Monday, May 19, 2003

Now we know why kids do dumb things

By Stephen Wallace
Guest columnist

Parents everywhere are no doubt puzzling over recent high-profile displays of horrific adolescent behavior, fearing for their own children and wondering what in the world is going on. Let's take a look.

• Northbrook, Ill.: Fueled by alcohol, a gang of 12th-grade girls lead a violent, demeaning hazing of their 11th-grade classmates, punching and kicking them, covering them with feces and forcing them to eat dirt and pig intestines. • Sarasota, Fla.: Influenced by the movie Jackass, three trespassing teens leap from atop a condominium building aiming for the pool. Two make it. One hits the side, fracturing both legs and an arm and cracking his pelvis.

• Kingston, Mass.: Cheered on by classmates, an 8th-grade girl engages in a sex act with a 10th-grade boy on the school bus.

Just as figuring out the implausible seems all the more impossible, information is emerging about some serious neurological rewiring taking place during adolescence. In her new book, The Primal Teen, Barbara Strauch illuminates startling advances in science that may help to explain teen behavior heretofore chalked up simply to immaturity, hormones or hobgoblins.

Recent research at UCLA's Lab of Neuro Imaging suggests that, during adolescence, boys and girls undergo significant neuronal transformation, affecting such functions as self-control, emotional regulation, organization and planning. This research, in tandem with studies performed at the National Institute of Mental Health and at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, challenges traditional thinking that brain development is complete by age eight or 10. Now, some quixotic adolescent behaviors are being linked to a natural, even predictable, neurochemical process.

Of course, this doesn't mean that teens are scientifically destined to make poor choices. But it may mean that they are even more predisposed to do so than previously thought. Why? Because the massive reorganization of gray matter at puberty seems to impact areas of the brain most closely associated with judgment. And judgment shades choices. Understanding the antecedents of those choices, be they biological, chemical or social, underscores the value of parental involvement in teen decision-making and best positions adults to short circuit destructive teen behavior . . . or at least to try their hand at persuasion. A calm, clear voice of reason can go a long way toward slowing speeding synapse-driven impulsions if not - at least occasionally - substituting adult judgment for adolescent enterprise.

Perhaps most important in helping young people identify sensible solutions to life's challenges is defining the potential short-term and long-term consequences of behaviors . . . consequences their still-evolving brains may not yet fully embrace or even slow down long enough to notice. This can be especially the case when the behavior includes alcohol and other drugs. After all, the flip side of the effects of neurological development on teen behavior is the effect of teen behavior on neurological development. It's not too hard to imagine the impact of substance use and abuse, not to mention scores of other unhealthy experiences, on a transforming mind.

While that impact may be hard to see, there is other more immediate, and more identifiable, ramifications of alcohol and drug Both have been repeatedly linked to increased rates of automobile crash deaths, risky sexual behavior, sexual assaults, depression, suicide and declining school performance.

The best we can do is to drill deeper into the adolescent brain and psyche seeking to understand what drives their decisions and what influencers can be brought to bear to keep them safe and alive. And there's no time like the present. According to original Teens Today research conducted by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions/Students Against Driving Drunk) and Liberty Mutual Group: A majority of teens 63 percent say they drink, including 16 percent of 6th graders, 41 percent of 8th-graders and 75 percent of 11th-graders; More than one-third of teens say they use drugs, including 34 percent of 9th-graders and 42 percent of 10th-graders; More than one-half of teens say they have engaged in sexual activity, including 35 percent of 7th-graders and 78 percent of 12th-graders.

Still, most young people want to make good decisions. And, believe it or not, they welcome, and respond to, parents who help them translate illogical thought into responsible action

Recent events around the country make clear that our work is cut out for us. As one of the pool-plunging Sarasota teens told the Associated Press, "It's adolescent independence and taking risks, like kids taking drugs or doing pot. Adolescence comes with stupidity and arrogance." At least now we're closer to knowing why.

Stephen Wallace is a psychologist and the national chairman and chief executive officer of SADD, Inc. SADD sponsors school-based education and prevention programs nationwide.

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