Adolescence is when teenagers should be forging strong relationships with friends and starting to take steps away from the protection of family. Instead they have been forced to spend endless, monotonous days at home.
Much of the discussion surrounding the cancellation to the Leaving Cert has been about predictive grades and little about mental health and wellbeing.
The full impact of the lockdown on teenagers will not be fully understood for years but behavioural scientists already understand that adolescence is a vulnerable time.
Three-quarters of mental health problems have onset by the age of 24 so teenagers need support and family members and teachers have a big influence on how they feel about themselves during puberty.
Hormonal shifts, intense physical growth and big psycho-social changes are all major factors responsible for the stereotypical moody, awkward, spotty teenager and understanding the ‘science of teenagers’ may increase our empathy for adolescents and what they are going through.
Puberty is a major developmental phase. Normal puberty is controlled by the pituitary gland — the master gland. A switch goes off in the gland that turns on the production of testosterone in the boys and oestrogen in girls and drives growth.
The first 18 months of a child’s life is the fastest period of growth in their body. Growth continues at about 5/6cm a year throughout childhood and doubles to about 10-12cm per year during puberty.
Puberty can last from eight months to three years and afterwards bones fuse and that roughly becomes a person’s final height.
Early onset or late onset of puberty can be upsetting for children. Early onset can be a problem because children miss out on vital years of steady childhood growth and can shoot up during early puberty but end up being shorter in their final height. For boys, late onset is particularly difficult because their friends could be six foot tall while he is still in the body of a child.
Teenagers find these massive changes in their bodies unsettling. Feelings of self-consciousness are understandable as they try to get to grips with their changing bodies. Clumsiness is as a result of a teenage brain trying to re-adjust to a new body.
Biology also changes the way teenagers look. How you look changes how people treat you, which in turn shapes your psychological state and how you feel you fit in the word.
For example, a boy who goes through puberty earlier than his peers is bigger in height and musculature, probably gets more opportunities at sports, has more success, more romantic interest, more responsibility from teachers and parents, more respect from peers, seems ‘more alpha’, and gets more opportunity to ‘practice’ being a grown up.
Repetition and practice is what helps brain development. A late developer loses out on these opportunities.
Babies are born with billions more neural connections in their brain than needed and they ‘prune’ these connections during childhood and adolescence according to their experiences and their environment.
The various regions of the brain don’t fully integrate and fully mature until late teens or early twenties. In fact, neuroscience research tells us that the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain that deals with reasoning, controls thought, emotions, etc — is the last brain region to mature and isn’t fully ‘wired up’ until early to mid-twenties.
Boys are also typically 18 months behind brain maturation compared to girls.
Teenagers are simply not able to think about things in the way that adults do because of their immature brains. They are not good at assessing risk and the parts of the brain that deal with ‘reward’ light up more in teenagers — they get more of a buzz from something that gives them reward or pleasure.
Teenagers also really care about what their peers think, they are constantly evaluating themselves against them. Studies have shown that teenagers will take more risks if their friends are watching them.
UCC research has shown in driving studies that teenagers perform poorly at making judgements about reaching traffic lights in time or crossing traffic safely when they think their peers are watching them.
Parents might despair at this seemingly pointless need for peer approval with the exasperated classic comment “if Jimmy threw himself off a bridge, would you throw yourself off too”?
However, being successful as a human requires social support and connection so it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view to care what your peers think and want to ‘fit in’ and build a strong social group.
Thankfully, teenagers nowadays have the opportunity of finding their tribe online if they don’t fit in among their peers at school or in their neighbourhood.
So the push for independence, the immature pre-frontal cortex, the rapidly changing body, the desire for peer approval and to ‘test’ or challenge who they are or who they will become is a recipe for risk-seeking or challenge-seeking behaviour.
‘Risky behaviour’ might be trying out for a school play or putting your hand up in class but it might also be genuinely risky such as experimenting with drugs or alcohol.
In the same way parents monitor or try to positively influence sleep and diet for their growing toddlers, the same attention benefits teenagers.
Parents and teenagers can look at controllable lifestyle factors — good diet, lots of sleep, plenty of exercise and opportunities or activities to challenge the teenager.
So be kind to the teenagers in your life. They’ve a lot to contend with at the moment.