After I finished Frances E Jensen’s book The Teenage Brain, I totally rewired the way I relate with my recently-teenage son. Not that he’s difficult to live with yet, unless you dislike loud guitar and a passion for skateboarding. But my friends who’ve been through it tell me to steel myself for what’s ahead.
I remember adolescence, when my parents suddenly became a different species and got everything so wrong. Maddening and sweet for those going through it, the period of “storm and stress” first identified by psychologist G Stanley Hall in the late 19th century is the source of all confusion and mayhem for those looking on.
Jensen is a neurologist who made the adolescent brain her area of research while raising two teenage sons on her own. Her personal experience brings her science to life. She says that while researchers long believed the adolescent brain was just a smaller adult brain—blaming raging hormones for teen spirit— it’s actually totally different in structure from a child or adult brain. This is a brain primed for learning, which makes adolescence a great time to try new things, and take risks. But with all that brain space devoted to learning, there are fewer links, especially from back to front, where executive function, the bit that puts it all together, resides. The adolescent brain is like an enormous hard drive with an inefficient operating system. It has trouble with “attention, self-discipline, task completion, and emotions.”
When her sons were in high school, Jensen involved herself in study timetables and assignment due dates in a way I would have said was hovering until I read her book. She saw this as her job while her sons were organisationally incapacitated by their brains. She also says school should start mid-morning for teenagers. They stay up late and sleep in, not because they’re difficult but because they release the sleep hormone melatonin later.
Jensen says teenage brains are vulnerable to addiction because addiction is just a particular kind of learning. She says you should keep teenagers away from alcohol and drugs as much as you can and the kind of learning they do will be very hard to unlearn later in life. Some parents provide alcohol for their teenagers, in the hope of encouraging responsible drinking, but research shows that these teens are more not less likely to binge-drink. Telling kids not to drink because it’s illegal sticks often enough to make a difference. This is a big point with Jensen, that kids are listening, even when they’re shrugging their shoulders and telling you to, you know, get lost. Data, she says. They listen to data.
I was sold. But telling a friend about the book, I was surprised at how strongly he pushed back. “Oh yeah, brains, is it? More like needing a clip around the ear.” He may be right. But for now, there is mutual respect in our household and I’m going to see how long I can sustain it.
First published in Qweekend magazine of The Courier-Mail.