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I’m playing Jenga with three of my junior high students as we celebrate their academic achievement with a pizza and ice cream party. We take turns finding that one block that will wiggle free and placing it gently on top of the pile amidst cries of, “Don’t shake the table!” “No, not that one!” “Careful, now…,” interspersed with giggles and sighs of relief.

The block pile grows gradually from 20 layers to 25, then 30! And my Metaphors-R-Us brain notes the significance of those firm blocks touching the table—solid, providing the foundation for the higher, more wobbly blocks—and the unwieldy upper structure that can cause the whole tower to crash with the slightest nudge from a trembling finger. Our children are like that Jenga tower: they need a solid foundation and scaffolding that will support their growth into strong young adults that can sway without crumbling.

The word is out on the importance of taking advantage of the brain’s ability to learn in the first five years of life. However, a growing body of research points to the second window of time in which the brain is particularly primed for learning and open to influence, good or bad: adolescence. As parents, we must pay attention to this research and possibly shift our thinking about the structures we put in place that create the framework for our teens’ development.

It’s easy to look at teens and think: bigger body = bigger brain = ability to act responsibly and think like an adult, right? Wrong! The frontal lobe of the brain--which is responsible for logical thinking, cause/effect reasoning, planning, and all sorts of self-regulation—is undergoing major construction between the ages of 11 and 25. At the same time, other areas of the brain are being stimulated by pubertal hormones that increase pleasure-seeking and risk-taking behavior. This battle between brain regions results in what appear to be dual-personality teens!

Research shows that when teens are unstressed, and either by themselves or with an adult, they are capable of using logical thinking skills that give the impression they can handle important decisions and stressful situations. However, when teens are with other teens, when they’re under stress and perceived peer pressure, their ability to use frontal lobe thinking is hijacked by those pleasure-seeking, risk-taking hormones and suddenly, they’re making choices that have negative consequences or even put them in danger.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, encourages parents to use scaffolding to develop teens’ ability to self-manage. Give them increasing levels of responsibility in small doses and only allow them to take the next step when they have demonstrated mastery of the current level. Teens will want to rush the process, but it’s like pulling out a Jenga block and placing it on top of the pile; it takes patience, a steady hand, and the tower needs to stop wobbling before you pull out the next block!

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