Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain

The New York Times bestseller on how to turn the challenging teenage years into one of the most rewarding.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Brainstorm. Written by Daniel J Siegel.

Between the ages of 12 and 24, the brain changes in important, and oftentimes maddening ways. In this New York Times bestseller, Dr. Daniel Siegel shows parents how to turn one of the most challenging developmental periods of their children’s lives into one of the most rewarding.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, the teenage brain can often be a mysterious thing. And adolescence can be a terrible time for parents. Everything is in flux, and life is in chaos for many parents. What can parents do to shape young adults during this important transformational period?

Vincent: It’s not a secret at all that adolescence is a difficult time. Teenagers are not easy to deal with. Young children generally admire their parents, but adolescence is a new phase. All of a sudden, they’re embarrassed by their parents.

When teenagers become hypercritical of their parents, that becomes annoying for parents. And sometimes, it becomes even hurtful for them.

Karsen: That’s quite the change. What’s the rationale behind these teenage behaviors?

Vincent: Well, the authors say that teenagers are essentially preparing themselves for going out into the world alone. From this perspective, teenagers’ criticisms of their parents are a way for them to develop a healthy emotional distance.

So that way, when it’s time for them to leave the nest, it’s easiest for them to do so. That’s why teenagers are really fond of trying out new things and interested in connecting with other people their age.

These experiences are essentially teenagers just trying to work out what life will be like as a grown-up living without parents.

Karsen: How do parents usually adapt to these changes?

Vincent: It can be difficult for parents to accept these new behavioral tendencies from teenagers. But they have to accept that their little ones now have a real need to free themselves.

Some adolescent adventuring comes with a danger, of course. Reckless risk-taking, such as joyriding or drunk driving, can have serious consequences. However, it’s not all bad news. There’s a way to use some of this energy for good. We’ll talk about some low-risk ways a little later...

Karsen: So, how does the teenage brain change as they approach the adolescent years?

Vincent: Many teenagers generally know that behavior is risky, but sometimes they don’t always know when to stop. The author gives an example of one therapy patient, Katey, who was expelled from school.

She had drunk so much alcohol at an official school party that she had to be taken to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. When all was said and done, she was surprised that drinking so much wine and tequila had resulted in landing in a hospital bed.

Many teenagers are aware of the risk, but they’re just prone to testing boundaries. This is what this particular teenager was doing.

Katey said that she was aware that she could get into trouble and that alcohol was prohibited at the school event. But at the same time, there was excitement in breaking the rules, and she was able to convince the school director’s daughter to start taking shots with her.

The excitement of breaking the rules and getting the director’s daughter drunk was too much for her.

Karsen: So even though she knew of the risks, it didn’t stop her from behaving badly.

Vincent: Right, the author explains that the scientific reason for this is because of dopamine, which is a hormone that attaches pleasure receptors in the brain—the thrill of breaking the rules results in feelings of happiness, exhilaration, and pleasure.

Teenagers experience a higher level of intensity of dopamine releases than in adults.

So when teenagers take part in exciting activities, their brains are flooded with dopamine.

That drives teenagers to seek out thrilling pursuits that will lead to higher dopamine hits, oftentimes overlooking the potential negative consequences of risk-taking. They zero in on only the positive aspects, confident that they will materialize.

Karsen: What about the social pressure that teenagers get from their friends?

Vincent: That definitely adds to the decision-making pressure. Teenagers like to engage in risky behaviors and don’t always care about the risks involved. But if that weren’t already bad enough, the other factor that increases their willingness to break the rules is their friends.

Karsen: So teenagers are particularly prone to peer pressure.

Vincent: Yes. In one study, teenagers were asked to use a computer program that simulated the experience of driving a car. When the teenagers used the program with their friends, risky driving strategies became much more widespread.

Siegel’s son… the author’s son, Benji, even had a time where he was living in Spain as a 13-year-old. The local boys brought him to a 50-foot high cliff where they jumped into the sea below.

