+ Rebellious Teens: The Brain May Be Implicated

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Dan Childs reports on the ABC News site that researchers at the University of Melbourne feel they have linked an area of the brain to teenage rebelliousness.

Researchers have tried for decades to understand parent-teen conflict.  For many parents, life with certain teenagers is constant conflict management, while  those children’s siblings may pose no difficulty at all.

Melbourne’s Orygen Research Center has produced a study that implicates the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain. 

Other experts are not convinced of the conclusions that have been drawn.

The Melbourne researchers looked at 137 teens and thei parents.  The participants were asked to work on a problem-solving task that was designed to cause conflict.

After measuring the degree of fighting the teens experienced with their parents, the researchers had the adolescent volunteers undergo MRI brain scans to measure the size of their amygdalae.

What they found: the larger the amygdala, the more likely the child was to fight with his parents.

Lead study author Nick Allen, associate professor at Melbourne’s School of Behavioral Science, says “One of the things we found in our study was the children whose amygdalae were larger were more likely to spend a longer time being aggressive or angry with their parents during an interaction.”

But child development experts are not so sure.

In particular, according to the ABC news article, they are concerned that the research could lead to the idea that it’s only the amygdala size that matters in teen aggression, when a number of other biological and social factors may be to blame.

Merritt Schreiber of the UCLA National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, says “The problem with this kind of research is that it is correlational and only demonstrates an association.  Even though not explicitly said, the underlying tendency is to assume this means causation — in other words, that the structural changes cause aggression.”

And Daniel Kupper, also at UCLA, states, “It says nothing about cause at all or interaction among factors leading to the results, which is likely extremely complex.

“I’m not even certain there is much agreement as to what the size of the amygdala indicates, or how good the data is on normal amygdala size in adolescence.”

Still, some child development experst find that the results make sense, given what’s already known about the amygdala.

“Amygdala overfunction creates a propensity to overreact to … stressors and difficulty in disengaging in conflicts,” according to Kendall Johnson, a clinician in private practice who has written books on childhood trauma and classroom crisis.

“Like firefighters rushing into a burning building while the rest of us rush out, teens with biologically based overreactivity tend to be attracted to conflict and not be able to think their way out of it.  Parents can learn to understand their children’s violent behavior as a symptom of an underlying dysfunction rather than a sign of poor character or an indictment of bad parenting.”

But, to Schreiber, focusing too much on the size of one particular brain structure would be tantamount to ignoring 40 years of research on other factors that contribute to teen aggression: parenting practices and media influences.

A professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Dr Barbara Korsch, says ignoring these past findings could misdirect parents in dealing with their teen’s problems.

 “More and more malfunction is being attributed to ill-understood deviations in morphology and physiology.  This may have one possible benefit — to reduce parents’ feelings of self-blame.  But until we know a lot more, I think these are far outweighed by the dangers of ‘labeling’ these adolescents as abnormal and doomed to conflict.”

Korsch continues, “We have so much established knowledge of the tremendous significance of family function, environmental pressures and education on these behaviors that I choose to stay with these explanations.

Allen is continuing his research in order to determine some answers to these questions.

His current research will monitor how these teens fare over the years.

“We’re certainly not saying that this explains everything, or that this explains away bad behavior.  Kids still need to be encouraged to have responsibility for their own behavior.  But I think it’s good for parents to be realistic and to have an understanding that these kids are still growing.

“And the parts of the brain that are still developing and growing are the parts that control emotions and behavior, so when you see them behaving in ways that seem inexplicable — that seem crazy — at times, part of the explanation for that will be the biological changes the child is going through.”

source: www.abcnews.go.com article by Dan Childs, with contributions from Cathy Becker, on 2/26/08

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