Written by Daniel J Siegel, MD,

Teenagers Live in a World of their Own

Review by Gunnel Minett

Being the parent of a teenage is a condition that needs no further explanations. Every parent knows that their darling little children will eventually reach a phase in their lives where they will undergo a dramatic change for the worst. They seem to move in to a world of their own where parents have no place or permit to enter.
In earlier generations this phase was not as clearly expressed as it tends to be today. This is mainly due to the fact that teenagers often had to make a very short and clear transition from childhood to adult (working) life. Usually it was accentuated by rituals such as Christian Confirmation at between 10 to 15 years of age.

In the modern western world many teenagers still have years of basic education left to complete. Following this, they may struggle to find work and a place to live away from their parents. So the teenage period has definitely become an issue for parents to have to deal with.

Many advice books for parents tend to deal with the outer aspects of teenage life: how to set family rules, what to do about addiction issues, pocket money, etc. This can, of course, be very valuable, but it doesn’t explain what actually happens to the teenager and why they change.

In this book Daniel Siegel focuses on this issue. With many neuroscience references, he explains the changes that the teenage brain goes through and the impact this has on teenage behaviour. This can be extremely useful and reassuring for teenage parents who sometimes see the changes in their children as something going wrong in their relationship with their children. Often this leads to blame and guilt which does little to help the situation.

Understanding that teenage brains are preoccupied with processing major changes required for the child to make the final adjustments for adult life may be reassuring for the parent. Despite being apparently endless idle or asleep, they’re not do nothing! They may just be too involved with their internal processes to cope with life in the outside world.

It is not just parents who will benefit from understanding the teenage brain’s development phase: clashes between teenagers, schools and wider society lead to many social problems. It is during teenage years that most adults start smoking. Teenagers are also more exposed to danger in the form of drugs and other risky and dangerous activities because of their need to explore the adult world in ways they may not be fully prepared for. Siegel gives many examples of this and suggests ways for adults to get their warnings across. For instance he refers to a study in America that showed that the most effective way to prevent teenagers from taking up smoking is not to show disgusting images of ill health. It is much better to point out how the tobacco industry is using deliberate advertising tricks to get teenagers to take up smoking. Pointing out that teenagers are falling for cheap tricks tends to make them rebel against the tobacco industry, rather than the adults who tell them about health problems that may lie too far in the future to have an impact.

In this book Siegel, who himself is a neuropsychiatrist, addresses a number of issues that teenage parents often experience as difficult to understand and cope with. He does this by both explaining the neuroscientific understanding of what goes on in the brain and by offering methods of helping the developing brain to cope. Parts of the book are focused on mind-altering techniques, such as mindful meditations and Siegel’s own Mindsight techniques.

If society as a whole took onboard the type of information Siegel is providing both regarding younger children (in his other books) and teenagers much would be different. By spending money on providing this type of information to parents and children alike, much could be saved on the preventive measures that most western societies need to spend money on. Not only would this make financial sense. It would also avoid a lot of aggravation between generations and make for a better world for us all.

Scribe, London, 2014, http://www.scribepublications.co.uk, ISBN 9781922247452