The development of the adolescent brain can contribute to young people demonstrating the full spectrum of behaviours, sometimes all behaviours occur in the space of a ten minute time period!
The adolescent brain works in weird and wonderful ways throughout the adolescent developmental phase. This growth and development contributes to behaviour, and supports the need to look closely at the ways in which we can teach young people the skills and concepts to make healthy decisions to support physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing and safety.
Many adolescents tend to take seemingly unnecessary, and unsafe risks throughout this period of immense growth and development. There are many contributing factors, including the limbic system and prefrontal cortex mismatch, peer influence, challenges in making sound judgments and decisions, lack of emotion regulation, among others.
Despite all of the changes, teenagers are fully capable of making sound decisions, it is the focus on the potential positive rewards of a risky situation, and not the negative consequences that often leads to the risky choice being made.
Adolescents are really into sensation seeking, and they are more likely to turn to their peers and friends for feedback or reinforcement, rather than their parents or trusted adults. This is largely due to the adolescent brain reward-centres being more active, and a desire to be socially accepted and acknowledged.
Historically, society has assisted the young person when they have ‘fallen over’ mentally and emotionally, and then helped them back up so that they can keep going. This has generally occurred through counselling and similar responsive support services. Recent scientific breakthroughs in the fields of neuroscience and behavioural development research have allowed us to focus more intently on preventative structures to support the health and safety of young people.
Over the past five to ten years there has been an increased focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) as an approach to supporting the healthy development of adolescents, and as a strategy in helping to minimise the potential of mental health disorders. Developmental researchers from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identified five essential elements for parents, schools and youth development groups to focus on in increasing the chance of healthy and positive outcomes.
- Self-awareness: the ability to understand emotions, thoughts and values, and how they can influence behavior.
- Self-management: the ability to manage behaviours and emotions in a healthy manner, and to set and achieve goals and aspirations.
- Responsible decision-making: the ability to make caring and healthy choices about personal behaviour and social interactions across a range of situations.
- Social awareness: the ability to understand and respect the perspectives of others from different backgrounds.
- Relationship skills: the ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships.
(Adapted from CASEL competencies)
Although much of this work is completed in schools as a part of the curriculum, families play an essential role in supporting the development of emotional literacy in young people. Parents are a child’s first teacher, and their primary care-giver, and are therefore the most important person in the development of social and emotional skills as a source of support through adolescence, and in building a buffer against potential mental health disorders.
Here are six things parents can do to support the development of emotional literacy in young people:
- Help young people to develop an understanding of personal mindsets, and reinforce positive thinking and growth-oriented thinking skills.
- Support adolescents with developing their emotion regulation, self and social awareness, and decision-making skills.
- Support young people in the development of preventative strategies that can lower stress, and support wellbeing eg. mindfulness, gratitude practices, etc.
- Support the development of empathy by bringing an awareness to personal feelings and needs.
- Continue to communicate in person, and through the language of technology and technological platforms.
- Provide support, and supportive resources to help keep young people safe - particularly online.
- Giedd, J. N. (2015). The amazing teen brain. Scientific American, 312(6), 32-37.
- Medina, J. (2018). Attack of the Teenage Brain: Understanding and Supporting the Weird and Wonderful Adolescent Learner. ASCD.
- Romeo, R. D. (2013). The teenage brain: The stress response and the adolescent brain. Current directions in psychological science, 22(2), 140-145.
- Dr Josh Symes