Adolescence & Brain Development: The Struggle To Fit In
For the past two months, I have been exploring some of the effects that normal brain development has on adolescent behavior. In today’s post, I want to examine the repercussion of the increase in oxytocin receptors that occurs during adolescence, and how parents can respond to this.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the love or the cuddle hormone, because when we hug or kiss someone, when we have sex, give birth, or just bond socially, our oxytocin levels rise. The abundance of this hormone during adolescence means teens are deeply concerned about their relationships with their peers, and susceptible to pressure to conform to social norms. (1)
For parents it can be disheartening to witness their teens' struggle to fit in. Failure to find a niche can mean loneliness and painful self-doubt. Even success is not without tribulations as conforming to peer norms might involve making uncharacteristic or unhealthy choices.
Parents who want to help their teens uncover their self worth should keep in mind that a teen's desire to fit in is a normal part of growing up. This may sound easy, but hearing that a teen is depressed because s/he doesn’t have the right pair of jeans might leave you tempted to point out that “it’s not important to be like everyone else." You might even want to remind her/him that there are more important things to worry about then clothes , but by doing so, you are not only dismissing your teen's feelings, but also teaching them not to trust her/his own feelings.
Another way for parents to help build teens’ self esteem is to find out what their teens’ strengths are and to reinforce these. Don’t tell them what you see; ask them to tell you their best parts. If this question is difficult for them to answer, ask them what other people like about them. Once you know what teens pride themselves on, you can praise them for their successes, and brainstorm ways to showcase their talents and passions. For example if a teen loves animals, connect him/her with an animal shelter so they can volunteer.
Expect that even as you work to build your teens’ self worth, your teens will feel pressure from their friends to behave in certain ways. Not all of these are bad. Parents can help their teens distinguish between social norms and peer pressure by having an open -and continuous- discussion on the subject. Be honest with your teens about the reasons you’ve conformed -or not conformed- in the past, and the consequences of these actions. Giving teens the opportunity to consider the interplay between self-perception and the perception of others will help them strike a good balance between being themselves and being considerate of others.
Growing up is a journey, and teens will stumble even as they make strides, so if you do notice your teens doing something that seems to make them uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to approach them, and let them know that their action seems uncharacteristic. Remind them they don’t have to do anything that puts them ill at ease and if they need an excuse to opt out of an activity or behaviour, provide one for them, or help them develop one of their own.