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Teen brain explained, finally

Dr. David Walsh of Minneapolis is a psychologist, author and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family. He writes and lectures on family life, parenting and the impact of media on children. On Thursday, he will give a presentation...

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Dr. David Walsh of Minneapolis is a psychologist, author and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family. He writes and lectures on family life, parenting and the impact of media on children. On Thursday, he will give a presentation at the Lake Superior School District in Two Harbors based on the findings of his book, "Why Do They Act That Way?" The book is an exploration and explanation of teenage behavior. The News Tribune asked Walsh about his findings.

Q: OK, why DO they act that way?

A: It turns out that it's what's going on in their brain. Even though the teenage brain is the same size as an adult's, it's a work in progress, a series of construction zones. This is new; for years we thought what teens lack is experience, and psychologically they need to start to separate from family. All those are probably true, but the big and recent explanation has to do with what's going on in their brains. [During the seminar] we will take a guided tour of those construction zones, and then some of that behavior will start to make sense. For example, the supervisor of the brain is the pre-frontal cortex; that enables people to think ahead, consider consequences and manage emotional reactions. That's a major construction zone. When it's not fully wired, there's risk-taking, disorganized thinking and emotional outbursts. ... As an analogy, if you compare the teenage brain to an automobile, the gas pedal is to the floor and the brakes are on back-order.

Q: What are the teenage behaviors that adults have the hardest time understanding?

A: The emotional outbursts, the anger. The fact that your nice, easygoing 10-year-old can turn into a sullen, withdrawn fire-breathing dragon at 14 is puzzling. "Why do they get angry when I only asked them to take out the garbage?" It's a miscommunication that happens to be brain-based; they interpret nonverbal communication in a different part of the brain than adults do. An example is, why did kids wake up at the crack of dawn when they are little and sleep until noon when they are teens? It all has to do with what's going on in their brains.

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Q: Are teens today much different from 20, 30, 50 years ago?

A: Yes and no. Teens have always been a challenge for adults, going back thousands of years. But the brain is designed to interact with the world, so as the world changes, how these behaviors manifest [themselves] changes as well. It's not that teens pushing the limits and driving parents crazy is new, but the way it looks today is different because the world is different. Teens will always push the limits, and it depends where the limits are. In 1950, what got you sent to the principal's office was talking back to the teachers. Now, it's hitting a teacher.

Q: When do teens start to grow out of those behaviors?

A: It's a gradual calming-down process. The final construction of the brain supervisor is not done until age 25. That's why sometimes you see college freshmen and sophomores with some of the behavior that worries us. ... A 19-year-old will be better in charge of their brain than a

14-year-old, and they'll be better at 26 than 19.

Q: What might be the advantage of that?

A: To a certain extent, there's some evolutionary advantage to having young people be risk-takers; they can go out and do the hunting. ... And today, who do we send off to war?

Q: What can parents, teachers, and other adults do to cope in the meantime?

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A: It helps to depersonalize it. Once we understand [where the emotions come from], it doesn't remove the rollercoaster, but it makes it more understandable. It's hard for parents not to personalize it once their kids get angry with them, when they say: "Get out of my life!" The best reaction is for parents to understand them but not become doormats. Then there are lots of practical implications that come from that; how can we communicate with teens to make it less likely to get those reactions going?

Q: If you could recommend one thing to parents of teens today, what would it be?

A: I'd tell them that adolescents need three key ingredients: They need connection -- you need to find a way to stay connected, and that's not easy when the teen is asking for a divorce -- they need limits and consequences, and they need love. Loving a teenager is a delayed-gratification activity. The reward will come when they turn out to be an adult parents are proud of.

If you go

What: Presentation on adolescent behavior by Dr. David Walsh

Where: Two Harbors High School auditorium

When: 1 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $15 for general public, free for district residents or employees.

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Register by calling 834-8201, ext. 8230.

Walsh also will be speaking at an event geared toward parents at the Grand Superior Lodge, 2826 Highway 61, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free, but registration is required; sign up by visiting the district's community education Web site at www.isd381.k12.mn.us and click on "community education," or call 834-8201, ext. 8230.

Related Topics: TWO HARBORS
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