Sunday, March 7, 2021

What teens and tweens need most from parents


Hordes of new research can suggest ways in which parents might help tweens and teens navigate their lives during puberty and adolescence, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Dozens of research studies that look at longitudinal data—tracking kids through their adolescence, rather than just taking a snapshot at one point in time—seem to point to adolescence as a time when parents would be better off tuning in closely to their sons’ and daughters’ lives, rather than taking a back seat.

“Once seen as a time for parents to step back, adolescence is increasingly viewed as an opportunity to stay tuned in and emotionally connected,” writes Sue Schellenbarger for the Journal, summarizing the research. “The research makes it possible to identify four important phases in the development of intellectual, social, and emotional skills that most teens will experience at certain ages.”

Parents who stay close to their 11–12-year-old kids tend to see the most positive outcomes, she says. “Parts of the brain responsible for prospective memory, or remembering what you are supposed to do in the future, are still maturing. This may be why a teen may seem clueless if asked to give the teacher a note before school.” To help, parents can:

  • Develop organizational skills by coaching
  • Stay warm and supportive (research)

When kids hit 13, they tend to see wild swings in their emotional response and lots of drama in their lives. It’s a response to all the pressure they feel, she says, and comes as part of teenagers’ poor ability to respond to stress.

At age 15 and 16, the appetite for risk peaks at the highest levels it will ever be in their lives, thanks to the dopamine receptors in their brains. A note to parents: Encouraging kids to make friends, not with the most popular kids in their class but with those who share similar interests, could help to reduce some of the risk-taking tendencies brain development predisposes 15- and 16-year-olds to.

But by the time kids turn 17 or 18, “the parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for judgment and decision-making typically are developed enough to serve as a brake on runaway emotions and risk-taking.”

In addition, executive-function skills, such as solving problems and planning strategies, continue to develop at least through age 20, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, England.

Social skills and related brain regions are still maturing. … At this stage, teens are better at noticing how others feel and showing empathy. They still lack the ability to decipher people’s motives and attitudes in complex social situations, though, such as figuring out why a friend might suddenly change the subject during a conversation at a party.

And, as a result of those executive-function skills, 18-year-olds who are already smart grow even smarter in this stage. Their IQ scores could even go up, and those gifted teens in our classrooms will need even more specialized and individualized attention to keep them from becoming bored with school, with their comrades, and with life.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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