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Being 13...Again (10/365)

“Who among us would choose to go back to being 13?”

This is the opening question I often pose to groups of people who spend their time with adolescents. The consistent response is:

  1. a chorus of chortles,

  2. a collective scan the crowd,

  3. no raised hands.

Yep, just as I thought.

We all remember being 13.

And most of us would hesitate before agreeing to being 13 again.

Think back. Remember the friendships, crushes, and events from outside of school? How about struggling, with relationships or inconsistent or competing feelings of belonging and isolation? Remember the adults who we sensed understood us and with whom we felt a sense of connection? How about those who we perceived didn’t like us, because they didn’t invest time towards fully understanding us?

This roller coaster, this was 13.

There are reasons for this.

Pinpointing our challenges may also remind us of how we struggled to consistently organize, prioritize, or manage ourselves and regulate our emotions. Referred to as executive functioning skills, these are critical to post-adolescent success.

The good news?

It wasn’t us. And…it’s not them. You know, the adolescents we learn with and from every day. It’s the brains’ fault.

More specifically, it was the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.

Responsible for planning, decision making, priority setting, strategy formation, and inhibiting impulses and behavior often considered “inappropriate”, especially by those with fully matured prefrontal cortices, coming to understand the role of the brain and its impact on executive functioning may be the key.

To further complicate matters, because the adolescent brain is managing a developing prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, responsible for emotion, is the part of the brain that adolescents rely upon to process information. So when we see adolescents who seem to “act first, think second”, there's a good reason. In the book, The Power of the Adolescent Brain, author Thomas Armstrong likens this developmental mismatch to if a car’s gas pedal was to fully accelerate without fully installed brakes.

As anyone who’s experienced this first or second-hand can tell you, it’s obvious why middle school kids don’t drive, let alone always make what appear to be well thought-out decisions.

Of course, adolescents can’t walk around absolving themselves of any responsibility for what they do, because they have underdeveloped brains. However, it is of value for adults to learn to develop strategies to use with adolescents to help navigate…adolescence.

So, what now?

What’s to do with this new information about middle school kids having brains like cars that desperately need a repair shop?

Put on a seat belt and a crash helmet?

Sit back and watch what happens?

Enjoy the ride?

All of the above?

Let’s go back to driver’s education, and take a road test. Unpacking this, and devising actionable consistent strategies will support adolescents’ progress through adolescence.

They can do it.

They just need a fearless adult, ready, willing, and able to “ride shotgun” while it happens.

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