People often say adolescence is a time of turmoil, and for some, tho not all by any means, it certainly is.
When a group of us were working at a school for troubled kids, a mentor, Laurence Frost, use to remind us that perhaps the best we could do for some of the adolescents was to provide them with structure and a ‘floor’ upon which they could steady themselves until the natural maturation processes took over.
Now there is research to explain what he knew from his work and from his experiences at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital with children and adolescents.
Two articles today bring this to my mind. On the front page of the Washington Post is an article, On the Reservation, Childhoods Lost, about the high rate of suicides for Native Americans. In the Boston Globe, there is an article, Teens’ Brains Make Them More Vulnerable to Suicide, including the following paragraphs:
Researchers have long known that the basic problem with the teenage brain is the “asymmetric” or unbalanced way the brain develops, said Dr. Timothy Wilens, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital specializing in adolescents, addictions, and attention deficit disorder.
The hippocampus and amygdala, which Wilens calls the “sex, drugs, and rock and’n’ roll,” part of the brain, feels and stores emotions and is associated with impulses. It matures well ahead of the section of the brain that regulates those emotions and impulses, the prefrontal cortex.
Throughout the teenage years and up until about age 25, this executive section of the brain, also responsible for planning and decision, lags behind, Wilens says.
Until the front part of the brain catches up, if kids get sad, “they really experience sadness un-tethered.” He adds. “It’s why first love really does break the heart.”
The developmental gap between these two parts of the brain working together does not just pertain to suicide, but it is probably also related to other behavioral and emotional issues for some adolescents.
Further research will likely make it possible for us to learn just which adolescents are more vulnerable to the emotional and impulsive portion of the brain overwhelming the decision making, ‘executive’ part.
But as you will see if you read the Globe article all the way to the end, the fact that we now know why adolescents are more are risk for bad decision making, risky behaviors, life threatening actions, we do not have to wait for further research to be published or for tests to be developed.
We know there are many behavioral interventions that can be applied now to help at risk teens.
That is why The Frost School was and still is one of a number of important interventions for troubled kids.
But special programs are not the only way to deal with this brain imbalance and risky behaviors in adolescence. Take a look at the Globe article, and knowing what you and we all know instinctively about adolescents, know that we can all reach out and that there are interventions that work, parenting skills that are important, not only for our own adolescents but also for those we may know in other aspects of our work and/or life.