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Teenagers Are 'Crazy' But Expert Says Behavior Is Vital To Development


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common-sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about teenagers - and come on, we were all there. The door slamming, the eye rolling, the curfew pushing; oh, and then there's the ever-popular asking your parents to drop you off down the street from the mall, but then running back to ask for more money.

And then there's the more serious stuff that makes the news more and more often these days - the drinking, the cyberbullying, the sexting, the party house trashing, the drag racing - yes, I'm looking at you, Justin Bieber.

So yes, when we talk about teens, generally, the conversation is often about how they're getting on our nerves. But our next guest says it is time to rethink adolescence, that the teenage years are among the most important times in a person's life. Those years lay the groundwork for adulthood, and can be a source of great creativity and self-awareness.

Dr. Daniel Siegel is with us now to tell us more. He's author of the new book "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." He's also a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and a father of two. Dr. Siegel, thanks so much for joining us.

DANIEL SIEGEL: Thanks for having me on your parenting panel, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: And also with us, two of our regular contributors who have been there or are there right now. Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author and mom of three, including two teenagers. And Aracely Panameno is director of Latino affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending, and a mom of one. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for coming.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Great to be here, Michel.

ARACELY PANAMENO: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So Dr. Siegel, I know we've all heard kind of the bad script on teenagers. And what is the biggest misconception you think we have about teenagers, especially about how their brains work?

SIEGEL: Well, one of the myths that's out there that everyone seems to believe is that raging hormones are what changes in the adolescent's mind - that their life is taken over, that they're going to not be able to think straight, that they're going to act in crazy ways - when in fact, while hormones rise, they're not ranging. And the changes in the adolescent's way of thinking and feeling and interacting with other people is actually due to remodeling of the brain. And that's something we can actually encourage and support in a positive way whereas raging hormones, there's nothing you can do about it. And fortunately, that's not the truth.

MARTIN: You know, one of other things I learned from your book is that you think of adolescence up to the age of 24. You say the brain is changing from age 13 to age 24, which was news to me. And why is that significant?

SIEGEL: You know, it's news to all of us. The studies of the brain in the last dozen years or so are revealing that the changing in the structure of the brain, which is basically getting the child ready to leave the nest and go out into the world, are actually changes that happen early on. So sometimes, they're even before the teenage years begin, and they last into the mid-20s, which kind of shocked everyone. And so what we now know is that this remodeling period is something that's really not about immaturity, but it's actually about transformation and ways that we can actually support in a positive way.

MARTIN: Leslie, is this making sense to you?

STEINER: Oh, boy. I mean, this is just - it makes so much sense to me. The thing from a parent's perspective, though, that I find interesting is that I love parenting teenagers even though most of my friends think it's something to be survived. And it's tough. I call it the get-out-of-my-room-now-tuck-me-in phase. But I loved being a teenager.

And I was actually lucky that I ended up at a great place when I was a teenager. I went to summer camp at a place called Longacre Leadership, in Pennsylvania. And it was a place that was started by six idealistic high school teachers. And they loved teenagers, and they celebrated them; and they celebrated me. And I ended up working there, and my kids go there now. And it sort of taught me that adolescence is exactly what this book says - that's it's a fascinating, really creative time. And as a parent, it's like I see what my kids are going to become, and it's great.

MARTIN: Aracely, you know, what about you? I mean, I know that you had - your daughter had some challenges. I mean, all the kinds of things that we talk about a lot, kind of the impulsivity. Those were things that you were really, you know, worried about. You want to talk a little bit about it?

PANAMENO: Well, can I just say that thank goodness there's a book about this. Thank you, doctor, for putting it in writing. Could you have...


SIEGEL: My pleasure.

PANAMENO: Could you not have done this sooner?


SIEGEL: I think I had to wait for my own kids to be through their teenage years to get ready to write it, but thank you, Aracely. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask, Aracely, though, 'cause one of the things that you've talked about is that, you know, culturally, that kind of pulling away is something that does not - is more accepted in some places than others because in some communities, that kind of pulling away has real consequences that are - that can be really challenging.

