Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Serving Full T.I.L.T.: Teen Brain Science 101

Our series continues with a brief look at the teen brain. Why? Well, first of all, it’s just really fascinating stuff. But those of us who serve teens need to understand where our patrons are if we are to structure environments, programs, and services that are appropriate to their developmental phase. Additionally, gaining a greater understanding of what is going on physiologically will help us advocate for teens by placing their behavior within the correct developmental context, and by knowing what to do about it.

We’ve known for years that teens’ brains aren’t done maturing until their early twenties, but just what that means, and what is going on as this maturation is happening, is becoming clearer thanks to the newer Functional MRIs (FMRI) technology. These discoveries are fascinating, and go a long way toward explaining the behavior, idiosyncrasies, and habits of the teen years.  Turns out, some of the seemingly illogical, frustrating, dangerous, and otherwise difficult behavior that we see from teens has a neurological basis.

Like a car with a hair-trigger accelerator and soft brakes

Laurence Steinberg, in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, uses the above phase to describe the interplay of different brain structures in the actions of teens. Like driving a car with a touchy gas pedal and bad brakes, teens are quick to act – sometimes in risky endeavors – but it takes a lot longer to regulate their behavior and slow down. We see this happen all the time, and now there is a neurological explanation for this behavior.

In the above analogy, think of the limbic system as the accelerator, and the prefrontal cortex as the brakes. The limbic system is made up of a group of brain systems closely connected with strong emotions. Fear, love, sexual excitement, anger – all of this happens in the limbic system. As you might guess, the limbic system in teen brains is highly active, and much more sensitive than that of an adult. In the teen years, the thrill seeking behavior we often see can be explained, in part, by this brain structure. Doing thrilling, dangerous, exciting things gives the limbic system the extra jolt that it is seeking.

What’s more, recent studies have shown that that jolt is even bigger for teens who are observed in these thrill seeking behaviors by their peers. So when teens act differently, brasher, louder, more daring when they’re with their friends than they do one-on-one, it’s not just that they want the social validation that they get from being exciting and brave, their brains are actually craving that encouragement and the limbic system rewards the brain when it gets it.

As all of this is happening, the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain, is in charge of moderating the behavior. It’s the brakes. But in the teen years, it’s still maturing with a long way to go. Teens understand what behavior is risky. They don’t think they’re invincible. But the part of their brains that should catch them and pull them back from dangerous behavior is not as quick as the part that’s shouting Go! Go! Go!

It’s a dangerous combination, and one that we need to be aware of and help guide teens through. That said, it’s a duality not without an evolutionary purpose.

Risk and Reward

The interplay of limbic system and prefrontal cortex incoordination explains some of the risky behavior, but not all of it, and the jolt to the limbic system seems a fairly short lived reward for all that risk. That’s because there’s more to it. The teen brain is now thought to be going through a similar level of growth to that of a young toddler. That’s immense!

Part of the task of the teenage brain is to make the most of its plasticity. It’s very malleable at this age, and that malleability is what will help teens grow into intellectually curious adults: it’s the activities and experiences during these teen years that will reinforce the neurological pathways that will remain into adulthood as others fall off through the process of synaptic pruning. Risk taking, or novelty seeking, is a way to stretch the brain – and the person – beyond the familiar, and to introduce new and thrilling activities that will serve the adult. Here, thrilling and novel could be anything from learning a new hobby or sport to exploring the world through travel, to learning a new language… or less productive and more dangerous pursuits. The point is that the brain craves newness at this age, and it has a good reason for it.

The brain in real life

All of this is well and good – it’s hardwired and there’s nothing we can do about it so why even bother trying to moderate teen behavior, right? Well, yes and no. The synaptic pruning mentioned above is happening as a result not just of old, unused pathways dying off. The pathways that are reinforced during this age are the ones that will stick around for a lifetime. This is why drug addiction that emerges during adolescence can be much more difficult to quash than those that are acquired in later years. This is also why adults (that’s you!) being involved in and guiding the lives of teens are so crucial. When we offer help, lead them toward library activities, remain steadfast as confidants, encourage them in positive pursuits, welcome them back when we see them, and generally reward the behaviors and attitudes that we hope to see more of, we are essentially tending the pathways that are going to survive the radical pruning that goes on in teen brains.

