Getting inside the teenaged brain

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor


BINGHAMTON —
For all the exasperated parents who have ever asked their teenager, “What were you thinking?!” Jill Alford-Hammitt may have some answers.

Alford-Hammitt will speak to parents on the topic “Adolescent brain development —  What makes them act that way?” on Thursday, May 27 at 6:15 p.m. in the Newark Valley Middle School Auditorium.

Alford-Hammitt’s presentation is sponsored by FASTWORKS, a program of Lourdes Hospital that helps build and maintain a bond between parents, children and schools. She is a substance abuse prevention supervisor for the Lourdes student assistance/ADEPT program.

The talk will focus on brain development during the teenage years, sleep habits of teens, positive parenting strategies and ways to motivate teens.

Until the adolescent brain matures at age 22 for girls and age 24 for boys, Alford-Hammit said there are tremendous changes in the way risks, rewards and emotions are processed.

“Around the ages of 10 or 12 they have this 200 billion brain cell connection explosion, there’s a lot of mapping going on and different connections being made,” Alford-Hammitt said. “That also happens to be about the point when puberty starts, so they’re really getting a double whammy.”

The portions of the brain that regulate decision making, judgement and problem solving are not working with the rest of the brain. These parts of the brain may not be accessed when they’re needed, and this can lead teens to make poor decisions, she said.

Teens are also more emotional thinkers, and in any given circumstance, Alford-Hammitt said, the part of the brain that decides between right and wrong may be overridden by the part of the brain that governs emotions.

Teens also run on sleep rhythms different from what parents might expect. Melatonin, a hormone that is linked to sleep, works differently in the teenaged body than it does in adults.

“Teens don’t get programmed for sleep until later at night, their brains just do not access those levels of melatonin until later at night,” Alford-Hammitt said.

Sleep helps the long-term memory retain things that may have been learned during the day. If teens don’t get enough sleep, they’re not only tired, they may also struggle with learning deficiencies and can increase their risk of succumbing to alcohol or drug abuse, she said.

Sleep deficiency can affect what is called the prefrontal cortex portion of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making and determining future consequences.

“If they don’t get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex is hobbled just a little bit in its judgement-making ability,” Alford-Hammitt said.

She said there are also differences in the way that dopamine, a chemical linked to feelings of motivation and reward, works in the teenage brain. “Why do they go out and do the crazy things they do? Well, there are higher levels of dopamine being dumped into their systems,” Alford-Hammitt said. Teens are often willing to risk much more because the surge of dopamine makes the reward that much more intense.

Alford-Hammitt said teenagers require guided practice with skills like planning ahead and thinking through the consequences of actions. This is especially important to help them cope with unexpected circumstances.

“When you’re motivating teens, because there’s not this long-term thinking, they’re pretty much thinking two weeks down the road. If you’re trying to motivate them to stop a certain behavior or you’re getting them to think about a risky decision, it helps to present them with some of the more immediate pay-offs,” she said.

So, she said, parents can tell teens might think about how if they’re caught smoking cigarettes they’ll get kicked off the basketball team or if they drink alcohol their cell phone or computer privileges will be taken away.

“As a parent, it helps when you try to guide them through decisions ahead of time. Most of the time, they react the way they do when they’re presented with unplanned challenges,” she said.

If parents rehearse what a teenager can say or how they can react when offered a beer, for instance, then that teenager will be prepared if they ever find themselves in that situation.

Most importantly, Alford-Hammitt said, it’s important for parents to be as patient and loving as they possibly can. “It’s about turning up that patience, loving them, and really letting them know that you love them,” she said. “They really do internalize these things.”

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