The benefit of today’s episode is learning how to help your adolescent child develop social learning. We all know of that one adult who tried to encourage children to eat healthy, by providing nutritional information on why fruits and vegetables are good for you, why junk food is bad for you, and so on. But time again we see the same outcome is consistent; this works on shifting the mindset of younger children but falls ineffective for adolescents. This stops working around eighth grade. Eighth graders will carry on eating junk food and do so in higher quantities than before.
In a 2019 study, researchers found that food company executives used unhealthy ingredients in their products that even their own children would not be allowed to eat. Even worse, the products had marketing targeted at younger children. The 300 eighth-graders in the Texas investigative report were so outraged that they took a stand by eating healthier food. For the next 3 months, the study showed that students purchased healthier snacks in the cafeteria.
Adolescence is a time of rapid brain growth and neurological fine-tuning when young people are especially sensitive to social cues and rewards. This has led to more recent research focused on how the adolescent brain interacts with the social environment. This research shows that social context and acceptance strongly influence behavior. Adolescence might even be a unique window of time where the brain is able to make use of social cues for social and emotional learning.
This means that from ages nine to 11, often referred to as early adolescence, is the best time to help kids develop an understanding of themselves while encouraging their motivation to learn. The nutrition experiment showed that interventions in middle school can make a big impact on their well-being. It’s never too late to help young people develop healthy habits though, especially since the most serious behavioral and health issues often occur after they are 16 years old.
To comprehensively identify at which age interventions work best, requires extensive longitudinal studies, which have not been done yet. But, the advances in science are providing parents with more effective approaches to supporting young people’s education and social development. By understanding adolescents’ concern with status, their evolving sense of self in relation to society, and their need to contribute and find purpose, we should think of adolescence as a critical time for personal growth.
Vincent: For decades much of the research on adolescence focused on its dark side. But, in the 2000s, a new way of thinking of adolescence emerged from two important findings.
- Neuroscientists showed that puberty ushers in a period of rapid brain development followed by a pruning of neural connections that is second only to the similar process that occurs in the first three years of life. For more information here, check out our summary of Daniel Siegel’s New York Times bestseller Brainstorm in the Parent’s Club library.
- The maturation of the adolescent brain is not linear. The limbic system, a collection of brain areas that are sensitive to emotion, reward, novelty, threat and peer expectations, undergoes a growth spurt while the brain areas responsible for reasoning, judgment and executive function continue their slow, steady march toward adulthood. The resulting imbalance in the developmental forces helps to explain adolescent impulsivity, risk-taking, and sensitivity to social reward and learning.
The idea that adolescence is a period for social and emotional processing was put forward in 2014 by neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge. Previous research had assumed that these social-cognitive skills were matured by the middle of childhood.
You may have noticed that those who learn a language at a young age have an easier time than people who try to learn a new language later in life. In fact, those who learn a foreign language after puberty typically have an accent. The reason is that there are sensitive, or critical, periods of time when the brain is primed to make specific neural connections.
Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University identified this theory in mice. The research followed up on an observation where neuroscientists presented mice with two different kinds of bedding. On one, the mice lay by themselves; on the other, they were with friends. When the mice later had a choice of which bedding to sleep on, adolescent mice, preferred the bedding that carried a memory of friends.
Adolescence primed for learning
These windows of rapid change create opportunities for both positive and negative learning experiences. psychologist Andrew Fuligni of the University of California, Los Angeles said, “The adolescent brain is primed for social and emotional learning, to explore, to interact, to take chances so they can learn, but it all depends on what we do to give them scaffolded opportunities in order to learn.” Harmful experiences may lead to negative spirals from which it’s hard to recover. Research has shown that earlier experimentation with alcohol and drugs makes an adolescent more likely to become addicted.
A developmental psychologist at Cornell University says, “When your brain is going under rapid reorganization, that’s probably not the best time to introduce external chemicals.”
Supporting positive learning trajectories
When children grow up with supportive relationships with their family and caregivers, these protective factors often support better outcomes later in life. Research shows that adolescents have a need to contribute to society and be social, and this can help prevent anxiety and depression.
The study done with mice has findings applicable to adolescent humans. It reinforces that adolescence is a really important stage of life when kids are leaving the nest to create their own groups. In that window of time, they are really sensitive to what other members of their group are doing, they’re learning from their group, and they’re forming attachments to the group. That is when certain areas of the brain become suddenly alert to and rewarded by information that it had previously ignored. As a parent it’s important to acknowledge this phase and do our best to nurture positive social learning environments even if that means giving your child space to do so on their own.