I remember - I mean, this is terrible to say, but I remember my father telling all of us, if you're having an identity crisis, don't. We don't have time for that. You know, and what he was basically saying, you know, look, we're - you know, we are - let's just be blunt, we are black people. We, you know - we don't have a lot of margin for error here. So...

PANAMENO: And, you know, in my family, it was the same way, right? Culturally speaking, I am of immigrant descent. She is of mixed background. And so there was a lot to blend in, and so there were a lot of challenges. And what I learned was that I needed to actually keep on learning myself to keep up with her, and to be prepared to deal with the situations that she was confronting. I myself had a great adolescence. I was supported by extended family members and role models. And so I was very pleased with that. And so I wanted to take from what I had learned through my own experience, and also expand it, particularly in this new society. It was a new society for me, personally. And for her, it was a blended family, in terms of her ethnic and racial makeup.

MARTIN: Well, Dr. Siegel, so help us out here. I mean, just walk us through some of the biggest things that people tend to struggle with. I mean, the - I think the disrespect is one of the things that - the testing is one of the things that a lot of parents are upset about. You know, like the same - the sweet little girl who would gladly help you, you know, clear the table and wanted nothing more than to be up under you sort of like, rolls her eyes and acts like you've asked them to go shoplift professionally if you ask them to clear the table, you know, as a 14-year-old. So the disrespect piece, tell - how should we think about that?

SIEGEL: Well, Michel, I feel like you were in my house when my daughter was around that age, so thanks for reminding me.


SIEGEL: You know, first of all, this is so wonderful to be talking about this. I think when, Aracely, you say that we need to keep on learning, I think that's the first thing a parent should really take in - the wisdom of that statement; that we need to be open to exploring how we can really be present with our adolescent. And, you know, Leslie, when you talk about the celebration of adolescence, that's my deepest hope for this book - is that the adolescent reading it, or the adult reading it, will actually feel that it is a time to celebrate rather than to dread. So it's not a time to just get through.

So Michel, in terms of your question, you know, I think what we can do - and in this parenting panel, it's just such a fantastic opportunity - to invite people - adolescents, and adults who care for adolescents - to change the cultural conversation around this period of time because these myths - raging hormones are driving adolescents mad is a myth. The idea that it's a period of immaturity that you just have to get through, and hope you make it through alive, that's a myth. The idea that adolescents need to push against all adults and have none of them in their life, to grow up, that's a myth. We need to actually look at these and realize that adolescents need adults in their life.

Yes, the way the brain is changing really is urging them to try new things, to have an emotional spark that pushes them forward, a social engagement with their peers, a search for novelty where they are going to be taking risks - which, unfortunately, involves danger. So we need to try to let them know about that so they can minimize danger. And then the mind is creatively exploring things in ways that can really make you feel disoriented. If you have different cultures you're trying to integrate into your life, that can make it challenging. But just growing up in this way can be hard.

So looking at these myths - fortunately, there are truths. And when you learn the truth, what happens is, as an adolescent, you can be empowered to actually make the most of this time of courage and creativity so your life will be on the right path.

MARTIN: Well, make it a little bit more simple, if you would. Let's just talk about the whole dinner table, disrespect - like, no, I'm not cleaning the table; you know, I cleaned my dish. I'm not cleaning anybody else's dish - that kind of stuff. What's your word of advice for dealing with one of those common scenarios?

SIEGEL: OK. Well, the first thing as a parent - let's say you get that comment at the table and certainly, my wife and I, we got those all the time - is to have a space inside of you so you can receive what that is, and understand the meaning of it. So, for example, if the meaning is, you know, I'm asserting myself and the rule in this family is we do dishes. And so I'm an adolescent, and I'm going to try to push against the status quo. That's what I'm designed to do. Then you, as a parent, need to take a deep breath and say, you know, I understand that's something you don't want to do, but in this house, it's just something we do.

And if you approach it with a calmness - not a getting reactive and saying, how dare you talk to me like that? You know, that's not appropriate, and you have to go to your room, you know - what that does is, it takes the emotion of independence and it hugely expands it in a way that doesn't need to happen like that. And it becomes a fight rather than a conversation.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? Are there - what are some other things that are on your mind?

