Adolescence gets a bad rap, particularly among parents grappling with the behavior changes we commonly ascribe to the teen years. Popular culture and adult conversation often portray adolescence as a period of mood swings and raging hormones, of immaturity and rebellion.
Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says we have it all wrong. In his New York Times bestselling book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Siegel draws on new findings to make the case that between the ages of 12 and 24, the brain changes in ways that are critical and productive, if also sometimes challenging and maddening.
Siegel cites studies done at UCLA and elsewhere that have used powerful imaging tools to observe structural changes in the brain during adolescence. The observations reveal what Siegel calls a remodeling process that dramatically reduces the teen brain’s synaptic connections and adds a healthy coating known as myelin around those that remain. The result is more efficient, better-integrated cognition. Meanwhile, the adolescent brain’s reward circuitry ramps up, and the limbic region where decision-making occurs is altered in a way that promotes “hyper-rational thinking.” In this type of thinking, evaluations are weighted toward the exciting aspects of an action, with less emphasis on the potential negative consequences.
Learn more about how to train your brain at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Siegel lists four fundamental outcomes of these changes that he contends combine to form the “ESSENCE” of adolescence: an emotional spark (ES), which manifests as both moodiness and passion; social engagement (SE), which includes pulling away from parents and gravitating toward peers; novelty (N) seeking, the urge to try new things and pursue excitement; and creative exploration (CE), the desire to challenge the status quo and push boundaries.
“When we say it’s all raging hormones, there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Siegel, who was the founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “But when we understand that the brain is remodeling, and parents and teens learn more about the science behind these tendencies, there is a lot that can be done to make this a healthy period of growth and to bring parents and teens closer.”
Siegel offers the following tips:
Keep the Fire Burning
The changes in the limbic area of the brain make adolescents more likely to experience intense emotions and mood swings. Parents and teens should understand that this is normal. Siegel counsels parents to teach their adolescents not to push feelings away, but instead to acknowledge them as a way to achieve balance. This process is called “name it to tame it,” based on studies showing that naming emotions can calm the limbic firing. And then there’s the upside. “You have a tremendous amount of passion and vitality during the adolescent period — the sense that life is on fire — and that’s a beautiful thing that should be encouraged,” Siegel says.
Promote Peer Engagement, with a Conscience
The growing influence of peers that coincides with the teenage years should be celebrated, because the social and relationship-building skills honed during the teen years can pay dividends over a lifetime. “Adolescents are incredibly collaborative beings, and we need to do more to nurture that ability,” Siegel says. The danger, he notes, is that the drive for belonging can become so powerful that the teen forsakes morality to gain membership in — or acceptance from — the group.
“We want to teach adolescents to have an internal compass so that they stay true to their values,” Siegel says. Although teens may be inclined to establish some distance from their parents, he adds, they still have a strong need for adult influences in their lives, making trusted non-parental adults such as teachers and coaches all the more important.
Support Safe Exploration
The enhanced reward circuitry and hyper-rational thinking that make novelty so appealing serve a vital evolutionary purpose. “If you’re not willing or encouraged to move toward novelty, you’re just going to stay in your familiar, comfortable, predictable environment,” Siegel says. “Nature needs the adolescent to be prepared to leave home.” If emotional spark is passion and social engagement is collaboration and connection, the novelty draw is about the courage to try something new.
The problem, as many parents know all too well, is that the urge to venture toward unknown and exciting turf may lead to unsafe activities and behaviors. While allowing the adolescent to explore is an important step toward maturity, parents can provide support in building that internal compass so that the teen is more likely to explore judiciously.
Respect the Rebellion
A young child’s brain is wired to soak in data about the world. As part of the remodeling that occurs during adolescence, the teenager begins to question the adult’s world, moving from acceptance of the status quo to challenging it and imagining how things could be.
“We need to honor this process, which can be very unsettling,” Siegel says. “When you realize the world isn’t the way it should be, you can feel disillusionment, disappointment, and even disgust. You begin to see your parents as fallible.” But the upside is tremendous.
“As adults get older, they tend to adapt and find their niche,” Siegel notes. “That’s why many of the major innovations come from people in their teens and early to mid-20s, who are still in this creative exploration phase. Unfortunately, too many adults call this ‘adolescent rebellion.’ I call it the potential for saving humanity.”
Learn and Live
Describing the actions of an adult as “adolescent” comes across as an insult. Yet Siegel says parents should admire the unique qualities of adolescence, which are also keys to healthy aging.
“In some cases, part of the generational tension is that adults realize they’ve lost something vital in their lives, but it’s never too late to get it back,” Siegel says. “All of the science points to the notion that if you want a good adulthood, [you need to] keep your adolescence going for as long as possible.”