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 Setting and Achieving Goals

Step by step

I have never paid much attention to professional tennis, that is until last weekend in a hotel room while waiting for my family to arrive. I also rarely watch TV, but this particular evening the TV was on, and scanning through the channels I landed on the Australian Open tennis tournament, where the 15th ranked woman in the world was taking on the top ranked woman. As I tuned in more closely I found I was captivated by the athleticism, strength, coordination, precision, and endurance these women put into their game. As number 15 slowly took command and ultimately beat number 1, I was even more intrigued. The next day, US tennis star Serena Williams took her place on the court and handily won her match – an important step in her quest to improve her world ranking after a series of injuries and starting a family. With my new found interest in women’s tennis I enjoyed cheering Serena on. Later, in the press conference, when asked about her somewhat unlikely victory, Serena said: “I set my goals, and I have worked toward achieving them step by step. I stayed focused on my goals and I never gave up.” And that, is the formula – for international professional tennis players, and for anyone reaching for a goal. Continue reading

On Intentionality

Over the weekend we took a quick trip to Southern California to visit family. I am always taken back at how warm and relaxing the California air and sun are to my winter-weary self. Somehow Oregon has a way of slipping from the warmth of summer into the deep wet cold of winter without me even realizing it. Stepping off the plane into the mid-morning sunshine made me feel like anything was possible, although I also might have been a tad affected by the enthusiasm of all the kiddos on their way to Disneyland for the weekend who joined me in the happy sunshine.

We checked into our hotel and then scoped out the pool and other important places. Walking down the long hallway I passed a small conference room, the type that can be found in most hotels. Many of us spend a great deal of time in these types of room teaching, attending conferences, or hosting workshops. They all look the same: tables, chairs, a podium, flip charts and projector, along with an earnest speaker trying his or her best to capture the attention of the audience. Continue reading

On Self-Regulation

As the Oregon winter wends on we have been treated with a few bright sunny days where the east wind scoops up the remaining leaves, swirling them away down the dry streets. Yesterday we had the return of cold winter rain, the kind that chills you to the bone, rain that promises to stay for a few days. I know for those of you in other parts of the country our mild Oregon winters hardly qualify as winter. But regardless of where we live, I think we are all eagerly awaiting signs of spring, at least I know I am.

One of those signs is the light that now lingers into the very early evening. I especially like this time of year with the bare trees back lit by the deep blue sky just before the sun goes down. And yesterday, as I walked down the hill I thought I could almost see little buds starting to form on bare branches, and I definitely could smell the winter Daphne drifting by on a gust of wind. Continue reading

On Grit and Goals

I had the most lovely of surprises this week when Dr. Shauna Tominey stopped by my office to give me a copy of her hot-off-the-press new book entitled Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children. I can’t wait to read it, and I hope you will too! Dr. Tominey is a parenting education specialist at Oregon State University who, like me, is fascinated by the process of human development, especially in understanding the things that help – or hinder- positive development. Also like me, Dr. Tominey has a keen desire to ensure that the important research generated through the sciences of learning and development is shared with others and put to good use making a difference in the lives of youth and families.

One of the greatest things about my position as a 4-H Youth Development specialist is that I get to live in that liminal place between research and practice, which means I work daily with youth development practitioners as they work directly with youth, families and communities. On the academic side, I also get to work with and learn from lead researchers who generate the critical information we need to do our youth development practice well. Continue reading