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Understanding The ‘Teenage Brain’ Can Help Parents

PHOTO: Childhood behavioral expert Jim Harris says if it seems as though your teen's brain works differently from yours, that's because it does, but understanding the differences can be a  big help. Photo by Dan Heyman.
PHOTO: Childhood behavioral expert Jim Harris says if it seems as though your teen's brain works differently from yours, that's because it does, but understanding the differences can be a big help. Photo by Dan Heyman.
May 12, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Maybe your teen's brain doesn't work the same way yours does, but a West Virginia childhood behavioral expert says new research can help. Jim Harris, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports coordinator, Marshall University Autism Training Center, works to improve behavioral practices in schools. He says research suggests that the risky experimentation kids seem drawn to during puberty is partially the result of biological changes in their brains.

The adolescent brain is pushing its owner to be ready to go out into the world alone, he says.

"It's encouraging risk-taking, novelty seeking," Harris says, "in an effort to get kids to leave what are oftentimes safe, secure situations to go out and experiment and venture into adulthood."

The assumption often is to blame hormones and the teens' newly awakened sex drive, he says, but it's deeper than that. They are getting ready to start their own families, but their brains also are changing in other ways, he explains.

Take the pre-frontal cortex - the part of the brain in charge of rational decision-making and impulse control. Harris says in a teen it's still developing, in part by experience and experimentation. In most people, it hasn't fully developed until they are in their 20s, he adds.

"It's not that they're not rational, it's just that they're fine tuning their rational process," he says, noting that even though teens might seem like an alien species, they still need guidance and support.

Harris, a clinical social worker, spoke at the spring conference of the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Harris called his talk "A Teenager's Brain: A Scary Place to Go Alone." He says he means two things by that: The mind of an adolescent can seem like a strange landscape for an adult, and the teen should not have to go through these changes alone.

"The worst thing a parent can do at that stage is detach," Harris warns. "If a parent detaches, then they're leaving society, media, things like that to step in."

The NASW event, held in Charleston, is the largest conference of its kind in the country.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV