Huge Emotions and the Adolescent Brain
Teachers can use clips from the movie Turning Red to explore with students the ways adolescence changes the brain.
In the Disney Pixar film Turning Red, we are introduced to a Chinese Canadian family and their deep love and loyalty to one another. Meilin, the main character, is a 13-year-old girl trying to establish adolescent independence and autonomy, while her mother is continually overprotective and hypervigilant, worrying about Meilin’s whereabouts, interests, and friends.
We are also introduced to Meilin’s best friends, who are empathetic and encouraging as she experiences huge emotions throughout the film. We see Meilin and her friends begin to transition from childhood into adolescence with numerous complications that many young people encounter during the early teen years but may not acknowledge or recognize during this significant time of brain development.
The Adolescent Brain
As educators, we are observing these middle school years up close, experiencing the often-chaotic emotional early-teen roller coaster that this second-greatest time of brain development ushers in. The brain is growing tremendously and pruning away connections between neurons as it prepares for efficiency and specialization in young adulthood.
During adolescence, there are also significant changes in the secretion and baseline levels of neurohormones. The adolescent brain contains lower levels of serotonin, which can contribute to increased aggression, along with higher levels of testosterone, which can also lead to angry outbursts and impulsive behavior. The baseline for dopamine, our feel-good/motivation neurotransmitter, is also lower, so more dopamine is required for a satisfying result.
Additionally, we know that the frontal lobes of the adolescent brain are still developing, and this is where our executive functions (problem-solving, logical decision-making, emotional regulation, and sustained attention) live, so that we need opportunities and practice filled with repetition to develop these skills.
If we are to engage this age group for learning, we need to meet them where they are with practices and discussion questions that are a part of our procedures and routines.
The adolescents’ jobs are to question authority and search for an identity that can connect with a sense of safe belonging and acceptance. Our nervous systems require feelings of safety and felt connection. As young people grow into these new roles and responsibilities mandated by their brain development, we need to understand how to cultivate these practices at the beginning or end of a day or class period.
The social loss we have seen in our students this past year from pandemic unpredictability and isolation is directly impacting the cognitive losses we are facing in our schools. We must address the feelings and sensations our students are carrying into our classrooms and schools because these impact academic and cognitive well-being.
Achieving Emotional Regulation
As we learn to recognize our own felt sensations, we can begin to acknowledge when they feel overwhelming. Emotional regulation does not just happen or develop without the experiences of another who can sit beside us and share their calm. Co-regulation is our biological priority, as the brain is a social organ, and we cannot survive without each other.
When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijack or override our frontal lobes, our brain’s architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains. Below are practices and prompts that provide rich discussion and outlets for our students to share how they are experiencing a situation.
It takes a calm adult to calm a child, and it’s extremely important that educators be in touch with our huge emotions. In a grade level or school, these questions provide a deepened understanding of how we can unintentionally escalate our students’ behavior with our huge emotions.
Questions for educators
1. What types of huge emotions are we carrying into our schools each day?
2. Do we have practices that feel regulating to our nervous systems so that we are not activated or triggered by the dysregulation seen in the student behaviors that push our buttons?
3. What types of huge emotions do we experience from our students in our classrooms?
4. How can we create awareness and check-ins of those emotions that serve us well and those huge emotions that can be disruptive?
5. Are we teaching our students about their neuroanatomy so that they understand why they feel the way they do?
Practices and questions for students
Who I Am. With art materials (papers, markers, yarn, scraps of material, pipe cleaners, etc.), we begin the day or class period creating the huge emotions we carry as a part of our identity. What are our huge emotions? Huge emotions can also be quiet or lonely emotions. They don’t have to be exploding with anger, but could be sadness, anxiety, depression, or loneliness.
What Is Your Panda? As you can see in this montage of video clips from Turning Red, the red panda symbolizes huge emotions for Meilin, and when she works to calm those emotions, she feels relaxed. What animal or symbol represents your panda? Can you journal, describe, or draw your panda using colors, lines, or symbols that best describe your animal or object?
Circle Up or Pair Up. We can choose a question a day or a week and begin sharing in small groups or with a partner what causes our huge emotions, how we can begin to calm those, and how our brain responds when we have those huge emotions.
1. What caused a huge emotion in someone you know?
2. There are all types of huge emotions in the video above. What did you notice as you watched it?
3. What part or parts of the brain are firing when we have huge emotions? Can you think of times when you felt so stressed that you were unable to think clearly?
4. Can our brains and nervous systems feel more than one emotion at the same time? Can you provide examples when you felt many emotions at once?
5. Can huge emotions help us? How?
6. What happens to our thinking when huge emotions take over? Can you give an example?