Adolescence and Brain Development: You're Stressing Me Out
Over the next few weeks, I will continue exploring different aspects of adolescent development, and the ways in which these effect adolescent behaviour. This week, I want to look at the effect of myelination, the process during which nerve cells are coated by fatty lipids. Myelination actually begins at birth in the brain stem, but at the beginning of adolescence, myelination starts to occur in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for, “motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.” (1) Along with the pruning of synapses, this process speeds up the transmission of information allowing for more complex brain function, so we see that as children become adolescents they begin to make strides in their awareness of themselves and of the world around them. However, because teens' ability to process social situations and emotions is not fully developed this increased perception can also lead to feelings of stress and anxiety.
In the American Psychological Association’s annual survey, adolescents report feeling higher levels of stress than adults. The most commonly reported sources of stress include school, relationships, and what to do after high school. (2) Parents can play an important role in decreasing the stress their teens feel.
First and foremost, parents should work to normalize the feelings of stress and anxiety. They should remind them that adolescence is a time of heightened stress; they can even share the survey I’ve quoted above with them. This will reduce any additional anxiety and stress that their teen feels because s/he thinks s/he is the only one who feels overwhelmed.
Although it will be tempting, it is best not to take over the management of a teenager's stress and anxiety by telling him/her how to behave. Teens need to figure out what works best for them. Parents can begin by asking their teen what they think they could do to reduce their stress and anxiety, and allow them to try out different solutions until they are successful.
Parents often have a clear vision for how their teen should arrange their day. For instance, a parent might insist that their teen do her/his homework as soon as s/he gets home from school. This might not be the best plan for a teenager who feels overwhelmed and needs down-time first. I encourage parents to allow teenagers the flexibility to develop their own daily routines. If these prove unsuccessful, then work with your teenager to fix them.
I encourage parents to follow up on stressors that they have previously discussed, while reminding their teen that they are available to help them.
Last but not least, when stress and anxiety impact a teen’s ability to function normally, like going to school or interacting with others; parents should consider professional evaluation or intervention.