Big bodies, and brains under construction. What the modern adolescent needs

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In my house, as in every house, kids seem to be growing up at an accelerated rate. Physically I mean. Not only in the sense that they are growing up quicker than I expected, but that they seem to be growing up quicker than they used to.

This observation is not without its evidence. The graph below shows how the age of physical maturation for girls has been unsteadily dropping over the past 150 years. Girls, and by extension boys, hit puberty sooner than they used to.

I wonder how long this drop and plateau pattern might go for? It is unclear why exactly this pattern is occurring. Some have reported that it is because of increased physical weight, and other reports about girls growing up with non-biological fathers.

It isn’t only that young people begin their growth spurt sooner, they get bigger also.

Here is a quote from the Australian Bureau of Statistics “On average, Australians are growing taller and heavier over time. Between 1995 and 2011-12, the average height for men increased by 0.8 cm and for women by 0.4 cm, while the average weight for men increased by 3.9 kg and for women by 4.1 kg.”

The bottom line is that we are getting bigger, and we are getting bigger sooner.

But are we maturing? When you see a 16 year old boy who is well over six feet tall, is it right to assume that he is mature because he is big?

This is where we come to a phenomena that is peculiar to recent times. The answer to this question is “No”.

The reason why the answer is No is because if he is only 16 then his brain hasn’t reached its full maturity, even though his body may well have. The frontal sections of our brains are the last areas to mature. They are implicated in decision making, forming judgements, giving ourselves direction, controlling impulses, creating plans, and solving problems. They are often referred to as the Executive System of the brain, because they overlook and regulate more basic drives. It is still under construction all the way through our adolescence, and will remain this way until we reach our early to mid twenties! (22 for girls and 24 for boys).

The problem for us now is that adolescence has by its nature become extended. The lag between physical maturation and brain maturation is now big and is getting bigger. This places a real problem in front of parents. How do we help our kids to develop executive skills that their yet to be finished frontal lobes would address? How do you help teenagers, who have drives and urges that propel them forward like a V8 motor when they only have small brake pads and a steering wheel that doesn’t always redirect?

The answer, is to have connection with others, with God, and with themselves.

Why is this? Connection is like the ultimate Aspirin. It soothes us and reduces inflammation. Only when there is a sense of safety and connection surrounding us will we be calm enough to think straight. Only when we are calm can we; learn, think, make plans, reflect on consequences, get an understanding on how we are going and form for ourselves a direction.

It is true that at this time of life, adolescents are yearning for connection with other adolescents. This is natural and precarious. We ought not blindly endorse this natural process. Much better to encourage this tendency with insight and wisdom. If you are an adolescent, ask yourself who among your friends really does connect with you? Are there any other older people, other than mum and dad, who really do connect with you? (think Youth Leader or family friend). How can I connect better with God?

The same questions can be asked by the parents regarding their adolescent. Who among all of my  daughter’s / son’s friends really connects with them? Are their any other older people that connect with them? (Think Youth Leader or family friend). Is there a way that I can facilitate her / his spiritual connection?

If adolescents can reflect on these three way connections, and parents can also reflect on their adolescents’ three way connections, not only will they be calmer and more rational, they are also likely to become great adults.

Dr Jonathan Andrews MAPS

Clinical Psychologist

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