STEINER: Well, I agree with what the doctor is saying. I think it's totally true. But I also - there are many times where I get to a point where I don't want to be emotional, and I don't want to argue; but I lay down the law. And I'll give one example that's like the dinner table example. So our son recently got his driver's license. And he's driving to school, which is wonderful. He's driving his little sister to school. He parks illegally - our car - illegally on campus, in full view of everybody. So I feel like it makes the family look bad. And I talked to him about it. I reasoned - him. I gave him his independence. And he said, oh, I'm doing this. And I said, the next time that that happens, I'm taking my car key and I'm taking the car, you're going to be stranded at school. Don't you ever park there again. And I didn't scream it, but I laid down an ultimatum. And he never parked there again.

MARTIN: The driving thing...

SIEGEL: And, Leslie, can I...

MARTIN: Yeah, Danny - Dr. Siegel, could you talk about that? The driving thing...


MARTIN: ...Is just one of those things that just...

SIEGEL: Oh, it's huge.

MARTIN: ...I'm sorry, it's huge. It's huge.

SIEGEL: It's huge. Well, I just - first of all, I want to really just underscore what Leslie's saying. When you present that without the emotional explosion that a lot of us would do if we didn't have the presence of mind you did, then it would be a totally different interaction. Of course, it's - the adolescent, like every other person in life, needs some kind of structure. And so we want to lay down the structure but not with an explosive volcanic eruption. We want to just say, yeah, look, OK, you're going to do that. You can choose to do that, and then you won't be driving anymore.


SIEGEL: And you say it like that. And that's the clarity of mind we need to hold onto as parents. And when you see beneath the myths, you can hold onto that clarity more easily. You know, this overall idea of what we do with driving, I mean, basically, it's a several-ton weapon that we're putting in the hands of someone who is just learning to make it feel like it's something they can manipulate through space. So it's a really dangerous time. And we know that it's more likely that a young driver, a new driver, especially an adolescent, will have a possible accident. So we need to be really clear that there's no smartphones in the car, that - in California, at least, it's a law you cannot drive with someone under 21, if you have a license at 16. And there's all sorts of ways where we need to respect the fact that the adolescent is just learning, but they get distracted easily, and they're not used to the car being an object that's going through space.


SIEGEL: So laying down these things and being very clear about it. And really, I've got to say, empathically supportive; saying, I know you'd like to drive with your phone, but you can't. And I know you'd like to drive with your friends, but you cannot, it's unsafe. And that's just the rule. And...

MARTIN: All right. Let's get some other questions in here, if we can. Aracely, you've got one?

PANAMENO: So - so I have told my daughter - 'cause in my household it was just my daughter and I. I'm a single mother. And so I've told her, without emotion - you know, I was always keeping my emotions in check. Sometimes I actually, as an adult, I am the one who needed the timeout so I could go gather my thoughts, collect myself and not explode.

SIEGEL: Totally.

PANAMENO: And I think learning to recognize that was very, very important for me. But I have always told her that in the household, we shared responsibilities;that there were some things that I was responsible for and that I appreciated her contribution to the rest of the responsibilities. And she acted accordingly. At one point, we did have a confrontation where she was trying to really push my boundaries, and she said - she yelled at me. We were in her room, and she yells at me and she said she wanted to kill herself.


PANAMENO: And so - but she just wanted to push my buttons. It was just to see the emotional reaction - how I was going to react. And so I looked at her very cool, calm, collected; and I said, honey, if that is your choice, if that is what you choose to do, please don't do it in the house because you're going to mess up my carpet.

MARTIN: Oh, my God. Nerves of steel.

PANAMENO: And then I'm going to have to...

MARTIN: You're a better woman than I am.

PANAMENO: And then I'm going to have to clean up, right? She looked at me, and she was completely astonished at my response - and stopped. It stopped the argument right there and then.

