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Helping teens write new chapter after a mistake

Helping teens write new chapter after a mistake

Helping teens write new chapter after a mistake.


POSTED August 30, 2015 1:59 a.m.
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At 16, school was not nearly as important to him as it should have been. Not quite a man, but no longer a boy, he was focused more on some challenges his family faced and on his social life. He figured he’d better get a job.

So he went to work and, when his grades started to plummet, he didn’t know how to change direction and he didn’t have time anyway. He had work obligations. And although it was minimum wage work, it provided more than he’d had in his pocket before.

His decisions were met with shrugs; the indifference of those around him and his falling grades formed a crack he eventually fell through. If he wasn’t doing well in school anyway, he didn’t see a point in being there. He dropped out midway through his junior year.

It didn’t take him long to realize he’d made a huge mistake that was going to hurt his future prospects, but he didn’t know what to do about it or who to ask. First he screwed up. A few months later, at 17, he screwed up his courage to ask education officials if they’d let him come back so he could earn a diploma.

They told him no. No one suggested an alternate course. It was as if his story had not only been written, but was also now printed, bound and waiting on pallets to be distributed.

It bothers me that a mistake by a 16-year-old kid can be viewed as irreparable — especially a mistake that demonstrated lack of judgment and confidence, but didn’t hurt anyone else. He wasn’t a disciplinary problem or violent. It seems to me his failing was primarily not being able to picture a future for himself or adequately foresee consequences.

He appeared defeated before he abandoned school and no one tried to woo him back inside.

We put a lot of pressure on older kids to know what they’re doing and what their futures hold — often even before they’re 17. Their brains are still forming, but they’re supposed to act as if it’s a finished product.

My oldest daughter is college bound. When she says she doesn’t know what she wants to major in, there’s often a moment of stunned silence, as if she’s allowed herself to fall way behind in life. She hasn’t. And that’s a benign example.

Some noted neuroscientists believe that what teenagers choose to do impacts how their brains will develop, with major implications for their futures. The stakes are high.

For example, in an interview with Frontline, National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist Jay Giedd talked about ongoing development of the cerebellum, which among other things coordinates the intricacies of thought processes, and the frontal cortex, where decision-making, judgment and organization take place.

“It's sort of unfair to expect (teens) to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built,” he said, adding that teens sometimes make decisions that can really sabotage their futures, liking drinking or doing drugs right when the brain is at an especially vulnerable point. Teen years are also a time of heightened risk-taking, from doing things that are physically dangerous to making decisions that prove themselves foolish. Decisions made impulsively can send teens wildly off course.

It seems to me that we should be watching teens as closely as possible so they have room to exercise those brains and enhance their skills as they venture into a world where they have more freedom and responsibility.

But if we're paying attention, we may also see opportunities to help them make their way back over bridges that were foolishly crossed.

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