Quick Tips for Therapists

Using Neuroscience with Teens to Challenge and Promote Change

By Elisa Nebolsine, LCSW

Imagine this: you’re standing outside, and there is snow all around you. The snow is deep, up to four feet high, and you must get to the warm house that is only about ten feet away. You notice a shovel next to you. How do you get to the house? You can’t walk over the snow; you have to make a path. So, you start digging.

After a lot of work, sweat, stiff hands, and sore muscles, you reach the house. You’ve dug a rough path; it isn’t great, but it’s passable. It’s a relief to reach the house, and it was worth the effort. But then you realize you need to get something from where you were before. You walk back through the path. The more you walk on your new path, the easier it is to walk. As you continue to walk back and forth and back and forth, the snow gets packed down and a nice, grooved path emerges.

This is the same process by which our brains change—not with snow, but with learning, effort, and repetition. At first, changing thoughts and behaviors feels impossible and like way too much effort, but over time and with consistent practice, the change becomes easier and easier. And while our brains aren’t made of snow, the neural pathways that we create through our thoughts get stronger and stronger the more we practice them. This is real change.

When I’m working with teens who believe change is impossible, I have found this metaphor to be extremely helpful. The snow path isn’t easy to shovel, and I’m not trying to “sell” them an easy fix. It takes effort and work to change our thoughts and behaviors, but there is a literal change in our brains that occurs when we practice new strategies. And, just like the snow literally is dug out and then packed down, so does our brain create new and subsequently stronger pathways through practiced thought and behavioral change. Teens relate to the science behind the metaphor, and they appreciate the realness of the process. It isn’t magic, it isn’t easy, but it is possible.

The teen brain is seriously amazing, and this metaphor is one way to use neuroscience to show adolescents the power they have to literally change their brains.

Elisa Nebolsine, LCSW, is owner and clinician at CBT for Kids, a private practice in Alexandria, VA. She is adjunct faculty at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, adjunct faculty at the Catholic University of America, and a diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She has presented locally and nationally on the topic of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and is a consultant for schools, agencies, and other organizations on the implementation and use of CBT with children, teens, and young adults. She is author of The Grit Workbook for Kids.

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