I recently had breakfast with some friends who have a graduating high school senior. He’s a great kid who wants to be a speech therapist and has been accepted into the right university for that training. Also, I pointed out that in addition to this wonderful outcome, their son had already achieved something huge: he had successfully negotiated the gauntlet of awful mishaps that can victimize a teenager.
I typically try to keep the tone of my posts positive. But realistically, some terrible, even tragic things can happen, and this young man had avoided them all:
- Use alcohol or drugs, which can disturb normal brain development
- Become addicted to smoking or vaping
- Get hooked on action shooter video games
- Spend too much time social networking
- Become fascinated with pornography
- Bully other kids or be bullied
- Break the law
- Get injured or die by automobile accident
- Be victimized by sexual predators or sex trafficking
- Get pregnant or cause a girl to get pregnant
- Contract sexually transmitted diseases
- Become overly anxious or stressed
- Suffer depression or commit suicide
- Become the victim of an eating disorder
- Inflict self-harm
- React to parenting with rebellion and defiance
- Acquire poor health habits that lead to obesity
- Lose interest in studies
- Feel dependent or entitled
- Suffer low self-esteem
- Submit to peer pressure
- Fail to discover purpose or ambition
- Fail to launch after high school
It’s a scary list. Each of these issues is complex and often confusing to parents. No wonder they worry so much about their kids. The teen culture, aided by innovative technology, continues to evolve, and mostly not for the better. Bad things really can and do happen. I won’t go into the statistics, because you’re probably already aware of them. Parents are right to be concerned. Will their child make it to adulthood without getting into serious trouble?
What can parents and their kids do about it?
The solution in most cases boils down to one factor: will the adolescent child develop the kind of judgment that will lead to making the right choices?
Judgment has to do with having strong values and clear goals, understanding a situation, foreseeing consequences, evaluating options, and making informed choices. All these skills depend on whether circuits for them have been wired in the prefrontal cortex. And these circuits will be there, ready to empower a young person, if he or she has developed them by exercising them repeatedly during youth.
Will they do the work? Will they wire their brains for the foundations for good judgment?
A parent can’t do the work for them, and a parent can’t make a growing teen’s decisions.
But there’s much they can do:
- Early and often during adolescence, encourage a child to think for themselves
- Consistently give earned positive feedback to nurture strong self-esteem and self-confidence
- Give them information about the important functions of their PFC and how they can develop them
- Support their interest in courses and activities that cause them to think
- Coach them to protect their brain from substance abuse and excessive screen exposure
I wrote the book, How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain, to empower parents and their teens to do this. Now, for the first time in the human history, kids don’t have to get lucky, and parents don’t have to just hope for the best. Understanding how PFC development works, they can consciously and deliberately do things that will make the best case scenario happen.