The mind of teenagers: 10 ABSOLUTELY things to know to understand them better

Source: Shutterstock

In our culture (similar to many others), adolescence is perceived as a 'delicate' and difficult age, a 'shaky' bridge between immaturity and adult life.

In reality, according to Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, this image is reductive and does not honor an extraordinary period, full of changes, even if complex and disorienting.

Around this phase of existence (between approximately 12 and 24 years) there are still many myths, now debunked by scientific studies.

To understand teenagers and guide them towards a peaceful future, the first step is to leave clichés behind. Daniel J. Siegel (co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA) is convinced of this and has been involved in research on children, adolescents and families for years. And it is with this premise that his latest book, The Adolescent Mind (Raffaello Cortina Editore), starts a journey to discover how much neuroscience helps to understand children.

Here are the 10 things you absolutely need to know about how the teen mind works.

1. Let's forget the false myths and clichés about adolescence: hormones are not always responsible and we need to understand in the right world the desire for adolescent independence

At the top of the ranking of false myths, the idea resists that 'the hormones gone mad'are responsible for' freaking out 'young people in this age group. In reality this is not the case at all. The increase in the hormone level is not the cause of what happens during adolescence, it is instead the changes in the development of the brain that have a strong influence.

Equally incorrect is the belief that adolescence is only a phase to be 'endured' with a good dose of patience on the part of the family. It is instead of a crucial age, fundamental to express all those potentialities, at the basis of a rich and full adult life.

Also the question linked to the conquest of independence it is not perceived in the right way according to the author of this essay: every teenager 'detaches himself' from the family but growing well does not mean 'cutting ties' with adults. Of course, friends become more and more important and the relationship with parents changes but it should turn into a form of interdependence. With this term, the author means the transition from dependence on the care of others, typical of childhood, to the gradual estrangement from the family in order to give and receive help from others.

2. Adolescence: a 'tsunami' of changes in the brain that lead to many risks but also to opportunities

The main aspects that distinguish adolescence (and make parents anxious!) Are related to natural and completely normal changes occurring in the brain. Between the ages of 12 and 24, as Daniel J. Siegel reiterates several times, there is intense growth and maturation, unmatched in other stages of life.

In the early teens, the changes that occur in the brain predispose to the appearance of four mental characteristics: the search for novelty, social involvement with peers, greater emotional intensity and creative exploration.

These 'turning point' elements - which all teenagers have in common - involve, at the same time, many risks and opportunities. But from Daniel J. Siegel's point of view, it all depends on how you navigate these waters and where the ship goes ... "On the other hand, countering these fundamental traits of adolescence would be like trying to restrain the natural momentum. of a waterfall ”, says the author. Because of this, it is essential that adults do not block children, destroying any possibility of communication, essential in this phase of existence. The best way is instead to keep open the dialogue that can prevent the negative epilogues of some dangerous adolescent behaviors.

3. We value creativity by controlling 'destructive' tendencies

According to the American professor, understanding how children's brains work is very important to be able to "harness their potential to make positive choices and implement constructive changes in our lives".

In fact, the phase between 12 and 24 years is the most dangerous in life: the radical changes of this period can create problems with disastrous consequences. However, for the psychiatrist, this 'revolutionary propensity' also has very positive implications.

“The adolescent's rejection of the safe and familiar is like a two-sided coin. On the one hand, the tendency to move away seems to be written in the genes; it is what leads to launching at full speed along a public road (Ed by car, or to drink and look for excess, as the author states between the pages). This is the destructive side of the coin that we must try to control so that the kids can grow well and take off ”, explains the expert. But it is equally important to enhance the other side of the coin, the constructive side, because original ideas and creative solutions can be born from the 'rebellion' against traditions and status quo.

4. Why do teenagers seek risk? Blame the brain. In search of dopamine and rewarding experiences

Generally, when a boy decides to 'have fun', in ways that are very questionable for an adult (for example, by drinking like a sponge at a party), he is no stranger to the possible consequences. The point is that every teenager tends to value the 'pros' of an action more than she does while also knowing the 'cons'. All of this has an explanation for him, it depends on how the brain works.

“The brain is a collection of cells - neurons - that communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters. During adolescence, the activity of the brain circuits that use dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a fundamental role in creating the urge to seek gratification, intensifies, ”says Daniel J. Siegel.

Consequently, increased dopamine release leads teenagers to be very attracted to experiences that offer a strong sense of excitement and euphoria. Precisely for this sense of great 'satisfaction', another effect deriving from the release of dopamine is also the greater inclination to develop addictions, a very common 'critical' factor during adolescence.

5. Adolescents typically act without thinking. But at some point (fortunately) the brain takes over and slowly slows down these impulses

The urge to seek the gratification present in the brain during adolescence is also expressed through impulsiveness. Basically, often, the teenager acts impetuously without thinking deeply, he lives with his foot always pressed on the accelerator.

We then add the importance of relationships with peers and the desire for acceptance, and we can understand why, for example, a boy might think of diving off a rock, together with his friends, in the rain.

Fortunately, at some point, the brain causes the boy to 'slow down'. The credit goes to the intervention of special nerve fibers in its upper part which, as they develop, slow down these impulses. It's a bit like they insert a 'pause for reflection' between deso and action to satisfy it.

