On Having Rocks in Your Head

My dad was affectionately known for a collection of sayings he had in response to all the situations my four siblings and I got into growing up. At my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party my brother Steve made my dad cry when he (Steve) stood and read the list of all of the sayings we could collectively remember, and shared how much they meant to all of us. It was a remarkably long list.

I remember one in particular: “You’ve got to have rocks in your head!,” which was usually uttered whenever one of us made a less than stellar life choice. If I knew what I know now, I would have come back with: “No, dad, actually, I don’t have rocks in my head, it is just that the development of my prefrontal cortex has not yet caught up with my limbic system.”

This summer, the local news rocked with the story of a teen-age girl who impulsively pushed her friend off a high bridge into a river 50 feet below. Even though she was severely injured, the pushed girl survived, and the rest of us shook our heads in disbelief, repeatedly watching the video of the impulsive push. While not condoning the pushing girl’s actions in any way, it is important to note that the girl who was pushed was on the outside of the bridge railing apparently contemplating jumping, when her friend’s push made the decision for her. Public outrage was understandably swift, and the girl who pushed ultimately pleaded guilty to a reckless endangerment charge. And while I, too, wince when I remember what happened on that bridge, I still don’t believe it was because either girl had rocks in her head. I do think, however, there was some powerful misalignment between impulse and rational decision making going on.

The past 20 or so years of research has unveiled a great deal about adolescent brain development, illuminating for us the wonderful complexities of the adolescent brain, and underscoring the opportunities those of us who work with youth have to shape healthy brain development by providing programs and settings that support positive risk taking. An important aspect of this work is understanding the difference between impulsive actions – which are based on an insensitivity to risk, and impulsive choices – which focus on choosing immediate small gains, over long-term better choices. Pushing someone off a bridge is an impulsive action. Choosing to jump off the bridge, for the short term reward of the thrill of doing so despite the possible negative outcomes, is an impulsive choice.

Research has revealed that impulsive actions in adolescence are often correlated to problems with self-regulation in childhood, highlighting again why helping children and youth develop important self-regulatory skill is an important part of the work we do to help youth thrive. Impulsive choices, in contrast, decline from childhood to adulthood as the development of the limbic (impulsive) and prefrontal (rational) regions of the brain come into better balance. As we get older, our thrill seeking choices are tempered more and more with a rational exploration of the potential (negative) consequences.

Taking risks is a natural part of being an adolescent, and developmentally, it makes sense. Adolescence is all about trying new things, taking new risks, exploring new opportunities and possibilities, and the developing adolescent brain allows this exploration to happen more easily. As youth development professionals we play an important role in scaffolding opportunities for positive risk taking during the period where the systems of a young person’s brain are not quite in alignment.

We can start by teaching youth about the difference between impulsive actions and impulsive choices. We can challenge a young person to try a new challenge, and keep a safety net below them at the same time- creating a safe space for positive risk taking. We can also focus on building skills for self-regulation to protect against impulsive actions, taking the time to talk through the possible outcomes of an impulsive choice. And we can teach adolescents about their own developing brain functions and how such functions affect the choices they make

So, I am curious, how have you helped a young person navigate the period of life when it looks like they have rocks in their head?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

On Stretching to Develop Grit

Downward Gritty Kitty

I don’t know about you, but this Season Of Busy is beginning to catch up with me. No matter how determined I start into late November planning not to get too busy, I seem always to end up in the same busy place. I think my inability to stick to my non-busy plan is stuff for another post, however!

The first thing that seems to go when the Season Of Busy descends is my (fairly) strong commitment to daily stretching. As one of the leading generation that has spent most of my professional life hunched over a computer, starting way before we knew about the ergonomic principles that are supposed to help us, I realized I needed a daily stretching routine if I was to be able to do all the other things I love to do that do not involve sitting at a computer. Continue reading

On the 3 D’s of Growing Grit

When I first began work on the 4-H Thriving Model I thought about the ways in which the 4-H Program stands alone in its approach to youth development, and how youth are attracted to the program. One way that 4-H stands out is through its emphasis on project-based learning, and providing opportunities that match a young person’s interest in a particular topic. Ah-ha, I thought, this is a really important and unique aspect of 4-H and I began to search the research literature to identify how this practice of building programs around youths’ interests can contribute to their positive development.

it didn’t take me long to come across the concept of youth Sparks, an idea Continue reading

On Growing Grit

As I write this blog post, a somber scene is playing out 3000 miles away in Washington DC as our country says goodbye to its 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush. Since his passing last Friday, the news has been filled with remembrances of this man who led our country, many of them reminding us of the great dignity, humor, and kindness he brought to the highest leadership post in the country.

One story, told last night on our local news was of a young woman who was part of a grade school class that traveled out to the Portland airport to say farewell to President Bush after a visit to Oregon. Now an adult, she showed the watch the president had taken off his wrist and given to her when she admired it. She also shared the story of a fellow classmate who was taken in awe by the fighter jets Continue reading

On Effort Counts Twice

I took my first dressage lesson when I was 18 years old. This was eight years after buying my first pony “Stormy” for $35 when I was 10. There was a little issue with my parents when the pony arrived unexpected, but I will be forever grateful for my brother who helped me withdraw the money from my savings account to buy him. The unexpected arrival of the pony in our backyard is still something of family lore, but I do think it was the moment that my parents realized I was SERIOUS about this riding thing.

I took my latest dressage lesson a week ago Friday, wedged between two out of state trips. Part of me thought, “oh, why do you want to add this to everything you have on your plate right now?” But the bigger part of me said “you are making so much progress all of a sudden, it is worth the effort.” So I loaded up Little Scholar (yup that is really his name) on a Friday night and drove 47 miles Continue reading