In this two-part article Dr. Udena Attygalle writes on Adolescence “If you want to see the future, look through the eyes of a teenager” While adolescents may not look strikingly different to adults (except maybe their choice of clothes and how they choose to wear them), their brains and also minds are indeed different. While [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Understanding their reality, virtual and otherwise


In this two-part article Dr. Udena Attygalle writes on Adolescence
“If you want to see the future, look through the eyes of a teenager”
While adolescents may not look strikingly different to adults (except maybe their choice of clothes and how they choose to wear them), their brains and also minds are indeed different. While we now have the science to prove the former, parents have probably known the latter for ages! Being from an age where as teenagers we still had dial up internet, and called mobile phones “celltels”, today’s adolescents surprise me every day. Understanding these differences has been of immense value to me, and is likely to be so, for parents as well.

So what are these differences, and how can we help them in today’s changing world?
For one, their brains are wired differently to adults. Or, to say it differently, adolescent brains have a lot of loose ends, but also plenty of spare wiring waiting in the wings to connect. This makes the adolescent brain far more flexible and receptive to new information.In fact they actually have more cells in the brain than an adult. As they grow older, the loose ends will, in a sense tighten and the spare wiring be “pruned” in a process where the circuits that are used more frequently are consolidated, and some others lost.

Importantly, with all the loose ends waiting for a connection to be made, this is also a golden opportunity to make them connect in a good way. So while it’s true that parents do influence a lot of what a child does, adolescence is also a window of opportunity to make a positive contribution to their future way of thinking.

There is another process going on around the same time, where the cells of the brain are gradually insulated in a process called “myelination”. This process helps signals travel more efficiently and is part of the development of the brain. Parents of adolescents may not be surprised to know that it is the front part of the brain, the part that helps with planning, controlling emotions and impulses that gets myelinated the last!

In a sense it appears that adolescents develop the accelerator; the part of the brain responsible for increased emotionality, long before the front part of the brain; the part that helps control those emotions. In other words the teenage brain is sometimes like a car with a V8 engine, where the manufacturer forgot the brake and only placed the accelerator! So the next time your teenager slams the door on you, you know there is more to it than just hormones going on!

While a teenager’s brain is evolving, so is the culture and society around them. This dual process seems to set up another unique set of issues for today’s adolescents. One little gadget appears to be adding to the chaos. The smartphone, and the ability to access the internet through it, is bringing more and more information to places and people. While this has made many things possible that 20 years ago would have been only dreamt of, virtual reality has literally become part of today’s adolescent’s ecology. This virtual reality may however be quite different from the “reality” surrounding them. Thus a teenager in a conservative “reality” may be exposed to a quite liberal “virtual reality” and sometimes also vice versa. This contradiction leads to much confusion for parents and teenagers alike.

Social media gives adolescents an opportunity to interact briefly and on the go. A convenience, when their schedules are full of classes. While a quick “chat” in the car on the way to a swimming class may be all that is possible in a hectic world, it also has drawbacks. While adolescents (with their spare wiring!) are able to logically comprehend, and quickly learn the concepts of technology, they sometimes struggle with managing the emotional aspects that are brought about by the same.
This is made harder when you are required to literally “read between the lines” to understand the emotional content of a chat or text message. And sometimes because of their difficulties, in emotional regulation, the boundaries between reality and virtual reality get blurred, landing them in trouble.

So does an adolescent need parents? If so, what can they do to help? The evolution of research into attachment appears to answer a comprehensive-“yes”. It appears that our attachment to significant people in our lives, in some way shapes how we respond, in interactions with others later in life. This model suggests that our internal representations of who we are, are influenced by how we are responded to by our parents.Thus, a child who had his emotional needs dismissed, may grow up with difficulties in dealing with emotions and may dismiss them himself. So, if we have an internal representation of the world and ourselves that is secure, we may be able to respond to difficult situations better.

Considering the still present capacity to be flexible and influenced that the adolescent brain has, this may be one of the best times for parents to respond to their teenagers in ways that reinforce this internal sense of security. This I have experienced in working with teenagers, is not easy, as they may be inclined to test your sense of security about them as well! However this is in a way a test that they set for you to know whether you can take charge and make them feel secure.

Thus, as much as someone with a key to a thousand doors, would be confused as to what door to open, in certain situations teenagers may be more comfortable being guided to the one door to open. In some other situations, they may need to find out for themselves, but know that you are there if things go wrong. So while parents should not be afraid to take charge in situations that they need to, they should also be able to handle their teenagers exploring for themselves, when they can.

While our bodies may stay the same, even we as adults oscillate between a so-called adult way of dealing with situations, and a not so adult way of dealing with situations! So we may have to be aware when we “lose it” and lose the optimal state of mind to deal with situations involving our adolescents. We may also have to keep in mind that it is much easier for an adolescent who has just left childhood to regress and struggle to regulate their emotions.This in turn can greatly help us to help them regulate their emotions.

So to come back to the question of seeing the future, while we may not have the answer, the internal sense of security and help in regulating their emotions we provide for our adolescents at this crucial period of brain development may give them the strength to explore and find the answers for themselves.

(The writer is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist)

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