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Brain Development in Teens: Help Them Deal With Peer Pressure

A key area of the brain lies just behind the forehead. This area is called the prefrontal cortex, and it controls many high-level thought processes. Teens tend to make impulsive decisions and fail to consider the consequences of their behavior. It is the prefrontal cortex that controls this type of thinking. It also controls attention, problem-solving, social judgment, strategizing, planning, and deciding what behavior is appropriate and what is not.

The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until age 25. This explains why teenagers sometimes make poor decisions and do things impulsively. Their behavior often does not improve until their brain has finished developing.

When I teach health classes, I explain brain development to my students when we are studying substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol can damage neurons in the brain. Since the prefrontal cortex is not finished developing, substance abuse can permanently stunt its growth. My students usually ask why the drinking age is 21 instead of 25. We usually conclude that it would make more sense to be 25!

It is a good idea for parents to role-play situations their teens are likely to face as they attend parties or go places where they are unsupervised. Pretend to offer them a drink (or a smoke, etc.) and have them practice saying “no.” I always told my own children they could feel free to blame me by saying, “Are you kidding? My mom would absolutely kill me if I drank that.” The purpose of the role-play is to teach them how to say “no” to these activities without relying on their prefrontal cortex to help them decide. They will have practiced the right decision with their parents, making it easier when the time comes with their peers.

I was role-playing with my health students once. I said, “Hey, let’s see if your parents left the alcohol cabinet unlocked.” One student answered, “No. My prefrontal cortex is still growing and I don’t want to damage it.” Great answer!

Role-playing scenarios with your teen is a great way to help them learn how to respond to peer pressure and to become independent. It is multisensory instruction which increases the likelihood that the learning will “stick” in memory. Here are some ideas for scenes you could do.

You might also be interested in these 10 suggestions for helping your child cope with peer pressure.

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