Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Were They Thinking?

At least fifteen times a day I asked myself this question when my kids were teens. They seemed to suddenly have lost any intelligence they had manage to acquire in the blink of an eye. They were impulsive and did things that were just plain stupid, with absolutely no thought of the consequences or the long term effects of what they were doing. Sound familiar? Current research tells us why teens seem to have lost their minds. We all know there is a growth spurt that happens at precise times in kids. Turns out, their brains have growth spurts too. Unfortunately, the second spurt in brain development happens the same time the hormones kick in. Their brains are rapidly firing and building new connections at a rate unseen since infancy and that will never be matched again. They don't get the cognitive equivalent of the massive brain surge till much later, kinda like turning a kid loose with an 800 horsepower engine and no guidance on the power it possesses.
Kids may look very mature, and we tend to expect them to act with the maturity of their looks. We forget they are still kids. You know a child's brain is not fully cognitively developed until late into their 20's? Think of how much adult complex problem solving and decision making we expect our kids to make when they have limited cognitive power at their disposal, or massive brain activity and no idea how to handle it. What kids have is a surge in brain connections that is bombarding them with new information at a much higher rate but with no way to sort it all out. They get the power but none of the discipline that goes with the maturity of growing up, so the next time we adults wonder "What were they thinking?" remember they probably were too overwhelmed with all the chemical responses in their bodies, the pressures at home and at school and intense peer pressure of their social groups. These kids are still kids and we need to learn to give them time to figure out what to do with this new found brain power and ability to understand and process the consequences of any actions they are contemplating. From jumping out a 3nd floor window on a dare to robbing a little old lady on a bus line for beer money, it all can seem fairly harmless without the added advantage of practice and adult modeling for kids to figure out how to hande the new path they are thrust into. Kids have great brain potential but they lack great recall measures. Think of a conversation with your kids in which you gave them specific instructions like, take out the trash and wash the dishes. You find none of these things were accomplished. The answer you will get to to why will be : "I don't know." which may not be a cop out. Maybe they got caught up in an impulsive act that completely erased that mundane bit of info. Compare that to what you advise them to do in a dangerous situation, like getting in a car with a drunk driver. We need to give them a way to pull that info back out to their recent accessible info files. Kids have poor filing systems in their brains. It is all there, they just haven't learned to access it well yet. But they can recall song lyrics almost perfectly. Maybe that is a key to teaching this ability for us. Use what works for them. Remember back when you were their age. Was it all roses and clover? Not hardly. I bet your parents asked that same "what were they thinking" a million times over and maybe still do. Imagine the most significantly scary and stupid things you did. How did it feel and what were you thinking? Now try to explain that to your 13 year old. Not an easy task... "I don't know why" will come up and that is a legitimate response from a kid; they likely don't know for sure. So spend some time with your kids and learn what things they recall quickly and how they do that. This is the key to helping your kids remember those important adult pieces of advice when you aren't there. If you would like more info on brain development check out

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