My next series of blogs are going to be looking at the other end of childhood, adolescence. I am going to start with early adolescence or puberty which is marked by huge physical changes in the body but also in the brain. I am also going to look at the emotional changes which take place. For some young people, not to mention parents, it can be a time of huge upheaval and distress, whereas for other adolescents it can be a time of growing confidence and excitement. For many it is a mixture of both. Whatever way a young person manages their adolescence it is important to remember it is an essential phase of life, which allows your child to acquire the physical, intellectual and emotional abilities which are needed in order for them to become an adult.
There is no definitive age when adolescence starts, but the start is marked by changes in the body. Puberty (or the physical changes in the body) can begin as young as 10 years old and goes on until the 20th year, a decade later. The start of puberty is interesting. It is very clear that it is related to genetic factors. There is also evidence that the start of puberty is related to experience. Research has shown that if the young person has had a more settled family life, with a present father with whom they have a good relationship puberty will start later.
Adolescence is sometimes separated into early (11-14) middle (14-17) and late (17+). I will cover all of these phases as they all have important emotional milestones to negotiate. Please remember these ages are averages. In this blog I will concentrate on early adolescence, in my experience in girls the stormiest of the phases. Adolescence is not just socially constructed it has been found that many animals also show similar features as they move from dependency to adulthood. That does not mean that there is no social element as we know that adolescence is determined by the culture in which we grow up. In many societies the lengthened period of dependency which typifies adolescence in the West is not a feature. There is a very clear division between being a child and being an adult, often with a rite of passage to mark this. This blog will mainly be thinking about adolescence in our British culture. In the West, the age of adulthood, financial independence, marriage and children is getting later, with school leaving age increasing and entry into the work place becoming delayed often into the 20’s.
So what are the tasks which have to be achieved to go from being a child to being an adult? The child of 11 will need in the next 6-10 years be able to leave home, survive on their own and in time have a home and family of their own. For most children their family has been their world, widening out on starting school but still the most important part of the child’s life. But this is not what is needed in adulthood where in order to create a life for yourself you have to turn your interest and attention outward. This is going to require huge physical, emotional, social and intellectual changes and just this change of view alone can be very painful and frightening for the emerging adolescent and their parents.
I am going to look at the physical changes first because they have a huge impact on the emotional world of the adolescent. Before adolescence, both boys and girls bodies are very similar; they are the same height and size, with the only thing which marks a difference being the genitals. This is not the case by the end of puberty: Girls grow taller, their breasts develop, they will grow body hair and their hips will widen. Inside there will be the development of ovaries and uterus and periods will start as the body prepares for bearing children. One of the most distressing features of adolescence for girls in a world where thinness is so valued is the increase in body fat which accompanies early adolescence. For boys the process is equally dramatic, with a massive growth spurt, initially of the head, hands and feet, and then the arms, legs and torso. Adolescent boys will start growing muscle. Their testes will increase dramatically in size. They will grow body and facial hair and their voice will break. In both sexes the sweat glands also develop and become more active meaning that both boys and girls will start to smell different. Hormonal changes will see the production of excess sebum which can cause spots to erupt. These physical changes can be hugely disorientating for adolescents, who struggle emotionally to keep up with the rapid and extensive changes which are taking place with their body. It is tough as just at the time when the opposite sex is beginning to seem more attractive young people feel that they cannot rely on their body to behave itself, their body looks different, feels different, smells different and they have unsightly spots and greasy hair. For many teenagers they would like to get on with these changes quietly and within themselves or their family but this is not possible, for boys erections will erupt with seemingly little or no stimulation and the unpredictability and messiness of periods for girls makes for some very embarrassing situations. Many teenagers worry whether their body is developing in the right way but for many there can also be a pride in this new body, which looks so grown up.
The early adolescent brain
As well as huge changes in the body there is also huge changes in the brain, again this is a feature of early adolescence. It starts just before puberty on average, age 11 in girls and 12 in boys.
What are these changes? Firstly there is a huge increase in neurons and synapses in the part of the brain that is involved with thinking, logic, reasoning and decision making, the prefrontal cortex, area of the brain. This means that there is a huge growth in the nerve cells which are designed to transmit information from one cell to another. Just like in the baby too many are created and once created pruning starts usually ending around 16-17 years, when you have the adult number of synapses. Pruning is the process of the brain cutting away or getting rid of those synapses which it does not need. It is essential because it strengthens the existing synapses. Once pruning has taken place there is a process of coating these neurons (myelination). Pruning and myelination means that the messages can travel 100 times faster. It is the biggest change in the brain since infancy. Once this has occurred the adolescent brain becomes more efficient but less adaptable, and new knowledge cannot be soaked up as easily as when you were younger. The frontal lobes of the brain do not finish developing until the early 20’s.