MARTIN: What, exactly, do you think that's about, though? I mean, I know, like, some of these identity issues can be really, you know, tricky because, you know, you see this a lot of times because you've got families with - and you don't have to be an immigrant to have identity questions like, where do I fit in? and stuff like that; and like, oh - you know, Mom, you're such a loser 'cause I don't want to eat your empanadas; I want a hot dog - this kind of thing. I don't want to - you know, I mean, a lot of people are going through...

PANAMENO: I'm sorry, I'm not the immigrant.


PANAMENO: You know, my daughter has said to me, I'm sorry - you know, I was born here in the United States, and you were not. And my response was, I am more American than apple pie, sweetheart.

MARTIN: Well...


MARTIN: But there's some truth there. So Dr. Siegel, I mean, we only have like, about three minutes left, and we'd sort of love to get some more wisdom from you.


MARTIN: I mean, I know part - you know, your mission here is to help us rethink adolescence and - instead of just seeing it as a time when we're getting our buttons pushed every day, to something that's kind of amazing and great. What's so amazing and great about it? What are some...

SIEGEL: Oh, my.


SIEGEL: Well, there's so many amazing and great things. There's a word essence that is part of it, and I'll just go through it briefly. ES, it spells the word essence, emotional spark. There's a vitality to adolescence that is not only something that gives them a sense of being alive and passion, that life has meaning, but actually, if we hold onto it in adulthood, not just let it go after we're done with adolescence, it actually can enrich our lives.

In fact, each of these has something we need to hold onto as adults. SE of essence - so emotional spark is the first part. That's a great thing. SE is social engagement. You know, adolescents are really biologically driven as their brain remodels to become more independent from their parents, yes, and to move more toward their peers. And those relationships can serve to be support for them. Of course, there's a downside. If they fall prey to negative peer influences, they may choose membership over their own values. So we want to give them an internal compass to know what has meaning, what's important to them.

MARTIN: I've got to ask about sexuality, though.


MARTIN: This is, I think, the thing that - I've got to ask you about sexuality.

SIEGEL: Well...

MARTIN: I know you said that it's the brain, not the hormones. But...

SIEGEL: Well, the hormones are changing with puberty, for sure. And sexuality is a very important part of puberty. And of course, that's a part of adolescence. It's also part of the end, the novelty, where you're trying new things, and you're driven to connect sexually to someone you're attracted to. So being very open about that, that that's what this period is, and giving kids the knowledge and giving kids the space to understand how to do this in a respectful way that's mutually rewarding, I think is really vital. In the "Brainstorm" book, you know, I talk about hooking up and what that means in terms of a relationship; having a deep sense of connection and closeness versus, you know, just something you're doing out of peer pressure. I'll say that in terms of, you know, sexuality, the last part of essence, the creative exploration, is something you do with your mind, but you're also doing it with your body. You're trying to learn how to be in the world.

And even in terms of this question of culture, we've learned in the center I helped run at UCLA - the Center for Culture, Brain and Development - that culture absolutely is a crucial part of how adolescents grow. And my hope for all of us is that if we rethink how to have a cultural conversation around adolescence, seeing the courage and creativity that's there because in terms of these creative explorations and what's good about adolescence, every major innovation in art, music, science and technology has its roots coming from adolescent minds. And we can tap into that courage and creativity to see the world in new ways. It's kind of how nature has designed this unfolding of life, to get ready to push against the status quo. Now, that's hard for parents, I know. And it involves risk, and that's scary. But to push against the status quo, and to create a new world that's forever changing. So for us to tap into this, I think we can change our approach, and honor and celebrate the courage and creativity of adolescence.

MARTIN: Well, we'll have to leave it there for now. But you also had some helpful meditation techniques in your book. And I'm not so sure whether those were for the teens or for the parents


MARTIN: ...to try to keep their blood pressure under control.


SIEGEL: Those are for both adolescents and adults to do those mindset skills.

MARTIN: Mindset skills, that's right. Dr. Daniel Siegel is author of the book "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." He's a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a father of two, with us from NPR New York. Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author and mom of three. Aracely Panameno is director of Latino affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending, and a mom of one. Both are regular contributors to our parenting roundtable, and were here with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.

STEINER: Thank you.

PANAMENO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.