This post is for the parent of a teen who may need help with staying organized, planning ahead, controlling their emotions, sustaining attention on important tasks, or remembering to take care of their responsibilities. Everyone still reading? Great. You're not alone.
Executive functions are mental processes that allow a person to delay gratification, stay focused and on task, plan over time, start and persist toward a goal, regulate emotion, hold things in memory and accurately read social situations. During adolescence, the area of the brain responsible for these processes, the frontal lobe, is still developing and the links between it and the rest of the brain are relatively weak. This means that the popular parental statement, “You know better than that.” may very well be true, but may not be the real issue. The good news is that there are ways to help kids develop the executive skills necessary to use what they know.
The book, Smart but Scattered Teens, deals with helping kids develop executive skills throughout during the adolescent years. All children, and adults for that matter, have strengths and weaknesses in executive skills, and there are things that parents can do to help their child overcome weaknesses if the skills can be identified. The authors identify 11 different executive skills and provide tools for diagnosing a person's aptitude for each:
1. Response inhibition – acting with no regard for consequence
2. Working memory – inability to keep track of things or responsibilities
3. Emotional control – emotional overreaction or short-temperedness
4. Flexibility – difficulty adjusting to a change in routine
5. Sustained attention – need constant reminders to stay focused
6. Task initiation – chronic procrastination of required tasks
7. Planning/prioritization – poor planning for long-term goals
8. Organization – often losing things due to disorganization
9. Time Management – continually late for appointments or deadlines
10. Goal-directed persistence – difficulty putting aside more immediate desires in order to make progress toward larger goals
11. Metacognition – responds inappropriately or has difficulty with self-assessment of behavior
This book offers very good strategies for parents looking to assist their child in building the executive skills that they will need to be successful in school and in life. They point out that as a child grows, the parents start out acting as a surrogate frontal lobe for children who haven't fully developed their own yet (Executive skills do not reach their peak until the age of 25, on average). In this way, parents must help children to make important decisions, remember deadlines and appointments, and organize their world. As children grow up, however, like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle, parents must begin to trust their children to act on their own with success.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for children, longing for autonomy but not yet able to be truly independent. Likewise, it is tough for parents wanting to see their kids “grow up” but worrying about them making safe and successful decisions. It is a delicate balance, but the better you understand this incredibly rapid and exciting stage of development for your child, as well as your role in it, the easier it can be. We hope this resource is helpful for you. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to call a member of the student services team.
Post by: Daniel H. Peabody, School Counselor