The Functions of the Adolescent Brain

*Note: This blog is based on the ideas and research of Daniel Siegel, M.D. and his book Brainstorm.

The teenage years often get a bad reputation. Adolescents are typically described as hormonal, argumentative, reckless, selfish, and a host of other unpleasant labels. Parents of adolescents are often left feeling frustrated by their teen’s emotional outbursts and possibly even abandoned by their teen’s newfound independence. Many people consider the adolescent years, which last from approximately age 12 to 24, as a period to simply rush through and survive. However, this phase of life need not be so tumultuous. Understanding the development of the brain during this critical time may help families appreciate – and even enjoy! – the adolescent years.

Professor, author, and therapist Daniel Siegel, M.D. purports that the adolescent brain develops in such a way so as to promote four essential qualities: increased emotional intensity, social engagement, novelty-seeking, and creative exploration. He refers to these four tenets as “the essence of adolescence.”
Increased emotional intensity refers to the burst of passion and excitement that permeates adolescence more so than during any other period of development. During this time, emotions are given more credence in decision-making as logical reasoning takes a backseat. While an uptick in emotionality can make adolescents moodier and thus unpredictable, the benefit of increased affective expression is that it is the driving force behind proactive behavior; a healthy dose of passion and inspiration is what leads an individual to take action and make change.

Social engagement refers to the increased amount of time that adolescents want to spend with their peer group and the amplified importance that these relationships have in an adolescent’s life. While this shift can be particularly painful from a parent’s perspective, it is also imperative from an evolutionary standpoint. An increased focus on one’s peers is the first step toward preparing to leave the home. In addition, humans are social animals and therefore one’s chances of survival are increased as our social support network expands.

Novelty-seeking is another core feature of adolescence. As a teen, the need to be constantly engaged and the desire to try new things is driven by changes in neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure when released, is in shorter supply in the adolescent brain. However, participating in new activities leads to massive dopamine secretion. While novelty-seeking often correlates with risk-taking, the willingness to approach new and potentially dangerous situations is another way that the adolescent brain is readying itself for adulthood.

The last essential element of adolescence is creative exploration. During this time, the capacity for abstract thinking begins to develop. This maturation of cognition is what allows younger generations to push back against established norms. To a parent, it may feel infuriating when your teen questions every decision you make and tries to test the limits of your boundaries. However, this creativity is also what allows adolescents to think outside the box, develop creative solutions to problems, and make advances in society that surpass that of the previous generation.

While there are potential downsides to each of these four qualities, knowledge of “the essence of adolescence” can help families navigate this time more smoothly. Adolescence is a period of rapid brain maturation that is specifically designed to help a child transition from familial dependence to adulthood. Working with – rather than against – your teen during this time will help make this transition more exciting than scary, which will subsequently promote mental health and happiness in adulthood.

Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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