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Teens' immature brains pose all sorts of dangers

Every Sunday night after she steps out of her shower, 16-year-old Emma texts a nude selfie to her boyfriend. He has promised to destroy it within five minutes.

Lexie Mullner of Marlton on being a teen: "There is so much to think about. For me, it's about what college will I get into? ... And what do I want to do with my life?"
Lexie Mullner of Marlton on being a teen: "There is so much to think about. For me, it's about what college will I get into? ... And what do I want to do with my life?"Read moreChandra Jones / Staff

Every Sunday night after she steps out of her shower, 16-year-old Emma texts a nude selfie to her boyfriend. He has promised to destroy it within five minutes.

Michael, 18, knows about the dangers of drinking and driving, but figures a couple of beers won't put him over the edge. After an evening of partying with friends, he tucks himself behind the wheel of the 1989 Honda Civic he borrowed from his brother. The police pick him up 30 minutes later for erratic driving.

Alice, 14, who goes to a school for the academically talented, texts until 4 in the morning instead of studying for tomorrow's midterm science exam. Alice, who typically gets A's and B's on tests, fails this one.

Expecting these Philadelphia teenagers to control their impulses or resist peer pressure is like expecting a 6-month-old to walk, say experts in neuroscience and adolescent psychology. Their brains are still under construction and, contrary to adult perception, won't be fully mature until they are in their early to mid- 20s.

Knowledge gained through MRI imaging reveals that the teenage brain is stunningly different from that of an adult. While some areas - particularly those focused on motor control and hand/eye coordination - are as good as they will get, others, like the prefrontal cortex just behind the forehead, which dictates complicated decision-making and moderates social behavior, lag far behind.

Nonetheless, adolescents are faced with decisions every day that can affect how or even whether they grow up.

Dina Goldstone, a 19-year-old from Wynnewood, was spending the summer at an Upstate New York camp, where she was teaching circus arts. On a July Fourth weekend in 2005, she and several friends were returning to camp from a party. The driver of their car had been drinking heavily, but that didn't stop Dina and a friend from trusting him to get them back to camp safely. Dina didn't survive the crash that sent the car careening down a ravine.

"I don't understand it," her heartbroken father kept saying afterward. "We've always told her never to get into a car with someone who had been drinking. We told her to call home and wherever she was, we'd come get her. Could she somehow not have recognized that the driver was intoxicated? [His blood-alcohol content was later reported to have been 0.14, almost double the legal definition of drunken driving.] It's inconceivable to me that someone so intelligent would do something so risky."

The experts in teenage behavior say that decisions like these have nothing to do with intelligence. Blame the disconnect that exists between those deep primitive centers of the brain - the ones associated with emotion and risk-taking - and the frontal lobe, the region responsible for rational thinking and future consequences, says B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Cornell University. "It isn't that teenagers can't make decisions. They are incredibly quick at doing that, but in an emotional setting, even when they know better, they often make the wrong ones. The prefrontal cortex gets hijacked by the emotional centers . . . and the emotional decisions win out."

So even the most brilliant teenagers are vulnerable to poor judgment, hardwired to take risks. They have trouble with impulse control - boys more than girls - and tend to live in the here and now, not attentive to consequences that will become clearer to them as their brains take on adult scaffolding.

"Don't be deceived by physical maturity or how well they do in school," says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence. "Teenagers are motivated to take risks when the potential for pleasure is high, such as in unprotected sex, fast driving, or experimentation with drugs . . . especially when they are with friends." Studies that Steinberg conducted with a colleague show that when teenagers do dangerous things, certain areas of the brain - the reward centers - light up more when they are in the company of friends. "They get caught up in the action and make risky decisions rather than play it safe," Steinberg says.

At the same time, teenagers are struggling to differentiate themselves from their parents and carve out their own identity. A cascade of hormones has transformed their bodies. An explosion in the activity of neurochemicals linked to experiencing pleasure and intensifying emotion is marinating their limbic systems, the seat of mood, emotion, and drives; and they wrestle with the demands of heightened sexuality. "There is this incredible growth spurt," says Casey, "and as physical changes take place, you're being treated differently. You begin to look like a woman and are being treated like a woman. You are forced to deal with new social situations, and parents are not likely to be there as buffers the way they used to be."