Benji jumped too. Unlike the other boys, he didn’t know that he had to bend his legs going into the water though. He hit the water too hard and fractured his leg on the rocks below the surface. Later on, he admitted that there was no way that he would have jumped into the water without the peer pressure from the other kids.

Karsen: Yikes. If all his friends jumped off a bridge, apparently he would too. That seems natural though to look for support from others.

Vincent: Yea, scientists have seen that the social behavior of adolescents is linked to evolution. When you are outside of your family circle, you’re programmed to look for new support structures.

From an evolutionary perspective, adolescents have to go away from their family to breed, so that you could mate with individuals from different gene pools. This would lower the risk of inbreeding and result in healthier offspring.

So adolescents who are prepared to explore and travel are more likely to be successful. Navigating outside your comfort zone is critical to your success. Being adaptable, generally speaking, is a good thing, in the long run, leading to better education and job opportunities.

Karsen: So as a parent, how can you let your teenager explore, but in a way that controls the risk?

Vincent: That’s a great question. When it comes to parenting well, there’s a balance between letting their kids and teenagers figure out life by living it while also having some parental involvement as well.

The author shares an example of the teenage son of the author’s friend, who’s a bit of a crazy driver. The teenage son once drove his car into a tree.

The parents responded by buying him a new car.

Karsen: Well that’s kind of crazy.

Vincent: Yea, I’m not sure I’d go racing off to buy a new car. Can you guess what happened next?

Karsen: Well, I’m guessing that new car didn’t stay new for very long.

Vincent: You’d be right. The parents showed their son that his actions didn’t have any consequences. But they also failed to provide him any alternatives for him to fulfill his desire for thrill-seeking.

So shortly after, the teenager crashed the car again, but this time, another car was involved and he ended up causing severe injuries to passengers in the other car.

Karsen: Oh no, that’s horrible. What could those parents have done instead?

Vincent: Well, they could have curbed their son’s need to take risks. Driving fast is an activity that’s exhilarating because it induces the dopamine release that the adolescent brain craves. However, if that urge is indulged, innocent bystanders and the teenager themselves will be put at risk.

There’s plenty of other activities that involve speed but that can be supervised, and the risk can be somewhat controlled though… like sports, go-karting, snowboarding, skateboarding, are all possible options for teens to feed their need for dopamine.

Karsen: Right, that makes sense. And at least on the halfpipe, they can wear a helmet.

Vincent: Exactly. So if teenagers are given the chance to participate in risky activities, but in a controlled environment, there are clear benefits. They’ll get a buzz from the activity. And after the thrill-seeking, they’ll be calmer and more rested.

Karsen: And it sounds like they’ll have their fill and won’t be on the hunt for some other risky adventure-seeking activities. How does the brain evolve during the teenage years?

Vincent: The author explains that during the childhood years, the brain produces an excess of neurons and neural connections. These are known as synapses. Then when adolescence hits, the brain begins to trim and prune away the neurons and synapses that it no longer thinks it needs, so some neural circuits are weakened.

Karsen: How does the brain know which neurons to prune?

Vincent: Siegel explains that the brain does that based on prior experiences. So if a child seems to show an interest in music, then it makes a lot of sense to make sure that he or she is immersed in music and playing an instrument before puberty arrives.

The brain will comprehend that musical skills won’t be going away anytime soon. So the neurons and synapses that are related to music won’t be pruned during adolescence.

Karsen: How long does pruning continue?

Vincent: Pruning begins in adolescence and continues into adulthood, so it’s really helpful for teenagers to have really specific points of focus. It could be as simple as music or sports. This helps the brain know which neurons should be spared in the pruning process.

Karsen: And for the brain circuits that are not pruned?

Vincent: For the brain circuits that are not pruned, they go through a second process that’s called myelination. This is when the membranes that connect neurons get coated in a fatty substance called myelin. This lets the neural messages pass more quickly from one neuron to the next.

During adolescence, it’s the perfect time to perfect or strengthen skills that are practiced during childhood.

