Adolescent males – moving toward their potential
Rather than the usual ‘crisis’ agenda, we believe that every adolescent male, with the right reinforcement, validation, love and positive male role models has the potential to flourish and move toward their whole person potential.
We also take a more optimistic view and highlight the important role parents play in the positive development of their adolescent sons.
But before we explore some of these ideas, we’d like to highlight some common myths about adolescent males that can lead to reinforcement of negative adolescent stereotypes and what we call ‘false solutions’ to problems that don’t exist.
Myth #1: Adolescent males are mini-men
Many well-meaning parents, teachers and coaches assume that adolescent males are simply young men, when they’re not. Their brains aren’t the same as men, their bodies aren’t the same and their social skills and networks aren’t the same (and play a very different role). Therefore we should not treat them like mini men, we should treat them like adolescents.
Myth #2: Raging hormones cause male adolescents to do “crazy” things
This is a powerful myth but it’s simply not true. While there are hormonal changes during adolescence, it isn’t the hormones that determine what goes on in an adolescent’s life. It’s mainly changes in the brain that determine what happens to our adolescents. Often adolescents do “crazy” things because their cerebral cortex development (and particularly their pre-frontal cortex) which is the brake to the emotional limbic region, has not fully developed or integrated. Therefore their desire to fit in, show off and take risks is often a result of this developmental mismatch (between their limbic region & association areas and their pre-frontal cortex).
This underlines the importance of understanding these brain changes so we can start to see some of these changes as “normal” and healthy development.
Myth #3: Adolescence is a time of immaturity
This powerful myth suggests that adolescence is a time that we need to endure not enjoy. And once our adolescent males finally “grow up” we can have mature, sensible, rational and enjoyable experiences with them. Yet this is far from the truth.
There’s lots of good news about adolescent males
Despite what you might read in the mainstream press, young male health – physical, psychological and social is not in a state of universal crisis.
Mainstream media, in their desire to increase their site visits, their click-through rates and their likes, publish and post a tsunami of articles, reports and statistics about the alarming state of adolescent health. It’s almost as if their intention is to create a state of fear for parents. But instead of being fearful, there are many reasons for parents to be optimistic. There are many signs and statistics that indicate young adolescent males are doing well.
One example is the significant reduction in adolescent alcohol, drug and tobacco use over the last 8 years. It should come as no surprise that parents have a played a key role in contributing to this significant health outcome.
The adolescent brain is a work in progress
Adolescent brains are best described as a “work in progress” because adolescent brains don’t mature until the age of 24. Yes, that’s 24.
As a consequence, it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect an adolescent brain to function in the same way as an adult brain. It’s also unrealistic to expect that all adolescent brains will develop at the same rate over this maturation period.
One thing is certain, the better you understand your adolescent son’s brain, the better you’ll be able to put their development and their behaviour in an appropriate context.
These “Brain Basics” provide some key information to get you started.
- Different parts of the brain have different functions and develop at different rates
- The part of the brain that is responsible for positive decision making, smart choices and moral decision making is in a constant state of learning and doesn’t reach maturity until around 24 years of age
- A mature brain operates as an integrated whole. The process of maturity is working toward this integration. There’s a saying in neuroscience that “what fires together, wires together” so our goal as parents is to help adolescents “fire up” the thinking, planning, logic and moral decision-making parts of the brain so those neural roadmaps ignite and are capable of laying down the required neural networks.
- Explaining to an adolescent how their brain functions and develops is not only good for their brain’s development, but helps them understand why they think and feel the way they do. This has really positive effects on their self-awareness, their awareness of others and their relationships with others.
Evolution shapes what adolescent males do
Adolescents intuitively know that they have to move away from their parents for survival. Because at some point, their parents won’t be around. Therefore, the adolescent male response is to begin to become independent from their parents and form connections with their peers. This is as much about survival as it is about social relationships. The challenge for adolescent males is how to get the right level of autonomy with a brain (and social skills) that are still under development.
