The Science Behind the Teen Brain

The Science Behind the Teen Brain - Parenting Like Hannah

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During a stint recruiting doctors, I became fascinated by medical science. Educators spend a lot of time debating what we can alter with education and environment and what is pre-determined by biology. My problem with most scientists is that they remove God from the equation. I really do believe God has the power to “overcome” biology or any other sciences and their rules if He chooses to do so. In spite of my belief, I know that most of the time, God allows our bodies to function in certain standard ways.

As an educator, I am always curious about the latest research involving the brain. A PhD Astronomer friend recently reminded me that you must take every scientific discovery with a grain of salt. New instruments or more thorough or broader research can often turn recent discoveries upside down. With his warning in mind, I decided to learn what the latest thinking was on the teen brain. I volunteered to review a galley of a new book which will be released in a few months called, What Are They Thinking?!: The Straight Facts about the Risk-Taking, Social-Networking, Still-Developing Teen Brain by Aaron M. White, PHD and Scott Swartzwelder, PHD.

Reading the first chapter of this book is not for the faint of heart, as it brings back memories of college text books. Within the chapter though, are nuggets of information which are important for parents to know. For example, the authors discuss the way the brain changes from the brain of a child to the brain of an adult. During the transition period of adolescence, it is important for teens to be given lots of opportunities to learn new, useful skills and to steer them away from focusing their energies on more negative experiences which can cause trauma or mind-numbing activities like watching television.

The authors also explore the changes in brain activity in teens which could explain their often heightened anxiety and emotional reactions. Of course, they go into great depth about the risk/reward mechanism in the teen brain and how it actually encourages them to take risks older brains might avoid.

The real value in this book are the discussions of a wide variety of normal and abnormal behaviors which can appear during the teen years. Evidently, the most common age for mental illness to appear is fourteen. This book would be a good first information source for parents with questions about everything from video gaming to anorexia to drugs and beyond. They break down not only what is normal and what isn’t, but the biology behind the issue and when to seek help.

One thing I have noticed over the years, is that our children (at least in our experience) are not receiving the anti-drug education we received back in the 1970’s. By the time I was in about fifth grade, our class could have competed against your average NARC agent on illegal drug knowledge including every street name and horrifying side effect.  Many older parents (who may have experimented with drugs such as pot during their teen years) often have no idea that today’s pot is 10 times stronger (and much more dangerous) than the pot in their day. This book gives any parent a quick run-down on the popular drugs teens are using today, their sources and the negative side affects. It is a good primer for you to use in drug discussions with your children.

My primary concern with the book is that it removes God and/or morals from the discussion. I think as a result, the book often takes on a more negative or fatalistic tone. For example, the authors conclude pre-marital sex is a given so the only discussion worth having is the best way to keep them healthy. From my personal experience talking to teens and young adults over the years, I know purity until marriage is possible and may be more common than we think. The authors also seem to dismiss pornography use by teen boys as more harmless than I have seen in other places and are almost fatalistic in the belief of the inability to convince teens to avoid undesirable behaviors or in Christian lingo “sins”.

My other regret is that the afterward was not the primary focus of the rest of the book. Almost as an after thought, the authors threw in an “Afterword”, which actually had some really intriguing ideas. They suggest a lot of practical ideas which I wish they had spent more time on in the rest of the book. (I would gladly have given up the intensive anatomy lesson in the first chapter for this more practical information to be fleshed out throughout the book.) Ideas like providing lots of safe “danger” for our teens like white water rafting, providing challenges like learning new art techniques or going on foreign mission trips (my ideas!) and moving school times to allow for more sleep are just several of the ones thrown out after the end of the book.

I believe this book has great value if you haven’t kept up with trends in drug usage, are seeing behaviors that concern you in your own child or just want to understand a little better what is physically happening to your child that may make him more susceptible to temptations. It’s not the easiest read in places, but does contain a lot of basic, helpful information as well as some practical suggestions. If you work with teens, it is probably a good resource book to consult as issues arise from time to time.

What are your thoughts on nurture versus nature? What behaviors have you noticed in your teens that may have a biological basis? What are you doing to help your teen overcome the temptations that seem more attractive because of the changes that are occurring in their brains? I encourage you to share your thoughts below so we can help each other raise more godly teens.

I received a galley of this book in exchange for my review. I requested this galley. The link to the actual book is an affiliate link, If you purchase through the link, this blog will receive a small compensation. I am painfully honest, as you can tell and these are my honest thoughts on the book.

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Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 11:18-19 NIV)