The teenage years are a critical time period for brain growth. The physiological changes that take place in adolescence cause behaviors that are often misunderstood.
In his book Brainstorm, world-renowned neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel says, “From around age twelve to age twenty-four, there is a burst of growth and maturation taking place as never before in our lives. Understanding the nature of these changes can help us create a more positive and productive life journey.”
While this can be a challenging time, and teen behaviors are often looked at through a negative lens, the truth is that adolescence is a period with the “most power for courage and creativity,” says Siegel.
That doesn’t mean parents aren’t driven up walls and sick with worry, though. When you’re in the thick of raising teenagers, it can be difficult to see through all the weeds. Rest assured, these are temporary times, and pretty much everything you and your teen are experiencing is completely normal.
In raising my teens, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to understand what drives their behavior. Knowing the kinds of changes that are occurring in the brain helps me respond with more empathy and understanding, and it reminds me to not take their behavior so personally!
When I begin to worry if my teen will ever “get it,” I take a deep breath and remember the tools I have to deal with these challenging behaviors. I want to share these tools with you so that you face this fun and frantic period with a little more grace and hope.
Pushing Away or Withdrawal
Pushing away from parents is a completely normal, albeit concerning, behavior. Friends become more important during the period of adolescence. For those of us who have practiced conscious or attached parenting, this can feel particularly disconcerting, and yet this pushing away is not an indication of something amiss in the relationship but of the adolescent brain at work.
Dr. Siegel explains that adolescents are driven to create a new world, and this pulling away and leaning into peers allows them to find new ways of dealing with the world. Forming groups of peers is vital for survival. As teens prepare to leave the nest, they instinctively know there is safety in numbers, and their increased social engagement helps them brave their new world together.
While this is a completely normal part of development, there is a concerning number of teens who are cutting adults out entirely. Throughout history, we have stayed together as communities, and adolescents have established independence while maintaining important interactions with elders. In today’s world, Siegel explains that those strands of connectedness are being stretched. He says that pushing away is natural, and shutting others out totally is destructive. They still need adults in their “community.”
The Key to Managing Being Pushed Away
Keeping the lines of communication open is the most basic principle for getting through this time. This is done by playing our “PART,” says Siegel. PART means that we are present, attune, resonate, and create trust. To maintain a positive relationship with the teen who is pushing away, it is important to practice respectful, compassionate communication and to engage in reflective conversations.
Because of the nature of the adult/adolescent dynamic, arguments and ruptures will occur, so it is important to repair those ruptures. This means making a move toward your teen to reconnect with them. It is always up to the adult, not the teen, to initiate the repair. It is never their job to keep us close, but ours.
One effective way to do this is to break the ice and make a statement about wanting to make amends. Then, engage in compassionate communication, apologizing when necessary, and use reflective dialogue about what happened. Listen to your teen without judgment, seeking to understand her experience, being open to and understanding of her perspective.
Daily Practice for Your Teen: Create a daily ritual that gets you in close proximity with your teen, whether it be cooking together, taking a daily walk, dinner around the table, or a short drive with music, if you can find a way to be in close proximity and chit-chat about nothing important, this will build the relationship and help you maintain connection.
It’s become common to blame the moodiness of teenagers on hormones, but this isn’t the whole story. According to neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen, “It’s more about the imbalance between their frontal lobe and their limbic system than it is about the hormones that are being produced by the testes and ovaries running around in their bloodstream.” Though hormone surges do play a part, the changes in the fundamental circuits of the brain during adolescence leads them to feel more intense emotions. The fast route to the amygdala is more readily activated during this period.
The Key to Managing Moodiness
Name it to tame it. When dealing with explosive emotions, Siegel says we need to learn to “feel them so we can deal with them.” Or as Fred Rogers used to say, “If feelings are mentionable, they are manageable.” Siegel suggests putting words to what we feel can help balance the brain’s emotional intensity. There are even brain studies that show that the process of naming your emotions can activate the prefrontal cortex and calm the amygdala.
Daily Practice for Your Teen: Encourage your teen to keep a feelings journal. There are several available online, or you can just have them write in a blank notebook. Journaling can help your teen prioritize their problems and fears while helping to reduce stress.
During adolescence, there is an increased drive for rewards in the circuits of the brain. Couple that with a prefrontal lobe that is not yet fully developed, and you get risky behavior. The prefrontal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for rational thinking and the ability to reflect on consequences. The rapid changes in this area means that it’s spotty - sometimes they can access it, sometimes they can’t.
This is why teens are three times more likely to suffer serious injury or death, making it the most dangerous period in life. The challenge is in helping adolescents find ways to seek novelty and adventure while minimizing risk. According to Siegel, “males especially seem to biologically need to court danger, in some fashion to ‘come of age’ as young men.”
The Key to Minimizing Risky Behavior
You’re probably thinking, but I’ve told my kid about the risks. They know the dangers! And you’re right! They do know, but this knowledge is trumped by the urges to seek novelty. Dr. Siegel explains that the part of the brain that evaluates the meaning of things is unbalanced so that things that are exciting and new have a lot of value and the risks are known but undervalued.
The key to minimizing risky behavior is to cultivate self-awareness. This can be done through helping your teen develop what Dr. Siegel calls “mindsight.” Mindsight is the ability to truly “see” or know the mind, and there are three basic kinds of mindsight - self-awareness, empathy, and morality.
We are focusing on self-awareness here, and it begins with self-reflection and reflective conversations. Just by practicing mindsight skills, you can activate prefrontal cortex circuits that help them grow stronger. Talk with your teen about paying attention to his or her feelings, thoughts, memories, sensations, and perceptions and discuss dreams, attitudes, beliefs, hopes, and desires.
“With awareness,” Siegel says, “we can learn to navigate our internal worlds, to see clearly and to move easily within the sea inside. This is how mindsight empowers us to develop more inner understanding and inner strength.”
Daily Practice for Your Teen: Teach your teen how to take a Time-In. If you practiced using Time-Ins when they were young, this will feel familiar to your teen now as this is basically an upgraded - more adult - version. This is simply a time to intentionally focus attention on your inner world. Close your eyes and ask yourself, What am I sensing now? Notice what thoughts, images, and sensations are moving through. You don’t have to judge them or understand them. Just be aware for now.
You may be wondering how this is going to help your teen reduce risky behavior. When your teen becomes more self-aware, they will better understand their strengths and limitations. They’ll be more conscious of how they’re affecting themselves and those around them, thereby lessening risky behavior.
By seeking to understand what is going on in the adolescent brain, we can better guide our teens through this trying yet exciting period of life and facilitate a smoother transition into a happier and healthier adulthood.