The Mystery of the Teenage Brain
By guest blogger: Stephanie Patterson, MS, LMFT
The teenage brain is a mystery to most of us. We don’t understand teens.
Dan Siegel, M.D. is the current authority on the brain and relationships. He authored Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. It is an amazing book and a must read.
Teens do stupid things because their brain is bored most of the time. Additionally, when they do something pleasurable their brains give them an extra ‘high’ and this makes the pleasure they are experiencing much more compelling. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for pleasure and reward. Dr. Siegel says, “the baseline level of dopamine [in a teen’s brain] is lower but its release in response to experience is higher, which can explain why teens may report a feeling of being "bored” unless they are engaging in some stimulating and novel activities.“
So be sure to provide your teen(s) with plenty of healthy, thrill seeking activities, such as river rafting, swimming in the ocean, traveling, learning a new skill, laser tag or paint-balling, or operating a new piece of equipment like a tractor, golf cart or car. Otherwise, if the teen does not have the needed activity, he or she may become withdrawn and shut down or may be drawn to risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, and sex. Also note that a pruning of unused neural connections happens between age 11 and 13. That means if you have a special skill (such as music or a sport) you want your teen to learn, it is best to have them practice it before adolescence. Otherwise, the neurons will be cut out. And rebuilding them in adulthood is much harder. Trust me, I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for 7 years now but I am making little head way! Seize the day; adolescence is a last ditch effort to get these neural networks in place.
Teens are emotional and aggressive because their brains often bypass the prefrontal cortex, which uses reasoning. A research experiment showed a neutral face to adults and teens. The adult brains simply showed flow of thought. For teens, the emotion center, became activated. "The result for teens can be an inner conviction that even another person’s neutral response or a bump in the hallway can be interpreted as intentional, and a teen may respond with an irritated remark even if the look or bump was completely innocent.” Sound familiar? Now you know why: their brains are sending intense messages of emotion and perceived aggression.
So what is helpful?
Teens need their drive for innovation and creation to be honored. This does not mean setting no limits. “It means acknowledging the intention behind the actions."
Teens have good intentions. Make sure you give those intentions their due credit.
Time in, that is time listening to your own thoughts, feelings and body, causes your brain to grow more integrative fibers that create your ability to regulate emotions, attention, thinking, sense of well-being, and connection to others. This is the cure for the woes of teenage-hood. You can find mindfulness, meditations, and ways to be present in the moment, or ideas for time with nature online or in this book. A teen should take time to exercise his or her brain.
Focused learning without digital distractions is also important. Put away the iPods, tablets, and cell phones while studying. Focused attention is important work for the brain.
"Don’t do it” doesn’t work. Instead promote a positive value your teen already has. For example, an anti-smoking campaign tried something new. Instead of intimidating teens into saying “no” they focused on “being strong in the face of manipulative adults out to get rich.” Did it work? You bet. The next time you attempt to set a limit with a teen, try encouraging a value they already possess instead. Common values for teens are independence, not being manipulated by adults, creativity and adventure.
Most of all, remember to respect the drastic changes happening in the teenage mind. Calling teens “out of their minds,” “crazy,” or “hormonal” is disrespectful and unhelpful. These mental changes are useful adaptations for their future success. As Dan Siegel puts it “We are moving out of our old minds and into new ones as adolescents, and our adolescent mind is full of positive power and the potential for creativity. And this power is something we all need to honor. The key as an adolescent or as an adult is to tap into that potential and help cultivate that power.”