Understanding Teenage Mind: Essential Wisdom For Everyone

We have all been there. Some of us are just now adapting to this phase of our children’s life. In many ways, teenage years represent the most transformative and sometimes tumultuous phase of our lives. Teenagers aren’t quite an adult yet, but are no longer children either. Almost as difficult as this time can be for teens, it is as seemingly impossible for the parents to navigate. For some parents, it’s as if their child has been possessed by some overly emotional spirit. Suddenly they feel like they don’t know their own child anymore and the dynamics of the parent-child relationship are thrown completely off kilter.

Teenagers often have ambitions to fly off to a new, larger world. To this effect, Stephen King observed, “If you liked being a teenager, there’s something really wrong with you.” Scientists have discovered that there are abrupt and rapid growth of certain cells within the frontal lobe (the part that sits behind your forehead) of the brain in early teenage years, around the age of 15.

Another complicated characteristic of teens is the tendency to engage in high-risk behaviors. Teens go through a period of “invisibility,” naively assuming that they are never vulnerable to harm. The neuro-hormonal changes can cause drastic behavioral and mood swings at times and throw the parent for a loop.

Puberty is meant to be a phase in our lives during which we blossom from small, dependent creatures into prepared, self-sufficient adults capable of propagating life. From a biological standpoint, this is the most important juncture in the life of humans. Any malfunction in this process and we risk losing the ability to pass on our genes.

Because of the evolutionary pressure involved in preparing us for reproduction, puberty is probably the most tumultuous phase of human life. 

Our minds, at this time, are constantly obsessed with instant gratification, persistently seeking the promise of immediate pleasure and psychological security. This is our minds’ way of pressuring us to reproduce—by forcing us to make sexual gratification our top priority. For this reason, the desire to breed remains the most powerful impulse in all of nature. Friction ignites between teens and their parents when parents fail to recognize the teenage minds’ pleasure-obsessed makeup, particularly because an adult, who’s already exited puberty, will often have long subdued these seemingly juvenile attachments to transitory and immediate pleasures.

The incapacity to empathize with our pubescent children is an example of the stark evolution of the mind throughout the different phases of life. Our minds’ desires run the gamut at each stage of the aging process. As we grow, our priorities shift from the need for instant gratification (brought on by the necessity to spread our legacy) to the desire to nurture our offspring.

Shifting Priorities

Our cravings are entirely strategic—the mind’s sophisticated way of preserving its form. When we reach the phase of reproductive capacity and essentially copy ourselves into our children, we experience a level of caring for our offspring previously foreign to us. We care for our children even more deeply than we care for ourselves.

This is how our mind functions. All this is part of being human; a human expression. Unless we understand the nature of our mind, why and how it devises various strategies at different phases of our life to thrive, we will overcome by the more difficult stages of life such as puberty.

The question is: Why are these abrupt and complex changes associated with our teenage years? To understand this is to recognize the bigger picture of our mind.

Recognizing Stages

Our life cycle is characterized by seamless stages, each of which allows our minds to develop different strategies with one overarching goal: Keep living.

Butterflies, for instance, experience a larval stage. The caterpillar, after hatching from its egg, doesn’t stop eating for about two to three weeks, during which time it grows tremendously.When physical maturation is achieved, the caterpillar enters adulthood, and numerous hormonal changes lead to a biochemical disassembly of its current form, transforming it into a beautiful butterfly. The creative destruction of one form births another. The young butterfly will now seek out a mate and allow the cycle of life to repeat once again. Bernard Heinrich, an eminent biologist, writes: “The radical change that occurs does indeed arguably involve death followed by reincarnation.”

It appears as though one form (the caterpillar) completely transforms itself into another form (the butterfly) in a blatant example of how the core of life devises many survival strategies in order to actively participate in this web of nature. Nearly identical to the stages of human life, caterpillars possess a strong capacity to thrive, specialized for little else but feeding during the period of preparation before the next phase of life, similar to children. Like adults, butterflies are fine-tuned for flight and reproduction, comparable to an adult leaving the nest and gearing up for procreation.

The human life cycle is less blatant, but we can still see how our survival strategies are typified at each stage. The first is comprised of our feed and grow stage, the second is our procreation stage, and the third is our reproductive-capacity stage. Separating these first two distinct periods is the transient phase of puberty. While this time is considered to be simply transitory, it is actually a prominent point with its own unique physical and mental characteristics.

What the teenager learns and does during this evolution of the brain combined with their own genetic heritage will consolidate the wiring in certain parts of the brain. So, if the teen is learning skills such as music or math, those are the connections that are hardwired and will retain their connections for years down the line, even if they are not actively using them later in life.

Therefore, it’s the duty of the caregivers to be practice extreme patience and continue to nurture those skills that are conducive to the overall development of the teenage mind, not only for the time being, but for many years to come for a fruitful future.

Keys to Nurturing the Relationships

Knowing the facts behind teenage angst is key to successful parenting during these years.

The three things that will ease the tension between adults and the adults-in-transitions:

  1. Empathize, as often as possible, remembering how it felt for you to struggle as a teenager.
  2. Encourage your teenager to channel their energy and emotions into creative, productive outlets – help them find hobbies to help occupy and shape their quickly changing minds.
  3. Listen first – talk to your teen, not at them.

