Understanding Social and Emotional Development in Adolescents
Adolescence (the stage between 10 and 24 years) is a period of life characterized by heightened sensitivity to social stimuli and the increased need for peer interaction. The physical distancing measures mandated globally to contain the spread of COVID-19 are radically reducing adolescents’ opportunities to engage in face-to-face social contact outside their household. Human studies have shown the importance of peer acceptance and peer influence in adolescence. Animal research has shown that social deprivation and isolation have unique effects on brain and behavior in adolescence compared with other stages of life. However, the decrease in adolescent face-to-face contact might be less detrimental due to widespread access to digital forms of social interaction through technologies such as social media.
Indeed, adolescence can be considered a sensitive period for social development, which might be partly dependent on the development of the social brain: the network of brain areas involved in social perception and cognition that allows us to understand others. As with most regions within the human cortex, the structure of the social brain develops substantially throughout adolescence. For healthy development, parental and caregiver input is a crucial component, especially during early development, whereas later in development the influence of peers becomes an additional important element of the social environment. Adolescence is also a period of heightened vulnerability to mental health problems, with 75% of adults who have ever had a mental health condition reporting that they first experienced symptoms before the age of 24. There is evidence that problems with peer relationships, peer rejection, bullying, and loneliness are risk factors for the development of affective conditions such as depression in adolescence. Conversely, high-quality peer relationships appear to protect against mental health problems and strengthen adolescent resilience. It follows then that widespread changes in the social environment, such as enforced physical distancing and reduced face-to-face social contact with peers, might have a substantial effect on the brain and behavioral development during adolescence.
It is important to note, however, that physical distancing might not affect all adolescents in the same way. For example, adolescents who are living with high functioning families and who have positive relationships with parents or caregivers and siblings might be less affected by physical distancing than adolescents who do not have positive family relationships or who are living alone. Furthermore, as physical distancing rules vary by country, region, and across time, some face-to-face contact with non-household members might be permitted for certain adolescents. Nevertheless, many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers in their social network, putting their social needs at risk of not being met at a crucial time of social development.
General emotional changes adolescents experience
Healthy emotional development is marked by a gradually increasing ability to perceive, assess, and manage emotions. This is a biological process driven by physical and cognitive changes and heavily influenced by context and environment. During adolescence young people generally become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, but these perceptions may still be tenuous. Adults sometimes expect adolescents to keep their emotions from interfering with performance in school, work, and other activities, but doing so may be challenging in a complex environment. Some adolescents may be excited to take on new challenges as they become more independent, whereas others may need more support to build their confidence. The process of emotional development gives adolescents the opportunity to build skills, discover unique qualities, and develop strengths for optimal health.
Factors that affect how well adolescents navigate this process include:
These critical chemicals in the brain that bring about physical changes also affect adolescents’ moods and heighten their emotional responses. These characteristics together mean that teens are more easily swayed by emotion and have difficulty making decisions that adults find appropriate. Adolescence also is a time of rapid and sometimes stressful changes in peer relationships, school expectations, family dynamics, and safety concerns in communities. The body responds to stress by activating specific hormones and activities in the nervous system so that the person can respond quickly and perform well under pressure. The stress response kicks in more quickly for adolescents than it does for adults whose brains are fully developed and can moderate a stress response. Not all stressors are bad. Positive experiences such as landing the first job or getting a driver’s permit can trigger a stress response that enables adolescents to approach a challenge with alertness and focus.
By managing their own emotions, adolescents can establish positive goals and gain foresight into how their emotions can influence their goals and futures. To improve their ability to manage emotions, adolescents must first learn to recognize and describe strong, complex emotions. Although young people learn to describe basic emotions earlier in life, as they get older they develop an ability to truly grasp what emotions are and understand their impact. When adolescents can recognize how they feel, they can choose how they will react to a situation. They also learn to avoid the problems that strong emotions sometimes cause. However, because the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, and problem-solving as well as emotions, doesn’t fully develop until the mid-twenties, adolescents may find it difficult to manage their emotions and think through the consequences of their actions. Over time and with the support of parents and helpful adults, adolescents can develop the reasoning and abstract thinking skills that enable them to step back, examine their emotions, and consider consequences before acting rashly.
Supporting social and emotional development
Here are some ideas to help you support your teen’s social and emotional development.
• Be a role model for forming and maintaining positive relationships with your friends, children, partner, and colleagues. Your child will learn from observing relationships where there is respect, empathy and positive ways of resolving conflict.
• Get to know your child’s friends and make them welcome in your home. This will help you keep in touch with your child’s social relationships. It also shows that you recognize how important your child’s friends are to your child’s sense of self.
• Listen to your child’s feelings. If your child wants to talk, stop, and give your child your full attention. If you are in the middle of something, make a specific time when you can listen.
• Be explicit and open about your feelings. In particular, tell your child how you feel when your child behaves in different ways. Be a role model for positive ways of dealing with difficult emotions and moods.
• Talk with your child about relationships, sex, and sexuality. Look for “teachable moments” – those everyday times when you can easily bring up these issues. Focus on the non-physical. Teenagers are often self-conscious and anxious about their bodies and appearance. Reinforce the positive aspects of your child’s social and emotional development.
This article is courtesy of Dr. Ralp Kuechel. Dr. Kueche is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. More about Dr. Kueche.