As a teenager myself, confronting this article has been a challenging and intimidating responsibility. I wanted to give a quick, simple overview of the facts about the teenage brain. I understand how frustrating and insulting it is when teenagers are generalized in many publications as undesirable, dim, untrustworthy, rebellious, or even as equals to toddlers.
Learning about our brains without this bias is what I attempt to do here. As you may have guessed, I am not a trained psychiatrist, so I found an amazing resource by the name of Dr. Naomi Leslie, but more on her later. What you need to know at the moment is that she IS a psychiatrist, and she is wholeheartedly committed to the potential in teens. All of the thoughts (or at least the really smart-sounding ones) in this article come from an interview she graciously granted to me in December of 2016.
What not to do:
~ YOLO; so do your best to live past 18.
At age three the brain has developed all of its neurological connections. From this age on, it actually gets rid of the connections that have not proven themselves useful. A lot of this “Synaptic Pruning” happens in our teen years. Therefore, the teenage years are the best time to learn and experience new things, and avoid things you do not wish to become permanent!
Not only does the brain prune connections, it establishes habits. Dr. Leslie uses the excellent example of a path in the woods. At first, it is a simple deer path, but as the trail is used more and more often, it becomes more pronounced and lasting. Your mind is primed to learn what is important by recognizing patterns. This can be great with regard to activities like language and sports. It can be not so great when it comes to damaging habits, like substance abuse.
The metaphor of digging yourself into a hole is pertinent here. The more times your brain is introduced to a substance, the more concrete those habits become.
More on that later; for now, here are some suggestions that may help those who have already begun their shovel-laden descent into the earth.
How to get out of a hole:
~ You Aren’t Doomed
Good news! As stated above your brain is very adaptable at this stage. It is easy to dig holes, but it is also relatively easy to climb out of them (or at least easier than when you’re old with a bad back).
If you are aware that you might have an issue: an eating disorder, a heavy use of undesirable substances, or an emotional imbalance, seek out a doctor or a therapist. Medication and therapy can both work on their own, but they often work best together! You have not been given a life sentence. Get out of your hole while your brain is still flexible!
So, let’s talk about nature vs. nurture. I have heard this a lot: “There is alcoholism (depression, drug use, etc.) in my family, so I am going to end up that way, too.” False! You are not doomed! It requires something in your environment or a cognitive decision to begin shoveling that dirt. You may have to be a bit more careful than others when dancing around that issue, but your genes do not solely define who you will become.
What to do:
~ Making a Great Brain
To make your teen brain the best brain it can be, sleep (at least 7–8 hours, people!) and eat well, but also do new things. If you have the ability to travel, save up and do it, you should also try out some sports. Your brain learns and rewards attempted activities faster because of its youth.
Right now, everything you do makes more of an impression on your brain. Every time you drink a cup of hot cocoa, get a smile from a friend, go dancing, get involved in a competition, your brain releases a little burst of a thing called dopamine.
These little spurts of happiness throughout each day help to build a reliable and happy life. Drugs and alcohol can release a large amount of dopamine, helping to make you high. However, if you continue to blaze this trail, less and less will make you happy, putting you in the spot where more and more of the drug are required.
Additionally, it’s okay to seek out independence. This slight or not-so-slight deviation from our parents makes us who we are. If we didn’t have this desire to discover things for ourselves, we would never leave home. Just try not to sacrifice your morals, safety, or health while finding out what defines you.
~ The (non-teenage) brain behind the operation
Naomi Leslie, MD, is a licensed psychiatrist who works at Wake Forest Baptist Health and The Children’s Home. She is the perfect fit for The Children’s Home’s mission: to keep foster siblings in one cottage, and provide mental health treatment in a supportive, community system. She works alongside this organization, tirelessly seeking ways to aid each individual with the collaborative effort of psychiatrists, therapists, nurses and case managers. Her engaging and amiable personality, coupled with her expertise, is inspiring, and an irreplaceable asset to our community.