Grab the Teenage Window of Opportunity

Karen Goeller, PhD
March 2016
Starting a fire

The camp experience provides an outstanding opportunity for personal growth. The adolescent brain, which is undergoing tremendous physical and neurological development, can benefit greatly from the unique attention of the camp environment. When approached with awareness, we can help adolescent children develop positive tools that they will be able to count on for the rest of their lives. It’s often too easy to simply close our eyes and hope our kids will just grow out of some of the stereotypical negative adolescent behaviors including the predictably unpredictable mood swing, as well as the automatic barrage of hostility and anger. When we understand the neurological changes underlying these antisocial behaviors, we become more resilient in our ability to help our adolescent campers not only manage a more positive emotional response but generate healthier behavior.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor*, respected scientist and New York Times bestselling author of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (2006), helps us imagine new possibilities for teenage campers. In her TEDxYouth talk the Neurological Transformation of the Teenage Brain (2013), Taylor shares that the teenage years represent one of the brain’s most vulnerable stages. When she draws parallels between recovery from her own experience with a stroke, and the last 20 years of research about the teenage brain, she helps us understand that as adults we have the ability (and the responsibility) to help our teenagers better understand the biology underlying what they are thinking and feeling. Taylor’s inspirational message emphasizes that we have this one-time window of opportunity as hands-on camp leaders to deeply and profoundly impact how our campers live their lives.

Taylor grew up as a camper herself. Camp provided a powerful social setting for character and relationship building that helped Taylor and her friends go on to lead meaningful lives. And now, even as she has achieved much fame, Taylor comes back to her background as a camper to illustrate firsthand the possibilities for teenagers to make extraordinary neurological connections. Her lessons provide a starting point for us to reassess our own beliefs, daily routines, and interactions with adolescents and uncover new ways to strengthen the camp experience.

Lesson One: Learn More about the Developing Teenage Brain

“Keep them alive ’til 25!” is Taylor’s rallying cry and her best advice for camp directors and staff who provide programming for adolescents. The adolescent brain functions very differently from that of an adult brain, and we cannot afford to forget this. The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for personality make-up, impulse control, and judgment about what is right and wrong, is not completely developed until about age 25. So, Taylor’s eye-opening message is directed first at the adults who work with adolescents. We are the ones who must become more observant about the mental health of adolescents. Teenage campers experience neurological shifts as part of normal development, and we must be on constant alert that these teenagers are thinking, speaking, and acting with brains that are not yet fully mature. We need heightened awareness about everything adolescent to step up in our supervisory roles to help adolescents through this challenging stage of change.

We must seek out ways to teach adolescents about what is going on in their own brains. Creating simple learning activities about the brain can help teenagers better understand not only their own behaviors but also the actions of those teens around them. Excellent kid-friendly materials that explain adolescent neurological changes are available on sites such as the Society for Neuroscience (brainfacts.org).

Camp is a relaxing setting in which to learn about physical and hormonal brain development and its impact on behavior and then to practice behavior modification in a less threatening environment. For instance, when adolescents learn about their brain’s frontal lobe not yet being fully developed and their predisposition to impulsive behavior, they can have fun role-playing various strategies with peers to learn how to react in more positive ways during stressful situations.

Families will be reassured to hear that adolescent brain development is recognized (and celebrated) at camp. As camp directors, you should communicate clearly with families about the benefits of camp for allowing teenagers to explore and attempt new skills during this growth stage. Having camp personnel who are knowledgeable about adolescent brain development will give families confidence that they have made a wise investment in their children’s emotional health. Then, designing pre- and post-camp activities for the adolescent brain can engage families and extend learning to support campers at home.

Lesson Two: Understand and Question the Status of the Amygdala

Camp personnel quickly notice the height, weight, and skin changes occurring in the bodies of adolescent campers, but do we just as readily recognize the neurological shifts taking place? Taylor shares that because the frontal lobe is not fully developed in adolescence, teenagers’ actions are controlled largely by the amygdala (one in each hemisphere of the brain) that regulate emotions such as fear and anger.

There is a biological reason why adolescents process information differently from adults. Information streams in through the sensory systems and heads directly for the amygdala within the brain’s limbic system, determining adolescents’ perceived levels of safety in the world. When enough of the information coming in feels familiar, the amygdalae are calm; adolescents feel safe, and they are capable of learning new information. On the contrary, when the amygdalae feel unsafe, Taylor explains that adolescents experience this as anxiety, and it is harder for adolescents to think clearly and concentrate. Having a basic knowledge about the amygdala will help us understand that adolescent campers will not always respond thoughtfully or make good decisions. In fact, we should anticipate and plan for their impulsivity and immaturity as part of their normal neurological development.

