Neurons that fire together wire together (Dan Siegel)
How many of us have adolescents, are caregivers of adolescents, or are adolescents? How often have we, especially as parents, felt exasperated by the behaviour of our adolescent children? How many of us have preconceived ideas about who an adolescent is and how “immature” and “chaotic” they are?
I am a mother of two adolescents, and therefore I am learning as I go. Someone once said that doctors do not cure themselves, and I think they were right. I train caregivers worldwide on parenting skills and how to create, develop, and maintain secure attachments with children. But that does not mean I do not have my own challenges. What I am going to share here is meant to create awareness on how the adolescent brain works, so that we can all be inspired to review our perspectives, and to grow from the experience with our adolescents. The truth sets us free…
You will notice that I am not using the word teenager here, because oftentimes we think adolescence is synonymous with teenage. These are two different things. Teenage, from its actual word, is the stage between 13 and 19 years of age. Adolescence, on the other hand, is that stage between childhood and adulthood, and it goes on up until mid-twenties. Many of us ask ourselves why adolescents behave the way they do. We long for the little child we had and wonder where they went. A friend of mine was so exasperated with her adolescent daughter that she told me: “I miss my Maria, I have completely lost her. I cannot recognize the girl in my house anymore. I am mourning the loss of my little Maria”. These words express the desperation of this mother, it was difficult for her to integrate the child
Maria and the adolescent, evolving Maria because, for her, these are two different things, and not only different, but conflictual and threatening.
This article will attempt to explain what happens in the adolescent brain, in simple words, with the hope that it will clarify some misconceptions and give us a different understanding of this very dynamic and essential stage of one`s life.
The brain goes through rapid development between the ages of 9 and 14. This is a stage of great developmental changes, and great sensitivity to social evaluation and acceptance. This is the time when a child starts to pose existential questions: Who am I? Where do I belong?
According to Dan Siegel, the adolescent brain undergoes remarkable necessary changes which are essential for the survival of our species. This is where talents are developed at the fastest, which lays the foundation for a good future. The adolescent is creative and courageous, and sees little risk in what they do. The adolescent feels pulled towards independence, away from the parents. Why does this happen?
Our brain`s major role is to ensure our survival. It however has two sides: reactive and receptive. When we feel threatened, our brain goes on fight/flight/freeze/faint mode. This is explained in details in my book Breaking the Cycle – The Role of Auntie Rosie in Childhood Trauma Informed Care. When we feel threatened, we try to do everything possible to protect ourselves. This is a very primitive reaction. When we are in this condition, all other human faculties are suspended: we are not thinking about the delicious apple pie we ate last night, or the birthday gift we received last year. We are not thinking about the piano lessons we need to rehearse, or going to visit a friend. All we are thinking about is how to ensure we survive, and therefore we do everything to ensure death doesn’t occur. Our rational brain (cortex) is not in charge, but our lower/primitive brain, the limbic and brain stem, take over.
Being receptive happens when we are feeling safe, so we learn new things, we are adventurous, we connect with others, we enjoy the pleasures of life, etc. This promotes secure attachment.
Dan Siegel talks about the 4 S`s that enhance attachment, and adolescents, just like everyone else, needs them. We all need to be:
Seen: the adolescent needs to feel that they are seen, that their real experiences are being felt, that they are not being judged purely on their behaviour. They need to feel that others exercise empathy, that they can put themselves into their moccasins and see the world from their perspective.
Safe: Adolescents, just like everyone else, needs to feel safe with the adults that care for them. They need to be supported to make sense of what is happening in their life. They need to know that they can count on their caregivers. Caregivers need to be consistent. They should not cause terror to the adolescent – this can lead to disorganized attachment, where the caregiver, who is charged with the responsibility of protecting the adolescent, is the one causing terror – so the adolescent escapes from the terror yet has to return to their caregiver for comfort and protection.
Soothed: The adolescent needs to know that the caregiver is there to soothe them when they are in distress. They need to know that they can count on their caregivers to offer them the emotional support they need, even when they pull away from them.
