What is Happening in the Teenage Brain?!
Debbie McLaughlin ’83, Learning Support Faculty

By: Debbie McLaughlin ’83, High School Learning Support Coordinator

This is a question many of us adults have probably wondered many times in the quiet of our own minds, or maybe even we’ve let that slip out aloud in a moment of frustration. It’s hard for us to remember, I think, 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, and why, it might help us listen well and communicate better with the teens in our lives.

Knowledge about the brain is evolving at a rapid pace. One contributor to the field who I think contributes a unique voice that is truly resonant with our goals here at Forest Ridge, is neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, MD. 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 on the way to growing up, and that growing up is about moving to complete independence. I especially love this: developmental changes that occur during adolescence enable new abilities to emerge—abilities that are of vital importance to the teen herself and to humanity in general.

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

Emotional Spark: We should honor the more intense sensations that occur in adolescence, as they serve to create meaning and vitality throughout our lives.

Social Engagement: We value important connections and support each other’s journeys, thus learning to create meaningful, mutually rewarding relationships.

Novelty: Teens are novelty seekers and risk takers. The upside of this is they are practicing full engagement that can stimulate thinking in new and challenging ways.

Creative Exploration: The exploration of conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning, and expanded consciousness.

If you don’t have time to read the entire book, take four minutes to view this animated video.

In this video, 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 and 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, with the goal to evolve an integrated brain. Healthy brain development leads to individual wellbeing and increased capacity for kind, compassionate, connected relationships.

Forest Ridge exists to help girls grow into young women with strong mental and intellectual skills as well as healthy social-emotional lives. Curriculum through our Advisory Program, 9th grade experience, and community time supports this growth in a variety of ways.

At school, we continue to hone our skills of asking the right questions to foster growth mindset, and we persist in the message that sleep is vital. Adolescents need on average nine hours of sleep. We know that’s difficult, and many barriers push against this. We appreciate the partnership with parents, and we look forward to all the conversations and ways in we can support each other in the raising of girls to become healthy, young adult women.

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