Daniel Siegel and the Adolescent Brain

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying how young children develop and learn. The world of early childhood can feel like a beautiful rainbow-colored, idealistic bubble. It is full of rapid development and snuggles, what could be better? But the children we teach do not just exist in this bubble; each of the young children I cherish continues to grow long after they’ve left my preschool. One day they will even become teenagers (gasp!)

During the teenage years the brain goes through a second major phase of development. So to learn a bit more about what the next decade will bring for my students, I went to hear brain expert and author Daniel Siegel speak about his new book Brainstorm.

According to Siegel, current science and pop media provide conflicting reports about the adolescent years. Many of the popular ideas about teens are actually myths and can be destructive to the relationships between the teenagers and their parents. For example, one of the largest myths about teens is that adolescence is a period of immaturity.  While it is true that this can be a very dangerous time for young adults (accidental deaths etc.) it is not due to immaturity, nor from raging hormones. In actuality the brain is going through a period of remodeling. Similar to the pruning process that occurs in the brain around ages 3-4, the teen brain is also pruning unneeded synapsis and neurons. The teen brain is also becoming a more specialized brain through the process of myelination. Myelination makes existing brain connections stronger and more balanced. The myelin allows the neurons to communicate up to 100x faster! This process of remodeling the brain is not just through the teen years however, longitudinal studies have shown that this process continues into our early twenties; which to me, explains a great deal. Think about any kind of remodeling, in your house or otherwise. It is an exhausting process and it costs a lot! This is what the teen brain is working against: the stress and exhaustion of remodeling the part of your body that makes your decisions and attempts to regulate your emotions. It’s no wonder that for teens everything can seem like a life or death situation!

Siegel wants us to look at adolescence not as a period of chaos but instead as one of untapped creativity and potential. In order to help us reframe our view, he has created an acronym that he calls the ESSENCE of adolescence. This essence is made up of the following:

ES = Emotional Spark

Adolescents undeniably have big emotions, in both directions. On the positive side this spark is about passion, vitality and a spice for capturing life. On the downside, there is the classic teen moodiness and emotional outbursts.

SE = Social Engagement

During the teen years there is a shift in the majority of social engagement being with parents to being with peers. Teens feel they need to hang out with their friends; it’s a must! This is positive because social engagement has been shown in numerous studies to have positive benefits on our physical and mental health. But of course, the relationship to your peers needs to also be positive to have these benefits. On the other side, the importance of social engagement can include negative peer pressure with a need to impress your now hyper-important peer group.

N = Novelty

As adolescents’ brains begin squirting dopamine, novelty-seeking behavior emerges. This is where teen risk-taking comes into play. On the positive side this can lead to a willingness to try new things, move away from the home and become comfortable with the uncertain. However, this can also lead to a risk of injury, addiction and other new, exciting and dangerous behavior.

CE = Creative Expression

This expression allows for a push against the conventional, not necessarily accepting just what is but challenging everything to come up with something new. One downside of this is that challenging conformity can be a stressful experience, one that even feels isolating. However, on the positive side, creative expression is so much of what we want life to be. Discovering the new thing, following our passions, this is what we strive for and adolescents have that natural drive within them.

As Siegal says, “The ESSENCE of adolescence turns out to be the essence of how to live a full and vital life as an adult.” So as much as I tend to look at my 3 year olds for inspiration about a fulfilling adult life, I now realize maybe I should be taking a cue or two from the teens!

What do you think about the teen ESSENCE?

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