One of the underlying themes of my writing is that parents of teens need to be realistic.

But being realistic doesn’t necessarily imply some kind of worst-case scenario. Because realistically, lots of really wonderful things can happen during adolescence. For example, a teen can:

  • Take studies seriously and become a knowledgeable, well-informed individual
  • Become an avid reader
  • Learn how to learn
  • Build executive function and critical thinking skills
  • Get involved in service projects
  • Become passionately interested in things that could lead to a career
  • Set goals for the future
  • Get a job and save money for college
  • Develop a strong work ethic
  • Maintain healthy nutrition and physical fitness habits
  • Spend time out in nature
  • Become responsible and independent
  • Learn a lot of practical life skills
  • Earn strong self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Develop empathy, compassion, and sensitivity
  • Improve relationship and leadership skills
  • Make friendships that last a lifetime
  • Have a lot of good, wholesome fun
  • Strengthen bonds with parents and siblings
  • Choose their own path of spirituality
  • Get accepted by a good, affordable college, prepared to do college-level work

These and other positive outcomes are definitely realistic; they happen to young people all the time. Of course, kids make their own choices; parents can’t force these outcomes to happen. But love, communication, guidance, support, and encouragement make a big difference.

At the same time, realistically, some really awful things could happen to a teen:

  • Normal teen brain development disturbed by alcohol or drug use
  • Addiction to smoking or other substances
  • Addiction to gaming
  • Addiction to social networking
  • Addiction to pornography
  • Bullying or being bullied
  • Breaking the law
  • Injury or death by automobile accident
  • Sexual predators or sex trafficking
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Stress, depression, suicide
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harming
  • Rebellion and defiance
  • Obesity
  • Loss of interest in studies
  • Feelings of dependence and entitlement
  • Laziness and a lack of ambition
  • Low self-esteem
  • Submission to peer pressure
  • After high school, a failure to launch

Again, parents can’t lead their children’s lives for them. Kids spend more time away from home than they do with family. They make choices. Most of the wonderful things and most of the awful things depend on a teenager’s judgment, which, as we all know, is a work in progress. It’s absolutely astounding what they don’t know yet. A teen’s judgment happens in the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, which, again, is under construction.

Everything I write is related to helping teens develop a robust prefrontal cortex to facilitate critical thinking and good judgment. They can consciously make their brain smarter. And the sooner the better. The stakes are two-fold:

  • Right now, good judgment is how a teen negotiates the tricky path past all the awful outcomes and towards the wonderful ones. The uncertainty about what could happen during the teen years is what keeps concerned parents awake at night.
  • Later, when the child becomes an adult, these executive function and critical thinking skills become the foundation for success in careers, relationships, and life in general.

The No. 1 resource for parents and teens: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

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