There’s no shortage of advice available to parents and other adults coping with hard-to-understand adolescent behavior, and it’s fair to say that the notion of “surviving adolescence” is a common take on a transitional period marked by major physical and emotional changes. But, what if instead of simply making our way through an often difficult time, we learn to embrace the potentially positive power of these formative years?
In Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain: An Inside-Out Guide to the Emerging Adolescent Mind, Ages 12-24 (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013), Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, offers an innovative way of looking at adolescent development and behavior informed by recent findings on how the brain works. Writing in a conversational tone and incorporating stories from his parenting experience and his professional practice as a psychiatrist, the author speaks to both adolescents and adults as he clarifies his approach.
He maintains that we must let go of common myths about adolescence; behavior during these years is not driven by raging hormones, extreme immaturity, or the need for total independence. Instead, brain changes during adolescence drive development, which is characterized by four main qualities: “Emotional Spark,” “Social Engagement,” “Novelty,” and “Creative Explorations.” If we learn to understand this “ESSENCE” and improve how the brain works through mindfulness exercises, or what Siegel calls “Mindsight Tools,” adults and the children they care for will all benefit by having more fully integrated brains and emotionally rewarding lives.
Brainstorm is divided into four parts. Part I introduces the “essence of adolescence” and is followed by exercises that encourage insight into personal mental activities and empathy and identifying emotions as a step toward calming them. The author delves more deeply into how the brain actually changes during adolescence in Part II, explaining that the adolescent brain is influenced by an increased reward drive which can lead to risky behavior. He points out that risk “breathes new life into rigid ways,” so harnessing this drive is one way to help keep teens safe, allow their brains to develop, and possibly find solutions to modern problems. “Mindsight Tools” introduced here include breath awareness, and this can be practiced by listening to a podcast at Siegel’s website.
Part III focuses on relationships and how the types of attachments formed in early childhood impact later emotional and social growth. Optimally, adolescents need a “secure attachment” with parents and caregivers that combines a “safe harbor” and “launching pad” in order to make the healthiest transition to adulthood. This section asks readers to closely examine their own adolescence to recognize how an individual’s “attachment models” affect personal relationships. In the book’s final section, Siegel discusses sexuality and addiction and how being present can help see teens through difficult times. He cautions adults to be open to what is going on in their adolescents’ lives, to be receptive instead of reactive, and to connect with young people rather than to expect that behavior will change simply by correcting it.
Throughout, the author is optimistic; he believes that the essential traits of adolescence are qualities that are meant to be embraced and nurtured in order to lead a full life. And while he doesn’t include references and often refers back to his own publications, perhaps Siegel’s emphasis on the need for self-reflection, empathy, and compassion is a large part of what’s needed for teens (and ourselves) to make sense of a fast-paced, rapidly changing, information-loaded world.
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