Adolescents are entering a unique stage of development when there are rapid biological changes in mind and body, along with environmental changes such as increased demands of home, school and peers. This makes teens vulnerable to stress and pressure, and at increased risk for developing physical and mental illnesses. Never-the-less, as teens are still developing, they have the opportunity to learn new skills and develop their brain, potentially increasing resilience against any challenges they may encounter.
The Teen Brain is Still Under Construction
Although society, family, and school have increased expectations of teens, it is important to note that the teenage brain is still under construction, and the most important areas of cognitive functions, located in the pre-frontal cortex, have yet to fully develop. Teens have fully developed capacities to experience the most extreme range of emotions, along with motor and sensory abilities (associated with the reaction of flight or flight when faced with intense emotion.) However, they have not yet developed the abilities to focus and shift their attention, inhibit impulsive reaction, reason, use compassion, and manage their emotions. These abilities are subject to development of executive functions, and this development continues into the 20’s. (For a full review of brain development see Tau and Peterson, 2009.)
The following diagram has been frequently cited to demonstrate brain development from childhood thru to young adulthood. These images represent MRI data taken from ages 5 to 21. Increased purple represents decreased gray matter volume associated with pruning of the adolescent brain. Pruning allows the brain to refine those functions that are practiced most frequently which results in greater organization and improved functioning of the brain. Notice that the pre-frontal cortex is the latest to develop.
(Source: Phases of the Developing Brain, Gogtay et al., 2004)
What are the challenges associated with teen development?
Increased Risk Taking
With increased independence and greater importance of peer influence, coupled with under-developed pre-frontal cortex, (impulse control, emotional regulation, planning and judgement), teens and young adults take more risks than any other age group (e.g., Steinberg, 2010.) Risk taking includes behaviors such as extreme sports, drug and alcohol use, dangerous driving and unsafe sex. Teens are known to act without thinking through the consequences, getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, unable to pause and consider alternatives. Although this is a source of potential learning and growth, impulsive experimentation often leads to unexpected negative outcomes including both physical and emotional suffering.
The onset of Major Depression and Anxiety
Another interesting research finding is that the pre-teen and teen years represent the highest incidence of onset of major depression (e.g., Zisook, 2007.) Similarly, the age of onset of anxiety disorders, depending on the subtype ranges from pre-adolescence to early adulthood (e.g., Lijster et al., 2017.)
A Time of Increased Challenge yet Limited Coping Abilities
In summary, during the teenage years many changes are occurring, in the bodies, minds, social interactions, academic and family responsibilities, and environments of teens. Teens are influenced more than ever by peers and are experimenting and trying new things. Teens have growing demands they are often under-equipped to manage, and this is understandable due to their stage of brain development. This interface between increased freedom and demands, accompanied by underdeveloped abilities to focus, regulate and make reasoned decisions places teens at risk for increased stress, and increased behavioral, physical and mental health difficulties without the full capacity to cope with such challenges.
What are the opportunities of the teenage years?
A Developmental Window of Opportunity to Learn
Because teens are continuing to grow, both physically and mentally, they have an important window of development that can be influenced by the choices they make. Pruning occurs in the brain. This means that skills and abilities that are learned at this time and practiced the most grow, become stronger, forming life-long connections between brain and behavior. On the other hand, skills and abilities that are neglected or no longer practiced are pruned, or cut back, to allow for focus on those abilities the teen spends the most time learning or practicing. What is focused on and nurtured in the teen years has a huge impact on the ultimate development and abilities of the individual. In other words, for tweens and teens, if we teach them now they can learn, and what we teach them makes a huge lifetime impact on their abilities.
The Opportunity to Develop Crucial Executive Function Skills
An important consideration is the role of the pre-frontal cortex and executive functions. Teens who practice focusing their attention, calming their minds and pausing before acting are building executive functions. Increased executive function abilities support making better thought out choices rather than impulsive decisions in response to peer pressure, emotional highs or lows, or spur of the moment events.
Below are a couple of real-life examples of how executive function skills can impact teen decision making and coping.
When having a fun time on a hike with friends, an influential peer decides that jumping off the ravine into the river is an exciting plan. The impulsive teen or the teen whose sense of self-worth is fragile is likely to follow the plan, regardless of the dangers of the activity. The teen who is able to pause, step back from peer pressure or initial excitement of the moment, may make a more reasoned decision that jumping from a high ravine may result in severe injury, and it isn’t necessary to do this to keep friends.