The hormonally regulated circadian rhythms of teenagers shift, so they are primed to stay up late and sleep late. But demands of school, which often call for a 6 a.m. wake-up, and the temptation to keep their phones on all night disrupt the timetable, keeping them from getting the nine hours of sleep they need. "No wonder," says neuroscientist Casey, "that their moods and temperament are affected."

Add to the stew the power of social media, giving adolescents round-the-clock ability to text and sext, the lure of Instagram and Snapchat, and the hair-trigger feedback that sabotages reflective thinking.

"You have a pretty complicated soup," says Fred Fisher, a Bala Cynwyd psychiatrist who consulted for the Lower Merion school system for more than a quarter of a century.

Parents are often at a loss. While not all teenagers turn to drugs, have sex at 14, or drive under the influence, they often exhibit behaviors that stun and distress their parents.

"Essie was never rebellious growing up," says her mother, Mollie, a third-grade teacher in a Philadelphia school who didn't want her last name used. "But as soon as she turned 13, my sweet, kind daughter morphed into a teenager I no longer recognize. At dinner, when I ask her how school went that day, she'll give me one-word answers. 'What did you do today?' 'Nothing!' 'What are you learning in science?' 'Climate.' 'How is your English teacher?' 'She stinks. Why are you asking me all those questions?' Whatever happened to the daughter who used to live in this house?"

In describing their adolescents, Mollie and other parents use words like sullen, moody, intense and distant. "Their nerves poke through their skin," she says.

"I don't think parents realize how hard it is to be a teenager," laments Lexie Mullner, 17, who lives in Marlton. "There is so much to think about. For me, it's, what college will I get into? Where do I even want to go? And what do I want to do with my life? It's a lot of stress."

For Abigail Quint, 21, a senior at Franklin and Marshall College, it's juggling three hours of homework with her need to connect with friends. "If I'm not texting on my cellphone, I feel as though I'm missing something. We have a name for it - FOMO - fear of missing out. Your friends will be somewhere or do something cool without you. You'll be out of the loop."

"Teenagers define themselves by how they fit in," says Philadelphia and Main Line psychologist Eric Spiegel. "Social media allows them to hold a mirror up to themselves and gives them an immediate sense of where they stand."

As stormy as the teenage years can be, experts in adolescent psychology say, we are sending the wrong message by suggesting that adolescence is something to be survived. On the upside, "life is on fire for them," writes Daniel J. Siegel in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. "There is a sense of adventure and an irrepressible urge to imagine the world in exciting, new ways."

"An emotional spark, a creative energy, that you often don't see in adults can inspire teenagers throughout their lives, if developed in positive ways," says June Greenspan-Margolis, an adolescent psychiatristin Philadelphia and New Jersey. "If a child has an interesting idea, parents should support it. If not stimulated, it dies in early adulthood."

Figuring out how to apply the brakes when a teenager's brain is on acceleration mode, how to keep him or her safe while nurturing the brain's plasticity and potential, become parents' biggest challenges. Consider, too, that as children are pushing for independence, parents are feeling a loss. They are nudged to reevaluate themselves. Have we been good parents? Have we demonstrated the right values? Who will we be when they no longer need us in the same way? It is the perfect storm.

"We need to change the way we parent as our children become teenagers," suggests Cornell's Casey. "We need to understand what's happening in their brains . . . and respect that they have a natural drive to push away from us. We need to give them freedom, but with clear boundaries, and avoid adding to their stress by the demands we place on them."

The key, agree the experts, is open communication. "That's how kids connect with their parents," says Katie K. May, a Flourtown counselor who works with teenagers and families. "Just listening to them and praising them when they make responsible decisions have a powerful impact. A child doesn't want to disappoint a parent with whom he has a good relationship."