Secure: The adolescent needs to be reassured that even when there is a rupture of the relationship, there is a possibility of repair, and relationships can be restored, and that the caregiver is present to offer this buffer when there has been an interruption to the relationship. They need to feel that they have a place to call “home” – in all senses of the word.
When the adolescent pushes the caregiver away, they go to look for these 4 S`s in their peers – they feel they need to leave the nest, and in order for this to happen, they need to be accepted and attached to a group. That is why peers are more important than caregivers. As caregivers, however, we need to reassure them that we are available to give them all these, but it is OK for them to go out and interact with their friends. Keeping anger and exasperation because the adolescent will not open up to us will only complicate things, so caregivers need to be grounded and whole, so that the adolescent may feel safe to return to the “base”.
Caregivers need to support adolescents in the process of integration – this means differentiating and linking, not merging. Integration gives rise to harmony, and despite the challenges, the foundation is not shaken. It means the different parts are brought together, because the whole is greater than the sum of the different parts.
During adolescence, the brain goes through what Dan Siegel calls remodelling. This process involves two factors: pruning and myelination. In pruning, the adolescent brain gets rid of neurons that are not being used, which gives rise to differentiation. Myelination on the other hand enables nerve cells to transmit information faster, allowing for more complex brain processes. This is vitally important to healthy central nervous system functioning. These two factors are crucial in the development of the adolescent brain, as they set the foundation for the future.
Adolescence is the period where one picks up new information in an incredibly fast way, and at the same time, it is the healthiest stage in one`s life. The adolescent body has the ability to fight disease that is higher than any other stage. However, it is also the stage where more accidents happen. This is because the adolescent brain interprets things through the limbic area. The cortex – the rational part of the brain, in adolescence, is still in the process of development.
Something that might be non-threatening is seen as a threat. For instance, severally, when I compliment my daughter for something I genuinely recognize, she wonders why I would be doing that. Sometimes I could say something like “Are you OK” and she would look at me and ask me: “Why shouldn`t I? What are you insinuating? And I find myself wondering where that came from.
We often complain about the mood of the adolescents. This has a neurological explanation. The dopamine (feel good hormone) baseline is lower than in adults, while the release of dopamine is high. This is why they get bored very fast, and tend to engage in risky behaviour because there lies the hype. Happiness doesn’t seem to last long in adolescents. Pros of their actions are magnified while the cons are underestimated, hence the risky choices they make without thinking of the consequences. Many times these risky behaviours are meant to impress their peers. Caregivers need to have this understanding so that they can know how to support the adolescents. Helping them to understand these dynamics guides them to make healthy choices. We need to be role models to them, so that they can integrate the different parts of their life, and act from there. Development of their intuition helps them to avoid acting solely based on their emotions. They need to learn mindset skills, heart coherence, in order to uncover the values and goodness that lies within. This serves as the compass that guides them in their actions.
Mindfulness helps promote neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain undergoes structural or physiological changes, so that healthy neurons are developed, and through neurogenesis – the process by which new nervous system cells, (neurons), are produced, the process is enhanced. It helps the adolescent to go inside themselves, through introspection, in order to find their reason of being, and to be propelled by the inside, as opposed to the outside.
Caregivers need to develop the 4 S`s themselves, and not to be in competition with the adolescents. It is possible that the caregiver`s inadequacy is triggered when adolescents act the way they do, and this is a wake up call so that we can evaluate ourselves and make adjustments where necessary, in order for us to grow together. We need to choose our battles!
Adolescence is a period marked with great potential, and when we are relating with our adolescents, let us also allow ourselves to learn from them and grow, because if we stop growing, our demise begins. Let us focus on the good opportunities they have, and the good they do, as opposed to constantly focusing on the negative. This boosts dopamine. We need to allow them to develop their talents, as this is the best time to do so, and as said earlier, this is the basis of not only their future, but the future of our species.
I thank my two adolescents for teaching me so much, and for challenging me in many situations, because it keeps me on my toes and all of us know that we are in this together.