Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: The Teenage Brain

I love reading about the human brain. I guess it is just a strange fascination I have. Thus, when I saw that our library had this book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, I had to check it out. It was a fascinating and depressing treatise.

On the one hand, it was full of descriptions of the brain and its plasticity, which I love. I felt it was structured well, with chapters on "Building a Brain," "Learning," "Sleep," "Taking Risks," "Stress," "Mental Illness," "The Digital Invasion of the Teenage Brain," and "Sports and Concussions," to name a few.  But on the other hand, it was full of descriptions of teens who, because of their underdeveloped adolescent brains, made horrifying mistakes, often leading to death.

Although we haven't had much trouble to speak of with our teenage son, Bryce, he has certainly made some poor judgments and taken actions we believe aren't for the best. For example, he comes home from college every weekend to see his girlfriend, who is still in high school here. During her first weekend of her spring break, she wanted him to come see her for the few hours between his final Friday class and their 7 p.m. departure, so we begrudgingly agreed to shuttle him home for the weekend, while knowing that he had an especially stressful week already and was totally covered up with work, often staying up at night until 4 in the morning to study and complete his work. It is hard to know when to insist on intervening (especially, given the fact that we have every right to refuse to go pick him up) and when to simply let him make what we feel to be mistakes.

Even if we manage to navigate these waters with our almost young adult son, we still have two more boys coming up into that stage of development. The vast array of mistakes teens can make is overwhelming. There are dangers everywhere and the desire to fit in can be so strong. I don't think this book really provided all that much in the way of guiding parents (the guidance seemed primarily to be nurture a close relationship and talk to them about the potential dangers), but does make the reader more aware of the limitations teens have for thinking clearly and with long-term understanding (and makes fascinating reading). The only section I really balked at was the chapter on crime and punishment which seemed to imply that adolescents shouldn't be held accountable for their actions because their brain simply wasn't formed well-enough to make the right choices.

While I enjoyed reading about the teenage brain, I found it unsettling to think of all the dangers we still might have to encounter with our children. I did copy out a few pages on the chapter on sleep to share with Bryce, because college students have a tendency to think they will do better if they study well into the night, when in reality they do better if they study briefly and then allow their brain to absorb the information and process it while sleeping. I don't know if he'll take the information to heart, but at least I will be addressing some of the potential dangers (and I know that is a very mild example). Maybe one day when he's held hostage in the car as I drive him back to school, I'll tell him some of the more disturbing stories (alcohol, pot, hard-core drugs) to help him see some of the potential dangers out there. I still feel skeptical, however, because most teens think in their head "yes, but that would never happen to me." Ah, the teenage brain!

There are several other books out there which address this fascinating topic. If you're looking for information straight from another neuroscientist, you could check out Brainstorm, by Dr. Daniel Siegel. I noted that Parenting the Teenage Brain received 11 reviews, all of them 5 star reviews. If you are battling an educational or learning issue with your teenager, you might try Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain. I personally haven't read any of these titles, so I cannot make comparisons, but there is a wealth of material available if you are interested in gleaning more information about what makes your teenager tick.

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