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Summer Break + Teen Brains Takes Special Parental Understanding

PHOTO: Childhood behavioral expert Jim Harris says if it seems to an adult that a teen's brain works differently from theirs, that's right. Understanding the differences can be a big help, especially as teens enjoy more freedom during summer vacation. Photo credit: Dan Heyman, Public News Service.
PHOTO: Childhood behavioral expert Jim Harris says if it seems to an adult that a teen's brain works differently from theirs, that's right. Understanding the differences can be a big help, especially as teens enjoy more freedom during summer vacation. Photo credit: Dan Heyman, Public News Service.
June 6, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Kids are out of school, and summer for many teens in Wyoming means more time and freedom. It can make parents worry, and an expert on childhood behavior says new research can help mom and dad understand what's going on in their child's head.

The risky experimentation to which kids seem drawn from puberty is at least partly the result of biological changes in their brains, said clinical social worker Jim Harris, who works with the U.S. Department of Education to improve behavioral practices in schools. The adolescent brain is pushing its 'owner' to be ready to leave the nest, he said.

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

Adults' reaction often is to blame hormones - but Harris said it's deeper than that. Take the pre-frontal cortex - the part of the brain in charge of rational decision-making and impulse control. In a teen, Harris said, it's still developing, partly through experience and experimentation. He added that in most people, it isn't fully developed until their 20s.

"It's not that they're not necessarily rational," he said, "it's just that they're fine-tuning their rational process."

Harris, who serves as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports coordinator at the Marshall University Autism Training Center. gives talks entitled "A Teenager's Brain: A Scary Place to Go Alone." He recently spoke at the largest state conference of social workers in the nation.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - WY