“Adolescence is not a stage to simply get over, it’s a stage of life to cultivate well” Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

I’m curious to know how many days of perfect weather we are entitled to each year. Regardless the answer, I know today is one of them. Gorgeous warm sunshine tamed by a cool breeze. Plus, I am home— during perfect gardening conditions!

Like many, I love the idea of gardening. It’s a way to cultivate beauty in my patch of real-estate. It also makes me feel I am in some small way living off the land. However, I have come to realize that I am no farmer—SHOCK! Rather, I am the average suburban mom who is looking for low maintenance everything in a losing battle to maintain my sanity.

So, each year my garden and I agree on some adaptations to simplify life while holding fast to our mission of creating a small oasis of our very own. Having recently acquired Dan Siegel’s book “Brainstorm” I feel quite confident in saying there are some interesting developmental pattern correlations between my garden and the adolescent brain.

According to Siegel, adolescence is a time when the brain edits and focuses its neural pathways. Conversely, childhood is a time when we fill our heads with an overabundance of information (neurons and synaptic connections), but without any great specialization. In other words, you gather first —sort later.  This is exactly how I started with my garden. Ooh that looks nice! Or, ooh thanks neighbour for those lovely sun worshipping plants.

Ignoring my garden’s northern exposure and its proximity to the dense shade of the nearby boulevard trees, I tried to grow things that weren’t my garden’s specialty. And that was OK for a time because my garden and I were learning what we were good at. We were still working towards what we wanted to be. Now, however, we accept that blossoming fruit trees belong in the neighbour’s yard across the street and that we are going to stick to things that love the shade and can thrive in high traffic conditions, frequented by dogs, children and other feral critters. The constant shifting of plants in a transitional garden can feel uncomfortable, disjointed and even discouraging for a time. But when you find the right combination, the harvest of color and lushness is worth the effort.

Like the adolescent brain, once you find your strengths it makes growing up a whole lot easier. Siegel acknowledges that for both teens and parents, the intense changes which occur in adolescence can also feel like intense challenges. However, as we learn to respect and embrace this transitional period, including the emotional outbursts, stronger ties to peers, novelty seeking, and risk taking, we realize that it is also an extremely innovative, constructive and creative time of life. This is when the brain is forming the strongest synaptic connections —laying a foundation for you to be the best at whatever you want to become. Be it artist, musician, athlete, mechanic, chef… anything! Parents who are accepting of and effectively nurture their children during this exciting period of growth can play a significant part in their teen’s development.

In my garden, I’ve noticed the more my plants mature, the less opportunity there is for noxious weeds to take over. Even still, there are some especially vulnerable areas where my garden needs attention year after year. Weeds creep in each summer season. And watch out if I get neglectful—they take over, quickly! There is a lot of spontaneous growth my garden does without my help but when I am on hand and vigilant about keeping the weeds at bay that is when my garden thrives.

Pornography is one of those things that will quickly take root in the vulnerable areas for the adolescent brain. During this period of specialization, the brain is working hard to build strong connections between the neural pathways it deems important, while simultaneously deleting others it considers irrelevant. Viewing sexualized images floods the brain with large amounts of dopamine and oxytocin creating a quick and powerful rush to the reward centre (limbic region) of the brain. Repeated exposure to pornography will in fact reshape the brain and change one’s sexual set-point. This can severely interfere with the development of peer relationships and the reinforcement of everyday interests which are so crucial at this stage of life. Over time, a dependency on pornography can take over one’s life.

As adolescents are developing socially and learning to express their sexual identity, it is essential for parents to be there to support this growth. Think about allowing their life experience to perennially blossom while assisting them to thoughtfully address the bare spots, or prune when necessary.  Help your teens develop strategies to keep pornography out of their lives. You can do this by educating yourself, knowing what your teen’s interests are, what they do online, and not being afraid to tackle the tough subjects, by asking hard questions.

My garden and I still have big plans for the future. We dream of what it will become as we mature together. I am sure we all have a rough vision in our minds of what we expect our children to become. As parents, we want the absolute best for them. And as we embrace the process of letting them discover who they are —taking care each day to help them develop their strengths, while minding the weeds such as pornography— we should expect to see optimal growth along with some wonderful surprises along the way.

 

 

 

3 Comments

  • Randa

    Marilyn, I am proud to know you. Thank you for being a voice for good and a passionate (and compassionate) champion for youth! Beautiful analogy, well written. I am looking forward to more from you and to sharing with friends.

  • Love this article. This is something we don’t here enough about in today’s world. In my experience, most teens are left home alone for hours every day while they wait for their parent(s) to return from work.

    While these fragile creatures we call adolescents look a lot like adults and are capable of feeding themselves and tying their own shoes, they do not benefit from being left to their own devices.

    Love the garden metaphor. Just like you don’t get a beautiful garden by spending two or three days vigilantly working in your yard, adolescents require daily support and guidance from their parents… Even if they are rolling their eyes the entire time 🙂

    • Marilyn

      Yes, I agree. Although it’s good for adolescents to experience some autonomy, we need to balance that with caution, love and time together. Placing adult expectations too early on young people can cause a great deal of stress.

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