In essence, therefore, these regulatory fibers (which develop during adolescence) counterbalance the dopamine gratification system. And this gradually translates into a reduction in impulsivity. (Read also: Teens and first dates: 8 tips for parents)

6. The 'drive' to look for strong emotions is influenced by "hyperrational" thinking: the adolescent looks more at the individual facts and less at the overview

Children are dominated by a way of thinking that tends to evaluate things 'literally', analyzing only the single facts of an event, without an overview. This literal thought is called hyperrational and leads to placing more value on the benefits of a behavior rather than the potential risks.

Even if there is a moment of reflection (as in impulsivity), hyperrational thinking is focused only on the positive result, minimizing any problems with an action.

In essence, hyperrational decisions, impulsivity, and the push to gratification induced by dopamine, therefore, are among the main causes, identified by scientific research, of risk behaviors.

7. Hyperrational thinking helps not to get stuck in front of choices

According to Daniel J. Siegel, all changes in the adolescent's brain - even at the root of certain dangerous behaviors - should not be viewed only in a negative light. From his point of view, the discoveries of neuroscience have the merit of helping to find a compass.

Hyperrational thinking, for example, is also necessary to calmly face the risks associated with taking flight.

After all, every choice involves a bit of risk, right? Deciding what to study and where, break away from family, do a job, change friends or dive into new sporting challenges also requires the ability not to 'get stuck' in a careful examination of pros and cons (as an adult would do).

Hence, for the author, it is essential to have an attitude of respect towards the important and necessary changes that occur in the mind and brain during adolescence.

8. During adolescence, neurons and their connections decrease. And the brain focuses on strengths

During adolescence, the collegamento between different areas of the brain: it is the process of integration. And two important changes make this possible: the reduction in the number of brain cells (neurons) and the formation of myelin, a sheath that covers the main extension of the nerve cell (axon).

La decrease in neurons and of their connections, the synapses, called 'pruning', is based on a principle similar to when pruning plants in the garden. During childhood, there is an excess production of neurons which are then eliminated during adolescence. Why? The brain, in practice, discards the connections that are used least, which he seems not to need, and 'saves', on the other hand, those he uses frequently.

“The brain reacts to the way we focus attention in our activities. In fact, attention channels energy and information into specific brain circuits, activating them. And the more you use a circuit, the more it gets stronger. Conversely, the less you use it, the more likely it will be eliminated during adolescence, ”explains the American professor in his book The Teenage Mind.

This is why, for example, it is better to learn to play a musical instrument in childhood (and, in any case, before the end of adolescence): if you never 'train' this skill, the brain will eventually eliminate it. circuit. In addition, during adolescence, as new skills are learned, myelin is formed: an extension of nerve cells that extends outwards, creating connections with other neurons. In fact, this myelin sheath improves communication between connected neurons. These two important changes (pruning and myelin formation), therefore, favor and improve the connection between different parts of the brain (integration). This, in turn, gives rise to greater coordination in the brain itself.

9. The great opportunities of adolescence: adolescents must experiment

The concept of the 'double nature' of the brain changes typical of this phase of life is very important for the author: on the one hand they make the boy more 'vulnerable' but they are also a great opportunity. In these years of growth and transformation, for example, changes in the brain give impetus to creative thinking and push us to explore reality with new eyes. If all this is accompanied by study, which provides the knowledge necessary for innovation, the game is done.

For adults, therefore, from Daniel J. Siegel's point of view, the real challenge is to consider the abilities and potentials of the adolescent mind as strengths and not weaknesses. “Respect does not mean not setting limits but recognizing the intention behind the action.

Experimenting is in the nature of adolescence. If adults block this desire for experimentation, and prevent the passion for novelty from expressing itself, children isolate themselves ”, says the scholar. (Read also: Teenage children, 5 tips for parents)

10. Understanding and dialogue: a winning recipe for helping your teenage son

During adolescence, the prefrontal region of the brain (located behind the forehead) also plays a fundamental role, connecting all the parts enclosed in the skull. Better coordination between the different areas makes functions such as self-awareness, reflection, decision-making and empathy. Gradually, the prefrontal area reaches a new level of 'remodeling' and the aforementioned functions become more reliable.

“The brain, the body and the social world are woven together to form a single whole of the prefrontal cortex,” says Daniel J. Siegel. Thus, the adolescent attitudes that appear so difficult to the family, such as rejection and rebellion, are practically inscribed in the DNA. In short, it is a question of universal behaviors that must be 'channeled' through good dialogue.

For this reason, the minimum goal of every parent can be to help the child live these years without causing serious harm to himself and to others. Even the most challenging situations become manageable with a collaboration between generations.

Of course, for the author, being a parent of a teenager is not easy: you have to understand when it is best to talk or be silent, set limits or be permissive, stay close in moments of uncertainty and give comfort when things go wrong. And even if no parent is perfect, the psychiatrist explains that "scientific research demonstrates how self-reflection and understanding one's history can change suboptimal interaction patterns."

Looking 'inside', even as adults, therefore helps to get in tune with children. Furthermore, a correct view of how the adolescent brain works represents a precious resource to face, together, the challenges of every day.


The 25 Most Influential Teenagers in the World, According to the Times

go to the gallery

The age of adolescence is a critical age. But it is also an age where you have energy to spare. Some teenagers, from different places ...

Read the other articles in the child section 7-13 years

add a comment of The mind of teenagers: 10 ABSOLUTELY things to know to understand them better
Comment sent successfully! We will review it in the next few hours.