By Pamela Cantor, M.D.
- Adolescence is when one’s capacities for becoming a healthy, capable adult are established.
- The experiences and relationships adolescents have influence their brain development enormously.
- Adolescents crave interdependence, not independence.
To understand adolescence is to take a front-row seat at the very essence of human development. It is a thrilling period during which the characteristics that make us unique from all other species are unfolding — things like consciousness, self-awareness, judgment, insight, romance.
Adolescence is also one of the most misunderstood periods in human life. Here are 5 myths about teens that are just plain wrong:
- Adolescence is full of impulsive, risk-taking behavior because hormones are raging. Wrong. Yes, hormones play an important role in the teen years but they are part of a much more significant biological process going on in the brain. Adolescence is a time when the brain is remodeled — ridding itself of the neural connections that it isn’t using and laying down more permanent and specialized neural circuitry among the neurons that remain. It’s a period during which capacities for thinking, reflecting, discovery, and self-awareness get established — capacities essential to becoming healthy, capable adults.
- Adolescents want independence and don’t think of adults as very useful. Also wrong. Adolescents crave connection and engagement with people, especially people outside of their families like friends, teachers, and coaches. But they also want connection inside their families, with parents, grandparents, and siblings. What they truly desire is interdependence–and that’s a two-way street.
- Adolescents don’t respect boundaries; they are always testing limits. False. This is not about respect; it’s about the work of adolescence, and adolescence is a time for exploration, curiosity, and novelty. Curiosity grows exponentially in adolescence. This is because the reward circuits of the brain are developing. These circuits drive motivation and agency — and with them, enormous connections between brain structures that allow for more and more complex and purposeful thinking, feeling, and acting. For many kids, creativity is born in adolescence, and character is shaped by teenage experiences and what is learned from them.
- Adolescents are emotionally erratic. Sometimes it can feel that way, but it is truer to say that adolescents are emotionally intense. This has an obvious downside but also an upside. The downside many of us know: Adolescents can be moody and let emotions rule. But the upside is that when teenagers feel an emotional reaction to something, such as interest or excitement, this leads to the discovery of passions, energy, motivation, creativity, and above all purpose.
- Adolescents live in the present. Also wrong. Where they really live and want to live is in the future — in what is new and novel. And they are always thinking about what is coming next — graduation, college, who they will be, where they will go, who they will go with. They have a huge future focus. Sadly, this has been one of the most profound impacts of the pandemic on this age group, with so many rites of passage — proms, homecomings, graduation ceremonies — postponed, altered, or canceled.
Changes in the Adolescent Brain
What is true of adolescents is that life is on fire for them. The changes that occur in the adolescent brain produce ways of thinking, being, reasoning, relating, focusing, and making decisions that can’t happen at any other time.
This is driven by two primary things: the maturation and development of key areas of the brain during this time, and, because of the brain’s malleability, its ability to change with experience. The experiences adolescents have–in the classroom, in their communities, on teams, in plays, on the job — will have a huge influence on how their brains develop.
So, if experiences are unusually confining — as they have been during the pandemic, especially with lockdowns, quarantining, and remote schooling — as opposed to expansive; and if they are filled with blame and shame as opposed to affirming, they will have very different influences on the development and health of the emerging adolescent brain.
The Pandemic Paradox
The paradox of the pandemic is that to be physically safe, we have had to be distant from many of the most important people in our lives. Throughout this period, many teenagers have had some of the relationships that support, sustain, and heal them in times of stress and growth interrupted.
That’s why it is more important than ever that the settings in which young people learn and grow offer numerous opportunities for strong, trusting relationships Such relationships will help to shape their identities and restore a sense of the future that still awaits them. There’s no myth in that; it’s the truth.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today.