What is happening in the teenage brain?
Debbie McLaughlin, High School Learning Specialist and Middle School Faculty

What is happening in the teenage brain? This is a question many of us adults have probably wondered in the quiet of our minds, or maybe we’ve even said it aloud in a moment of frustration. It’s hard for us to remember, what it felt like to be 13, 14 or 15 years old. But, if we could increase our knowledge of what is happening in the adolescent brain, it might help us listen and communicate better with the teens in our lives.

Knowledge about the brain is evolving at a rapid pace. One expert who contributes a unique voice resonant with our goals at Forest Ridge is neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, M.D. He is the author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. According to Publishers Weekly, “by the end of this book, the teenager has been transformed…into a thinking, feeling and entirely approachable human being.” Siegel debunks the myths about raging hormones, adolescence being only an immature stage and that growing up is about moving to complete independence. I especially love this nugget, "developmental changes that occur during adolescence enable new abilities to emerge—abilities that are of vital importance to the teen herself and humanity in general." 

Siegel’s work on the essence of adolescence can remind us of living well as adults:

  • ES, or emotional spark. We should honor the more intense sensations that occur in adolescence, as they serve to create meaning and vitality throughout our lives.
  • SE, or social engagement. We value important connections and support each other’s journeys, thus learning to create meaningful, mutually rewarding relationships.
  • N, or novelty. Teens are novelty seekers and risk-takers. The upside of seeking novelty is when teens practice full engagement that can stimulate thinking in new and challenging ways.
  • CE, or creative exploration of conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning and expanded consciousness.

If you don’t have time to read Siegel's entire book, take four minutes to view this animated whiteboard. Siegel describes the two main biochemical processes that happen during adolescence. One is pruning: the elimination of extra synapses that are thought to be unneeded, thus providing room for more important brain networks to grow, making the brain more efficient. The other is myelin formation, growing a healthy sheath of connected neurons. The brain is essentially being remodeled during this time, becoming an integrated brain. Healthy brain development leads to individual wellbeing and increased capacity for kind, compassionate and connected relationships.

In my role, I’m often in conversations with teens about organization, motivation, sleep and openness to new habits and structures that will support aspects of their lives. Adults at school know a lot of things that work, but it’s generally not successful to just push these on teens. Nevertheless, a couple of approaches remain constant for me:

  1. How’s your sleep? We can talk about a lot of other strategies, but if sleep is compromised, it will be hard for the other strategies to stick.
  2. Planner; system for organizing? When I hear “nothing works” or “a paper planner doesn’t work”, I generally probe about this. Often, it’s that students are not working on their plan, versus a plan that doesn’t work.

In both cases (sleep and a planner), I try to guide teens to stay open to coaching and making healthy choices. This year, I bought a marionette, to visually display the conversation that—unlike a marionette—teens do have agency over. Sure, some things are beyond our control, we don’t always get what we want and certain rules might make us chafe, but how do we react to these challenges? Our job as adults in teens' lives is to help them own their choices, consider possible outcomes, pivot and adjust. To do that well, it’s good to keep ourselves grounded in the biological realities of adolescence. Thank you, Dan Siegel, for helping reframe the essence of adolescence.