ELYRIA — Dr. Andrew Garner gave a speech on the adolescent brain Wednesday night at Lorain County Community College with his own demonstration tool — his 12-year-old son Timothy.
The younger Garner only became the topic of discussion once, when his father recounted how he warned his son he might not want to eat a cherry popsicle wearing his white tae kwon do uniform.
Minutes later, the inevitable happened — and Timothy was trying to wipe off splatters while telling his father — “Dad, don’t say a word.”
Impulsivity is a major factor in the adolescent brain, according to Garner, a pediatrician for University Hospitals and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
“How many of you would get into a car with a friend who’s drunk?” Garner asked the crowd of several hundred people.
Nobody raised their hand, but Garner said it happens all the time with teen-agers, who tend to be ruled by emotions and impulsivity — the “just do it” complex.
The prefrontal cortex — which rules judgment and cognition — reaches full biological maturity by 24, compared with the rear of the brain called the amygdala, which governs emotions and impulses and matures by 18, he said.
Garner said young people, especially those with troubled lives, have a lot of stress that is toxic on their emotions.
Parents, loved ones, educators and social workers can help young people cope with stress and make good decisions by encouraging social and emotional learning — the seven “C’s” — competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control, Garner said.
“These are not things you’ve got or don’t — you can learn them,” he said.
Teens often use unhealthy ways to cope — alcohol, drugs, overeating, promiscuity and gambling — but it backfires, because it eventually makes their lives more difficult, according to Garner. Even worse, the younger teens start negative behavior, the more likely it is to become an addiction that leads to disease, disability and early death, he said.
Garner said a study showed 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences increase the likelihood of later health risks: emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect and household dysfunction such as a mother treated violently, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and incarceration of a family member.
Those with four or more of the bad childhood experiences have a one in eight chance of health problems later, according to a study of 17,000 middle-class Americans in San Diego between 1995 and 1997, Garner said.
“Unhealthy lifestyles may actually be coping mechanisms to deal with toxic stress,” Garner said.
There’s no magic bullet, but intervention to help children mature can still help well into the teens and 20s, Garner said.
Quoting 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglas, he said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
It also is important to start very early, he said. Interaction — and demonstrations of love — for young children are extremely important, he said.
“If a two-month-old child doesn’t have a face smiling back at them, eventually they’ll stop trying,” he said.
Studies show young children learn better when they have breaks and recess, because social, emotional and non-cognitive skills are important in helping young people deal with stress, he said.
The equivalent of recess in high school is sports, choir, music or drama — activities that encourage teens to make friends and learn how to get along with each other, Garner said.
Unfortunately, those are the first things to be cut in a budget crunch, Garner said.
“Every child needs to have something they’re acknowledged to be good at,” he said.
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