Making Sense of Our Lives

Real Connections co-hosted a conference on Adolescence, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Autism in February. The day was full of energy and enthusiasm for everyone involved. One of our staff that attended the conference, Rebekah Springs, was inspired by the day to share some of her reflections with us. Her words here keep the inspiration and neurodevelopmental lessons moving forward. Thanks Rebekah!

Making Sense of our Lives

By Rebekah Springs

February 6, 2014 found me clutching a cup of coffee and a pen, sitting expectantly in an auditorium filled with parents, teachers, therapists, psychologists, and other learners. Real Connections co-hosted Dr. Dan Siegel to present on his new book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, and I was prepared to fill my notebook with notes about new research in interpersonal neurobiology. Many people picture cold, hard impersonal facts when they hear the word neurobiology.  I was not expecting Dr. Siegel’s talk to “get personal,” and I was definitely not expecting to have to confront my own fears and insecurities about parenting and adolescence. I was surprised to leave not only with my notepad filled but with new compassion teens, for parents of teens, and for myself, as someone who was not too long ago trying to navigate that confusing, transitional adolescent period.

It was the new research that opened my eyes to my own adult assumptions about adolescence and to what I had been missing during my teen years. Studies in interpersonal neurobiology have shown that there is more going on than just “raging hormones,”  or lack of impulse control when adolescents engage in behaviors that seem “overly emotional” or unpredictable. Dr. Siegel explained how the brain is undergoing enormous alterations and specialization during this time, which makes it a time of great vulnerability but also of great potential. I had absorbed messages from society (some explicit, and some quite subtle) which said “just get through this period with decent grades, don’t get into trouble with the law or with boys, get into a college, and then you can start doing something with your life.”  So many of the myths outlined by Dr. Siegel seemed to be a part of this message.

It was the truths about adolescence that prompted this written response. The truth is, when we are in this transitional period, we are extremely creative, and given the right environment, we can supply new solutions to society’s problems. During adolescence we have an increased desire to be a part of a group and a part of something meaningful—we are socially minded and can work together for positive means. Yes, we are, given changes in the brain, likely to take risks—but perhaps if our lives were infused with more meaning and the empowerment that we could make a difference in society, then this risk-taking could be channeled into healthier actions.

I think that we sustain a one-dimensional, disempowering concept for many reasons—but one of them is that if we were to listen to the personal stories of teens, really get to know them rather than try to place our own judgments on them, we would be faced with our own insecurities and our own fears..

Dr. Siegel’s presentation challenged me to examine my own blaming attitude and disparaging thoughts about adolescence. When I balk at understanding the inner workings of a group and the inner life of a person, when I label a person without really trying to understand her, it s a clue that I need to slow down and check in with myself. What might I fear? What keeps me at a distance from this socially constructed “out group?”

What would happen if we rethought adolescence, allowing personal stories from teens to shape us? Just as it is for writing a new autism story, a new story of adolescence would take humility and hard work, lots of listening and lots of understanding.

Stories help us to make sense of our lives—they organize our responses to our environment. Further, as Dan Siegel writes in The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are,  “stories make available perspectives on the emotional themes of our implicit memory that may otherwise be consciously unavailable to us.” When we tell our stories, and when we listen to the stories of others, we not only understand ourselves and others better, but we can begin to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those around us.

This is why I believe we need to encourage personal storytelling before we make judgments, why we should first search our inner lives for clues about our reactions to others, and why we must take the position of a learner when we face someone who seems at first (or second) glance to be quite different from us.