September 21, 2020
Dan Siegel (2014) writes about the amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain describing the radical changes that occur in the brain through the teenage years. He also writes in his book “Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain” (2013) about the four qualities present in teenage minds based on the radical changes that occur in the brain. He describes novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration as required ingredients for the maturation of an adolescent from child to adult. He describes an upside and downside to each ingredient.
The Upside and the Downside of the Teenage Brain
The upside of novelty seeking is a new-found openness to change and passionate living. The downside is an increase in risk taking and thrill seeking. The upside to social engagement is a strong desire for connection and relationships with peers and adults. The down-side can be a teen that isolates from adult relationships and focuses solely on the influence of peer relationships. The up-side of increased emotional intensity is more energy and zest for life, but the downside is impulsivity, moodiness, and volatility. The upside of creative exploration is increased ability for abstract thinking and pushing against the status quo, the downside is that new forms of abstract thinking can lead to a crisis in identity and self-perception.
I really appreciate the way that Siegel frames the adolescent developmental period as having upsides and downsides. He characterizes all the challenges, difficulties, and changes as necessary and wonderful advancements on the road to “integration” (2013). Integration “the linking of different parts, creates more coordination in the brain itself” (Siegel, 2013, p83) “These more precise and efficient connections in the brain make for wiser judgement and discernments based not on the small details that are without a larger context but on the overall gist that sees the big picture” (Siegel, 2013, p.83). In the past, adults have spoken about adolescence as a stage to survive rather than a crucial part of a person’s human development. I think if we, as parents and counselors can change our perspective on this stage of life, those adolescent’s in our care can feel more understood and respected.
We have the opportunity to assist teenagers by equipping them with tools and strategies for integration. Siegel (2013) introduces seven ways to help adolescents develop increased integration. He lists Time-in, sleep time, focus time, downtime, playtime, Physical time, and connecting time.
7 Ways to integrate the Teenage Brain
Time-In: Time-in, is an intentional period spent reflecting on your inner world. It is paying close attention to our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, hopes, dreams, attitude, and longings (Siegel, 2013). As we consider the amount of time that adolescents spend using social media and other forms of technology it is obvious how important it can be to encourage some time to just sit and notice the inside.
Sleep Time: Adolescents need about 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain growth (Siegel, 2013). The consequences of lack of sleep include weight gain, decreased memory consolidation (learning), and decreased attention and problem-solving abilities (Siegel, 2013). Helping parents and teens to understand the value of sleep can be a crucial step in helping to regulate mood, conflict and family difficulties.
Focus Time: Time spent in focused attention without distractions and interruptions also contributes to the brain’s development. Focusing on one thing causes the brain to release the chemicals needed to create new neuro-networks and to “cement” those networks into the brain. This process is active in learning and therefore, Siegel encourages a movement away from “multi-tasking” and distractions.
Downtime: Time spent with no mental plan and nothing to accomplish gives the brain a break to recharge. Setting aside time on a daily basis can assist an adolescent by recharging the brain for the next period of intense focus.
Playtime: Although often considered only for children, play time both mentally and physically is also important for adolescents. This time free from outwardly imposed structure and full of spontaneity and creativity allows for exploration of new ideas and experiences (Siegel, 2013).
Physical Time: Siegel (2013) suggests 30-45 minutes of movement and argues that physical activity helps build connections in the brain, improves learning, enhances mood and increases relational connections.
Connecting Time: Taking time to be with friends and family is also crucially important. Siegel (2013) and many others (i.e. Bowlby, Ainsworth, Rogers) highlight the importance of relational connection for human flourishing. Providing time to connect in a meaningful way enhances mood stability, and one’s sense of purpose.
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Siegel, D. (June, 2014). The amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain. Mindful. P.43-51.
Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York, NY: Penquin