Adolescence is a period of transformation, not unlike a chrysalis changing into a butterfly. If you have never seen this process, it can be painstakingly difficult to watch. The butterfly gradually breaks free of his cocoon, pulling and pushing, stretching and contracting for what seems like an eternity before he finally emerges. If a benevolent onlooker decides to help the process along, the butterfly will likely die, because it is only through the struggle of metamorphosis that he gains the strength to survive on his own.
Similarly, adolescence holds its own period of transformation, which is just as tumultuous and just as critical. For the butterfly, the primary goal is to gain enough strength in its wings. For the adolescent, it is to transform the brain and body into adulthood. For the butterfly, the process takes about 7-10 days. For humans, it takes about 10-15 years.
Many of the headlines following the school shooting in Florida point to the warning signs that went unanswered, highlighting Nickolas Cruz’s prior mental health issues. The truth is, he is far from unique. We are experiencing a mental health crisis in teens and young adults unlike one we have seen before. Anxiety, depression and suicide among teens has jumped significantly. This is a population crying out for help.
In order to understand what is going on, we need to understand healthy brain development because, in many ways, modern living has been like that benevolent onlooker, robbing adolescents of the struggle involved with the metamorphosis, and leaving them, like the underdeveloped butterfly, unprepared to fly on their own.
In Age of Opportunity, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D. identified the three Rs that need to be developed during adolescence to set the foundation for a healthy brain: reward, relationships, and regulation.
Our brains are wired to avoid threats and seek out rewards. The adolescent brain is particularly driven to seek out rewards and the rewards that we are exposed to at that age prime the brain for things that we will find rewarding later in life.
Dopamine is the neurochemical associated with reward in the brain. Think about it like a text message to the reward center saying, “Oh that felt good. We should do that again.” This makes adolescence a very vulnerable time in terms of addiction. People who start drinking, smoking, and doing drugs at an early age are much more likely to become addicted.
If we are constantly getting dopamine from short-term rewards like instagram likes and sugar-filled candy, that is what our brain becomes primed to seek out. When we hear the chime on our phone alerting us to our newest message, our limbic system’s light up with dopamine. Because modern living offers so many opportunities for quick-fix rewards, we need to become more intentional to expose teens to rewards that require longer-term effort.
Similar to reward, the thoughts about all types of relationships that we form during adolescence set the stage for the relationships that we will form throughout our lives. Humans are social creatures and we are wired to connect. In fact, the brain responds in the same way to social pain as it does to physical pain, which means that when we get left out of something, our brains feel it the same way as when we get physically hurt.
Oxytocin is the neurochemical that is associated with relationships and connection. We get a release of oxytocin when we pet our dog, give a friend a hug, or smile at someone we just met. Again, oxytocin is like a text message telling our brain to seek out more connections because it feels good. The more we connect, the more we want to connect, and the happier we are.
Teens are naturally driven toward peer relationships, but lately, there is a trend toward those relationships being moderated by technology. It is wonderful that teens have the ability to connect with one another when they are not able to be together, but often, it is happening at the expense of face-to-face interaction. As one teen recently told me, “Why do I need to get together with my fiends? I can talk to them just as easily over snap chat or face time.” However, this is the time that our brains are primed for the types of relationships that we will have throughout our lives, and we need to develop the social skills needed for healthy adult relationships.
Our executive functions allow us to regulate behaviors such as controlling our impulses, planning ahead, communicating effectively, and organizing our lives. These are the highest level thinking skills that we have and they are developed in our prefrontal cortex, the last area of the brain to be fully developed.
Self-regulation is very important for a healthy, functioning adult. As we move away from our parents, we need to be able to draw on these higher level thinking skills in order to make a living and function independently.
Modern parenting styles remind me of the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We love our children and we don’t want to see them suffer. We worry about them so we don’t want to risk them being in dangerous situations. We want to micromanage because it makes us feel like our children are safe. However, teens need to learn from their mistakes. They need to learn how to make good choices, so they have to have the opportunity to choose.
As parents, out number one job is to help our children to become independent, confident beings. As the title of Kenneth Ginsburg’s book says, we need to give them roots and wings. To do this, we need to be intentional in allowing them to develop healthy reward systems, healthy relationships, and a healthy ability to self-regulate.