Raising rebellious and unpredictable teenagers can be the cause of much angst and often creates great animosity between parents and children. For generations, parents have wondered about power shifts in their relationships with their children. Basically, how loving and obedient children transform almost overnight into aggressive rebels.
Dr. Frances E. Jensen, chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, has teamed up with Washington Post’s science writer Amy Ellis Nutt, to explore the teenage mind in this enlightening book. Herself the mother of two boys (now adults), Jensen peppers this scholarly volume with anecdotes from her own experiences as a parent, to scientifically explain the complexity of the human brain and mindsets of adolescents.
Jensen’s main proposition is that the teen brain isn’t “an adult brain with less miles on it”, as is widely believed. Hitherto the popular perception was that 90 percent of brain development is completed in the first seven years of life. However, Dr. Jensen argues that the next seven years are possibly as important as the first seven years. The teenage years encompass “vitally important states of brain development… full of unique vulnerabilities and exceptional strength,” she writes. Though teens have the same amount of hormones as young adults, they react differently, making them capable of great successes, but impulsive risk-takers as well.
Jensen suggests that while the plasticity of the teenage brain makes it suitable for learning and incredible achievements, still developing frontal lobes prompt sudden urges and rash decision-making. The frontal lobes which enable judgement and decision-making, develop only by the age of 18. This part of the brain generates self-awareness, responsibility and empathy. This is the reason teenagers have poor decision-making skills attenuated by heightened risk-taking proclivities.
What will seriously interest parents is Jensen’s explanation of “misunderstood” teens. She proffers that instead of constantly condemning them as insensitive, lazy or aggressive, it would be prudent to understand that their minds are works in progress, inhabiting a borderland between youth and adulthood. She describes the teen years as a time of self-discovery and advises parents/guardians to assist them through this turbulent period rather than question or doubt them. Schools and parents have to be especially sensitive because teenage hormones react differently. For instance the hormone THP, which has a calming effect on adults actually heightens teenage stress.
Therefore she advises parents to become “your teens’ frontal lobes until their brains are fully wired and hooked up and ready to go on their own”. In her opinion, partial development of their frontal lobes is responsible for much of the problem behaviour such as unhygienic habits, belligerent stances and reckless experimentation with drugs. She counsels parents to be patient instead of reacting in anger and alienating them, thus driving them towards more risky behaviour.
A redeeming feature of this book which saves it from becoming too academic is that it treads carefully between scientific explanations of teenage behaviour and advice to parents on handling young adults. On the one hand, it explains why teenagers can be impulsive, argumentative, and dodgy. But it also offers sound advice on how to manage trying situations, and engender goodwill and family harmony.
Of late, there have been a number of books advising ways and means to change the popular discourse around the adolescent mind. Among them are Daniel Siegel’s Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain and Laurence Steinberg’s Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.
But this volume offers the advantage of a comprehensive manual which addresses contemporary issues such as risk-taking, bullying, digital invasion, food disorders and criminal behaviour. It’s a must-read for parents struggling to cope with teenagers, leaving them with the assurance that if managed sensitively, young rebels will make a smooth transition to adulthood.