Book review: The Teenage Brain - why teenagers are like Ferraris
The Teenage Brain
by Frances Jensen with Amy Ellis Nutt
One unwanted side effect of parenting teenagers has persistently bothered me over the years, this being how it distorts one's own perhaps halcyon view of being "teenage". It seems that one moment you're looking fondly back at teen times, musing misty-eyed and rosy-spectacled, the next you're the battle-scarred parent of a teen, glaring sourly at a bunch of other teenagers in the street.
Being a modern parent of a teenager is a nightmarish continuum of heartbreak, terror and mobile phone tariffs and without so much as a shred of consideration or gratitude. Yes, I'm being facetious, but there have definitely been times when I would have welcomed The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Co-written with Amy Ellis Nutt, Dr Frances Jensen is the American author and neuroscientist of the title ("Kid's brains are my business").
Just as importantly, Jensen steered two sons through their teenage years (not least as a single parent). Employing rigorous use of scientific data, Jensen's central argument is that the teen brain isn't, as she herself presumed, "an adult brain with less [sic] miles on it". The teenage years, she writes, encompass "vitally important states of brain development … full of unique vulnerabilities and exceptional strengths".
Jensen says teens are not an "alien species"; rather, they are misunderstood. While teenagers have the same amount of hormones as young adults, they react differently to them, making their brains capable of remarkable accomplishments, but also so open that they become at risk.
It's all about the "white matter" being laid down, says Jensen, explaining the difference between adult and teenage brains. "If the human brain is very much a puzzle, then the teenage brain is a puzzle awaiting completion," she writes. For teenagers, emotion triumphs over reason.
While the plasticity of the teenage brain makes it a great time to invest in it educationally, late-developing frontal lobes lead to the infamous teenage mood swings, impulsiveness and lack of judgment. Jensen likens the teenager to a "primed and pumped" Ferrari that has yet to be road-tested - their bodies are capable of adult things before their brains are.
Jensen covers topics as diverse as risk-taking, gaming, bullying and social media ("the digital invasion of the teenage brain") to gender, stress, severe mental illness, food disorders, suicide and criminal convictions (as they relate to brain maturation).
She ends this interesting and accessible book with the simple advice to keep communicating with your teenager or post-adolescent, even if you have long lost hope that anything is getting through. She reminds us that whether the child is aware of it or not, the parent is their "first and most important role model". No pressure there then.
Guardian News & Media