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In search of the teenage brain

Posted March 23

There are times when the teen brain seems to be on extended leave. Here's what's happening, and what you can do about it. (Deseret Photo)

These days, I spend a lot of time helping my teenagers hunt for lost items.

Where’s my church belt?

“Probably in your closet.”

Where are my shoes?

“Probably by the front door.”

In the span of two months, my 14-year-old lost three jackets. Three!

Every day, as I watch my teens head out the door to middle school, shoelaces flapping off those oversized feet, as I chase them down with a stick of deodorant or a gentle reminder to please run a comb through that shock of bedhead, I think that perhaps the brain housed inside that rapidly growing body has simply been left behind.

Or lost. Like three jackets.

It’s led me down a path of inquiry. What exactly is happening inside the teenage brain? Where did my responsible, level-headed, decently organized child go, and will I ever get him back?

Recent developments in brain research show that in response to my question, there is quite a lot happening inside the teenage brain (see "The Teen Brain" by Debra Bradley Ruder in Harvard Magazine online at harvardmagazine.com, "The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction" from The National Institute of Mental Health online at nimh.nih.gov and "Middle School" from This is American Life online at thisamericanlife.org). In fact, it is actually stunningly brilliant. The capacity for intellectual learning power is at its peak during the adolescent years. The more that the neural networks are stimulated, the greater capacity for remembrance.

In short, the teen years are the time for learning new things like language and music, according to Harvard Magazine. What you learn during those years will probably stick with you for life, which explains why I can still remember the choreography to every cheer I performed as a Jeff Jr. Cyclone cheerleader.

Unfortunately, this peak brilliance is coupled with a frontal lobe that is still in its maturing phase. That’s the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning and judgment, according to Harvard Magazine.

Which also explains why, in a lapse of 12-year-old judgment, I chose to do cheerleading instead of, say, violin and French.

That developing frontal lobe is the key to understanding the impulses that drive the choices of many teenagers, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Emotions in teens are exceptionally high. They feel more intensely than their younger selves, yet they’re still lacking that fully mature brain that keeps them from making stupid choices.

Add to that a heavy helping of hormones and a changing body structure and you get the “reckless” stereotype that can involve binge drinking, substance abuse and risky physical danger, according to Harvard Magazine.

So, what does the teen brain need? The short answer: everything a toddler needs, in larger and more concentrated doses. Here are six things I've found the teen brain needs:

1. Love. We need to embrace our teens and their stinky socks and their obnoxious friends and their wild opinions. They are figuring out who they are and where they fit in this world, and they need love upon love upon love. A good sense of humor helps too.

2. A safe home. The home should be a refuge. Make conversation a safe place, free of judgment. Listen. Sit by your teen’s bed at night and allow her to open up. Ask her questions while you’re driving her to soccer practice. Share with your son or daughter your beliefs and values, not as a sermon, but as a testament. Let them know you believe in them.

3. A parent, not a best friend. Set reasonable guidelines and rules that keep your teens safe. Safety comes in many forms these days: physical, yes, but even more so, virtual. Don’t be a naïve parent. Educate yourself on what’s going on with computers and smartphones and the latest social media apps. Set your teens up for success by helping them stay engaged in good activities with good friends.

4. Good food. It may sound silly, and maybe it’s because I have a gaggle of teen boys, but cooking them a hot meal is an outward manifestation of love. When we feed others, we break down barriers, so take time to cook good food and eat it together.

5. A good example. Yes, we’re all hypocrites to some degree, but know that your teens are watching. Set the example of hard work, healthy body image, appropriate media use, confident self-talk and meaningful religious observance.

6. Grace. The family is the first place our children learn grace. We will make mistakes. Our children will make mistakes. We will lose our tempers. We will say things that sting that we later regret. We model the Savior’s grace when we ask for forgiveness and allow our family members to do the same.

I once asked my mom how she survived my teen years. She said, in essence, “I knew what you would become.” There is a famous yogi saying that echoes that sentiment: “What we believe, we become.”

The same holds true for our teens. If we believe in them and nurture them, even when their brains appear to be on extended leave, they will become. And what is lost will be found.

Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the website Raise the Boys at raisetheboys.com, dedicated to rearing creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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