But don’t just take my word for it.

I’m a librarian by training and education, not a neurologist or psychologist. So let this brief overview pique your interest, but please learn about all of these amazing developments from the researchers and scientists who know far far more about this topic than I do. My resources for this article:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

National Geographic: Teenage Brains

Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain

Laurence Steinberg, PhD Research articles and his excellent interview on Here & Now

Next week, the 40 Developmental Assets . . .

Serving Full T.I.L.T. series:

January 14 By the Numbers, making the case for teen services using basic demographic information (Karen Jensen)

January 21 Sarcasm, Spice and Everything Awesome: The Developing Teen (Rebecca Denham)

January 28 Teen Brain Science 101 (Heather Booth)

February 4 Asset Building 101, How using the 40 Developmental Assets can help us plan and evaluate teen programming (Karen Jensen)

February 11 Diverse teens, diverse needs (Eden Grey)

February 18 Sharing stories, how knowing and sharing the stories of our teens can help make the case (Heather Booth)

February 25 Empathy, remembering what it means to be a teen and how it makes us better teen services librarians (Heather Booth)

March 4 A Teen Services 101 Infographic (Rebecca Denham and Karen Jensen)

March 11 Talking Up Teens: Discussing Teen Services with Library Administration (Eden Grey)

Sunday Reflections: 7 Ways Teens Are Like Cats (by Heather Booth)

One of my friends, a cat owner and dog appreciator, is also a children’s librarian.  Years ago, as I was lamenting about a lukewarm at best teen event, wishing I got some of the love and affection she so readily got from her younger patrons, she told me this:

Little kids love you like dogs do.  They run to greet you and their whole body shakes with excitement when you look them in the eye and sing the right song.  Teenagers, on the other hand, are more like cats.  They may look at you sideways, get up, and leave the room as soon as you walk in, but sooner or later they’ll sidle up to you and their contented purr will tell you all you need to know: they love you, but they don’t really want you to know it, and they’re just not going to make a big deal out of it or anything.

This can make them (cats and teens) an acquired taste.  I get it.  I’m not by and large a cat person myself, but I have come to appreciate individual cats on a case by case basis.  For some folks, even for some teen librarians, teens are like that.  Saying “I like teens” isn’t the same as saying, “I like working with teens.”  But even if they’re not your thing, you’ve got to admit that they’re intriguing!  And maybe it’s that mystique, that intrigue, that keeps us working with teens… and seemingly fascinated by cats.

So, here are 6 more ways teens are like cats.

6. They’re always going through some stuff – it only makes sense that they’re conflicted sometimes.  Don’t take it personally.

5. We don’t always understand why they do what they do, but it is clear that there is some purpose.

4. If you’re faking it, or trying to be someone you’re not, they can see right through you.

3. It’s true.  In large groups, they can be kind of intimidating until you remember who they actually are.

2. They need guidance and supervision.  They’re risk takers and can be overly confident in their abilities.

1. They will surprise you, so check your assumptions.
Also, in honor of the recent Shark Week, if they were small enough, teens would totally do this:

Teen Issues: Autism and Libraries

It is hard these days not to hear about and think about Autism.  Statistics indicate that 1 out of every 110 children are now diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (ASD).  Statistics also indicate that if you look at only boys, it is 1 out of every 60 boys.  Over the years the rate has slowly been getting higher, which has tremendous immediate and long term implications for all of society, including libraries. (National Autism Association)

I am not a doctor.  I don’t even play one on TV.  But I am the aunt to 3 boys on the spectrum, including 1 that is a teenager.  I am also friends to many families that have autistic children, some of whom are on the higher end of the spectrum, lower functioning.

At times lately I have heard and read about autism and libraries, and I think it is a necessary discussion and frankly we, as a profession, have probably been slower to take part in the discussion then we should have been.  But the truth is, it is a hard discussion to have.