Taylor urges adults to help adolescents learn to recognize emotional triggers. She shares that to some degree adolescents have the cognitive ability to control the circuitry in their brains and consciously choose to remain in the present moment and not engage with negative behavior. As our adolescent campers begin to feel anxious, frustrated, or become angry easily, we can help them slow down and confront the situations in a calmer manner. Knowing the importance of remaining calm and learning how to stay even-tempered in threatening situations will enable adolescents to think before acting impulsively or irrationally.

Lesson Three: Nurture Multiple and Different Brain Connections

Taylor had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and her trauma gave her an unparalleled opportunity to experience the redeveloping brain. Her rehabilitation took place in the same order, with the same circuits and the same subjects, as a young child going through normal development. She spent eight years making new connections and recovering all of her mental and physical functions.

Taylor speaks of neuroplasticity, the ability of cells to re-connect. She explains that the neurons in our brains are the same, but as time passes, their connections are altered based upon our experiences. Taylor asserts that the teenage brain is in an ongoing state of development, which is very different from the mature adult brain. Because of the major neurological changes that happen during the teenage years, it is important that we pay attention to which circuits we are enabling and which ones we are discouraging.

As an example, if a child is a good singer while in elementary school, Taylor urges that child to keep singing throughout the teenage years to keep this circuitry strong during adult life. She cautions that a pruning back of 50 percent of connections takes place during adolescence, but the good news is that adolescents can now nurture the other half that they are going to keep. Taylor optimistically claims the beauty of the teenage years is that adolescents are “tending the gardens of their minds.” Adolescence brings a time of great promise as teenagers can explore and think expansively about who and how they want to be when they get older.

Camp directors and staff need to know that the brains our adolescents bring to camp will not be the ones with which they will leave. What a tremendous obligation we have in helping adolescents nourish those brain connections! The camp setting is a natural haven for teenagers to ask questions and problem solve independently and with peers. Camp offers so many possibilities for adolescent campers in trying out new skills, exploring new hobbies, or beginning new activities that they can then continue into adulthood. What is most important is that we encourage adolescents to take safe risks, play, and open themselves up to more possibilities and options. And, as adults, we need to keep asking ourselves how we are seeking out creative ways to encourage and reward our adolescents for pursuing and practicing unfamiliar skills and hobbies.

Camps are unique places where adolescents don’t have to be the best and, instead of competing, they cheer each other on. Camps are safe, nurturing spaces where adolescents can try and fail without the pressures that might exist elsewhere. For instance, adolescents can become discouraged and alienated when they try out and are cut from competitive sports at school or in community clubs; instead, at camp, teens can join, join, and join again. Participation itself is our goal as we encourage and stimulate new and multiple brain connections.

Lesson Four: Explore Learning from Both the Right and Left Minds

Understanding what the brain can do and what each part of the brain is doing at different times during daily activities helps us make sense of our world. Taylor explains how, on the morning of her stroke, the language centers in her left hemisphere became silent. Instead of feeling anxious, she became comforted by a growing sense of peacefulness. We have two very unique ways of processing information and of perceiving the world. Our right brain looks at the collective whole; it looks for similarities, and it is compassionate, loving, artistic, creative, and supportive. Our left brain focuses on the individual; it seeks differences, and it thinks linearly, creates and understands language, and is the source of judgment of what is right or wrong.

Taylor advocates that we need to teach adolescents about the most important relationship they have, which exists between the characters of their right and left brains. She adds that much of the new research in the last 15 years has focused on mindfulness, the ability to alter our thoughts and change the circuitry underneath, enabling us to think in different ways. Adolescents need to be more aware of their own mental health, recognizing that they are products of what is going on within their brain cells. Perhaps adolescents cannot always choose, but they can become cognizant of “right brain” and “left brain” characteristics. Often, we recognize the need for left brain sequential, analytical, and logical intentional leaders, organizers, and doers. Yet, as Taylor shares, the right mind provides us with holistic, innovative, and intuitive perspectives that enable us to develop deeper capacities for empathy, inventiveness, and passion.

As camp directors and staff, we should strive to enrich both right brain and left brain thinking in the activities we design for our campers. To illustrate, right brain activities will lead adolescents to become more compassionate, expansive, open, and supportive of others. Left brain activities will give adolescents opportunities to create and understand language, define the boundaries of where we begin and end, judge right from wrong, and focus on details and more details. As adults, we need to help adolescents draw from strengths in both hemispheres of their brains to assist them in leading more balanced, healthy, and meaningful lives.

