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THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX

At a recent talk I gave to parents of middle school children, I was asked how old a teen should be to date. My answer, half facetious but longingly half-serious, was age 30.

Not realistic I know. But let me tell you about a part of your child’s brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Brain development starts before birth. And we now know that this magnificent organ which makes us human, continues making connections as long as we live. Connections (synapses) are the marvelous biological demonstration of the interaction between genes (nature) and the environment (nurture). It’s not either nature or the environment that counts, it’s BOTH.

Brain development all through life consists of and depends on PLASTICITY.

No, your kids brains are not made of either plastic nor mush. What plasticity means is that the brain has the ability to change neuron pathways based on new input from new experiences.

We used to think that brain growth ceased when physical growth did. Wrong!

As a matter of fact brain growth continues into the 20s which accounts for some of the puzzling aspects of teenage behavior.

The frontal cortex is the thin covering of the brain. It is the part of the brain that evolved last and had to fold in on itself creating many valleys in order to achieve the size it needed to do its job within the skull. The prefrontal cortex is just behind our forehead.

What is the job of the prefrontal cortex? It’s the boss: it is the part of the brain that takes information from other parts of the brain so that we can make decisions.

Executive function comprises planning, organization, working memory, and control over the part of our brain that would lead us to do stupid or dangerous things if unchecked. As teens mature they develop the ability to make wise decisions and choices, they perfect reasoning and abstract thinking, and they learn to control impulses that lead to stupid choices.

When, oh when, can I expect my teen to develop a mature brain that can do these wise things? Alas, long after the teen years have passed, somewhere in mid 20s or even later.

That’s why in the best of all possible worlds, no sex until 30 makes perfect sense because sex with an immature prefrontal cortex is what leads to unplanned pregnancies and the transmission of bad diseases.

Teens feel ready to be adults but are not quite ready. What’s a parent to do?

• Start early imparting values.
• Be a dream-thrower and talk about what wonderful things your child might do one day: college and travel and creative or sociallty important work.
• Take a stand against the consumeristic, over-sexed media culture.
• Expect the best from your child at school.
• Encourage children and teens to take healthy risks in sports and challenge themselves to reach a personal best.
• Encourage ways to practice being grownups by assuming responsibility at home and even playing adults in school plays.
• Let your children help make family rules so they learn the correlation between responsibility and freedom.

Give your teen increasing tiny doses of freedom so he or she can make some little decisions. Tell them they will be “graded” and allowed bigger decisions later if they pass the course.

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