It would not be surprising that with all this growth and re-organisation of the brain that the adolescent brain might be working differently. Here are some facts which are emerging from recent research:
- The amygdala, the part of the brain which governs our emotions, is much more active in adolescents. It has been found to be more active in determining how adolescents understand situations, rather than the more logical prefrontal cortex. What does this mean? Adolescents are more governed by their emotions but also they have less control over them. Their prefrontal cortex is reorganising, it is being used less by the adolescent which makes their decisions less based on logic and more based on an emotional response. The evidence is that the adolescent brain is back to functioning at a much younger child level.
- An amygdala driven brain will also mean emotionally your adolescent will be more fearful and anxious. There is a return of irrational fears, which are difficult to understand, both for them and you as parents.
- Early Adolescents seem to be worse than other ages at reading people’s emotion in their facial expressions. You may be used to your child knowing what you are thinking just by your facial expression; suddenly they seem to have lost this ability. They are not being deliberately difficult they are just not very good at it.
- The stress hormone is more easily produced at this time. So adolescents will be more easily stressed and much more over-reactive
- Adolescents need on average 9 hours and 15 minutes sleep every night. Melatonin the chemical in the body which starts to make you feel sleepy is produced later in adolescence, about 11pm. If you put these together and your teenager does not settle to sleep until 11.30 or 12 and they have to get up for school at 7am they are fairly constantly sleep deprived. You may have read the reports about the benefits of lots of sleep these include, better mental health, improved mood, less anxiety, being less susceptible to illness, better decision making, improved memory.
- There is a growing body of evidence that suggests teenage brains are not affected by a small amount of excitement but gets huge gratification from medium to large amounts of excitement. Part of being a human being is to seek pleasure and for adolescents it seems that larger risks give them a disproportionate amount of excitement. This means adolescents are more likely to take bigger risks. There is also evidence to suggest their brain reacts differently when their friends are present, leading them to take bigger risks when they are in a group. In many ways the brain is very clever, if this age group were not wired to take risks they may never leave the safety of their home and your care. Finally the pre frontal cortex, which is essential for looking at something in a logical way and making good judgements, is not functioning quite as well as usual. If your child was always a bit of a risk taker this is going to be a very worrying time for you.
- You may feel that your child has suddenly started to go backwards not forwards when it comes to good judgement and logic –that is because they have. As I said earlier there are many reports which suggest that the adolescent brain is functioning at a younger child level.
What to do as the parent of an early adolescent?
Early adolescence can be a difficult time for the family. A peaceful home environment may be shattered and parents so often report that they no longer know their child, who seems to have changed from an angel to a monster. Family outings, mealtimes and holidays can now be fraught times, leaving parents struggling to think about how to respond to their child who they no longer know and who has become unpredictable. Adolescents will be making huge physical, emotional, cognitive and social changes which are difficult for parents to keep up with and knowing how much or how little freedom to grant can be difficult. This is the time when all the careful boundaries and care that you have given over the years will show itself.
- Remember your adolescent may be less bothered by disputes and disruption than you are. Try and deal with the mood changes and fights calmly and firmly. It is not helpful to be as angry as your adolescent.
- Don’t allow all your careful boundaries to disappear at once but do allow your child more freedom. If at 11 the walk home from school is reasonably safe and the majority of their friends are walking home, let them have a go or if a friend lives nearby, talk to their parents about the two of them walking together. Can they catch the bus at 12 with their friends or be dropped off at the pictures to see a film?
- Remember you are not a rubbish parent who does not know what on earth you are talking about but it may be essential for your adolescent to think this in order for them to develop their own way of seeing the world.
- There will be mood swings, meaning your adolescent may want to cuddle up next to you on the sofa one minute and the next look at you with horror as you try to give them a hug and a kiss (especially in front of friends).
- It will be hard enough for your child to begin to turn their gaze away from the safety of their family and home without you hanging onto them desperately. They need to turn away from their family, it is a part of becoming a grown up.
- It is at this time that difficulties which were not resolved in baby and toddlerhood will often re-emerge with a vengeance. Separation difficulties are a problem I am seeing increasingly in girls in early adolescence.
- Trying to wrap your child in cotton wool will only make them go behind your back and this increases the danger. If your child has always been a bit of a risk taker try and channel this into something that is a safer risk. Sport can be very helpful in this regard with things like rock climbing or sailing allowing risk within a safe framework.
When to get help?
- If you are really struggling to make sense of your adolescent and/or losing your temper regularly.
- Your adolescent has become nearly paralysed or very unhappy by the changes they are going through.
- Mood swings are a part of adolescence but if they are very distressed by these or are becoming increasingly low in mood then it is time to get help.
- They are self – harming or expressing suicidal thoughts.
- There is increasing evidence that if a child starts their adolescence significantly earlier that their peers then they will find their adolescence more of a struggle.
Please get help from someone who has a training and experience of working with children and adolescents. Working with adolescents is not the same as working with adults. Practitioners who have either a clinical psychology qualification or are an ACP registered psychotherapist will both have had an in depth training in working with children and young people and with parents.