The Road Ahead Reframing the Teen Experience

The Road Ahead Reframing the Teen Experience


As we go through our teenage years, we
face many challenges but we often overlook the opportunities that come
with them. We learn faster build stronger friendships. We laugh easier and cry
harder. We just feel more deeply than any other time in our lives, and yet it can
be easier to understand the needs of a car than our own needs. For example,
before setting out on the road it’s important to think about what shape the
car is in. Is there enough gas in the tank? are the wheels and brakes in good
shape? It’s also important to think about the
road ahead. What’s the weather like?
How bad will traffic be? In a sense, we’re no different.
Anyone can overlook these things, especially when they’re in a hurry. But
as teens, our impulses can be so strong that it’s hard to remember to check
ourselves and our surroundings in the same way. Because of the way the brain
develops, in our teenage years our memory, instincts, and emotions are much stronger
forces than our ability to make decisions or plan ahead. In the brain,
it’s the job of the limbic system to evaluate our circumstances, and like a
check engine light in a car, warn us when it’s not safe to keep going. Basic human
needs for food friendship and security are based on our instinct to survive, and
the limbic system won’t give the all-clear until those needs are met. Only
when they’re met can our brains remember and store new information. In other words, we can only learn when it is safe to learn. A teen, troubled by unfulfilled
basic needs, can easily be mistaken for someone unwilling or unable to learn.
When really, every minute of every day the brain is asking “Am i safe?” “Do I belong?”
“Am I loved?” But what happens when the brain says it’s not safe? What if a
teenager doesn’t have these things? When a person is stressed, their brain
produces chemicals to get the body ready to run or fight. Normally, once the stress
passes, the body returns to a relaxed state. But when unhealthy relationships
and experiences cause constant and unexpected stress, the brain can struggle
to return to that relaxed state. Neurobiologists call this type of
stress Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress, or C.U.T.S. for short. Because the
stress is unpredictable, and often stems from things outside of our control, our
brain may stay in fight mode, even if the cause of that stress has moved on. As a
result, the body’s response to even minor additional stress can be explosive.
Stress causes your brain to literally heat up, as immune cells get ready to
fight stress in the same way a fever fights an infection. But with cuts, the
constantly fighting immune cells can end up damaging neurons that the brain
actually needs. During the teen years, our brains are already pruning unused
neurons to operate more efficiently. But when neurons are also being lost to cuts,
we are left with fewer neurons to help us regulate emotions and fewer neurons
to help us control our impulses. Restoring these lost neural pathways
takes time, but you don’t have to do it alone and sometimes you may need the
help of someone you trust: a family member, a therapist, a mentor, or just a
close friend. Healing from and preventing toxic stress is possible but, just as the
damage doesn’t happen overnight, making the brains connections strong again also takes time. The path to a healthier brain won’t look the same for everyone, but
resetting the stress response is a good first step. We can do this by supporting
the mind, body, and even the stomach. Writing, painting or other means of
creative expression can help break the patterns of stressful or negative
thoughts that can seem inescapable. Getting active by playing basketball or
dancing can help loosen the muscles tensed, ready for that next fight. And
believe it or not, nerves in the stomach send messages to the brain that can also
affect a person’s mood. So, eating well can strengthen the brain’s ability to
respond to stress. Finding a path forward can help us think about more than just
getting through the day: like our future and what we want it to look like. We all
have something, some skill, some talent, some interest, that gives us a sense of
purpose. Something that makes us feel alive. We don’t care how good we are at
it, or how we look while we’re doing it. It’s just who we are. Developmental
psychologist Dr. Peter Benson calls these “sparks.” He explains that how we
deal with our sparks Puts us on one of three paths through adolescence.
Path one: Today’s worries keep you from exploring possible sparks, leaving you
unable to see where that spark could have led you. Path 2: You don’t feel
motivated. Maybe someone else tried to tell you what your spark should be, and
that lack of ownership leaves you just going through the motions. Path 3: You
know your sparks, and are driven to follow them toward a future that you’re
excited about. That excitement is contagious, and can inspire others to
follow their own sparks. Likewise, we can look to others for inspiration. No one
can tell us what our sparks are, but educators and mentors can create spaces
and opportunities where teens don’t have to be afraid to fail. Failure is an
important part of adolescence. When we fail, we learn. It should be seen and
celebrated as a step towards success. As teens, you will learn quicker, grow faster,
and feel more deeply than any other time in your lives. There will be times when
you feel more anxious, more scared and more frustrated. But there will also be times
when you feel more excited, more fearless, and more alive.
Adolescence is the most sensitive time for all emotions, not just the bad ones.
So, this is the time for being curious, daring, vulnerable. This is the time to
hope, to fail, to achieve, to grow. But most of all, this is the time to explore what
makes you, you. Because that’s the surest way to seize the opportunity that is
adolescence. you

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