What’s Going on in the Teen Brain?

If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on in teenagers’ minds, you’re not alone. A new documentary, The Teen Brain, explores that question while also working to help teens feel better understood by adults. The film is produced by MindUP, a non-profit organization focusing on mental fitness founded by actress Goldie Hawn.

I wish I knew this brain science when I was a teen. More information helps you better understand yourself.

Why It’s Smart to Learn About Teen Brain Science

For the documentary, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain interviewed a range of renowned neuroscientists, pediatricians, researchers, and teens, hoping to make brain science of teens more accessible to the general public. Shlain hopes having a better understanding of what’s happening from a developmental perspective will allow young people and caring adults to gain insights into their unique perspectives. “I wish I knew this brain science when I was a teen. More information helps you better understand yourself,” Shlain says. And, the more you understand why the teen brain reacts in a certain way, the more effectively you can manage all that comes with adolescence – from milestones to challenges.

Important Things to Know About the Teen Brain

The teen years are considered some of the most important in a child’s development. They are a time when the brain is growing at a rapid pace. Teens interviewed in the film use a range of words to describe how it feels to be a teen, including “thrilling,” “scary,” and “complicated.” One teen in the film relates her life to “a roller coaster,” and another says that for him, “everything is just more extreme.” 

“Adolescents are super learners who are natural explorers. Teen brains are wired to seek out new experiences to help with learning. It is our job as adults to make sure that teens stay in safe boundaries and find enriching opportunities as they explore,” Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Founder and Program Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, says. Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneer in interpersonal neurobiology, explains in the film, “It is an age when you have the courage to try new things. This drive to explore novelty is a wonderful feature of how the brain is remodeling in various fascinating ways.” 

In explaining some of the science behind the teen brain, we learn the amygdala – the part of the brain most closely associated with emotions, motivation, and the fight or flight response – becomes more sensitive during adolescence. It grows in size and can make a person feel emotions more intensely. The prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate judgment and decision-making, is also rapidly developing, but lags a bit behind. And, yes, teens feel bad when they show poor judgment or make a wrong decision. 

Understand the Teen Brain to Help Manage Feelings and Stress

Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour says that building good mental fitness includes having feelings that fit the situation and knowing how to effectively manage those feelings. The more you know about your brain, the more “it puts you in the driver’s seat of your life,” Shlain says. From understanding why teens experience such intense feelings, to learning how to de-stress, to breathing for better mental health, she wants teens to have the strategies to solidify their mental health and well-being. 

Shlain says another good step towards positive emotional and mental health is for teens to pay attention to what they’re paying attention to. “Figure out what’s in your toolbox and how you might need to experiment with what makes you feel good. Is it by doing yoga? Drawing? A walk with a dog? Calling a friend to do something together? Everyone’s got a different set of things that make them feel good. Your job as a teen is to figure out what your things are. Be curious about what is available to you.” 

Too often, adults allow teen stereotypes to inform their opinions of the teens in their lives. Dr. Ginsburg reminds viewers that if adults promote adolescence as a “time of brokenness,” adolescents will think they are broken. For better mental health and well-being, understanding what a teen is going through can make a positive difference in how an adult views a teen and how teens view themselves. 

The Teen Brain and Social Media  

The film also addresses social media and its impact on the teen brain. Shlain says many kids get “sucked down rabbit holes by algorithms.” She interviewed Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and Director of Harvard’s Digital Wellness Lab. Dr. Rich equates too much processed information to too much processed food. Shlain relates to the analogy – while it feels good at the moment, it can make you feel empty later. “I love that framing because everything you put into your body is information, whether it’s food, or media. Some social media feels good and helps you feel connected. But there’s always that point where it stops feeling good, so it’s important to set boundaries.”  

What to do After You’ve Watched the Film

Filmmakers kept the film length to just ten minutes. Shlain likens the film to eating an “appetizer” before having a longer discussion as the “main course.” So, in addition to the short documentary film being available free online, discussion materials from MindUP are available to expand the conversation and delve deeper into the teen brain.

One memorable message expressed through the film comes from a teen who says, “I just wish adults would remember that they went through this too. They could really learn from who they used to be.”

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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