The ESSENCE of Adolescence

The ESSENCE of Adolescence

Our modern culture encourages deeply pervasive myths about adolescence.  Those myths we hear casually in repetition—that teens are driven mad by “raging hormones,” that as people they are “just immature and need to grow up,” or that their “undeveloped prefrontal cortex makes them undependable and moody”—are all misconceptions that not only imprison how we as adults see adolescents, but also influence how adolescents themselves behave.  When I put some of these ideas about debunking the myths of adolescence into a recent book, Brainstorm, I wanted to “inspire to rewire” both adolescents and adults alike toward integration.   Integration is how we connect different parts to each other, and it is integration that is the outcome of the brain remodeling that occurs in the second dozen years of life.

If we come to see adolescence as a period of time, and adolescents as individuals, filled with untapped potential, we are much more likely to see the realization of that possibility and power in positive directions.  When we empower adolescents in this way, we can inspire them to enable integration to unfold in their neural development.

The many discussions I’ve had with adolescents, parents, and teachers since the book has come out have revealed there is great potential for a shift.  A shift in the conversations we have about adolescence that might help all concerned to embrace this period as one of incredible courage and creativity, not simply conflict and chaos.

One realization that emerged in reviewing the science of adolescence was that there is an ESSENCE to this period of life that is often not seen, and often lost in the stress and distraction of this sometimes tumultuous time of life.  There are four vital features to adolescence that we can all, whatever age we may be, cultivate:

ES:  An Emotional Spark is revealed in the enhanced way emotion generated from sub-cortical areas washes over the cortical circuits of reasoning.  The downsides are emotional storms and moodiness; the upside is a powerful passion to live life fully, to capture life being on fire.

SE: Social Engagement emerges as teens turn more toward peers than parents, the downside being falling prey to peer pressure simply to gain membership in a group, the upside being the central importance of supportive relationships in our lives. Relationships are the key factor associated with medical and mental health, longevity, and even happiness.

NNovelty-seeking emerges from shifts in the brain’s dopamine system with the downside of risk-taking behavior and injury, and the upside of having the courage to leave the familiar, certain, and safe home nest for the unfamiliar, uncertain, potentially unsafe world beyond.

CE:  And our Creative Exploration of adolescence is found as we push against the status quo, imagining how things could be, not simply accepting them for what they are.  The downside?  Not just conforming to life as usual can be disorienting and stressful. The upside?  The thrill and passion of discovery—and the reality that most innovations in art, music, science and technology emerge from the adolescent mind.

And so rather than ignoring the ESSENCE of adolescence, what if we shaped our culture—in our homes, our schools, and in our larger society—to cherish and cultivate these qualities?

And how many adults do you know who have lost many if not all of these four factors in their lives?  Studies of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to experience—reveal that these are in fact the top four factors that help keep the brain growing and healthy, to keep it integrated, throughout the lifespan.  The ESSENCE of adolescence turns out to be the ESSENCE of how to live a full and vital life as an adult.

Our cultural attitude toward adolescents can foster, or inhibit, their movement toward becoming more and more integrated as individuals who are also integrated as members of a larger society, welcoming them in to participate in how we shape our world.  If we as adults can reclaim the ESSENCE of adolescence in our own lives, perhaps we’ll find a natural way to recognize these factors and harness their upsides not only in ourselves, but in adolescents as well.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.