02/25/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Changing the Cultural Conversation About Adolescence

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Adolescence has a power and purpose much like a waterfall. We can't stop the water from flowing, but we can learn to channel its force in ways that are helpful for all concerned. During adolescence, a period that runs roughly a dozen years into the mid-twenties, the brain is busy remodeling itself in order to create integration, the body changes with the onset of puberty and a need for more independence with adults emerges.

Unfortunately, this incredible time of change fosters a lot of misconceptions and myths about the adolescent period in our modern culture without paying due to how essential features of the adolescent mind encourage the development of health and well-being throughout the lifespan. These myths of adolescence (teenagers are mindless because of hormones "raging," their minds are out of control or they just need to "grow up") are spread without understanding the vital and natural changes in the brain.

Culture consists of the many messages we send to each other through the media, in schools and at home. For the past decade, we at the Foundation for Psychocultural Research/UCLA Center for Culture, Brain and Development have been studying culture's impact on neural function and structure, assessing the many ways language and other forms of communication shape the synaptic connections that form the architecture of brain.

What we've generally found in this research is that our interpersonal connections shape our neural connections. Since we are profoundly social creatures, it may not be such a surprise that our social experiences literally shape the wiring of our social brains.

This is in an incredible revelation about the effect of our social connections during adolescence: cultural conversations can shape our cultural evolution, the ways ideas move us to transform our lives. And it is these cultural shifts, not so much genetic changes, which form the basis for how our human family can best approach the challenges ahead.

When I thought about my own kids, both adolescents, I realized that much of where they've come as individuals, where we've come as their parents and where we've come as a family has been to honor differences and promote our compassionate linkages. That's integration, interpersonal style. We've been working on creating more integration in our lives, between us and within us.

I like to say we can "inspire to rewire" our lives toward health, and that means finding ways to allow differences -- no, more like to treasure differences. And that means to embrace each other's differentiated selves, to put time, energy and attention toward connecting with each other in reflective ways. It has not always been easy, but the outcome of being interpersonally integrated I believe is the creation of more neural integration inside each of us.

It's also important to understand the ESSENCE of adolescence. The changes in the remodeling brain during the teen years ignite four qualities in our minds: the emotional spark of increased emotional intensity, social engagement, novelty-seeking and creative exploration. These four factors, set up during adolescence, help the brain grow and stay healthy and integrated even as we move through the rest of our lives.

Imagine if we could harness the creativity and courage of adolescents to approach some of the world's gravest problems. Imagine if we could tap into the social engagement and emotional spark of adolescents to help them work collaboratively to fight the world's hardest issues.

If we tap into a sense of competition in which we work to collaboratively defeat the enemy of our world's problems together, then everyone wins. Just imagine. That's how we can inspire each other to rewire our culture toward integration. It's a win-win proposition -- we just have to help create it, one person, one relationship, one integrative conversation at a time.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

You can learn more about the adolescent brain in Dan's best selling book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

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