Autism in Teen Fiction

When someone was asking recently about teen fiction titles that deal with autism, a good list was put together.  And yet, I was stirred with a strong sense of conviction to point out what I thought was a fundamental flaw with the way current teen fiction portrays autism.  You see, most of the depictions portray characters with high functioning autism or a type of autism called Asperger’s (not necessarily the same thing).  These depictions do not represent the whole of the spectrum.  They fail to look at life with kids on the high end of the spectrum who are lower functioning.  Those kids that will possibly never leave their homes to live on their own.  These are not the Sheldons from Big Bang Theory (who is often discussed as possibly being on the spectrum in online articles), but more like one of our first popular culture introductions to autism, Rain Man.

I always find teen fiction with autistic characters interesting because they never seem to match my personal experience with autism; the poop smearing, running out of the house naked, will never talk and barely function in society kind (this is not my only experience with autism, it is simply the end of the spectrum that I feel is often ignored in pop culture).  Of the books that I have read, the characters are always milder on the spectrum.  I found The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Al Capone Does My Shirts to be the most informative.  I love how in The Curious Incident the main character talks about what he sees in a field compared to what other people see, and I love how he discusses his sensory issues and coping strategies.  There is tremendous to value to any and all depictions of autism in teen literature; teens need to read and understand the wide variety of personalities and challenges living on the spectrum.  It is important for us all to dive into the world of others and develop compassion and understanding and that is true of autism as well.
Teen Fiction Reading Lists: Autism
Here author Nora Raleigh Baskin discusses her title Anything But Typical about a high functioning, nonverbal 12 year old boy.
Here is a presentation on autism in various pop culture mediums including television and literature.
From a Sibling Point of View
I did appreciate getting the siblings point of view in Al Capone.  But what about the teenager living in a home with a family member that is higher on the spectrum, lower functioning?  Where are those books depicting what it is life for a teen to grow up in a home with a sibling that they can’t come home from school and discuss their day?  Where they are woken up at 4 am by a sibling who can’t get back to sleep and is starting to wander outside the home and they try to gently lead them by the hand back into the house and calm them down?  What is life like for a teen who can’t invite their friends over after school out of fear that their sibling will strip naked, start flapping their arms out of stress, or act out aggressively?
When children grow up in homes with special needs siblings, their life experiences can be dramatically different.  A lot of time and financial resources are spent taking care of ASD kids, whether that be for unique medical needs, therapies, or simply trying to calm them down.  There is often a need for routine and predictability in ASD kids, which would put a lot of additional stress on siblings.  Family outings and social activities can become very limited.
Many people don’t understand what life with a low functioning autistic child is like for one simple reason: these families can become prisoners to their child’s autism and don’t spend a lot of time navigating grocery stores and malls because their child can’t take the difference in routine and stimulation.  Autism Speaks created a 13 minute video that tries to better explain what life with an autistic child is like called Autism Every Day.  This is a depiction of younger children, but they grow up to be teens and although there can be improvement through therapies and other interventions, there are still teens who appear higher on the spectrum.  Plus, for many teens, this is their experience of autism with siblings.
One of the things I would like to see in teen literature is more discussion and depictions of what life is like for teens living in a world impacted by more severe types of autism.  These teens need to see their experiences and feelings validated in the stories that they read.  They need to know that they are not alone.  And they need to know that what they think and feel as their lives are touched by autism is normal.
What Can Libraries Do?
Even as someone whose life has been touched first hand by autism, I recognize that I am not an expert at all and find it difficult to come up with practical ideas for libraries.  There are so many who are better trained and equipped to provide libraries with the information they need to work ASD kids and teens.  I really recommend reaching out and tapping into their expertise.
I think libraries should reach out to specialists in their communities (contact your local schools) and ask them to come in and do training with staff.  Help staff understand what autism is and to help those families that come in with children on the spectrum.  Help staff to understand that not all instances of problem behavior in the library necessarily means that bad parenting is involved; sometimes when that child is throwing themselves on the floor and throwing a fit they are experiencing an actual physical pain as they take in too much stimulation.  An essential part of serving our communities is understanding them and their needs.  People from your local community can also help you understand the make up of your local autistic community: what percentage is there, what ages, what services are offered, etc.
Check with your community to see if there are any autism support groups.  Allow them to meet in your library’s meeting rooms and offering programming for teen siblings in another on site location while these meetings take place.  Siblings need an opportunity to have support, too.  And sometimes, they just want to meet with a group of peers and have fun like all teens do.  You can give them those opportunities while supporting their families.  These families are also one of the best resources to tap into for information and training as they are living it every day.
ALA has put together some training called Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected.  There are a lot of resources here so please check it out.  I think this resource talks more specifically to what libraries can do for teens on the spectrum and does it well, so I won’t repeat it here.  Please go check it out.
And as always, have a variety of resources available to your patrons.  Put together a list of resources in-house, nonfiction and fiction titles for family members of all ages, and some contact information for local agencies.  Toys R Us in an example of someone who does this well; they have put together a sheet online and in their stores highlighting specific toys that work well with children on the spectrum.  Libraries can create the same type of informational resources for families highlighting library resources and services that meet the needs of these families. 
April is Autism Awareness Month.  This is a good time to do displays, training and seminars to the public.  It is also a great time to do special programming for kids on the spectrum and their siblings.  Autism has tremendous impact on families and the community as a whole, so spend some time making yourself and your staff aware of this impact and learning how to meet the unique challenges presented.  You want to make sure to address everything from customer service at the front line services desks to programming and community outreach.  Autism is not going away (although I do hope they find a cure, and soon), we need to be proactive in serving our teens affected by autism.
Other Resources:
Blog post: What pop culture has taught me about autism
The Altantic: When autism stars
School Library Journal: The Voices of Autism
School Library Journal: The Equal Opportunity Disorder
School Library Journal: Remarkable Reads: Autism
Service on the Spectrum: Mediating the Information Needs of Teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Public Library
The Curious Inciden of the Dog in the Nighttime discussion group questions
Scholastic: Al Capone Does My Shirt discussion guide

