The Adolescent Brain in Turmoil
Adolescence, the period between ages 9 to 25, is a critical window of right brain development responsible for emotional regulation, resilience to stress, executive functioning, and long-term working memory. During this period, the brain is extremely susceptible to environmental stress. In today’s age, there is more stress than ever on adolescents academically, socially, and from parents and schools. If children enter adolescence emotionally secure, having had enough physical and emotional presence, attention, love, emotional attunement from healthy parents, they are more resilient to the stressors they will face. Unfortunately, many adolescents enter this challenging phase of development having been given less by their parents.
The stressors adolescents face are far more intense than ever before. We used to live in a smaller, more manageable world. More recently, the world has gotten bigger, with more at stake. Students realize that adulthood will require them to compete not only with those immediately around them, but also others around the world for educational opportunities and employment. They do not just feel the pressure to do well, but to be perfect—being “good enough” or “normal” doesn’t feel like it will do anymore.
Another stressor for adolescents is sensory overload on the brain. Virtually every time an adolescent looks at their phone, computer, or TV, they are exposed to explicit violence, sex, political or social instability, and end-of-the-world scenarios. In the past, parents and schools were able to protect adolescents, as adolescents do not have the emotional capacity to process such explicit scenarios. With today’s access to the media, it is impossible to set the boundaries that parents were once able to set to protect their children. Vulnerable young people, without having developed emotional coping skills, may be overwhelmed by the excessive aggression, emotional abuse, and sexual content that they are exposed to.
Perhaps the greatest stressors that we hear about most frequently have to do with technology, particularly the use of social media and video games. Recent research has shown that screen time has been correlated with greater levels of unhappiness. One study by the Child Mind Institute1 showed that eighth graders who were heavy users of social media had a 27 percent increased risk of depression. Most alarming are the results of a study by American researchers2, which found that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on a screen are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. Adolescents who spent more time on off-screen activities, on the other hand, such as spending time with friends and playing sports, were much less likely to be unhappy.3
Social media has reduced adolescents’ ability to focus and has introduced superficial virtual communities that are replacing real family, religious, and peer relationships. The values that social media has promoted—fame, fortune, and physical attractiveness, rather than deep and meaningful human connections—has driven already confused and conflicted teens toward emptiness and dissatisfaction. Feelings of isolation and inadequacy are inherent parts of adolescence, but social media adds fuel to the fire.
Video games are similar to social media in that they provide adolescents an avenue to escape feelings of loneliness and isolation and to numb pain, anxiety, and depression. Mastering video games and participating in anonymous online communities make kids who feel ostracized and powerless feel competent and powerful.
The turmoil that the adolescent brain has experienced in recent times in particular have led anxiety, depression, and suicide rates in the UK to rise rapidly. A study by University College London revealed that 16 percent of teenagers report high levels of psychological distress at age 17. Even more alarming is data from the Millennium Cohort Study 4, which found that 28 percent of 17-year-old females and 20 percent of 17-year-old males reported self-harming in the previous year, with one in ten females and one in twenty-five males saying they had self-harmed with suicidal intent. Urgent mental health support is clearly needed for this age group. Waiting it out is not sufficient.
Asymmetrical Brain Development
Adolescence is a time of brain growth, pruning, and reorganizing as connections between parts of the brain that control the reward centers and regulate emotion are forming. During adolescence, parts of the brain develop at different rates.5 This inability to fully regulate emotions explains why adolescents experience so many emotional highs and lows along with the impulsivity, risk taking, poor judgment, erratic emotional behavior, and moodiness that is often seen. It is also why there is an increase in mental and mood disorders seen at this age.6
Three of the important areas of the brain involved with socio-emotional development are:
• prefrontal cortex (PFC), which governs emotional regulation,
judgment, and impulse control; it is the last part of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until a person is in their 20s.
• ventral striatum, which governs the reward system.
• limbic system (amygdala and hippocampus), which controls threat sensing and stress regulation.