Karsen: What’s the big shift that teenagers and adults need to make during these years?

Vincent: Siegel says that adults need to learn to be a little forgiving when things go wrong. Teens, he says, are adults of the future. They will affect the world that we live in, along with the social interactions and structures.

Adolescence is training for the future.

This is the time for the emergence of the power to innovate.

Young children are like sponges, where they soak up information and knowledge from their parents and teachers. They soak up this information without considering that there may be different ways to see the world or solve problems.

Teenagers, on the other hand, develop the ability to think critically, self-reflect, and to think creatively.

They can see solutions for issues around them.

Karsen: YouTube and TikTok have been big examples of that today, allowing the emergence of teenage superstar marketers and trend leaders due to teenage interest.

Vincent: Exactly. And it can be difficult for parents to understand what their teenagers are raving about. But it’s important for adults to at least try to understand.

The author shared an example where his son’s band was practicing in the school’s basement. They decided to plug in the amps and set them to full volume. The school’s windows were almost blown out.

The school’s first reaction was to ban them from the practice room.

But after a while, they realized that the students weren’t trying to destroy the equipment or disturb the other classes. They were just curious. They were just trying to innovate.

So the solution was they were allowed to keep practicing, and the school wouldn’t stand in the way of their creativity. But going forward, they had to follow the rules and not break the rules again.

Karsen: So it sounds like teens should be encouraged to be curious.

Vincent: Adolescence is a curious time. Teenagers want to be accepted by their peers and bond with them socially. Many teens feel awkward and inadequate. They worry about not being accepted for who they are.

Karsen: How do you know how your teenager is feeling?

Vincent: This may seem obvious, but the first step is to encourage a reflective conversation. So encourage them to speak without filtering. The idea is to encourage them to communicate their feelings.

It doesn’t matter what they feel, think, dream of, hope for, or notice. They should just let it all out. And you should do the same.

Try to stay away from topics related to day-to-day business, such as household chores or sports. Instead, talk about your dreams and aspirations, relationship difficulties, or even love and sex.

Karsen: So parents should guide these reflective conversations?

Vincent: Yes, if managed correctly, Siegel says, they can use the skills learned in these exchanges to better relate to their peers. And they will learn to speak plainly about things that really matter to them.

Karsen: It sounds like it’ll also help them develop empathy.

Vincent: Yes, the author mentions that too. There’s some science behind that where numerous brain studies show that reflective conversation helps the brain develop and integrate the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is where planning and problem-solving take place. It’s also the part of the brain that lets us attune ourselves to others. So it lets us understand the emotions behind the world.

Karsen: So if teenagers take part in reflective conversation, it means they’ll develop empathy at a critical stage of their lives, and empathy will give them the ability to bond with others, but it’s also a great trait to have anyway.

Vincent: Exactly.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that even though the teenage years are known for being tough years because teens are seen as lazy and difficult; In reality, through the adolescence years, teenagers are developing the necessary skills for adulthood. These skills include self-reflection, critical thinking, and independence. Parents can help their teens by channeling their energy and giving them channels for risk taking and testing boundaries. With healthy communication and empathy, you can support your teens healthy development.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


In this New York Times–bestselling book, Dr. Daniel Siegel shows parents how to turn one of the most challenging developmental periods in their children’s lives into one of the most rewarding.

Between the ages of 12 and 24, the brain changes in important, and oftentimes maddening, ways. It’s no wonder that many parents approach their child’s adolescence with fear and trepidation. According to renowned neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s New York Times bestseller Brainstorm, if parents and teens can work together to form a deeper understanding of the brain science behind all the tumult, they will be able to turn conflict into connection and form a deeper understanding of one another.  
In Brainstorm, Siegel illuminates how brain development impacts teenagers’ behavior and relationships. Drawing on important new research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, he explores exciting ways in which understanding how the teenage brain functions can help parents make what is in fact an incredibly positive period of growth, change, and experimentation in their children’s lives less lonely and distressing on both sides of the generational divide.

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