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A teenager with her parents in the background.

Parents, be patient. Adolescent brains really don't mature enough to handle multiple tasks until the late teens.

One task at a time

Adolescent brains develop at their own pace

By Deane Morrison

Published on June 7, 2005

If you have teenagers at home, you don't need to be told how hard it can be to get them to act like adults, especially with any task that requires strategic or organized thinking. "I asked her to take out the garbage, sweep the kitchen floor, and take the dog for a walk," said one mother of a 13-year-old. "After the third thing, she said, 'No, no, no--just one thing at a time!'" The good news is that teens aren't just being difficult: Their brains really don't mature enough to handle multiple tasks until the late teens, long after they've acquired the skills to handle most single tasks assigned to them. The bad news is that because their multitasking ineptitude has a biological basis, you'll have to be patient. A study headed by Monica Luciana, University associate professor of psychology, shows that different types of skills develop at different ages. Working with children between 9 and 17 and U of M students 18-20, Luciana gave them a series of tasks that tested the abilities of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the cerebrum in the most frontal part of the brain, in the region located behind the eyes. The tasks: 1--Recognize a face after a short interval.

2--Note the location of a dot on a computer screen and, several seconds after it disappears, point to the location.

3--Remember a sequence of simple events and reproduce them in order.

4--Remember a similar sequence of events and put them in reverse order.

5--Open a series of boxes on a computer screen, some of which have hidden items inside. Retrieve a certain number of hidden items and remember where items were found as the search continues. The research team found that simply recognizing something familiar (task 1) was already mature before age 9; in contrast, children's ability to remember single bits of spatial information (task 2) continued to develop until ages 11 to 12, and their ability to recall several bits of information (tasks 3 and 4) kept developing until they were 13 to 15. But the kind of strategic thinking necessary for multitasking, as in task 5, didn't fully develop until ages 16 to 17. To do well on this task, the subjects had to exercise such skills as spatial memory, organization, continuous updating of information and, especially, executive control--the ability to use these skills at the same time, balancing them in a way that allows maximal success on the task. This function is particularly important when a task is new to a person or when a high level of accuracy is demanded. "Because executive control has been localized to a specific area of the prefrontal cortex, which may be different than the regions that contribute to tasks 1-4, it appears that different prefrontal regions reach functional maturity at different rates," said Luciana. "If this finding can be replicated, it has clinical implications for conditions such as schizophrenia, which typically presents during adolescence and has been associated with deviant patterns of organization and function in the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with executive control." Of course, this work helps us to understand normal behavior as well. So don't ask your young teen to self-organize tasks that would be hard for even a smart adult, unless you're prepared for a few miscues or unless you're prepared to provide the structure to help him or her finish the task. And that doesn't just apply to household chores. Adults must be careful to keep in mind the limitations of adolescents facing demands in the classroom or in social situations, too, Luciana said. For example, situations such as learning to drive a car, dividing one's time appropriately during final exam time, or navigating a new school schedule might be challenging for young teenagers.

The study was published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development.