Another example is the teen who is romantically interested in another teen, asks them out and is rejected. This happens and is emotionally painful. The teen with poor emotional self-regulation or poor self-worth, is much more likely to have difficulty coping and may sink into either impulsive self-destructive behavior, isolate themselves, or potentially spiral into depression. Many teen episodes of self-harm are due to such incidents of rejection. The teen with better emotional regulation or self-worth is more able to cope effectively, recognize this is painful but not catastrophic, move on, and later reflect on how they got through this and can get through it when this happens again.
How can participating in Making Friends with Yourself help with teen brain development and coping abilities?
Mindfulness Practice Positively Influences Executive Function Development
There is ample research that documents the positive impact of mindfulness practice on the development of executive functions. The attentional control practice of present moment awareness and the emotional regulation practice of acceptance of emotions without rumination or avoidance appear to have the greatest influence on our abilities to make reasoned responses and cope positively with emotional challenges (e.g., Teper & Inzlicht, 2013). Documented benefits of mindfulness for teens include increased attention span (helpful with school, chores, accomplishing tasks, decreased impulsivity), improved regulation of emotion and ability to cope with stress (helpful when faced with challenges), improved sleep (with decreased worrying and more restorative sleep), reduced anxiety and depression (due to better abilities to manage emotions and cope), reduced substance abuse (with better methods of coping.)
Choose an Evidence-Based Program and Qualified Instructor for Best Results
Any research that documents the positive influence of mindfulness practices clearly refers to the type of practice or program used. You have the best chance of obtaining positive results if you use an evidence-based program, one that has research to support that it works. In addition to the type of program, the qualifications, training and skill level of the instructor make a difference in how well the program works, and when clinical issues emerge (e.g., anxiety, depression), best results are obtained by teachers with clinical training and experience (e.g., Teasdale, Segel, & Williams, 2003)
Making Friends with Yourself (MFY) meets the Unique Developmental Needs of Adolescents
MFY, which is a developmentally adapted version of Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) and has research to support its positive impact on teens and young adults (e.g., Bluth et al., 2016). The content and activities of the program address the real-life context of adolescents and teach them how to approach challenges and emerge stronger and more resilient. At the conclusion of participation in the program, participants should expect notable increases in lifelong mindfulness and self-compassion skills along with increased positive emotions and sense of self-worth, and decreased stress, anxiety, depression and self-criticism. In addition to the benefits of learning mindfulness (and all the research supported benefits such as increased executive function skills), MFY effectively teaches adolescents to be kind to themselves, using compassion rather than self-criticism when times are difficult.
Teens are at a crucial stage of development when what they learn and practice becomes strengthened, while what they ignore is lost. Participating in Making Friends with Yourself, a mindful self-compassion program for teens, is an effective way to help teens develop their brains, focus attention, regulate emotion, and build self-worth, all of which support better coping and decrease the likelihood of emotional maladjustment. Even if your teen does not currently seem to be struggling, now is a great time to provide them with the opportunity to develop skills that will help when they need it.
Bluth, K., Gaylord, S. A., Campo, M. A., Mullarky, M. C., & Hobbs, L. (2016). Making friends with yourself: A mixed methods pilot study of a mindful self-compassion program for adolescents. Mindfulness, 7, 479-492.
Gogtay, N., Giedd, J. N., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K. M., Greenstein, D., Vaituzis, A. C., Nugent, T. F., Herman, D. H., Clasen, L. S., Toga., A. W., Rapoport, J. L., & Thompson, P. M. (2004). Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101 (21), 8174-8179.
Lijster, J. M., Dierckx, B., Utens, E. M., Verhulst, F. C., Zieldorff, C., Dieleman, G. C., Legerstee, J. S. (2017). The age of onset of anxiety disorders. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Apr, 62 (4), 237-246.
Steinberg, L. (2010). A dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Psychobiology, 52, 216-224
Tau, G & Peterson, B. (2009). Normal development of brain circuits. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35, 147-168.
Teasdale, J. D., Segel, Z. V., & Williams, M. G. (2003). Mindfulness training and problem formulation. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, 10, (2), 157-160.
Teper, R., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: The importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8 (1), 85-92.
Zisook, S., Lesser, I., Stewart, J. W., Wisniewski, S. R., Balasubramani, G. K., Fava, M., Gilmer, W. S., Dresselhaus, T. R., Thase, M. E., Nierenberg, A. A., Trivedi, M. H., & Rush, A. J. (2007). Effect of age at onset on the course of major depressive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164 (10), 1539-1546.