5 Ways That Adolescents Are Misunderstood

Mr Richard Dobrenov | Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

In this new COVID-19 Climate that we find ourselves, many parents now have the chance to spend increased amounts of time with their adolescent children.  At a time when school aged children normally spend nearly one third of their day either traveling to, attending or returning from school, parents now have the opportunity to engage in quality interactions with their children, and discover what makes them tick.  At a recent World Economic Forum Meeting, Ronald Dahl the Director of the University of California, Berkeley identified five ways that adolescents are misunderstood according to recent brain science.

Over Problematising

The first is that they over problematise.  Whilst adolescence is aligned with awkwardness, the onset of puberty and the emotionally volatile awkward phase of life, Dahl also sees the phase as crucial for the development of optimism and an opportunity.  There are numerous opportunities to promote positive change through social and emotional learning during this time.  Adolescence is a time of youthful optimism and innovation in art, music, fashion and technology.  It is a time where the child begins to determine just who they really are and who they really want to be.  Their moral compasses are set and they know the difference between right and wrong.  At this stage it is all about risk and reward.  With adolescence comes risk taking behaviour and associated vulnerabilities and it is important that parents engage in meaningful discussions about behaviours associated around drugs, alcohol and appropriate relationship development with their children.

The Adolescent Brain

For quite some time the lack of development of the prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain was identified as a major contributing factor to the problematic and risk taking behaviour.  Dahl points out that in fact the normal developing brain is well adapted to the fundamental tasks of adolescence and its enormous capacity for learning and exploring new experiences.  This is especially true for adolescents when discovering their place in the larger social world.  The transformation from child to becoming an adult requires a whole new level of knowledge and skills in developing mature relationships and learning to function at a reasonably independent level, both socially and culturally.  Much of this knowledge is specialised and complex in attempting to understand oneself and one’s social world and many of these new capacities occur through trial and error, experiential learning and crucially, learning from mistakes.  Unlike a toddler learning to walk, where they fall numerous times during this time of formational learning, adaptation and brain plasticity; adolescence is another period of maturation through rapid learning and brain development which is orientated towards social learning and the development of identity.  Unlike a toddler who falls over when learning to walk, the consequence of mistakes made during adolescence can have serious repercussions; hence the importance of taking the time to engage with and listen to adolescent children.  From my experience, the most conducive setting to engage adolescent boys is when you are sitting beside them, for instance in a car.  The across the table discussion is too confronting and feels like an interrogation rather than a discussion.  The drive to and from school, or to and from sport are ideal for such conversations.

Underestimating the Brain’s Capacity for Learning and Development

Whilst the baby and toddler phases are known as vigorous periods of learning and brain development, this is a dynamic process which continues well beyond both childhood and adolescence.  Dahl identifies that puberty starts the second phase of rapid growth through dramatic physical changes and neuro-maturational changes.  As they mature, adolescents become hyper-sensitized to feelings of social acceptance/rejection, being respected/disrespected and wanting social admiration.  Unfortunately, social media sites like Snapchat and Facebook provide opportunities for “faux fame” where adolescents seek to post the ultimate “selfie” and portray a life which isn’t reflective of who they are.  Conversely, Dahl also points out that these intensified self-conscious emotions can amplify the need to make valued contributions through hard work and goal setting to achieve by igniting their passions which will carry forward throughout life.

Calling Them Teenagers Leads to Misunderstanding

Dahl points out that the period of adolescence is broader than the narrow range of 13-19.  Throughout time in developed regions of the world, girls are experiencing puberty from the age of 10 and boys particularly, continue to undertake risky behaviours well in to their twenties.  This is a major contributing factor to the high premiums of car insurance for instance.  The late teens are typically a period where adolescents move to University, away from the familiarity, routine and comfort of both school and home and begin to navigate their way through the sea of new experiences and opportunities well in to their early 20’s.

We Forget to See Them as a Force for Good

At a time when technological advancements are transforming the social learning experiences of adolescents; they have become the early adopters and innovators of new technology.  This poses a number of opportunities for education and social connection but equally it has its own perils with surreptitious bullying, harassment and vulnerability for grooming and predatory behaviour.  This is why it is important to monitor social media accounts and online usage.  Don’t allow adolescents to have devices in a closed bedroom; instead encourage them to share their accounts with you as a means of promoting healthy and meaningful discussion.

From all of this it seems that nothing replaces quality time spent with adolescents not just listening but provoking conversation around issues that haven’t changed such as identity, values and trusting one’s instinct about the repercussions of action.  Factors such as manners and respect for oneself and each other will always it seems, be highly valued and important.