8 Startling Truths about Teens

One night not too long ago your dear, sweet child went to sleep in their safe little bed.  But during the night the Teenager Fairy flew in the window and sprinkled pixie dust around the room.  In the morning your radiant ray of sunshine had been replaced by a moody teenager!

I remember that transition quite clearly for each of my older children.  One day they are helpful and kind, and the next they are temperamental and stubborn.

Or are adolescents really as insufferable as we paint them?

I’d like to help you reframe the image of your teenager.  Those annoying behaviors they have are really quite necessary and part of a much bigger destiny.  Teens receive quite a bit of bad press, but let’s follow them on a journey to see what’s really happening.

Think back to your own childhood and remember those fun days at the end of childhood.  Those were good times:  kicking soccer balls, running on the playground, and going to friend’s houses to hatch big plans.  Then one day, your body started changing.  You didn’t ask it to grow bumps in funny places or get acne or revolt on you, but it did anyway.  Everything started to go crazy, but where could you go?  It was YOUR body doing these things to you.

Like it or not, a quest had begun.  If you had wise parents or family friends, they gave you bits of wisdom about how to navigate the tempestuous seas of adolescence, but in the end, you had to face the storm on your own to find your own answers.


What if someone had told you about all those hormones and what they meant?  What if all those unpredictable things were quite predictable…  AND desirable?

Let’s take a closer look at the HORMONES and transformation taking place in your child.

Hormone Surge

During adolescence, there is a significant rise in hormonal activity for both genders as the body begins to change.  Estrogen and Testosterone begin to flow in massive quantities causing the body to change and grow.  Teens need this surge in hormones to grow an adult-sized body for adult-sized dreams and ambitions.  

Why? Because a quest always requires strength and physical prowess!

Oxytocin Modulation

As the estrogen and testosterone steroids begin to circulate in the blood stream, they modulate another crucial hormone:  oxytocin.  This change in oxytocin urges them to find new friends.  Teenagers are actually hardwired to find new friends as oxytocin causes them to make new attachments.  

Why? Because every good quest needs a fellowship!

Reward Cycle Shift

Inside of our brain is a circuit known as a “Reward Cycle”.  Whenever we do a task that pleases us, our brain sends a little “great job” reward called dopamine.  Dopamine is like your own personal, natural high and functions similarly in childhood and adulthood.  However, it is down-regulated during adolescence, causing the individual to seek bigger rewards to get the same high as they did when they were kids.  The result?  Teens seek out much bigger risks, new situations, and more fun.  

Why? Because every quest will require risk!

Maximum Gray Matter

Every human is born with 100 Billion neurons.  If they were pennies, they would cover a city almost the size of Hartford, CT, or wrap around world almost 50 times!  Those neurons immediately begin to massively connect to each other when we are born, and by 2-3 years old they are more connected than at any other time in your life.  Then the circuits that aren’t used are slowly trimmed away while others which are used continue to grow.  

Upon entering adolescence, the teenager has the most gray matter they will ever have during their life, and the combined computing power of one human brain with its several hundred Trillion connections and 1000’s of chemical synapse switches gives the teenage mind more circuits than all the transistors in every piece of electronics in the world (computers, servers, and cell phones included)!  

Why? Because you have to be Wicked Smart to go on a quest!

Optimistic Risk Assessment

Decisions always have pros and cons.  Whenever our mind is called upon to render a judgment on a situation, we tend to tally up the positive and negative outcomes by putting them on a scale:  positives on one side and negatives on the other.  Both children and adults use this kind of logic.  

However as you might have suspected, teenager brains do things a little differently.  The teenage brain puts all the positives on one side and all the negatives on the other side of the scale just like they always did.  Then their brain does something interesting.  It adds a little more weight to the positive side–on purpose.  Teens know they are doing this, but they just can’t help it.  

Why? Because every quest needs hope–lots of hope.

Nimble Neurons

Inside of a child’s brain, those neurons have dendrites running around in the brain like wires with important signals running every which way.  To learn the most and get the most connections, those wires are mostly unimpeded, but that also means the wires aren’t coated very well.  

As adolescence comes on, the brain begins to protect the important circuits with something called myelin which is like an electrical coating on the wire.  When this happens the signals on the wire can go 100 times faster and also that the signals can be sent 30 times more often which means that the communications in the brain speed up 100 x 30 = 3000 times!  The teenage brain’s internal communication is 3000 times faster. 

Why? Because the hero has to be Wicked Fast on a quest!

Exploring Identity

As your child begins to make the transition into adolescence, you probably noticed them pulling away sometimes.  They need their own space more often.  Usually, they prefer to spend time with their friend than with family.  This can be painful at home, but it is very necessary.  

Psychologists call this process “differentiation”, but that’s just a fancy word for identity–becoming ourselves instead of our parents.  Teens take many cues and habits from their family, but in the end, they will leave to take their own quest.  They need to test themselves against the world and find their own superpower.  

Why? Because a quest is really about finding out who you are!

Significant Brain Plasticity

The child’s brain is rapidly growing and changing.  This process is known as “plasticity” or the ability to be changed and reformed.  Learning about the world is a complex task requiring lots of changes along the way as life throws us curve balls, but as the teenage brain begins to myelinate, the plasticity slows a little to give them stability.  However, the adolescent still has much more plasticity than an adult.  They are in this unique place where their thinking is becoming more stable and reliable, but when needed, it can still make significant adaptations beyond what an adult brain is capable of handling.  

Why? Because every quest requires creativity and adaptability!

When your teenager completes this quest through the wilds of adolescence, they have been on a quest to find purpose, themselves, and significance. They return as much more than they began, and it is all necessary in order for the quest to succeed!

Carpe Diem!

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Muahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!! Ok, now that I have that out... I can get to work. For as long as I can remember, I have been making things. This habit used to be called "Inventing" but has lately been repurposed by the Maker community with the term "Maker". While there are some subtle differences between Inventing and Making, I have discovered my passion for both by inspiring a new generation of Makers. In this quest to spark creative thinking and problem solving through practical and exciting projects, I draw on my background in biomedical research, high energy fiber laser development, and 15 years of building laboratory devices. As an experimental physicist with a PhD from Case Western Reserve University, I have seen research and development from many angles and am now bringing that experience to middle school and high school students who want to make everything from catapults to cybernetic augmentations. Through the medium of Making and Inventing, students are transformed from passive observers of education to active learners. This powerful shift fosters deep insights, creative expression, collaborative thinking and a host of other skills that are difficult to learn in traditional settings. Along with my wife Debby, an accomplished constructivist educator, I am on a quest to transform education and am looking for like-minded collaborators to bring hands-on learning to future generations.

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