What Parents Need to Know About the Teenage Brain

teenage-brainAdolescence is a challenging time for both the kids going through it and their parents. It is a period of exploration and growth, opportunity and vulnerability. In his new book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes four essential features to adolescence: 1) emotional spark, 2) social engagement, 3) novelty seeking and 4) creative exploration. During this stage of development, parents may experience conflicting feelings about their teenager’s increasing autonomy and independence.

While parents may be supportive and interested in the person their child is becoming, they may also feel threatened by their child starting to assert a separate sense of self and develop his or her own identity. This is particularly true of parents who have shut down these significant aspects of the self and are emotionally deadened or cut off from their own desire for what they want and need and what gives meaning to their lives.

Teen years force parents to face the reality that their child is no longer as dependent, helpless and agreeable as he or she once was. Their youngster is now a spirited almost-adult who may talk back, storm out, roll eyes, and refuse their requests. These emotional and behavioral changes are commonly attributed to “just hormones,” but according to Dr. Siegel, they actually have a great deal to do with brain development.

Siegel categorizes adolescence as the years between ages 12-24. The brain changes during this time period involve “pruning,” or reduction in the number of neurons and neural connections, and “myelination,” a coating around neural connections, which allows faster and more synchronization of information flow.  Pruning gets rid of unused connections and myelination strengthens the remaining connections, turning them into “super highways.” These changes during adolescence help the brain become more integrated, creating more coordination in the brain itself.  This is a remodeling process that leads to both vulnerability and opportunity.  It is during this period of life that the onset for most major mental health disorders occur, and kids entering adolescence are at increased risk for suicide.  It is a time of risk but also a time of opportunity.

In this tumultuous stage of development, parents often feel frustrated and powerless, throwing up their hands and thinking, “What can I really do? Nothing I say has any impact.” Teens are turning away from parents and turning more to peers for a sense of connection. However, as Dr. Siegel would argue, this doesn’t have to be the case. True, teenagers need to develop their autonomy, but they also need guidance and involvement that is sensitive and attuned. Parents should strive to give their kids space but not give up on them altogether.

On Feb. 10, I will be hosting a Webinar featuring Dr. Siegel that will shed light on the “power and purpose” of the teenage brain. Recently, I was fortunate to have a chance to interview Dr. Siegel about his new book. In our discussion, he suggested a “realistic starting place” for parents hoping to improve their relationships with their teen: “give them space to just experience whatever they’re experiencing at the moment and do not have a lot of preconceived ideas about how they should be.” Parents may need to let go of hopes and dreams for their child that were based on the parents’ needs rather than who their child really is.

In Brainstorm, which was written for both parents and teens, Dr. Siegel touches on the many unique aspects of adolescence, offering parents and teens alike a common language from which to communicate. The book also provides information that offers a richer understanding of the inner workings of the adolescent mind. In an interview withSmartPlanet.com, Dr. Siegel explained the acronym (ESSENCE), which he uses to describe the four main characteristics of the teenage brain: ES stands for emotional spark.  As Siegel explains, “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.” SE stands for social engagement, which refers to how “the brain is literally programmed to start having you turn to your peers rather than your parents and engage socially with your peer group.” N stands for novelty; “the brain’s change in dopamine drives you to experience novelty as very rewarding, and that allows you to go out and take risks.” Finally, CE refers to 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.” Parents could personally take advantage of this developmental stage in their adolescent’s life to reawaken these often long-buried aspects of themselves, rediscovering their own essence in order to experience a more meaningful “alive to themselves” existence.

Having children is a transitional stage in life that symbolizes the end of the parent’s own childhood. As children make the shift from child to adult, parents face another transition in their own evolution, from young, forward-thinking adults to middle-aged, older individuals. Even though they may feel the same as they did in their 20’s, the life-shifts their teenager and they themselves are going through can stir up their existential awareness and fears. Parents often defend against these realities by tightening their grip on their teenager and influencing him or her in such a way as to diminish his or her ESSENCE .

Optimally a parent would see their child as a unique individual with his or her own mental experiences. This is not possible when parents have the tendency to want to live through their children. Therefore, it is helpful for parents to question their underlying motives in relation to their kids. For example, how much does my dream of my kid going to a certain college have to do with his or her ambitions and how much does it have to do with my own? Could I be attempting to compensate for something I felt was missing or hurtful in my own childhood?

When parents are able to start to see themselves and their child as two separate individuals and to treat their child with a level of respect and autonomy, they’re better equipped to give up any preconceived ideas about their kid that often more to do with a parent’s own history and aren’t necessarily attuned to the child. An important first step for changing their relationship with their child is for parents to better understand their own minds.

In Brainstorm, Dr. Siegel further suggests that parents would benefit from gaining insight into their own attachment histories. A person’s attachment style is formed in their first years, yet it shapes how they relate throughout their lives. By coming to know their own attachment patterns, parents can begin to understand their present-day reactions to their children. As they identify times when they are likely to “lose it” with their kids.

As parents start to be more tolerant and to see their kids in a new light, they can learn techniques for talking to their kids that promote a mutual understanding. One such exercise is described by Dr. Siegel as “rupture and repair.” Because no parent, or person, is perfect, it is inevitable that almost every adult will find themselves entering into a heated conflict with their kid at one time or another. This is a particularly true when a child enters the independent-minded, opinionated and stormily emotional period that colors adolescence. Siegel explains that there will be ruptures, but after they occur, there is an opportunity to repair.

When a rupture takes place, parents shouldn’t ignore it, pretending like it never happened and moving on. Instead, they should wait until they are in a calm state, then approach and communicate directly with their child. They should open up about their own feelings and mistakes, apologizing for “losing it” or for any misplaced acts of anger or frustration. They can say for example, “I’m really sorry that I lost my temper. I felt attacked and overreacted. It’s important to me to know what you’re going through.”

The poignant and powerful state of constant transformation that defines all of childhood is of unique significance during adolescence, when the parent/child relationship also experiences a major evolution. In many ways, even with all of its challenges, there is perhaps no better opportunity for parents to take the time to learn about what’s truly going on in the minds of their children than during adolescence. In order to effectively do this, they must also look into what’s going on in their own minds – separating their experiences from that of their kids. Parents can broaden their ability to relate to their children by understanding their personal attachment style and learning new ways of relating that will help their kids to gracefully enter adulthood.  Parents can also use their child’s experience of ESSENCE as a catalyst to reawakening and getting in touch with their own deeper feelings, passions, excitement, spontaneity and desire for meaningful connections with others.

Join Dr. Daniel Siegel for the Feb. 10 Webinar “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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