Understanding the teenage brain

by Penny Boreham

Teenagers together

Teenagers together

Psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel’s work on the subject of understanding the teenage brain highlights beautifully that we should never assume anything about human behaviour and the psyche until we have attempted to understand it as fully as possible. It also shows us that the more we know about the teenage nervous system the better our relationships with adolescents will be, and the better we can be as parents.

Trying to understand the nervous system in all its depth, and how it interrelates with our psyche, is at the heart of the work we do here at Khiron House.

Professor Siegel’s tireless research into the teenage nervous system is profoundly important. When beloved children start rolling their eyes at us it can be frustrating and upsetting for parents, but if we understand WHY they are doing this Dan Siegel says we will be able to bear it better and also not react in a way that will make the situation more aggravated.

This is true also of the work we do at Khiron House – the more we understand about the impact that trauma has on nervous systems the better we can understand the feelings and behaviour of those who have suffered the impact of trauma.

“Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”

It is also true, as Professor Siegel makes clear, that we need to understand the adolescent period more fully so that we can help young people build resilience as this is the time that most psychiatric illnesses first emerge in some form.

Dan Siegel believes profoundly that there are exercises, particularly using mindfulness, that will help young people manage this time which is a period of massive brain integration.

When Professor Seigel couldn’t find a book written for adolescents about the changes happening in their brains, he decided to write his own, and he surveyed all the science available on the brain.

“I was shocked to find the disparity between what science was saying and what popular views of adolescence are .. then I thought, maybe this book should be for adults, too”.

The result was Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain

He advises us to look at the received opinion, emphasised in the media, and reconsider the assumptions that are made about adolescence and adolescents. He says people talk about adolescence as a period to ‘get through’ and ‘get over’ rather than looking at the central qualities of adolescence that have allowed us to develop so successfully as a species. As he puts it “the hope for the future rests in the courage and the creativity of this period of time” and he wants a change in the cultural conversation about this crucial period.

The adolescent period

Professor Siegel explains that adolescence is now recognised as the period that spans ages 12 to 24 years and that the brain is going through a huge process of integration. He says that integration is the single most important function of the brain, and this is the period when more integration is going on than at any other time in our lives.

It has now been proven that adolescence doesn’t always correspond to the onset of puberty, you can have someone start early puberty and not go through adolescence, and you can have someone go through adolescence without their sexual organs having fully developed. Professor Siegal says we must look at the actual changes and transformations occurring in the central nervous system of young people to understand what is really going on. There is huge change in the brain’s limbic system during this period, and this is the area associated with emotional states. Adolescents’ emotions can be hard to control, and they can feel flooded.Professor Siegel points out that experiments in the United States have shown that if you show a picture of a “neutral” face to an adolescent they will tend to say it is ‘hostile’, whereas a child or an adult will tend to see it as ‘neutral’. This is because the adolescent’s lower limbic system is experiencing ‘neutral’ as ‘hostile’. Dan Siegel says that if we understand that this is the impact of their lower limbic systems adults can find it easier not to react to what sometimes feels like open antagonism.

This “emotional spark’, as Professor Siegel describes it, can have huge plus sides too of course. There is ‘power’ and ‘fire’. Adolescence is also a time for huge social engagement with peers, and away from the family, and this is essential. Going from the dependency of childhood to the responsibility of adulthood requires not just a leap, but a transformation. You need to start thinking in new ways, and to really want to leave the ‘safety’ of home. For the individual, at a very basic level, there needs to be changes in the brain that actually allow you to leave home. If you remain in the role of dependent child, you’ll never figure out how to approach dangers and challenges while you’re doing all this. It’s a time where you have to court danger and take risks so you’re ready for adulthood and Professor Siegel writes the only thing more dangerous than taking risks is not taking risks.

Question and Answer 

(Dan Siegel gave these answers in an interview with Molly Petrilla of SMARTPLANET)

Q: In Brainstorm you talk about four major aspects of the teenage brain, all of which seem geared toward those broader purposes. What are those aspects?

A: I love acronyms, and I call this one ESSENCE. ES is emotional spark. The lower parts of the nervous system rise up and affect the higher part of the brain — the cortex — which gives us this passion and vitality. The SE is social engagement. The brain is literally programmed to start having you turn to your peers rather than your parents and engage socially with your peer group. The brain’s change in dopamine drives you to experience novelty [N] as very rewarding, and that allows you to go out and take risks. And CE is creative expression. The brain is achieving new levels of complexity that open the mind up to creatively exploring the nature of reality in a new way.

Q: Digging into that last one, you write that adolescence is “a golden age for innovation” and “the gateway to creative thinking.” Why is that?

A: When adolescence comes, we’re programmed from an evolutionary point of view to push away from the status quo. In concrete terms, we push away from our parents and parent figures. But from a more abstract sense, we start imagining the worlds that don’t quite exist yet. Those are the sources of creativity: this push against what exists to not only think out of the box but to actually re-imagine the world. If you look at the data even in science, which is a hard field, a lot of the new ideas come from people in their adolescence. That’s true in art and music, too, and obviously in technology.

Q: How does ESSENCE apply to adults? Is it something we can hold on to through life, or at least reclaim now that we know about it?

A: The ESSENCE of adolescence is something you don’t ever have to let go of, but if you have and now you need to reclaim it, there are things you can do. To get your emotional spark back, I would suggest using mind-training practices to enhance your awareness of non-verbal signals that arise from your body. You also get used to the familiar and the routine as an adult. To bring back novelty, simply try new things; introduce new things into your life on purpose.

Q: You also write that it’s inaccurate to dismiss adolescents as simply impulsive. In fact, you say that they can actually be too rational when making risky decisions.

A: The research term is hyper-rational thinking. It’s related to the idea that the appraisal centers of your brain highlight and emphasize and amplify the meaning and significance and import of a positive aspect of an experience. If I’m going to drive a car 100 miles an hour, it would be how thrilling that will be. The potential cons — I could crash into a tree, I could kill someone, I could kill myself — are minimized. When you hyper-rationally do your calculation, you say that the chances are very likely everything will be fine. There may be a five percent chance I’ll crash but a 95 percent chance I won’t. Sadly, the hyper-rational thinking accurately assess probabilities, but it de-emphasizes the severity of the negative outcome, simply because there’s only a slight chance it will happen.

Q: What are some of the other major myths you discovered about adolescence?

A: One is that to grow up, adolescents need to be totally independent of adults. In fact, adolescents need adults in their lives. We don’t have much in the structure of modern society that provides trusted, non-parental adult figures that the adolescent — whose brain is naturally pushing away from parent figures — can turn to during this transformative period of life. We need to rethink that as a society.

I also disagree with the belief that adolescence is this horrible time of life that you just have to get through. I think the courage to creatively explore the world is an untapped resource for humanity. If we don’t work together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems with the help of adolescent minds, then we’re not going to do so well.

Q: Is there something that still puzzles you about the teenage brain, even after writing a book about it?

So many things! Mostly there are fundamental questions about how we can reach individuals entering the adolescent period to minimize danger to themselves or others. We need to really think deeply about how to develop communities of support for teens.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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