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Understanding the Teenage Brain

Posted on 17 January, 2016 at 15:40

There are a lot of books out there on parenting and so from time to time I like to review my favourite books to make the job of choosing easier for parents.  I am a big fan of the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, and whole heartedly recommend all of his books.  His most recent release Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain challenges parents to re-frame their thinking about a teenager's behaviours during this age and stage. A little about the author; Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine with training in pediatrics, child and adolescent psychiatry. He is a well-known expert in the neurobiology of childhood trauma and the author of many books on parenting, trauma, the brain and mindfulness.  

Many of us have the notion that parenting a teen equals rough and stormy waters! But Dr. Siegel says rather than lamenting the difficulty of the teen years, we should approach these years with optimism. His message is, that our thoughts and beliefs, when it comes to all areas of our lives, including teens, can negatively shape how they see themselves and ultimately influence their behaviour. In essence, your beliefs about the experience of parenting an adolescent will influence how you perceive your child’s behaviour and how you respond to it.

Siegel dispels the myth that hormones are to blame for everything from a teen’s moodiness to poor judgment. He writes that hormones do increase during adolescence, but that the changes teens wrestle with are actually the result of changes in the brain – not the hormones. In fact most of the challenges teens present to parents are actually a function of the development of the parts of the brain that they need in order to succeed in life – parts that eventually lead to having character and finding a purpose – all of things we want for them.

Siegel categorizes adolescence as ages 12-24. The brain changes during this time include “pruning” or a reduction in the number of neural connections and the coating of the connections called “myelination” which allows for faster flow of information. It all adds up to a remodeling process that allows for a more integrated brain. It is the stage of development when our children are at risk for the onset of major mental health disorders and are at an increased risk of suicide but it is also a stage in life that presents the greatest opportunities in growth and development.

According to Siegel teenage testing of boundaries and risk taking are actually a function of the brain’s development at this stage. Interestingly, he also asserts that teenage independence need not necessarily be a goal to strive for, rather interdependence and having adults to rely on during this time in life is more beneficial! This resonated for me both as a parent and as a therapist. We have emphasized nurturing the child parent relationship with our daughter, and I like the idea of continuing to see the importance of this relationship into the teen years rather than pushing her towards independence for our own for convenience.

Siegel uses the acronym ESSENCE to explain the changes that take place in the brain during adolescence. These changes place emphasis on parts of the brain that lead to developments in the following areas: ES refers to emotional spark or increased emotional intensity, SE is for social engagement with an emphasis on social relationships, N is for novelty seeking which can lead to increased risk taking, and CE is for creative explorations and an expanded sense of consciousness including an exploration of ideas and concepts and challenging the status quo.

Similar to his approach in Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Siegel wonders whether teen behaviours that he labels as developmental ESSENCE might be triggering in parents a longing for this past part of their own lives. If parents could reflect on and perhaps capture their ESSENCE, the gap might narrow and the tension might lessen.

If you anticipate the joys and pleasures of parenting during adolescence and communicate these to your child it will offer a form of connection rather than acting as a means of disconnect. Ultimately your goal is to maintain connection throughout adolescence. Your intention to do this should be communicated in your beliefs, words, and actions.

In keeping with the empathetic awareness that he is known for, Siegel fashioned the book into 4 sections that can be read in order, individually, or as appeals to the reader. There is no need to read from cover to cover or stumble through the neurobiology and then feel overwhelmed. And it’s a great read for a parent and a teenager. His reframing of what has long been described as a difficult time in the parent child relationship can provide parents with some insight and an empathetic understanding of the developmental processes. And having your daughter or son read the book can help them understand their own development in neurobiological terms and open the lines of communication. 

It is a very useful book for a parent of a teen and I recommend it thoroughly!  

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