Teach Teens Brain Development for Happiness

Is your teen a positive or negative thinker? Believe it or not, regardless of our inherent personalities, science tells us that we can train our brains to think more positively and to find the good in our lives, both of which lead to more happiness.

Humans all have neural pathways in our brain, which are a series of connected nerves that send signals to and from the brain. Neural pathways are very helpful to our brain because they are what creates order, habits and routines in our lives. It’s why we get better at things when we practice. The first time we do something, we struggle to figure it out, and as we do, our brain learns and makes a few connections among neurons. The next few times we try the same thing, we build more connections in our brain. As we continue doing the same thing, a full pathway (lots of neural connections) is created in our brain allowing us to move through this activity with little difficulty or thought. When a neural pathway is created, it means a habit or routine is formed that makes the activity very easy. This is very helpful in lots of areas, such as brushing our teeth or driving. As we continue doing this activity, that neural pathway continues to be reinforced and becomes more automatic – almost like creating a rut in the road of our brain. Our brains are amazing!

While these neural pathways are very helpful in creating routines and simplifying tasks, our brain also forms these same pathways in our thinking and emotions. The brain strengthens or weakens in specific areas depending on the input it receives. Any repetitive thought “trains” your brain. This can be good or bad depending on what you’re frequently thinking or feeling.

The bad news is that neural pathways can make it pretty difficult to break a bad habit. For example, research on the brain shows that negative thinking reinforces neural pathways associated with that emotion, eventually making negativity an automatic reaction.

Here’s the good news: with training, scientists have shown, we can literally rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions.  It is possible for us to reprogram our brains’ automatic response, and all it requires is a conscious effort to build new pathways. As we participate in new activities or new ways of thinking, we are training our brains to create new pathways. The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior or thought pattern becomes our new normal.

The message for our youth is this: whatever you draw your attention to and/or repeat will become your habit. You get more of what you focus on, so focus on what you want.

If your teen is frequently viewing life from a negative or cynical perspective, they will “find” more and more things to feel negative and cynical about. Their brain has created a pathway leading to those thoughts and feelings. If you constantly think about what frightens you, you will become more fearful. If you constantly think about how unfair life is, you will see more and more evidence around you to support this viewpoint. The more we dwell on the negative, the more we are training our brain to notice the negative going forward.

However, we can train our brains to think more positively and that, in turn, brings us greater joy, compassion and hope. Here are ways to help you and your teens retrain your brains to think positive:

Hunt the good stuff. Make a conscious effort to find good things in your day. When your teen gets home, ask them, “What went well today?” If they dislike school, tell your teen you want them to find three good things about their day to share with you. It will teach them that there is always something good to see even in difficult circumstances, and it will shift their focus to look for good things. At the dinner table, have each family member share one thing they saw someone else do that day that was kind.

Use routine reminders to refocus. Many times we don’t even notice where we are putting our attention because it’s such a habit. To change that, we need to become aware of what we are paying attention to. Suggest your teen identify an activity or event that happens several times a day, such as receiving a text message, eating, or brushing their teeth. When that event occurs, tell your teen to notice what they are thinking about. If they are thinking something positive at that time, they can congratulate themselves. If they are thinking something negative, they should shift their focus to something more positive.

Identify strengths. Many times we have trained our brains to see the flaws in ourselves and others. We are constantly placing our attention on weaknesses or areas to improve. Instead, have your teen identify their own strengths. Encourage them to appreciate the talents in other people, instead of noticing all their imperfections.

Breathe through negative emotions. Teach your teen this valuable practice: every time you notice yourself getting frustrated or angry, take three deep breaths. Many times, these deep breaths can calm us down and help us reconsider the situation from a new perspective.

Pivot from worry. When we worry, we are really just visualizing a worst case scenario… what if this horrible thing happens? When you notice your teen worrying, ask them what the opposite of their negative thought is. Ask them what the best possible outcome could be instead!

Throw away the negativity. If your teen is having difficulty letting go of their negative thoughts, try this exercise. Encourage your teen to write down their negative thought(s) on a piece of paper, and then crumple up the paper and throw it away. Sometimes, this visual representation of throwing away our fears can allow our brains to dump out the negative thinking as well.

Be kind. Performing a small act of kindness for someone boosts our own happiness. Something as small and simple as making someone smile or giving a compliment works. Pausing to do something thoughtful has the power to get us out of that negativity loop. Your brain will enjoy the experience and create neural pathways to reinforce kindness.

Keep a gratitude journal. Encourage your teen to keep a gratitude journal, which trains our brains to look on the bright side. Right before bed, suggest that your teen jot down three things they are grateful for each day. The good things could be anything — a compliment from someone, a visit with a friend, a pretty sunset. If they consistently use this practice, they will naturally start to look for things to be thankful for as they go through their day.

Final Thoughts…

Don’t let your teen settle for a negative mindset. Neural pathways mean that repetitive positive thought and positive activity can rewire our brains and strengthen brain areas that stimulate positive feelings. When we pay close and purposeful attention to things that are positive, hopeful, supportive, uplifting and encouraging, our lives will inevitably reflect this. Let your teen know that they have the power to choose what they focus on. We can literally rewire our brains to feel more happy.

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