Summer is in full swing and the first wave of post-school-term relaxation is passing. It's a perfect opportunity to create new goals with your teen while reflecting together about the past school year and needs for the coming year.
Recent neuroscience research is revealing that the brain is the most complex organ in the body and the last to mature — taking until the mid- to late 20s to finally reach adult status. The teenage brain is in a unique stage with some very specific strengths and weaknesses. Using this knowledge can help the teen make the most of the precious summer months. Here are some "brain-based tips":
Explore managing responsibilities and trying out new things. So much of a teen's life is prescribed by school schedules and there isn't much room for flexibility or "trial and error" approaches. The brain is still strengthening connections to the frontal lobe, where organizational abilities, impulse control, and judgment are centered. Summer jobs are ideal in terms of helping teens figure out how to organize themselves to get to work on time or learn a new skill.
Even assigning a regular household chore will help teens prioritize their time. At home, a teen can safely make mistakes, and learn from them! As adults, we have our frontal lobes fully connected and can offer a "frontal lobe assist" to our teens as they learn to manage multiple tasks simultaneously.
Catch up and plan forward. The adolescent brain is a better learner than the adult. Learning and memories are created when connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) occurs and when the connections are repeatedly used due to experiences or practice. All the molecular machinery for this process is set at higher levels in childhood and adolescence, giving the teen a relative super-power compared with the adult.
It's a great time to work on any academic weaknesses and hone strengths. Helping teens prepare can also decrease their stress levels around any weaknesses they may have coped with or anticipate for the year ahead. Explicitly discussing this in a supportive way with your teen allows you to model for them how prioritizing and problem-solving is achieved. Talk about the long haul with your teen and some overall goals – given their stage of brain development, this kind of planning is something they will only be beginning to experience.
Begin the college planning process. Start the dialogue in a relaxed way, to make the process as stress-free as possible. Even if you are a parent of a rising junior, take a few "mock" college visits – these will make for fun road trips and together time but also give the younger students a chance to imagine life away from home and the kinds of campuses that feel like a good fit. This may also help focus and motivate them during the coming year as well as prepare them for the formal college search process.
Plan and organize with teens about to start college. Once again, parents can role-model those check lists for dorm supplies and engage in discussions about coursework preferences. A typical concern of parents is the abrupt increase in personal freedom that comes with college and the potential risk-taking that can happen. A healthy approach is to explicitly discuss common choice points that the young freshman will encounter. This means helping teens think ahead and anticipate how they might respond to peer pressure and making safe choices without losing their social status. The frontal lobe is the area of the brain involved with judgment and impulse control and it is developmentally the last part of the brain to receive high-speed connectivity. Hence, split-second responses to risks are not as well developed as they will be in adulthood.
However, as the teenage brain is a "learning machine," discussing ahead of time how the teen may want to handle a difficult situation can be a learning moment stored for later use. Every parent needs to find that fine line between being intrusive and being supportive: The latter will be important as the parent can continue to be a sounding board throughout college.
Remember, your teen is like a Ferrari with weak brakes. Summer is a great time for test drives!