talk was it not only helped me understand the current family dynamics, but it did explain to me some aspects of my own adolescence, and answered some of my questions about my own behavior.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Feb 22, 2015 at 10:29 am

Yes, "Why Did We Act That Way?" would have been a less condescending book title.

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Feb 22, 2015 at 11:05 am

Thank you for sharing.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 22, 2015 at 11:39 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear musical,
Great alternative book title. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Dear Maria,
Thanks for reading!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Feb 23, 2015 at 5:41 am

A long view (two decades) comes in handy. Looks like we all need an even longer view as we deal with our ancient amygdalas. I know what just a door slamming does for me there!

Posted by Parent of 3, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 23, 2015 at 10:54 am

Sally, thank you so much for the great post and coverage of Dr Walsh's talk. The part that struck me as extremely valuable had to do with drug use and addiction, and the effect on the developing brain of teenagers. Many kids start experimenting with drinking and pot smoking much earlier than many of their parents did, and the potency is so much stronger today than it was back then in terms of the typical pot many of us smoked. I made the mistake of thinking when one of my kids started smoking weed a few years ago at age 15 upon entering PALY that, well, I tried it when I was young (and look how I turned out...), it's just occasional, and everyone is doing it so no big deal. How wrong I was. My son took to it in a big way, as did his friends. The results have not been pretty. This is a deepening problem for many teenagers and their families in Palo Alto (and beyond.) I'm not sure how much the admin at PALY realizes or feels they can help do something about the extent of the problem. When I went to speak to the recent superintendent of schools about the problem and asked him what percentage of kids in Palo Alto high schools got high last weekend, his response was maybe 10-15%. That seems extremely a low estimate.Add to that number study drug use around exam time and the extent of the problem is multiplied. I know ultimately that it's a parents responsibility to ensure the health and well being of their children, and I take full responsibility for having failed my child in this matter. We have made some changes and am happy to report my child has turned things around significantly.But the damage to the frontal cortex by the early using is done. We can only go on from here. Thanks again.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 23, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Parent of 3,
Thank you for sharing your story. It is very helpful for other parents to hear what your family has gone through. I am glad your son is doing better. Thank you for making the effort to alert PAUSD as well. The schools also benefit from the reminder to be as vigilant as possible in identifying and helping kids who might be using.

Dear LJ,
Yes, the long view is a help!

Posted by Sea Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 4:47 am

Good information.

I have three children; 2 daughters and a son; all finished school and on their own now.

There were a few teen age challenges; but nothing that we could not get through. Only thing that made it easy was; having a job, health and desire to love.

As a parent, there is no substitute in life, having the experience of having children at any age. It has been good for me.

It is the joy of living.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 6:13 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, Sea Seelam Reddy for reading and commenting. I share your sentiments!

Posted by Elspeth Farmer, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 11:16 am

Great article, Sally! The new understanding that neuroscience has brought to adolescent behavior is so important and your summary of this talk is excellent. You may be interested to know that new discoveries regarding the adolescent brain is having a positive impact in juvenile justice -- and is a key argument for ending solitary confinement for juveniles and also trying to end the horrific practice of trying juveniles "as adults" in criminal courts. There is so much at stake here....thank you for your investment in helping parents and teenagers!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Elspeth,
Thank you for reading and commenting!
It is very heartening to learn that the this new understanding of the adolescent brain's malleability is shifting the focus to rehabilitation of teens.

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