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It’s a fact: teenagers do bone-headed things that anyone in his right mind would never do. They do stupid stuff and when you ask why, they say something like, “I didn’t think.”  No kidding.

This sort of behavior can land them in real trouble, if it hasn’t already. So why are teens so thoughtless and what you can you do to help them wise up?

First, teens may look nearly grown up but their brains are still developing. And the part that is developing the most at this age, the prefrontal cortex, is the area necessary to evaluate a course of action and see consequences. This part of the brain isn’t fully online until late adolescence – about age 18 for girls and as old as 22 for boys. So when teens say they “didn’t think” or they “didn’t know,” they’re right. They didn’t really have even the ability to think things through or to know what might happen.

Second, teens are blinded by their own over-confidence. The under-development of their prefrontal cortex permits teens to inflate their own abilities and to think they’ve got everything under control. Teens can’t see all the details and possibilities so success at any venture seems simple to them. They feel perfectly capable of mastering any challenge, any challenge at all.

Finally, teens simply lack experience. We adults know where the pitfalls are. We understand that a child by the side of the road might dart in front of our car, so we slow down. We know water that is deep enough to dive into might still hide rocks, so we check before we jump in. We know that being asked to “take care of” something valuable for an acquaintance might mean that it was stolen and we know that receiving stolen property is a crime.

Teens don’t know everything, though they sometimes think they do, and they don’t have the brain power to think things through very well anyway. What can we do? How can you help your teen wise up?

1. Casually clue him in. Your teen may not want your advice, so you need to almost mention it just in passing. You might share with them your own dumb mistakes and let them laugh at you. You might wonder out loud about the possibility of danger, and let them realize on their own that danger was possible. Keep the lines of communication open without preaching or treating your teen like a child.

2. Play the role of spotter. Remember when your kid was little and you stood under the jungle gym, ready to catch her if she fell? You need to play this role again now, the role of spotter. Your teen will get into trouble that a more carefully thinking person would avoid. You need to stand underneath, ready to catch her and set her on her feet again. Don’t blame her for her thoughtlessness but help her make amends if need be and learn from her mistakes.

3. Continue to give your teen chances to make decisions. It might seem easier to just keep your teen indoors for several years until his brain catches up with reality. But the thing about brain development is that it requires experience to happen. The only way to learn how to see the possible consequences of an action is to have to make decisions that involve possible consequences. The prefrontal cortex requires exercise to develop. Make sure your teen’s brain gets this exercise.

And remember one more thing. While teens do make thoughtless mistakes, you do too. We all do. Each of us probably made a dumb error as recently last week. It’s easy to judge our teens’ stupidity as just that – stupidity – and forget that we made that error ourselves when we were fifteen and we made a different error of our own this morning. Life is full of uncertainty. We’re all learning. Love your teen.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Many parents are aware of the importance of “the first three years” when it comes to brain development. They bend over backwards, making certain their infants and toddlers get all the nutrition and mental simulation needed to develop their baby brains.

Not so many parents understand than a second period of tremendous brain development happens much later, during puberty and adolescence. Rather than supporting this development, parents may inadvertently derail this development by permitting kids to consume large amounts of caffeine.

Over the past 30 years, caffeine intake by children and young adults has increased more than 70%. Soft drinks and energy drinks often tout their pick-me-up properties – properties derived from caffeine. Kids who are frequently overscheduled may be directed to caffeine-laced drinks to help them get through a busy day and to stay awake through a mountain of homework. Mom and Dad may be the ones directing kids to use caffeine, even buying for them caffeine drinks they think the kids will enjoy.

There’s very likely a huge downside. A recent study by researchers at the University Children’s Hospital in Zurich and the Swiss National Science Foundation found that “teenage” rats who received daily doses of caffeine equivalent to 3 or 4 cups of soda had delayed brain development. The maturing process that typically occurs in adolescent brains – a pruning of unneeded connections and fine-tuning of needed ones – was diminished.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 100 mgs of caffeine for children and teens. But they note that a typical, 12-ounce service of cola contains 35 mgs or more, so that three sodas alone put a child over the limit. Many teens drink a couple sodas a day, and then an energy drink or other caffeine-laden beverage… or eat chocolate, another caffeine-containing substance.

Granted, your child is not a rat and the study was conducted with rats. There are ethical considerations that make a caffeine-study of teen brain development impossible. But the development of rat brains and human brains follow a similar path. And given the possible impact of caffeine and the lack of nutritional necessity of caffeine, it makes sense to pay attention. Even a rat-study has relevance when trying to develop your teen’s thinking ability!

So what do you do?

  1. Limit your child’s caffeine intake. Get it down to zero if you can. You may find that your child sleeps better and is less crabby – nice bonuses!
  2. Read labels. If you can’t avoid caffeine completely, at least reduce the caffeine content of what you keep in the fridge.
  3. Pay attention to the availability of caffeinated drinks in your child’s school and on the sidelines of her sport. If energy drinks are part of the mix, speak up.
  4. Notice when your child seems to “need” caffeine. Is he under a lot of stress, trying to do too much, leaving tasks until he’s already tired? Rearrange his schedule or eliminate some items if your kid needs caffeine to get through the day or if he needs caffeine to be awake enough to get started.
  5. Talk with your older child and teen about the downside of caffeine. Help your child learn to make good choices.

Especially when key brain development is underway, it’s important to regulate your child’s nutrition and that includes caffeine. More calmness, less frantic activity, better sleep, and smarter. Where’s the downside in that?


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

As you probably realize, children’s brains are constantly growing. New experiences translate into neural connections which adds brain capacity for life. At no other time in life is learning so automatic and so important.

As children grow towards adulthood, the speed of brain cell connection slows down and pruning of unused brain cells speeds up. You might have heard that your child has more brain cells than you do and it’s true. Whatever is there at birth but unused by adolescence is cut away to make room for brain cells that are really needed.  While it’s always possible to learn new things and make new brain connections, the ease with which we learn new things lessens with age.

Except in some teens. New research indicates that for some teens, the window on rapid brain connection stays open longer, far into adolescence.  This means that for some children, the teen years provide extra time for nearly effortless learning. This research suggests that children who have higher IQs are more likely to have this extra time. But I suggest it’s smart to assume one of these children is yours.

No matter how capable and accomplished your child is now, there’s no reason to assume his learning will slow in adolescence. It makes sense to presume your child will continue learning new things quickly: there’s no reason not to think this and every reason to think so. If your teen learns more because you believe he can, that’s great.

So what should you do? How can you help your teen keep her brain development window open?

  1. Support learning of all sorts. Everything a person does starts in the brain, so learning how to run faster, play an instrument, or create websites all contributes to brain development. The brain isn’t just for school skills.
  2. Encourage learning in new areas. There never will be a better time to learn to sing, master a new language, try a new sport, or learn any other new skill. If there’s an interest, try to capitalize on that now and not wait until your child is older. There’s still time to learn, so it’s not too late to begin.
  3. Help your child link up with experts, so he’s learning from the best in real situations. This might mean helping him find a chess club, a music teacher, or an artisan willing to take on an apprentice. The support of an older mentor will deepen your child’s learning.
  4. Keep learning yourself. Just as learning isn’t only for school so is learning not just for kids. Stretch your own brain and model new learning for your kids. It won’t be so easy to learn new things as it is for your children, but the more you learn, the easier it will become.

Developing your child’s teenage brain is an extra-curricular activity. School is great for academic learning but there’s a lot more your child’s mind can do. It’s up to you to help your teen become all she can be.

The secret is to never, ever stop!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.