Understanding the “Wild Child” – a look at addiction in the life of teens, including technology

On September 13th I attended my second Wild Child Conference in Marion, Ohio.  The Wild Child Conference looks at contemporary issues in the lives of teens and seeks to give participants the tools to recognize and deal with important issues.  Last year’s topic was the role and impact of technology in the lives of teens.  This year it was addiction.  TLT believes that it is important for you to understand adolescent development and culture if you are going to successfully meet their needs.  It’s a no-brainer really.  You can’t successfully serve a population you don’t know, understand and, I believe, respect.

If you pay attention to the news you have probably heard that many communities are facing rising problems of drug use.  According to information presented at the WCC conference, alcohol and prescription drug use are the most common issues among teens.  Many teens are finding their drugs right in their parents (or caregivers) medicine cabinets.  And this year they have seen a huge increase in the use of a common bath salt as a drug.  In fact, it looks like new laws are going into effect to limit the sell of said bath salts.

Understanding Addiction
The main speaker for the WCC conference was Annette Franks.  She has a wide variety of materials on her website that can help you understand addiction and recognize the signs of addiction, etc.  In addition, I took notes and posted them on the FB page (not the best format to be honest) and you can see them here:
2011 Drug Update: A brief overview – looks at the most common drugs in use today
Keynote: Understanding Addiction and its impact on youth and families today

Sexual Addiction in the Life of Teens
In addition to drug addiction, speaker Jeff Grant discussed sexual addiction in the life of teens – primarily brought about through the access of Internet pornography or a childhood history of abuse.  The most interesting point referenced by Mr. Grant was the fact that there was little to none research on the subject of teenage sexual addiction.  Jeff is a former youth pastor who has received his counseling degree and specializes in the treatment of sexual addiction.  It is interesting to note that sexual addiction is not the same as being a sexual offender; one can have a sexual addiction and not break any laws or be required to register as an offender.  I recap his presentation here.  He also referenced the article The Making of a Sex Addict by Patrick J. Carnes, PhD.  You can find an article by Carnes here.

Teens and Technology
Last year’s WCC focused on technology, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  And yet as we discuss addiction, the role of technology can not help but come up again.  Technology can be a useful tool and it definitely has increased the access to and role of information in the lives of teens.  And yet it can also become an addiction that hinders their lives.  In addition to using the Internet to access porn and an overuse of all types of media including computers and video games, Annette Franks talked about the effects of texting in the lives of teens.

