Q&A: Heather Higgins of The Upside Down Organization on the Teen Brain and Trauma

Drawing of a human brain.

When a young person lives on the streets or in an abusive home, their brain develops differently than if they lived in a stable, safe environment. To learn more about the teen brain, trauma and healthy ways to stimulate young people’s frontal lobes, NCFY spoke with Heather Higgins, director of training and development at The Upside Down Organization, which demystifies brain science for people who work with children and youth.

NCFY: My understanding is that when youth experience trauma or neglect, parts of their brain over- or under-develop.

Higgins: Yes, if you’re in a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala, which is the fear and emotional center of the brain, becomes overactive. If all the blood and brain activity is focused on the amygdala, it slows down the development of the frontal lobe, which controls judgment, insight and critical thinking.

NCFY: Are there any strengths or resources that come about from this?

Higgins: The amygdala does things very fast; it doesn’t stop and think. In a lot of situations we don’t want that, like in school, but at other points in life you need to be able to do that. There are jobs that you need to be able to think very quickly, such as working as an EMT [emergency medical technician], where you need to be able to assess situations and react very quickly.

NCFY: How can a youth worker respond to a youth who has experienced trauma?

Higgins: Teach them about their brains and how much room there is to grow. This helps explain why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling, that they’re not supposed to be great at everything yet, and that the habits they get into now are going to be really hard to change. Develop healthy coping skills early on, like talking to a friend when you get upset. It’s hard to rewire the brain.

NCFY: How can a youth worker help repair the ways the brain has developed abnormally?

Higgins: Serotonin is the chemical that makes you feel happy and content. It isn’t hard to get, but young people are around so many things that take it away—being around kids that are mean to you, doing drugs or alcohol. Helping youth produce serotonin in healthy ways will develop the frontal lobes and allow the brain to repair itself. Playing or listening to music, exercising, eating right, volunteer work, or doing whatever the youth enjoy creates serotonin. The extreme version of serotonin is dopamine. Adolescents naturally have less dopamine, so they crave it. It’s important to give them healthy ways to get it, through acting in a play, playing in a big game, playing in a band—really exciting things produce dopamine.

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