because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Teenage Years: It's All in the Brain

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photo by c.a. muller @ flickr.com

My son just started middle school after Labor Day, and everything seems to be going really well. So why am I already battening down the hatches? Because I remember how I was in middle school. I was evil. Just impossible. Everything my parents did was horrifyingly embarrassing. My friends were my world. I wanted the blue Fair Isles sweater that Jodi wore, the Bermuda bag that Marla carried, the clogs that Melissa had on her feet. I wanted to hang out with Dina and Noelle and Todd and Adam as much as humanly possible. We lived to torture our poor, pathetic French teacher. Every moment was filled with emotion and drama. I look back sometimes and wonder: Seriously, what was I thinking?

Apparently in the last decade,  a fair bit of research has been conducted to gather biological evidence as to why teenagers go a little bit haywire. Apparently, the teenage brain begins a massive shift around the prefrontal cortex around 12-13 years of age. The pre-frontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain that allows us to consider the consequences of our actions, and that part of the brain kind of stops working as well as it had before. Parents don’t always understand the neurological changes that their children’s brains are undergoing: changes that can cause their once docile children to take big risks and make big mistakes. The following article is an excerpt from a fabulous piece of reporting by Patti Neighmond for npr.org. You can read it, or you can listen to it here.

Laura Kastner, who along with Jennifer Wyatt has written a new book, Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens. For more than 30 years, Kastner has helped parents and children work toward greater calm in the home. In the book, Kastner presents a typical scenario:

Your child goes to a sleepover. The kids sneak out, go to someone’s house, and spray shaving cream all over the house and cars. The police come, give them a tongue lashing and send them back to the host family, who promptly delivers them home to you in the middle of the night.

“Sometimes, parents say, ‘What were you thinking?'” says Kastner. “And the joke’s on us. They weren’t thinking. They were running like wildebeests in the canyon. Just go, go, go. You know, they were flooded and excited and not really thinking through the consequences of their actions.”

In situations like this, Kastner says the first line of defense for parents is to stay calm. Tell the teen to just go to bed and that you will deal with consequences tomorrow. Ask them to write a note of self-reflection — about their regrets, why they went off track, what they would do differently if given another chance, and what skills they might need to avoid the situation in the first place.

Kastner suggests even writing a letter of apology to the host family, the family that got shaving-creamed, and maybe even the police officer who wasted his time responding to the incident. Based on the quality of this self-critique, Kastner says, parents can then determine discipline or consequences.

“It will be small, medium or large, based on the quality” of the self-critique and how much the parents believe their children learned from the mistake, she says. Parents might even have the teenager suggest their own discipline. And there’s an added benefit to the teens’ writing. It engages the “thinking” part of the brain, and gets the teenager away from the emotional frenzy of the night.

I, of course, love the idea of integrating writing as a way of getting kids to connect with thoughts to their actions. This is a strategy I have used in my classroom when students have been misbehaving. I simply hand the offending student a pre-written sticky note which instructs that student to sit out in the hall and write a full-page explanation as to why he/she has been asked to leave my class.

The exercise works for several reasons: First, it immediately eliminates the distraction from the classroom. Second, the student has to go outside and really think about what he/she was doing. Sometimes it is the first time the student has ever had the opportunity to even consider that what he/she has been doing might be considered annoying/bothersome, anti-intellectual, etc. Third, once the student is done, he/she returns to the class where we calmly conference. There has been time to cool down. I get to read the student’s words. The student generally recognizes his/her behavior as problematic to the larger group dynamic and we come to some kind of understanding. Sometimes, adjustments need to be made: maybe we decide to move the student’s seat so he/she is closer to me and further away from a friend or a loud hallway. Always, we have a clearer understanding of the other. And last, I have a piece of paper documenting the student’s infraction so if the behavior recurs, well . . . I have proof from the student’s own hand that establishes there has been an ongoing problem.

I have done all this for years, however, until I heard this report on NPR, it had never occurred to me to use this same kind of writing technique as a kind of disciplinary technique with my own child. (Not that I have had to. Yet.) But I love the idea of it.

So guess who has a blank composition notebook in the kitchen cupboard ready to go, should that moment of crisis arise. (Note: if you act fast, those notebooks are twenty-five cents at Target. If your peeps are just entering middle school, I suggest you pick up a few!)

And while we’re on the subject, anyone brave enough to share an example of a “wild and crazy thing” you did when you were between the ages of 13 and 17 years old? Anyone? Anyone?