Parenting the Teen Brain

Brad M. Griffin | Feb 8, 2010

Heres one to pass on to parents of teenagers.

In this 2-part article, Psychologist Alan Kazdin (Yale) with writer Carlo Rotella analyze research on the adolescent brain in an attempt to bust the myth that teenagers are worse than adults at assessing risks and making rational decisions. ((Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella, “No Brakes! Risk and the Adolescent Brain” and No Brakes! The best way to guide your teenager through the high-risk years. Washington Posts Its an interesting read, inviting us to revisit how we try to prepare teens for decision-making in the face of high-risk options (Ive shared other thoughts on this in a previous post on teen brain research). The authors contend that there are a lot of common interventions and prevention measures that simply dont work.

What research does support in terms of parenting strategies that work to counteract high-risk behaviors among teens (according to the authors) is a set of fairly unsophisticated responses. The primary practice for parents to prevent bad choices? Monitoring. Keeping track of where kids are andespeciallywho they are with. Peer influences are incredibly important because the teen brain is most rewarded by the presence and approval of peers. Hanging out with other kids doing high-risk behaviors is one of the strongest predictors of substance use and abuse. (One interesting note on gender here: parents tend to monitor teen girls more than boys, which some have suggested may be a reason teen boys participate in more high-risk behaviorssimply because they have less supervision.)

Monitoring sounds like policing or high-intensity surveillance, but it doesnt mean the same thing as hovering. Heres a quote from the authors about what kind of monitoring theyre talking about:

The members of families in which parents monitor have stronger ties, are more involved with one another, have warmer relationships, and are more cohesive and communicate better. A more askable, approachable parent with a warm relationship to a child will have more success in monitoring without turning into a warden. To that end, it helps to make monitoring normal and mutual in your householdwhich you can model by talking to your children about your day at the dinner table or during rides in the carand to begin early. ((

The other suggested strategies include: building and modeling values for family, school, and society; developing competencies in kids (1 or 2 is plenty; no need for extra-curricular overkill); and nurturing the parent-child relationship. The last one seems like a no-brainer, but during adolescence can feel like incredibly hard work, especially when kids push away. Yet, When there’s more parent connectednessa child feeling close, loved, wanted, listened to, and satisfied with the relationshipa child is at much less risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors.

Worth thinking about this week.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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