01/10/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Why Every Teen -- and their Parents -- Need a Brainstorm

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My daughter-in-law is a mom to two teens, with two more approaching teen-dom. That's why for her birthday the other day, I gave her a just-published book by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist at UCLA, called Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

His argument: The myths about the teen brain are not just wrong, but destructive. We've heard for decades about the downsides of the teen years -- the risks taken, impulsivity and the like. Recent brain research has pegged some of this to a peculiarity in brain growth during those years: The growth of circuitry for impulse and pleasure outpaces that for inhibiting those impulses, which do not catch up until the early 20s.

But Dr. Siegel takes that same data and puts a positive spin on what this means for the teen years -- which he pegs at ages 12 to 24. That's a unique period in life, with its burst of exploration, maturation and growth in every way. As he says, "Life is on fire."

And how teens navigate these years has real consequences for how they live the rest of lives. While there are always risks and downsides, the teen mind has unique positive qualities:

  • A search for the new and novel. This byproduct of an increased power in the brain's reward circuitry creates a natural urge to explore the world, to try new things and ways of being. While the downside can be taking dangerous and impulsive risks, the upside is being open to change and a sense of adventure.
  • A need for social connection. The teen years are marked by the importance of friendships. If teens become too isolated from the adults in their lives, this can increase risky behavior. But the ability to make strong friendships predicts well-being and satisfaction throughout life.
  • Intense emotions. Life quickens, becoming more vital. While this can mean moodiness and over-reactivity, this intensity creates immense energy and a zest for life.
  • Creativity and curiosity. This openness to the new combines with the teenager's acquisition of reasoning, abstract thinking and a creative bent. While this can sometimes lead to a crisis in identity or lack of direction, the upside can be out-of-the-box innovative thinking and creative exploration of life's possibilities.

All these attributes of the teen brain and the upsides, Siegel points out, would serve us well throughout our adult lives.

I've already explored much of this territory with Daniel Siegel in terms of how we can become better parents, better spouses, and better people. In this book he gives a formula for becoming better teens -- and that's a message parents want and teens need to hear.

Daniel Goleman's new CD Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Care and Calm, offers exercises to help teenagers sharpen their attention skills while enhancing their emotional intelligence capability.

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