This complex period can make or break your bond with your child, so be prepared to weather the storm by arming yourself with the knowledge of why your teen is behaving and reacting certain ways. Allow the teenage years to come and go – fight through them, and then move on!

Memory – Not too Much, Not too Little

What happens if you cannot remember events? What happens if you remember too much?

Ordinarily memories change, deteriorate or fade away over time.  Imagine if time had not modified these memories. With a pleasant experience, recollection with vividness is desired. But what if it is a terrifying event?

Begin by understanding how memories are created and stored up. Then you can follow the steps laid down to help control your memories. First understand the scientific basis and then re-analyze the same concept in simple language.

How memories are formed and stored

When you experience an event, the information from your sensory organs is first sent to a little organic pulp in your brain called the thalamus. This information is processed and directed to two nearby areas called the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Once the information is sent it takes the amygdala just a split second to make a quick assessment. If this stimulus is considered dangerous, the body’s stress response is triggered. At the same time, if the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for higher mental functions) decides that the threat is not serious, it instructs the amygdala to calm down. If the threat is perceived as real, then the prefrontal cortex allows the stress response to go ahead. In response to a perceived real threat your brain is in high alert. This stress response includes a raise in heart rate, blood pressure, tensing of muscles and several cascade of biological changes to prepare you for a fight or flight response, which throws you into a predator mode. That little bubble in your head suddenly explodes into fear and aggression.  Re-experiencing similar events can create an endless succession of events and can set off a vicious loop. People experiencing circumstances over which they have no control eventually become conditioned to thinking of themselves helpless even when circumstances change.

Memories are not permanent

Memory involves multiple pathways and connections of nerves and their effect on hormones. The bottom line is; memory is not an entity stored in a single place.  It is quite intriguing to even begin to contemplate how these feedback loops are executed let alone comprehend how all these areas of the brain are given their respective “roles”. There is a marvelous contingency plan built in an intricate cooperative venture. Even more mysterious is that when this loop is once formed this ‘pathway’ is somehow stored in a virtual memory bank. This loop is also dynamic. This means that it is changeable and allows it to be overwritten literally rewiring itself in response to the environment. In other words nothing is permanent in our memory bank.

Current prescription therapy

Now imagine that you are introducing a chemical (in the form of a drug) into your brain at one or more levels. How can you measure the innumerable effects of this chemical at different levels of the brain and its effects on the entire body? If you think psychotropic drugs were a great invention consider this fact; ‘despite advances in our understanding of mind and its illnesses, the current treatments leave patients no better off today than they did almost half century ago’.

Why popular psycho therapies have little success?

Common therapies involve desensitization with repeated stimulation or replacing one thought with another through self-control. But what if the next event that causes stressful memories is different from the last one? You customize treatment for each troubling experience, essentially becoming hostage to therapy clinics.

Putting it all together

With this basic understanding simplify the concept without the scientific terms: ….sensory information that is perceived as threat is sent to different parts of your brain and processed at different levels to activate your fight-flight response. If you re-experience a similar event, you are wired to reactivate this pathway but not in a threatening way. Over time, memories fade away and new pathways are made. This is a cooperative venture with various parts of your brain and other areas of your body. So no single drug or single therapy is effective. This is the essence of the entire process. If you are having problems letting go of the unpleasant memories the first impulse may be to run away from the issue or suppress the thoughts by using some prescribed drug or some therapy. As a society we are increasingly relying on drugs and therapies instead of looking into the core of the problem.

Action Plan

Step one

When there is an unpleasant memory of events the first thing to do is to not run away or resist the thought. Instead of rationalizing the thought process, be consciously aware of your mind and its effect on the body. Your heart may be racing and muscles tightening. Try to stay with it. If you are reading the entire article you will know that your reaction to the experience is biologically and environmentally wired to help you deal with various life events. Remember it is only a memory. When this memory or thought passes away watch the silence, the space between two thoughts. Abide in that silence for as long as you can. Be a witness to this entire process. Over time you will get to a point where you could oversee the whole forest while counting the branches. You will be a witness not a victim to the experience.

Step two

Once you understand the mind and its various effects on the body while laying down memories shift your attention to two more actions that will complement your effort.  We as humans operate on an inherent internal rhythm in relationship to everything from biological functions to emotional responses. The two important aspects that will help you in this process are restful sleep and rhythmic breath. Make sure you get enough sleep. The blankness of deep sleep is due to the lack of specific memories. Restful sleep has healing qualities. Regulate your Breath. Breathing is the bridge between our inner and outer selves.  It is the only major function of our body that is controlled by both the voluntary and involuntary nervous system. Other vital functions like heartbeat, blood circulation and digestion are all involuntary. In the initial stages of this evaluation and exercises if you do not see the desired effects, it is impulsive to think of yourself as having “depression” or an “anxiety disorder”. Resist the temptation to succumb to prescription drugs or therapies. Give yourself enough time to see the effects.

Here are few other activities that will immensely complement your efforts:

  1. Take a break from your using routine- go on a retreat.
  2. Try to be in the company of people who have a positive outlook in life.
  3. Most important – dedicate 5-10% of your time and/or money helping others. This is the most powerful of all the tools.