Modern teenage Challenge
In previous Newsletters (see Newsletter 157 - Tips for Teaching Teenagers - 04/19 2021 and Newsletter 158 - The Teens - a Time for Specific Change - 04/26/2021) we discussed the changes to the structure of the brain and many of the implications that followed. This essay we recap some of this information but will focus on the social adjustments and their impact on behaviours especially those from an abusive or neglectful environment.
In 2007 Deborah Yurgelun-Todd published a paper, ‘Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence’. The paper demonstrated the changes in the brain that occur about age 11; this is also the time for the onset of puberty. Although they occur together and have an impact on the child they are not the same thing.
As far as the brain changes, adolescence marks the final development of the brain. It is at this time the prefrontal lobes mature and the child has full access to the cognitive process referred to as working memory. Up until this time children are learning how they fit into the world and how to communicate with their immediate environment. They are creating their sense of self through the acquisition of memories, referred to as auto-biological. These are located across the cortex in hubs of specific modes of patterns of thoughts or behaviours. These are referred to as schemas (memories) and allow us to understand the world through a network of abstract neural structures.
There are thought to be 180 such hubs across the brain and they all fall into one of the following genres:
- Self – this is the knowledge of our lives, what we think about ourselves and our position in our external environment. Things like, I’m a good runner, I’m shy, I don’t have many friends, etc.
- Personal – this is what we think of other individuals. This includes things like my mother is kind, Charlie my friend is a good singer, things that you have categorised about other individuals.
- Social – this moves out from the personal and includes collective memories. The supporters of a rival football team are rude, scientists are nerds, golf is only for old men. This type of schema leads to prejudice within and across communities.
- Events – these are patterns of behaviour, that is if we observe X than we expect Y to follow. When I change gears, I use the clutch to disengage the motor then shift the gear stick and reengage the clutch and I should accelerate.
Until the prefrontal lobes are fully developed the information that resides in these schemas is fairly discrete, that is they almost stand alone. This explains the response you will get if you ask a child to tell you about themselves. They find it hard to give you much of a story. However, with the development of the prefrontal lobes these hubs are connected through what is a series of connections, called connectomes and these memories are shared. it is at this stage of their development that they really start to think for themselves. If you ask a teenager to tell you about themselves the response is different and, in some cases you will be sorry you asked!
This is the time when the child begins their transition to full independence but this is still a period of development. The prefrontal lobe has the following tasks which are the definition of working memory:
• Controls how we are interacting with our environment
• Manages how we make judgments about what occurs in our daily activities
• Directs our emotional response
• Organises our expressive language. Assigns meaning to the words we choose
• Involves word associations
• Controls memory for habits and motor activities
If the first stage of a child’s development is to become a functioning human than the next stage is to become a productive, reproductive person. Concurrent to the change in the brain’s structure is the transformation of the child’s body that marks the onset of puberty. This is when the child’s body matures to allow for reproduction. This is an awkward time for adolescent kids as they begin to experience powerful, new drives and emotional feelings driven by changes in the levels of hormone. There are two types of these hormones that can be generalised by adrenaline and cortisol to support actions that are designed to protect themselves and dopamine and serotonin that energises the drive to seek out what they want from their environment.
As mentioned before, this is the time for the child to assert their independence but this is not so much finding autonomy but a change from depending on their family of origin to creating their own ‘family’. This journey ‘ends’ with the adoption of a life partner but begins with the need to belong to a group they call their own!
This is a difficult time for all teenagers. As there is a behavioural price to belong to a group and the ability to ‘pay’ that cost depends on the social skills they acquired as children. Most kids have been taught how to behave in a way that allows them to be accepted as themselves without really changing their basic sense of their self. They form new friendships usually based on mutual interests such as sport, dancing, surfing or for some ‘nerds’ school work (teachers love the nerds).
However, incorporating the theme of our work too many come to this phase of their life without those functional skills that allow the relatively smooth transition. For these kids the mutual skills will compel these kids to join up with others who share the same problems. This is so easy to see in the beginning of any secondary school year, those kids who need the most support are drawn together and the synergy of this alliance only makes things harder for teachers to deal with these students.
This formation of new friendships coincides with the emergence of the working memory and the drive to belong may drive kids to make decisions that are not properly evaluated. This explains the impulsivity that is a hallmark of this period of their lives. For damaged kids this is a particularly risky time. To belong to their particular cohort, they will find the pressures to engage in dangerous physical and social activities in an effort to prove their worth to the group irresistible. One of the common dangers is the experimentation with drugs and sexual activities that may have life-long consequences.
All teenagers are tempted to experiment with illicit drugs and according to the Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug survey of 2017, 17% of children between the age of 12 years and 17 years had tried cannabis. In other surveys from the United States 39.5% of high school students reported to be sexually active. These are dangerous times for all teenagers but for those with a damaged sense of self it is a critical time in their life.
Schools and teachers are not trained nor equipped to address these problems despite the continual call by politicians and society in general for schools to deal with them. However, we will have these kids in our schools and understanding that all teens are striving for independence it is prudent that we provide them with the opportunities to self-direct some of their learning as they mature. We actually do this quite well with most Year 12 students having a deal of independence and teachers move from directing the learning to facilitating it.
The second thing is to teach the students about their emerging sexuality and this we also do well however, the attack on the Safe Schools Program in recent years was a retrograde step.
The real challenge is to provide an alternate way for our damaged kids to safely belong with an appropriate set of friends and this is what all our work is about. As always, if we present a predictable, structured environment where expectations are well known and valued and all students are respected, healthy relationships will develop and we can all get through these difficult years.