Though the prefrontal cortex can be slow to mature, over time as adolescents mature physically so does their ability to reason, problem solve, plan for the future, make decisions, focus our attention, use language, grasp abstractions, and self-regulate. Once the PFC is fully developed, it can work to suppress distractions and moderate immediate visceral responses and the intense emotions that can interfere with how well a student is able to learn.5 The ventral striatum (VS), the motivational/reward and regulatory center of the brain, develops and becomes intensely active before the PFC has had time to catch up and learn to regulate it. This is one of the reasons adolescents engage in sensation-seeking and risky behavior7. As adolescents continue to develop, their prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, and limbic system learn to work together, making it easier to think through decisions and regulate emotions.
What School Leadership Professionals Can Do
Given that adolescents are more emotionally and neurologically fragile than ever before there are certain things educators can do to help them to become more emotionally secure and resilient to stress.
Within leadership roles, it is important to have an “open door policy” so that students know that there is someone willing to listen to them should they need emotional support. Sometimes all an adolescent needs is someone to be present with them and to listen without judgement or interruption. By having emotionally and physically present adults within the school environment, school can feel like a safe place for students.
It is also imperative for school leaders to communicate with adolescents from a place of comfort and empathy—asking questions, being an active listener, and reflecting their emotions. Even if an adolescent says they are “fine,” they need to know that they have the emotional support should they decide they need it. Providing a non-judgmental space for students to feel heard and supported allows the opportunity to provide them with an emotional refueling station.
Leaders must be proactive, rather than reactive, in monitoring for signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety. One of the most common signs is a drop in grades or changes in school performance. This usually indicates an inability to focus on class or apathy about school, which is often the signal of a larger issue in the adolescent’s life.
In addition to school performance, it is important to pay attention to other socio-emotional signs, such as aggression, excessive fatigue, and social withdrawal. These are tell-tale signs that a student is experiencing stress.
Adolescents do not have the same emotional toolkit that adults have in being resilient and having the ability to cope through difficult times. Therefore, it is critical to not delay in taking action to seek help for the adolescent. The longer the wait, the more difficult symptoms become to treat. As soon as there are signs of anxiety or depression, contact the student’s parents or guardians. Work with them to ensure that they are armed with the resources to help the adolescent, whether it be opening space for conversations at home or finding a therapist who specializes in children and adolescents.
One last thought in addition to teachers advocating in their schools for more mental health services is advocating for later school start times. Due to sleep wake phase delay, adolescents produce melatonin later in the evening meaning they feel the pressure to sleep later in the evening resulting in going to sleep after 1 a.m. This means that if schools begin before 9 or even 10 in the morning, the average adolescent is sleep deprived, which is another contributor to depression and anxiety.
Healthy adolescents should be able to celebrate their victories and strengths, and mourn their losses and disappointments without feeling agonized by them. By creating an environment that fosters social-emotional well-being rather than focusing on left brain achievement and creating deep and supportive relationships with students, teachers can support resilience-building so that adolescents do not feel overwhelmed by the world they are growing up in. By creating a culture of understanding the adolescent brain and supporting adolescents in healthy growth and development, schools can contribute in creating healthy, resilient adults who are equipped to become leaders of the future.
Hey parents, Dr. Meg Meeker here. I wanted to take a moment and thank Erica Komisar for being a guest on my blog today. What Erica said really resonated with me and I’m sure it did with you as well. The fact is, the world is changing very rapidly and for our kids, things can be very tough. It’s important to me that ALL parents have the tools and resources they need to parent great kids. We aren’t born knowing how to raise great humans – it’s something we learn. This is why I created the Parenting Great Kids Community.
The Parenting Great Kids Community is the epicenter for parents looking for help. We talk about how to help your kids with anxiety, how to talk about sex with your kids, puberty, tantrums and sleep for the little ones, and so much more. When you’re in the PGK Community, you have access to these resources PLUS access to me. That’s right, you can ask me any question you want.
So click here and join us inside the PGK Community. I can’t wait to see you inside! Let’s get to work.
ERICA KOMISAR, LCSW is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for over 30 years. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and The New York Freudian Society, Ms. Komisar is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations, and childcare settings. She is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Daily News. She is also a contributing editor to The Institute of Family Studies and appears regularly on Fox and Friends and Fox 5 News. Erica is the author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, and her second book, Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety will be released November of 2021. Erica can be contacted at Erica@Komisar.com.