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Teen brains get a closer look in ‘Inside Out 2.’ Here is what we all can learn

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — There is so much going on inside a teenage brain that Disney’s Pixar subsidiary made a whole movie about it.

“Inside Out 2” follows the main character, Riley, as she turns 13 and experiences all the emotional changes that come with puberty: more sensitivity, awareness of her place in her social circle, and a lot of anxiety.

In early teen years, the brain is going through a remodeling, said Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist in Ohio who consulted on the new animated film. Along with those renovations come new, nuanced emotions — embarrassment, envy, ennui and anxiety.

Adults can often bemoan the challenges of raising a teenager, but research has shown that if you expect the worst, you will get it, said Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University in Philadelphia. And having more positive expectations can predict a better relationship with your teen.

Damour said she hopes that the movie can give visual understanding to what is going on in the adolescent period and that more understanding can bring closer relationships.

Teens feel more complex feelings more deeply

Once puberty has started, the characters that make up Riley’s emotions find that pressing any buttons gets a bigger reaction. And psychologically, that makes sense.

“One of the main features of emotional development in adolescence is this easy arousability of both positive and negative emotions,” Steinberg said. Their feelings are stronger than those of either children or adults.

And in adolescence, the brain has developed more of a capacity for abstract thought, bringing with it more complex emotions, said Damour, author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents.”

They have more anxiety because they can more easily imagine future problems. They become more embarrassed because they better understand what others may be thinking of them. They become envious because they can see comparisons better between themselves and others, she added.

And ennui isn’t just a funny side effect. Acting like they don’t care is often an important escape hatch for teens in a social conundrum, Damour said.

“These are sophisticated emotions that require neurological development to come on the scene,” she said.

Eye rolls and sarcasm are part of growing up

When looking at the islands in Riley’s brain that represent different parts of her personality, the friend island has grown big and exciting, while the one for family has gotten smaller and retreated a bit.

This moment in the movie should be both a comfort and a lesson for families — adolescents may shift their focus to friends, and that is both natural and helpful.

“The job of teenagers is to become increasingly independent,” Damour said. They may not yet be ready to be independent physically, so they practice by forming psychological independence, she added.

“To put it another way, it would be very strange if teenagers continued to be as close to their parents and share every single thing with their parents, and then suddenly, one day, they say, ‘OK, now I’m moving out,’” Damour said.

When they were toddlers, they learned they are individuals who can say they don’t like broccoli. As teens, they are learning that they are entitled to express their opinions — and that the adults in their lives aren’t always right, Steinberg said.

“The reason they’re doing that is that they’re saying, ‘I’m a person who has their own style and ways of being,’” he added.

But the attempt at independence can go wrong when parents or guardians take an eye roll or a sarcastic comment as a rejection, she said.

Instead, Damour recommends trying to avoid escalating the situation with retaliation and anger.

“It’s often better for the parents to recognize that this is the normal course of events unfolding and just try to be neutral and say something like, ‘You know what? That’s rude,’” she added.

Still, no one is going to get their response right every time, Damour said.

Teens are figuring out who they are going to be

If you ask children who they are, they will tell you concrete things such as the sports they play or where they live, said Steinberg, author of “You and Your Adolescent, New and Revised Edition: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25.”

If you ask an adolescent, you will get a more complex answer with nuanced personality traits, he added. This understanding of complexity brings benefits and challenges, he said.

“We want people to reflect on who they are and where they’re going. We want them to have sophisticated understanding of themselves and other people,” Steinberg said.

“This is one of the things that makes teenagers vulnerable to mental health problems, because if you have the capacity to reflect on who you are, then you have the capacity to understand not only your strengths but your weaknesses as well.”

As they develop a sense of self, teens begin to assess their value, Damour said. Often self-confidence plummets in teenagers who do not evaluate themselves highly.

“They feel that unless they are flawless, they’re worthless,” she added.

Social media, academics and sports give teens so many opportunities to compare themselves with peers. So their aim — with the help of the adults in their lives — should be to learn how to recognize their shortcomings while still seeing themselves as valuable, Damour said.

Teens are more prone to anxiety

People can experience anxiety at any age, but teens are particularly vulnerable.

Teen brains are more sensitive to social situations and primed to prioritize their place in the group, Steinberg said.

“When coming into a new social situation, it makes sense that people might experience more anxiety about it during this period of development than either before or after,” he added.

But that feeling of anxiety isn’t inherently bad, Damour said.

“Anxiety is valuable for teenagers if it does things like help them to get going on a test they have not studied for,” she said. “Anxiety is there to help us course correct, to help us anticipate problems or threats.”

Things get out of control in the movie when anxiety is running the ship, and the visual representation of that emotion run amok offers an important lesson for teens, Damour said.

“One of the ways that we define irrational anxiety is that you overestimate the threats and underestimate your ability to deal with them,” she said.

“When we’re helping people manage anxiety clinically, we’re not actually trying to get rid of their anxiety. We’re trying to get it down to the right level.”

Your kids still need your support

What do you do to help your teen through these big psychological transitions?

Do not throw your hands up and try to be their best friend when they start to push for independence, Steinberg said.

“It’s actually important that we hold them to high standards for how they treat people,” Damour said. “But it is materially different if parents can remember that adolescence is not something that teenagers do to adults, but it’s a complex developmental phase that they are working their way through.”

Keep the warmth and connection with a child while holding firm to your boundaries, Steinberg said. And trade the “because I said so” with more conversations, he added.

It is also important to open up conversations around feelings — letting your teen know that they aren’t wrong to feel deeply, but that you are attentive and ready to help them work through these feelings, Steinberg said.

“I don’t think that a parent should ever say something like, ‘Well, don’t let things bother you’ or ‘The amount of upset that you’re expressing is out of proportion with what happened,’” he said. “You don’t want to be dismissive.”

Caregivers may feel an urge to protect children from the painful experiences that come with growing up, but we need to demonstrate that uncomfortable feelings are important and valuable, Damour said.

Feelings are abstract, which can make them hard to discuss. Damour said she hopes entertainment and media that normalize emotions and give them visual representation can provide families with a jumping-off point. Because often, just reaching out to teens and helping them identify their feelings is a good way to address problems, she added.

“As soon as you talk about a feeling, it comes down to size,” Damour said. “You don’t have to be able to fix the problem. You do need to be able to talk about it.”

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