Texting, Franks points out, causes teens to be less fully present in the moment and changes their emotional experience of life.  We have all seen those teens walking around with cell phones, only partially involved in the moment right in front of them.  This lack of being fully present hinders the development of social skills in a one-on-one setting, the ability to develop good communication skills, and limits true emotional expression and authenticity.  All of these can lead to a lack of true, deep and meaningful relationships.  In fact, texting changes the rate of and depth of eye contact and has tremendous impact on our relationships by this simple act.

Franks also argues that the continual use of cell phones limits creativity, self-expression and the exploration of new ideas and activities.  And again, that lack of being fully present in the moment hinders a teens experience of the world around them.

In terms of library programming, it seems like one way in which we can help our teens is to ask that they not use their cell phones while in a library program so that they can more richly experience the moment.  And if we are doing our jobs correctly, the programs will be interesting enough that they will, in fact, want to be engaged in them.

The Pew center has some good research on the role of technology in the lives of teens:
How do they even do that?

The important key is this:  technology in moderation is a good thing, just like everything else.  But it is important that our teens unplug and get real with themselves, one another and the world around them.  They have to give them selves plenty of time to truly be IN the moments of their lives.  We can help them by providing a wide variety of rich reading materials in tradition formats and by providing a wide variety of ways to interconnect with one another and the world through quality programming.  Create programming opportunities that force teens to interact, to think, and to manipulate real life objects (think crafts, cooking, board games, etc.).

Unplug Your Programming

Image from: http://blogs.indystar.com/varvelblog/archives/2007/06/

And here is where I would like to take a moment to talk about Nature Deficit Disorder.  Step outside your home on a week night or Saturday afternoon.  How many children and teens do you see playing outside?  Riding their bikes?  In comparison, how much time did you spend playing outside?  And yes, simply hanging out counts.  Today’s children and teens are plugged in to such an extent that many now argue that they are experiencing a deficit of nature.  (Here is a very basic overview at Wikipedia, but I recommend reading the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
So if you have the space, get your tweens and teens outside.  Even something as simple as chalk drawing would work, although you might want to call it sidewalk graffiti to make it sound cool.  Maybe you can have them create and maintain a garden space around your library; it’s win-win – you have engaging programs for your tweens/teens and your library looks beautiful and inviting.  Other things you can think about doing include water wars and games, music on the lawn, or a wide variety of outdoor games.  You can even do Hunger Games or dystopian tie-ins by doing survival activities.  Make displays of wilderness books and true life adventure stories.

In our programming we sometimes come to overly rely on video games and technology; but if we are going to really address the whole health needs of teens, we will provide them opportunities to unplug and engage with one another and the world in our programming efforts.

You Can Help Teens Succeed
The day closed with Jodi Galloway from the Teen Institute discussing the 40 developmental assets and incorporating them into your programming as a means to help teens succeed.  I had the privelege to work with Jodi Galloway when I was at the Marion Public Library and recently wrote up an article for the October 2011 issue of VOYA (page 354) discussing our efforts to incorporate the assets into our programming.  Research suggests that the more assets a teen has in their life, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior and the more likely they are to engage in successful behaviors.  There are a wide variety of ways that libraries help teens incorporate assets into their lives from everything by providing free, unfettered access to reading materials to providing quality programs and incorporating teens in leadership roles.  I highly recommend that you take some time to familiarize yourself with the asssets and begin using them as a framework when implementing library teen services.  If a program or service will help a teen meet an asset, then it is of value.  The assets can also be a good framework in discussing your teen department needs and activities with your library administration or community.

So here’s my take away:
Know, understand and value teens to serve them well.
Provide balanced programming that sometimes unplugs and engages teens in more meaningful ways.
Help your teens build assets for success.

According to Annette Franks, the number 1 cause of addiction (the reason most teens start using) is the failure of teens to fully engage in self and the world around them and for the adults in their lives to fully engage in them; through quality library services and programming, we can provide them with opportunities to engage.  Our goal: allowing teens the opportunity to be fully present in the moment.