Any of us who has ever raised a teenager has often asked ourselves, “What were they thinking!” There is a lot going on in the teenage brain during the ages of approximately 12 to 24 years. Through research, we are now learning that there are many physical changes that are occurring during these times and they are not just “acting crazy”, but behavior and decisions are affected by these changes in the brain.
Brain changes during the early teen years set up four qualities of our minds during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration*. Daniel Siegel, MD, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, has done much research in the area of brain development. These changes affect how teens seek rewards in trying new things, connect with their peers in different ways, feel more intense emotions, and push back on the existing ways of doing things to create new ways of being in the world.* Let’s take a look at each of these for a moment.
Novelty seeking can be frightening for most parents as teenagers seek out risk taking kinds of behaviors. That, along with impulsivity, can cause many parents sleepless nights. But the upside of novelty seeking is that young adults are more open to change and try to find ways to do things differently with a passion that many adults lose over time. Social engagement drives teenagers to their social connections with others and away from parents. Their social life becomes very important to them. However, the benefit of this is that in learning how to develop relationships with others, they increase their chances of having a life of well-being, longevity, and happiness throughout their life span. Research has proven that healthy supportive relationships with others increase our well-being. Emotional intensity is often seen in the ups and downs of the teenage mood, the unpredictability and often intense mood swings we see. However, the intensity they feel often brings them to feel passionate about their experiences, leaving them to feel very “alive”. And lastly, creative exploration allows teenagers to begin thinking “outside the box”, coming up with creative ideas (often how to get around our rules), but creative nonetheless. Sometimes this can lead them to feeling a lack of direction or focus in their life, but it also allows for many possibilities for them.
So, with all the challenges the adolescent period holds, there really is some logical and rational explanation for what we see in our teens. If we can just keep this in mind the next time we wonder “what were they thinking” and realize the brain is a very busy place for them during this time.
*Brainstorm, Daniel J. Siegel, MD, 2013