“What were you thinking?”
I’ve heard this phrase countless times as a therapist to adolescents and their families, observing as parents desperately attempt to understand the reasoning behind their teenagers’ behaviors. Even looking back on my own adolescent years, I remember hearing this phrase from well-meaning but out of touch adults. Both adults and teenagers can find the adolescent years frightening, exciting and all-around confusing.
In his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. asks parents and their adolescents to ask a different question: Instead of “What were you thinking?” try and explore “How were you thinking?” Dr. Siegel writes that both adolescents, as well as their caregivers, would benefit from increased understanding and empathy as they navigate a changing brain and prepare to leave the nest. An important note: Dr. Siegel defines the adolescent years between the ages of 12 and 26.
Dr. Siegel describes the triune brain, which refers to the three major components of the human brain:
The most basic, animalistic part of the brain is the brainstem, often called the “lizard” or “reptilian brain,” which is responsible for our heart rate, breathing, sleeping, eating and basic survival. This part of our brain asks: “Am I safe?” The brainstem develops when we are in utero.
The next part of the brain that develops is the limbic, or the feeling “watchdog brain,” which is responsible for emotions, the fight or flight response and memory processing. This part of our brain asks: “Am I loved?” The limbic system begins to develop in utero, is very active during the first 3 years of life, and continues development during adolescence.
The most advanced part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking “owl brain” or “wizard brain,” which is responsible for executive functioning – organizing, thinking through consequences, paying attention, etc. This part of our brain does not finish developing until around the age of 26. Teenagers and parents of teenagers, you can breathe a sigh of relief!
What’s important to note with the triune brain is that information passes first through the brainstem (reptilian brain) before being transferred to the limbic system (watchdog brain). If the brain perceives internal or external danger, information does not get passed to the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain), and the most advanced part of our brain cannot be accessed. When our brains perceive safety, however, information is then passed onto the prefrontal cortex and signals a “rest and digest” response. In other words, none of us can think through things rationally until we feel safe.
Applications for Adolescence
We hear this phrase all the time: “Teenagers are just dealing with raging hormones!” Dr. Siegel warns that this sentiment both minimizes adolescents’ internal experiences while also ignoring the essential changes happening in a teenagers’ brain that prepare them for adulthood. Through his research, Dr. Siegel identified two major changes in the brain that impact adolescents’ emotions and behavior: the pruning of neurons that are no longer needed in the brain at this stage of life, as well as the myelination (coating and protecting) of remaining neurons so they can work more efficiently.
How Does This Impact Your Teenager’s Behavior and Emotions?
- Hyperrationality refers to the process of overvaluing the positive possible outcomes of a decision, while undervaluing the negative outcomes. The teenager brain evaluates things differently than an adult brain or even a child’s brain. This process can help explain why teenagers and parents fail to understand one another. While caregivers often try to use logic and reason with their adolescence, teenagers often perceive risks and rewards in a very different way.
- Dopamine drive, Dr. Siegel writes: “During adolescence there is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits using dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward. Starting in early adolescence and peaking midway through, this enhanced dopamine release causes adolescents to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and exhilarating sensations. Research even suggests that the baseline level of dopamine is lower-but its release in response to experience is higher-which can explain why teens may report a feeling of being ‘bored’ unless they are engaging in some stimulating and novel activities.”
- Increased impulsivity: Due to changes around the brain’s appraisal centers and dopamine production, adolescents experience increased impulsivity in their emotions, and therefore their behaviors. This impulsivity might manifest as increased conflict with siblings and parents, extra motivation to try a new hobby or a sense of urgency in peer relationships. From an evolutionary sense, this process helps teenagers engage in healthy risk-taking, which is needed for adolescents to leave the nest and explore their sense of self outside of their families.
These changes affect adolescents as well as their family members. In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll explore how families can use this information to not just survive the teenage years, but to thrive during adolescence. For now, try sharing this information with your teenager. Education on these brain changes can provide powerful insight into the “whys” of adolescent feelings and behaviors. See if you can extend compassion for yourself or your teenagers as they develop integral parts of their brain during adolescence.