My teenagers—aged 17, 14, and 13—are past the concerns about choking and drowning (although these hazards also exist for adults). But like all parents, I still always worry about their safety, especially now that they are able to go out on their own.
Whether they experiment with being under the influence of mind-altering substances (alcohol, marijuana) is something not completely under my control. What I can control is making it a seamless step for them to use ride-sharing for any reason, no questions asked. I tell them, unlike credit cards there is no upper limit on the usage of this app.
But being a neurosurgeon, I can’t help but also want to protect their brains, too. Looking back at nearly two decades of parenting and the explosion in knowledge about the human brain during those same years, I do think about my approach to raising my three sons—back then and even now.
I try to organize my thoughts in a zoomed-out to zoomed-in perspective. Here is how prioritize my concerns and approaches when it comes to my children’s brain health.
Are they eating right?
This is important because it’s clear now that food influences mind and brain. But not in the oversold way of “superfoods” or “brain foods."
My feeling is that they need to eat some plants daily (fruit works) and then some fish every week (salmon twice works). Even if the other things they eat are on the go, at school, or in plastic wrappers, I try to make sure fruit and fish are a part of the week. Antioxidants in fruit and Omega-3s in fatty fish are the key ingredients for brain health.
Are they putting down their phones?
This is a well-established concern for parents. When I was a kid, my mother wanted to limit my TV watching. I don’t try to limit my kids’ screen exposure because they do their homework on them and get assignments via email. They watch interesting content, as well.
What I do emphasize is for them to take an hour or two completely off-screen—before they shut down for the night. It lets their mind wander without the inherent steering that happens when content is being fed into their mind via screens. Mind wandering accesses pathways in our mind that have been left idle and are at risk of becoming obsolete. Having time to let your mind drift is helpful, especially after an active day at work, school, or on the phone. This helps with sleep, too.
Are they having some fun daily?
I don’t want overachieving robots. I don’t want party animals who don’t get anything done. Both are possible. And without both, life won’t have all the avenues for personal and psychological growth. It's all about playing hard and working smart.
Is their mind blown every day?
This is a little ritual that we have. Someone (usually me, but not always) finds a link, or a video, or a magazine article that is completely unexpected and a conversation starter.
In my opinion, this keeps our family engaged and adds new content to our brain from which we can grow intellectually as well as creatively. The last one we all chatted about was a magazine article that dogs can sniff out some cancers in humans. What?! Exactly!
How is their mental health?
Teenage brains are a firestorm of novel brain connections that aren’t fully in sync with emotions. I do worry about whether they are developing effective coping strategies for things like stress, breakups, and social media influence. This one is hard to offer a strategy, other than what I do: Try to be around.
Dr. Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., is a dual-trained brain surgeon and neuroscientist at City of Hope in Duarte, California. In his latest book, Neurofitness: A Brain Surgeon’s Secrets to Boost Performance and Unleash Creativity, Dr. Jandial pulls together years of research from various fields—surgery, science, brain structure, the conscious mind—and applies them to everyday life for enhanced performance, improved memory, heightened creativity, and much more.