Brainstorm: Pros and Cons to Teenage Brain Changes, Part 2


This post serves as Part 2 of a series on adolescent brain development from Dr. Daniel Siegel's book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. In Part 1 -Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, we reviewed some of the underlying structural changes happening in the brain and nervous system that affect teenager's emotions and behaviors. In this post, we'll explore: 1) how these brain changes can impact adolescents' behaviors; and 2) the upsides and downsides to navigating these processes.

The ESSENCE of Adolescence

Dr. Siegel identified an acronym (ESSENCE) that helps summarize four processes that result from this period of brain transformation:
ES Emotional Spark An extremely active processing of emotion that influences corticalreasoning • Downside: Moodiness, irritability, sensitive emotional states • Upside: Passion and energy
SE Social Engagement Driven towards peers and away from parents • Downside: Risk of sacrificing personal values in exchange for peer acceptance, total exclusion of adults • Upside: Supportive relationships and development of lifelong relationship skills
N Novelty-Seeking Changes in the dopamine (reward) and limbic (evaluative) systems of the brain • Downside: Risk of injury and death highest during this time • Upside: Courage to explore and leave the familiar and certainty of the home and enter the larger world
CE Creative Exploration Mental pushing away from the "status quo," new perspectives and ways of thinking • Downside: Potential to feel out of place, disoriented • Upside: Innovations, creativity, and the ability to adapt

Table graphic:

Why the Changes?

Dr. Siegel uses an evolutionary lens to theorize why these four processes ultimately benefit adolescents and their families. In order to survive as a species, adolescents must eventually leave home to meet peers and develop families of their own. The processes above promote a child's ability to distinguish themselves from their family while developing healthy relationships with their peers. Without the increased biological need for social engagement and novelty-seeking, a child might never want to leave home!

Upsides and Downsides of These Changes

Healthy risk-taking can have high payoffs during this time period. For example, trying out for the school play, beginning a new hobby, applying for jobs and college, learning to drive, and making new friends all take real courage and risk. If you're an adolescent, give yourself a pat on the back for all the new challenges you're facing! If you're an adult who loves an adolescent, give yourself a pat on the back for supporting them during these challenges!

These benefits, however, don't negate the fears associated with adolescence. Dr. Siegel acknowledges that during this period, the dangers increase for risky drug-use and substance use, impulsive driving, and unsafe sexual practices. In order to minimize these risks, Dr. Siegel recommends caregivers:

  1. Provide outlets for healthy risk-taking
  2. Use vulnerability to discuss their own teenage years
  3. Provide non-judgmental education about decision-making, as well as risks and rewards of their behaviors
  4. Help adolescents increase mindfulness practices to provide space between an impulsive thought and a behavior
  5. Promote healthy lifestyle choices such as healthy sleep hygiene and balanced meals
  6. Encourage adolescents to maintain healthy relationships with adults outside of the immediate family

Stay tuned for Part 3, we'll break these points into specific strategies, in addition to exploring how these changes impact the family system.