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Changes in Teenagers’ Brains Not Negative But Faster, Productive: UCLA Study


Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap (UCLA)

All over the world, adolescence get a bad rap with parents grappling with their behavior changes, mood swings and raging hormones, of immaturity and rebellion.

Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, however, says that it is all wrong. In his best-selling book, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,” Siegel writes about new findings to make the case that between the ages of 12 and 24, the brain changes in ways that are both critical and productive, though sometimes challenging and maddening.

Siegel cites studies done at UCLA using powerful imaging tools to observe structural changes in the brain during adolescence. The observations reveal a remodeling process that dramatically reduces the teen brain’s synaptic connections and adds a healthy coating known as myelin around those that remain.

The result is positive in the sense it is more efficient, better-integrated cognition. Meanwhile, the adolescent brain’s reward circuitry ramps up, and the limbic region where decision-making occurs is altered in a way that promotes “hyper-rational thinking.”

Siegel lists four fundamental outcomes of these changes: an emotional spark (ES), which manifests as both moodiness and passion; social engagement (SE), which includes pulling away from parents and gravitating toward peers; novelty (N) seeking, the urge to try new things and pursue excitement; and creative exploration (CE), the desire to challenge the status quo and push boundaries.

“When we say it’s all raging hormones, there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Siegel, who was the founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “But when we understand that the brain is remodeling, and parents and teens learn more about the science behind these tendencies, there is a lot that can be done to make this a healthy period of growth and to bring parents and teens closer.”

Instead of curbing the young brain, Siegel offers tips such as keeping the fire burning and allow them as a way to achieve balance. This process is called “name it to tame it,” based on studies showing that naming emotions can calm the limbic firing. And then there’s the upside. “You have a tremendous amount of passion and vitality during the adolescent period — the sense that life is on fire — and that’s a beautiful thing that should be encouraged,” Siegel says.

He also suggests to promote peer engagement with a conscience as the social and relationship-building skills honed during the teen years can pay dividends over a lifetime. “Adolescents are incredibly collaborative beings, and we need to do more to nurture that ability,” Siegel says. The danger, he notes, is that the drive for belonging can become so powerful that the teen forsakes morality to gain membership in — or acceptance from — the group.

Although teens may be inclined to establish some distance from their parents, he adds, they still have a strong need for adult influences in their lives, making trusted non-parental adults such as teachers and coaches all the more important.

Nature needs the adolescent to be prepared to leave home, he says as they tend to try something new, whether to unsafe activities and behaviors. While allowing the adolescent to explore is an important step toward maturity, parents can provide support in building that internal compass so that the teen is more likely to explore judiciously.

Respect the rebellion as a young child’s brain is wired to soak in data about the world. As part of the remodeling that occurs during adolescence, the teenager begins to question the adult’s world, moving from acceptance of the status quo to challenging it and imagining how things could be. Siegel says parents should admire the unique qualities of adolescence, which are also keys to healthy aging.

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