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Strength based approaches to parenting in late adolescence

Volume 11 Number 6 June 8 - July 13 2015

Katherine Smith speaks with Melbourne psychologist Lea Waters about understanding the new concept of emerging adulthood.

By the age of ten, the human brain has grown to adult size, but it takes another 15 or so years before it is fully operational, and securely under the control of its owner-operator, as any parent whose household is living through the occasional storms of adolescence and emerging adulthood will be well aware.

There are several strategies for survival parents can adopt, however, with the principles of positive psychology being among the best, according to psychologist Lea Waters.

Professor Waters leads the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, and says ‘pos psych’ can help everyone build optimism and resilience to help them face life’s tests and challenges, especially during the period of adolescence into young adulthood.

Brain development from ages 10-25
“Science has now shown the brain is not fully formed until the mid-20s,” Professor Waters explains.

“After the initial growth period of childhood, the adolescent brain begins to re-organise itself at around age 10, roughly coinciding with the onset of puberty.

“It builds new systems and creates greater interconnections between the pre-frontal cortex (where behaviour and personality are controlled) and the limbic system (where the emotional life and memory is controlled) and keeps doing this until the brain’s neural architecture is fully formed at full adulthood around the mid-20s.

“But because of social and environmental effects, we’re noticing two things. Puberty is occurring earlier, meaning adolescence is starting in pre-teen years, and the transition from adolescence into adulthood has been elongated into the early-20s. Psychologists are recognising this and are starting to study the possibility of a new life phase they are calling ‘emerging adulthood’, which occurs roughly from the ages of 20-26.”

Professor Waters says psychologists have identified a new model of life pattern development.

Interestingly, most of the neural development occurring through the period of emerging adulthood takes place in areas of the brain that relate to relationships and regulator systems in the brain.

“While the early adolescent brain develops the reward systems (situated in our limbic system) which are responsible for motivation and action – thus explaining the sensation seeking and risk taking behaviour of young people this age – in late adolescence to emerging adulthood, brain development moves to focus on the prefrontal cortex,” Professor Waters says.

“The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our higher order, executive functions such as planning, problem-solving and decision-making.

“The development of the pre-frontal cortex, which builds our regulatory system (being rational), allows young people at this age to gain better impulse control over their reward system (being emotional) and this is why we start to see behaviour that is more adult like by this age.”

Driving the brain
Professor Waters says using the metaphor of how a car works is useful.

“The limbic system is the accelerator and the pre-frontal cortex is the brake. By the time a young person matures into adulthood (mid-20s) they know how to drive their brain. They know when to use their emotions to motivate themselves into action, and they know how to use their rationality to plan future actions and curb unhelpful impulses.

“But this ability to ‘drive their brain’ in a mature way really doesn’t occur until mid-20s.”

The psychological process occurring during this time is called ‘individuation’ and it reflects the process of the young person becoming aware of who they are as separate from their parents and peers, according to Professor Waters.

“They establish their true and unique identity and they distinguish themselves from others. The process of individuation can be exhilarating and liberating, but it can also be fear-provoking, with the young person anxious about stepping into the unknown, and guilt-provoking in families which don’t respond well to a young person separating themselves, or when young people feel they are being disloyal to their family as they separate and embrace independence.

“In addition, the trend of young people to live in the family home for longer makes the process of individuation difficult for parents and young people to navigate.”

If young people are participating in senior secondary or tertiary study, they are also likely to be experiencing the further challenges of balancing study commitments with part-time work, social life, romantic partnerships and down-time, the later of which Professor Waters says is very necessary, and which year 12 students in particular don’t get enough of.

“Stress results from the imbalance of the demands made upon a person from the environment and the resources that person has to meet those demands,” she says. “VCE can be well-managed by some students and not by others, depending on their personal demands versus resources balance.

“There is no question that the demands of VCE are considerable and so schools and families need to ensure they are providing students with adequate support and resources.

A strength-based parenting approach
“My own research with final year school students shows that parents who take a strength-based approach with their teenaged sons and daughters have children who report higher levels of life satisfaction.”

Strength-based parenting is a style of parenting that seeks to deliberately identify and cultivate positive states, positive processes and positive qualities in one’s children.

“When parents seek to identify and amplify their son or daughter’s strengths this build confidence in teenagers and helps to buffer them against the stressors of teenage life.

“These strengths can be personality aspects such as courage, kindness, humour and so forth. They can be process strengths such as your son or daughter being a good communicator and problem solver. The strengths can be talent based such as academic ability, sporting ability, artistic ability, music ability, leadership ability and so on.

“Parenting in ways that connect an adolescent/emerging adult with their inherent strengths is energizing for both the child and the parent.

“These strengths then form inner resources that a young person can draw upon to get a better balance between the demands/resources equation.