So rather than being seen as a problem, adolescents seeking to connect, spend time and develop relationships with their peer group is a positive sign of development. The role of parents is to provide support or a “scaffold” during this process and help their adolescent son make good choices about the peers they connect with.
‘Typical’ psychosocial development of male adolescents
When children are pre-pubescent their major focus is on security and attachment with their parents.
Adolescents are at a very different stage of their psychosocial development. Their big challenge is to begin to move away from their parents and so the focus is on developing and maintaining autonomy. This is mostly achieved through establishing and maintaining a peer group, developing a network of trusted friends and having ongoing interactions with that peer group that allows them to be a valued member of the group.
What all teenagers need from their parents
There are a number of common needs that adolescents have, some of which the platform is laid for in the early years and some of which are ongoing & emerging developmental needs.
In the early years, secure attachment happens when children feel safe, nurtured and loved.
Another key need of children and adolescents is for parents to recognise and respond to their child’s emotions. World famous neuroscientist, Daniel Siegel, calls this process “attunement”. This is being “in step with” and being able to appropriately respond to your child’s emotions.
Over time when parents (and significant others) validate their thoughts, feelings and behaviours children respond by feeling that the relationship is positive, that they matter and by feeling good about themselves.
It goes without saying that it’s a basic need for children and adolescents to feel loved and nurtured through kindness, affection, touch, attention and by being present. When we say I love someone, the question is – do we demonstrate the behaviours to the other person that give the ongoing messages that we do.
As adolescents grow and develop, it’s important they hear stories from their parents about their adolescent years – about the reality of their experience. The concerns they had, the troubles they faced, the dreams and achievements that were all part of their Mum or Dad’s story. This is an important part of the transition because it begins the process of seeing parents as people (as well as parents).
Critical in all these processes is providing the moral satellite navigation system for adolescents. This is so that adolescents have a framework of moral decision making which is being hardwired into their brain in preparation for adulthood.
The critical role of parents
Most of us learn to be parents, from our own parents. In some cases, we learn things we want to apply, and in other cases we learn the things we’ll try to avoid. But it’s very difficult to get useful information about parenting that takes into account brain development, psychosocial development, gender and balancing the dual needs of adolescents and parents.
From a brain and psychosocial development perspective, here are some important things that you can do to demonstrate to your adolescent son that they are valued, loved and supported.
- Understand some brain basics and be able to explain it to your adolescent son. You won’t need to be a neuroscientist, a psychologist or a Doctor, you just need to be interested enough to learn the basics.
- Understand that the inevitable search for autonomy in seeking out and bonding with a peer group is a sign of healthy development not a risk we need to be concerned about.
- Regularly validate your adolescent son’s thoughts, feeling and emotions by letting them know you understand, by listening, by paying attention and being genuinely interested in their thoughts, feelings and what’s going on in their lives
- Encourage your adolescent son to reflect on his inner world. In today’s world there is so much emphasis on the external, we need to balance these influences by asking important questions such as “What’s important to me?”; “What are my strengths?”; “What do I feel strongly about?”; “How could I make a difference in the world?”; “What relationships are important to me and how do I invest in them?”
- Provide your adolescent son with a moral satellite navigation system. This is not just about telling them what is “right” or “wrong”, but how to think about problems, issues and situations so that they can make their own decisions that allows all parties to walk away feeling good about themselves
- Help your adolescent son understand that what all human beings have in common is we all want to feel good about ourselves. But we also behave differently when things are going well for us, as opposed to when things aren’t going well. The challenge for all of us is to face situations where we and other people can feel good about the outcomes and where we can recognise where things aren’t going well and when we need to adopt different thoughts and behaviours
In our next blog we discuss “Helping Adolescent Males Develop Emotional Competence and Resilience”, we’ll share some practical tips on the ways you can support your adolescent son to develop his emotional competence and resilience.
About the Author:
Steve Johnson is the CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute. Steve is a registered psychologist and developed the world’s first elite athlete wellbeing management program. He works extensively with adolescent males in sport and private practice. Steve is also the National Rugby League’s (NRL) Wellbeing Advisor.