Monday, December 21, 2015


“You need to be your teens’ ‘frontal lobes’ until their brains are fully wired.”

I found this quote, from The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen, in an 8/31/15 New Yorker article, “The Terrible Teens: What’s wrong with them?” by the highly-respected Elizabeth Kolbert (all following quotes are from this article unless otherwise specified). Kolbert usually writes searing, devastating pieces on global warming and the environment, but apparently she’s also the mother of three teenage sons, and so had a personal interest in this subject as well. Frances Jensen is herself “a mother, an author, and a neurologist,” who has two sons who have now graduated from their respective (very good) colleges. We will leave aside the question of how these two mothers are so incredibly accomplished, naturally doing so in a totally unbitter way, and now proceed to discuss how and why something is “wrong” with teenage brains.

...Something is wrong with teenage brains. And what that is, is: teens are not yet fully-brained.

This is news?

Even Aristotle (~384-322 BCE) felt that the young are lacking wisdom or even the capacity for reason. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he wrote that youth are so “inexperienced,” and “tend[ing] to follow his [sic] passions” that “studying [here, reason and philosophy] will be vain and unprofitable.”

But Kolbert, Jensen, et al bring the science: Apparently, everything we think of as mature, wise, balanced, reasonable, “civilized, intelligent,” comes from our frontal and prefrontal lobes. Since brain development has been determined to start in the rear sections of the brain and move forward, these areas are the very last to mature. In fact, according to and many other sources, full brain maturity may not occur until far into the 20s, usually around 25 years of age. The BBC News, among others, extends this into the early 30s.

In teens, the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain are not yet completely integrated or connected with other more impulsive or pleasure-oriented parts of brain, the latter of which are in fullest-ever force during these years. Usually, in full-brainers such as ourselves, the frontal and prefrontal lobes will “check on impulses originating in other parts of the brain.” For teens, who are still developing those links, checks and balances are rare to nonexistent. Since these front bits of the brain are also the seat of executive function – “responsible for planning, for self-awareness, and for judgment”—organization and follow-through are also at a low point.

Now imagine all of this plus atypical neurological development. In certain ways, aspects of autism and other neurodiverse ways of being such as ADHD, may resemble - or partially overlap with - or exacerbate! - the typical teenage brain.

What I really, really want to know is: Does this mean my son may actually someday develop some sense? I do and will celebrate all of his other quirkinesses and differences, but the sheer dangerousness of his unique developmental status in this area, combined with the natural teen/20s[/30s] propensity toward rash, foolish, irresponsible behavior, is alarming. At some point, he needs - for his own safety and independence - to somehow make, integrate, and strengthen those neural connections.

In any case, allistic or neurodiverse, teens also quite blatantly lack some of the central capacities we regard as integral to prudent, productive, safe human existence.

As solutions, Jensen and Kolbert recommend the following hi-tech tools:
            * “near constant hectoring,”
            * “scare tactics:” telling terrible cautionary tales at every opportunity, and
* calling other parents to make sure your teens are never alone at their houses, either (representative teen quote following this strategy: “Why even have kids if you are going to do that?”), order to:
* force our kids into faking or parroting some modicum of executive function, responsibility, and do-right,
* supervise teens’ every move, since they are personally incapable of judgment, and, most importantly, to,
* frighten our kids into not doing all the stupid things they are naturally prone to doing.

Count me in: I never thought I would be this kind of parent but, given what I’ve learned and experienced so far, I agree with them on every level. They admit, however – and I agree with this, too - that not only were/are their teens’ immediate responses “not always encouraging,” but that there is “no empirical evidence” that any of this works.

Nonetheless, it’s all we’ve got. So, for the next 8-20 years, you may call me “Full Frontal Mama.”

Full Spectrum Mama

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