Final Camp Reflections

Taylor illuminates our thinking about the adolescent brain and its vast potential, power, and possibilities. Her neuroscience research and firsthand experience suggest we should re-evaluate and re-adjust how we work with adolescent campers. Yes, the brain is a complex organ, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Adolescents who are fortunate enough to participate in the camp experience are truly taking care of their brain cells. What power we have to observe and shape the biological circuitry of our adolescents. However, as adults we must remember that these changes are taking place and think about our power in guiding their behavior accordingly. Those of us who work with adolescent campers must challenge our own thinking and capitalize on this one-time, exciting maturation period. When armed with impactful, brain-based lessons, we can open up unlimited possibilities and unparalleled growth for our adolescent campers

Teenage Brain-focused Activities for Camping Staff to Try Now

  • Right from the start, open campfire talks with thought-provoking, brain-based learning. Share a basic brain fact about neuroplasticity, the ability of cells to re-connect, and explain that the brains we bring to camp will not be the ones with which we leave. Talk to campers about the importance of being open-minded and trying new skills. Mix campers in small groups and ask them to think about ways they will grow their own brains at camp. To stimulate conversation, give each group chart paper and colored markers. Ask them to draw a brain and brainstorm possibilities around it. All ideas are good ones!
  • Tweens and teens like learning new and challenging words. Introduce campers to the amygdala, structures in each hemisphere of the brain that regulate emotions such as fear and anger. Share that teenage brains are different from those of adults because the teenage brain’s frontal lobe is not yet fully developed, which can easily cause teens to engage in impulsive and immature behavior. Put them in pairs and let them act out risk-taking situations, inserting the voice of the amygdala by asking themselves questions, such as “Do I feel angry and fearful now, or do I feel safe and calm?” Have fun with the activity and teach campers the importance of slowing down and confronting a situation in a more mindful and peaceful manner. You could extend the activity to give the Amygdala Award daily to a camper who handles a difficult situation in a calm and positive way.
  • Give campers a brief explanation of both right-brain (compassionate, artistic, creative, playful) and left-brain (methodical, focused on details, judgement of right and wrong) thinking. Give campers each a sketch pad and take them on a nature walk. Tell them to look for animals or plants in their natural settings and ask them to draw one of their choosing. Underneath the drawn object, have them write about it from a left-brain perspective. Then ask them to write about the same object as it might be perceived by someone with a right-brain perspective.
  • Provide families with a brain-based, post-camping reflection activity to engage them in meaningful discussions with their teens after camp. Having conversations together will help families be a part of their teenager’s growth process. Suggest some open-ended questions:
    • What new and different activities did you participate in at camp?
    • What activities did you most enjoy and why?
    • What relationships did you develop at camp?
    • What were some of the qualities in these friends that you admired?
    • How can you continue to build upon the connections you made with ideas, activities, and friends after camp?

*Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (2006) and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World (2008). Taylor delivered the first TED talk that went viral on the Internet. She has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show and is working on a feature film adaption of her book.

Through the lens of a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, Taylor shares her story of experiencing a life-threatening, hemorrhagic stroke in her brain’s left hemisphere. At 37, she woke up to discover an unusual transformation taking place in her own body, and for several hours she observed her body undergo traumatic changes that left her unable to walk, talk, read, or recall information. Taylor watched her brain receive intense stimulation that gave her much more insight than her previous research. She underwent major surgery to remove a large blood clot that prevented her brain from transmitting information. It took eight years for Taylor to recover completely, and she attributes this recovery to her advantage as a neuroscientist to believe in her brain’s ability to retrain its circuitry as well as the love of her mother, G.G., who helped her make the connections necessary for her brain to fully heal.

Photo courtesy of Ramah Outdoor Adventures at Ramah in the Rockies, Denver CO 

References
Taylor, J.B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Taylor, J.B. (2013, February). The neurological transformation of the teenage brain. TEDxYouth. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=PzT_SBl31-s

Karen Goeller, PhD, lives in Terre Haute, Indiana, with her husband Michael. She has two grown children, Scott and Kate. She currently serves as deputy superintendent of the Vigo County School Corporation. Karen and Jill Bolte Taylor spent summers camping together at Camp Na Wa Kwa in Poland, Indiana, with Barbara Webster’s Girl Scout Troop.