Why Parents Need a Better Book about the Teen Brain

I’ve been writing about the teen brain for several years now, and I’m currently gathering the most important insights into a book for parents. I’m doing this knowing that during the past eight to ten years dozens of articles and about ten books about the teen brain have already been published. Why not just refer readers to the best of these works? Why another book about the teen brain?

The reason is that while all these articles and books report the research findings, they fail to get to the heart of the matter. Some of them communicate well to parents, but they get the science wrong. Some of them get the science right, but they don’t communicate well to parents or tell them what they need to know. There are several hugely important insights and recommendations that parents of teens desperately need, and they aren’t coming through in these books.

A good example is an excellent book I read recently, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College (Bloomsbury, 2011), by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., and Sam Wang, Ph.D.

Parents will be engaged by the title. They need to know about their child’s brain, because there are sensitive windows of development with outcomes that last a lifetime. There are certain things parents need to do and not do at certain times, and they need to know what these actions are.

One thing I appreciate about this book is that it’s thorough and responsible. It gets the science right. Better than any book I’ve read, it makes the point that there are specific developmental stages. The authors have studied and worked in neuroscience for years, and the science they cite is up-to-date. I’m an avid reader of books like this, and I loved the extensive glossary, the hundreds of notes and scientific references, and the detailed index. I enjoyed this book far more than the pop science treatments of the teen brain that get some of the science wrong.

But all this rigor becomes a problem. It’s as if the authors wanted to write a book for parents, and they ended up writing a book for other scholars and scientists. For example, the development of the prefrontal cortex happens during adolescence and is hugely important to the development of the basic structure of a child’s intellect. Here’s what the authors have to say about it:

“One sign that adolescent brains are becoming more efficient is that activity is better coordinated between distant brain areas. This improvement is seen in signals varying together (coherency) and traveling over distances more quickly. White matter is only 85 per cent of adult size and continues to grow even into the forties. As white matter grows, axonal fibers are likely to be widening, and fatter axons transmit signals at higher speeds. Because white-matter axons mediate communication between distant brain regions, this change is likely to have strong functional implications – though at present we don’t know what they are.”

And: “In a longitudinal study of children, the pattern of developmental changes in cortical thickness predicted intelligence more strongly than did the adult configuration at age twenty. Dendritic branching in neurons was also correlated with intelligence in a few studies.”

This is a technically responsible way to describe the research. But what does this mean to a typical parent? I’ve been studying brain science for over 25 years and I found the description challenging. If you say important things to parents in a way that makes it hard for them to understand, you confuse them.

The problem is while the authors know their business, they’ve been writing about these topics professionally for scientific peer review for more than a decade, and this is how they’re used to writing about them. But this kind of writing doesn’t communicate to parents. There are some important points to be made, but what parents need to know is mostly buried in this kind of review of research.

I think very few parents will be able to wade through all this technical description. But if they do they’ll be convinced that there are stages of brain development that are important to the successful growing up of their child. But aside from being aware of the stages, what should they do as parents? There’s not much of this in the book, and what’s here is hard to find among the 300 pages of responsible scientific journalism.

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