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"What Were You Thinking?!"

You climb into your car, turn the key in the ignition, and are assaulted by rap music so loud the windows are vibrating. You just know your hearing will never be the same.
Blame it on the amygdala!

It's a record-breaking frigid day. You're worrying about the pipes bursting and your teen is going to school without her jacket. You ask her where it is and you get a blank look, then, "Oh, it's in the car" or "It's in my locker at school".
Blame it on the amygdala!

While you're muttering to yourself, ''What is she thinking?!'' your teen's amygdala is having a field-day. Now, confess: You think the amygdala is a new kind of club drug, don't you? No, the amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain, nestled deep in the back, that pretty much controls the way teens act for their middle-school and high-school years. So the next time you're ready to bellow, "WHAT in the world were you thinking when you did that?", remember this intriguing fact: Teens are NOT thinking the way adults think because they absolutely, positively can't do that yet. Adolescent brains just aren't ''hard wired'' like adult brains.

Researchers recently discovered that adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain; teens process information with the amygdala, the instinctual, emotional part of the brain. Teens don't think, ''Binge drinking is very dangerous and stupid.'' Rather, it's ''Oh, boy, a chugging contest! Wouldn't it be cool if I won?''

What the Experts Say

Up until 1997, conventional thinking, heralded during the White House Conference on Early Learning and Childhood Development, held that the greatest time of brain growth occurred before the age of 18 months, and was set forever by the age of three. But scientists spent the following years scanning teens' brains in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and discovered that the prefrontal cortex, which makes people ''act like an adult,'' is not fully developed in a teenager until after the age of 18.

So parents watch their teens whiz through life manipulated by the wild whims of the amygdala, home to primal feelings such as fear, rage, and impulse. And to complicate things even more, the amygdala gangs up with all kinds of hormones, and pumps them through puberty-ravaged bodies, making them moody, unpredictable, and seemingly irrational. It's a constant struggle to see if the still-developing prefrontal cortex can head off the amygdala and shout: ''Stop! Use good judgement on this one! Think about what can happen!''

And that's why teens parade through adolescence doing all those things that keep parents up at night. Sneaking out late at night. Moving from hysterics to hugs in warp-speed. Flaunting purple hair. Binge drinking, sampling drugs, and smoking cigarettes. Waiting until the last minute to do the term paper..and the list goes on and on.

But just because they may not naturally think before they act isn't an excuse for bedlam during the teen years.

So, what's a parent to do?!

Tips for Parents

''Adolescence is a time when everything is out of kilter, and nothing is stable in the body or mind. It's the second time that kids act like they're two years old,'' laughs Ruth Kraus, Ph.D, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Chicago's Child Psychiatry Clinic. ''The difference is that when they're young you say, 'They're only kids. Give them a break.' But when they're teens you expect them to act like adults...and they're not.''

Her advice? Parents have to step in as the "designated" prefrontal cortex and dispense common sense, guidance, and advice. In other words, don't just walk away from your teen and think that he or she is ready to make all the decisions without your input.

Empathize and let your teen understand that impulses are hard to fight, but the end results could be disastrous. Teens must take the time to ponder important decisions and weigh the options. They should look at both sides of an issue and consider the consequences.
Help them get organized with calendars and planners. Teach them to write down deadlines, meetings, and dates and then post them in visible places. Help them understand that waiting until the very last minute to complete an important assignment is a sure bet for stress and disappointment.
Be there for them. Remind your teens that while you're not running their lives anymore, you are ALWAYS available for advice and help, no matter what comes up.
Develop a sense of humor! Enjoy your teens as they develop into adults. After all, you can always blame it on the amygdala, right?

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