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Critical Adolescent Tasks

Age of Opportunity

In his book on the neuroscience of adolescence, world renowned speaker and author, Lawrence Steinberg, Ph.D., talks about new findings in understanding the brain development of teens that need to be applied in the work of all focused on the adolescent years. Parents, those in education, social work and education would benefit from this book that former President of the APA, Martin Seligman calls, “Simply the best book I have ever read about adolescence, and I say this as both the father of seven and as a scientist who works in this field. With gentle wisdom, Steinberg guides us through truly novel findings on what happens during adolescence and tells us how, as parents and teachers, we should change our ways.”  —  Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child

Challenges

Steinberg does a stellar job laying out the risks of adolescence.

  1. It is an age of risk where adolescents release dopamine (pleasure hormones) when they take chances and twice the release when they risk in front of peers.
  2. Because children are entering puberty earlier, adolescence is also starting earlier but ending later. There are numerous reasons this is occurring, but this age of getting pleasure from risks is extending on both sides.
  3. The power of the brain’s accelerators in adolescents do not match the power of the brain’s braking system. Thus there is a lack of impulse control at the very time young people are prone to risk.

Making it easy to remember, Steinberg refers to the three major tasks of adolescence as REWARD, RELATIONSHIPS and REGULATORY.

“The adolescent brain undergoes particularly extensive maturation in regions that regulate the experience of pleasure, the ways in which we view and think about other people, and our ability to exercise self-control. These three brain systems—the REWARD system, the RELATIONSHIPS system, and the REGULATORY system—are the chief places where the brain changes during adolescence.”1

Opportunities

Though adolescence is a time of risk that is expanding its term in a person’s life. It is also a time of great growth in the brain. Previously, many believed the brain stopped growing around the age of two. In my previous blog, The Evolution of Foster Care, I stated it was unethical not to work on the developmental tasks of adolescence when young people are in our care at this time, thus the need to shift from placement (just holding kids where they are safe) to development (actively engaging young people in the process of development during these adolescent years).

Unlike brain development from age 0-2, development in adolescence focuses on white matter instead of gray matter. Think of it this way, the core of the physical brain (hardware) grows during those early years, during adolescence the primary focus is on the connections between functions of the brain (software) and primarily between their intense emotions and how they resolve those feelings. Of course that is gross reduction to all that is happening in both of those stages of development.

Adolescents experience intense emotions, no one will deny that, but they haven’t grown the pathways to resolve those emotions in a positive manner. This is one of the reasons they are so exposed to addictions, compulsions and alcoholism. If they experience an intense emotion (regardless of the emotion; joy, sadness, anger) and they turn to a drug to lessen the confusion, it becomes a pathway of resolving that uncomfortable intensity. The more they resolve their emotions in that manner, the broader—and more hardened—the pathway becomes. It is similar with compulsive behaviors such as using pornography or video games, hurting self or hurting others, if it resolves the intensity it becomes the tool used over and over again, a cognitive pathway becomes a super-highway.

In our next blog, we will look at how we can use REWARD, RELATIONSHIPS and the REGULATORY system to help teens grow.

References

AGE OF OPPORTUNITY; Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., (c) 2011, Laurence Steinberg, pg. 37

 

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