• Peer education group walks public though brain development in growing teens
By Naomi Klouda
Far back in human evolution, being ostracized literally spelled death for people dependent on their tribes. For teens today, something of that paradox remains in their thinking.
“Social rejection could lead to death, unless they were lucky enough to find another tribe to go live with,” said Peer Educator Trevor Waldorf. “It hits us really hard – the desire to belong is paramount to us. It’s a matter of life or death in our minds.”
Later on, young adults learn that social rejection from one person or group isn’t the end of the world. That’s when the logic tools in the brain move fully online.
But in the teen years to early adulthood, youth primarily operate from the emotional portion of their limbic system. They’re still practicing engaging the other present functions of their brains as a whole working unit.
But what does this mean in a discussion about the adolescent brain?
Parents wondering what’s going on in their teen’s thinking ability should take heart in the news that over the course of human evolution, teen brains developed last and that contributed to the race’s survival.
Five teens, involved in peer education, described to a packed audience Thursday night in Homer’s youth Resource and Enrichment Co-op known as the R.E.C. Room, how the adolescent brain is transitioning for tremendous changes.
The R.E.C. Room is a division of Kachemak Bay Family Planning.
“If they ended up smarter, sooner, we may not have survived,” said Doug Koester, who with Anna Meredith directs the Promoting Health Among Teens or PHAT program.
PHAT trains peers to understand their own brain development as they navigate their relationships with parents, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, as well as sex and drug or alcohol risks. In addition to Waldorf, students include Zoe Story, Hailey Hughes, Dylan Wylde and Sierra Moskios.
Through skits, these young people write and improvise; they act out scenarios where teens react in unhealthy ways to a situation, or ways in which they could improve their actions.
They take their training sessions on the road to share information in Nanwalek, Ninilchik and Port Graham, as well as Homer-area schools and individual youth through the R.E.C. building.
In one skit, Moskios arrives home 20 minutes late on a slick winter night. She’s a new driver and her mother, Hailey, has worried. Moskios breathlessly explains she was running low on gas, her phone died, and she couldn’t communicate to her mother why she would be late.
“With four others in the car, why couldn’t she borrow someone’s phone?” the mother-character asks.
Mom immediately asks for her car keys.
Now, in an improved interaction skit, the two backtrack. Moskios’ character immediately apologizes to her mother when she walks in late. Her mother accepts her teen’s reason for being late, and says, “next time, there will be consequences.” The daughter says, “I understand.”
The mother doesn’t threaten to take away car keys.
Other skits depict scenes where two teens are going to a party and they don’t admit to the mother that they know there will be teen drinking there. The skit explains the fear of honesty, and ways parents can teach healthy reactions in risky settings ahead of time.
They also act out scenes where teens are about to have sex, and if so, how they can communicate abstinence through refusals or accurate knowledge of birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
Since teens are reacting from that lower survival mode of the brain, they are more emotional and less rational as they make decisions. They also tend to enjoy the thrill of risk taking. Dangerous risks include driving fast and doing activities the teens know are not beneficial. The healthy way to take risks is to join in sports, public performances and outdoor activities.
“We carry the urges to experience and overlook the dangers,” Wylde explained. Spontaneity is located in the brain’s amygdala, rather than the logic base of the cortex. To make the most of this tendency, teens can rise to great challenges in sports and other areas.
During the years between 14-25, the brain is quickly changing, giving teens the ability to take on, and succeed, at great challenges. As Koester put it, this is a time when the brain is more flexible and adaptable, and therefore more powerful in its way than at other times in life.
Sleep is the time of the greatest brain growth. It’s particularly important for teens to get at least nine hours of sleep a night.
Nurses Bonnie Betley and Janette Latimer talked about the results of not enough sleep: teens don’t perform as well at school. They are moody or prone to depression. Their brains aren’t getting a chance to develop the hardwire connections, necessary for adulthood, during rest.
The four building blocks toward brain development take a decade or more to move fully into all parts of the brain, including rationality and reasoning skills.
“The result is a better, smarter brain as we develop more skills,” Peer Educator Zoe Story explained. The first two building blocks of the brain, the pieces where basic survival tendencies are located, grow first. Later comes the limbic and cortex, which drives rationality and intellect traits.
Parents no doubt notice when teens let their emotions dominate over logic, Meredith said. “You will see the dramatic responses and heightened senses of how teens perceive themselves.”
Research shows girls’ and boys’ brains are different, with girls being able to sit longer, while boys’ brains need to be involved in movement. Girls develop sooner socially. At some point, a boy’s brain is developing at a pace to help him excel at certain subjects like math. Neither is superior, “they are just different,” Meredith said.
In these facts, brain research is showing that teens are on track.
“Chances are they are acting exactly like they are supposed to be acting, according to where they are developmentally in life. It’s up to us to have compassion,” she said.
The compassion part of PHAT’s peer education shows healthy ways adults and teens can interact. The most important relationship they can have is a healthy one with a parent. Encourage teens to stretch their boundaries and take healthy risks. Keep communication open rather than accusatory.
PHAT is part of a statewide study (grant recipients are also in Bethel and Anchorage) that is collecting data on whether teaching this nationally approved, scientifically backed curriculum is effective with the peer-to-peer education format.
The curriculum is being used nationwide presently, but only in Alaska are we lucky enough to pilot the peer education format, Meredith said.
“We know having peers teach their peers works in general, but to have Institute for Social and Economic Research evaluate the peer education variable and scientifically determine its effectiveness is invaluable.”
The goal is to train their peers not on the deficits of their adolescent brain development, but on the tremendous assets scientists are only just now beginning to fully appreciate.
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