adolescent brain development

Then and Now

Then and Now: The Reality of New Beginnings
By: Shauna Stubbs, RHYTTAC Principal Investigator for National Safe Place Network 

Human beings tote baggage around everywhere we go.  Sometimes we hold that heaviness inside and struggle to let it go.  Experiences of disappointment, pain and loss teach us to survive by limiting expectations, eliminating vulnerability, and disconnecting from others.  Other times that baggage gets stuck in the environment around us.  Failing an assignment at school colors a teacher’s perception of a student’s potential.  A mistake at work results in colleagues or supervisors doubting a young person’s reliability.  A common but destructive error in judgment breaks a parent’s trust and makes it difficult for a youth to restore it.

For those of us who work with runaway and homeless youth, it isn’t hard to see how such baggage might trigger a chain of events and reactions that could ultimately lead a young person to isolation, hopelessness, and life on the streets.  Knowing how important both resilience and relationships are to positive outcomes for runaway and homeless youth, we have an opportunity to encourage youth, families, and communities to explore such challenges from a different perspective.

Change is hard for any of us.  Feeling pressure to change makes it harder.  Working to change in the face of expectations that we will fail can make the odds seem insurmountable.  Our youth and families experience these struggles every day.  Coping skills that cause harm are difficult to replace.  Unsupportive communication patterns are hard to break.  We who serve runaway and homeless youth recognize those challenges, and we know that pushing through them can produce extraordinary results.

As RHY service providers, our knowledge and experience uniquely equip us to help youth and families navigate these changes.  Here are a few of the ways we can help:

  1. Normalize these experiences. Help youth and families see that they are not alone.
  2. Facilitate realistic expectations. Don’t set families up to fail.  Help them recognize that old patterns were practiced for a long time, and it may take some time to practice newer ones.
  3. Teach and demonstrate healthy communication skills. Use reflective listening and practice “I” statements.
  4. Teach and demonstrate skills for giving meaningful and effective feedback. Specific acknowledgement and lessons learned about effort, strategy and persistence build self-esteem.  Celebrate each positive step!
  5. Encourage youth and families to take risks. Vulnerability is a powerful connection facilitator, and it can be very scary.
  6. Build relationships with local schools, businesses, churches and other organizations and advocate for youth in our communities.

This skill-building and advocacy can help youth and families lighten the load they carry and move forward with a perspective of hope and possibility.

Follow these links to helpful resources available from National Safe Place Network:

NSPN Training Members can access the following webinars on e-Learning at http://nspnetwork.training.reliaslearning.com/

NSPN: Motivational Interviewing (NSPN201503)

Additional resources available through RHYTTAC on e-Learning athttp://rhyttac.training.reliaslearning.com/

Engaging Families of RHY (RHYTTAC47)

Meeting “Connection” Needs of RHY (RHYTTAC48)

Family Assessment and Intervention (REL-FAI-BH-0)

Other resources available online:

Stages of Change Model: http://stepupprogram.org/docs/handouts/STEPUP_Stages_of_Change.pdf

Assertiveness Formula: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201108/the-abcs-assertiveness

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Part Three of our “Brain Development” Series: Creating a Brain-Based Environment for Youth

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

Adolescence is defined as the transition from childhood to adulthood and encompasses the broad developmental tasks of establishing a unique identity and developing one’s own autonomy and independence. Brain development also undergoes unique changes during adolescence that can explain many behaviors specific to this developmental period.

Brain development continues well into the 20’s and the last area to develop is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher cognitive and emotional functioning. Prefrontal cortex development is largely influenced by experience and this allows us to directly impact adolescent brain development.

After a preadolescent cellular growth spurt in the brain, a pruning process begins in adolescence. The adolescent loses approximately three percent of gray matter in the prefrontal lobes. This pruning works on a “use it or lose it” principle so it is important to repeatedly expose young people to the skills and knowledge needed to become successful adults. Repeated use and exposure will strengthen the neural connections that support these skills so they are not lost during the pruning process.

The speed and efficiency of neural communication is determined by neural sensitivity known as long-term potentiation. Under normal situations, long-term potentiation is highest during adolescence. However, adolescents face many factors that can inhibit long-term potentiation.  Things like alcohol and substance use, chronic stress, sleep deprivation, and stimulants interfere with long-term potentiation and slow neural communication. We can help teens minimize exposure to these risk factors through education.

Due to the pattern of brain development, teenagers have greater difficulty reading the emotions of others, a function of the prefrontal lobes, and experience emotions at greater intensity than adults due to a reactive limbic system. We can help develop the neural pathways between the limbic center and prefrontal lobes by helping teens examine and identify emotions (their own and of others) and helping them learn to “put a brake” on their emotions and stop and think before reacting. Activities such as “emotion charades” allows teens the opportunity to both recognize and express emotions.

Research now demonstrates a significant link between exercise and brain functioning and development. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen level in the brain and this is necessary for optimal cellular growth and function. Exercise also impacts neurotransmitter levels in the brain that can serve to help teens better regulate emotional control.

Knowledge is power and teens should be educated about how the choices that they make during adolescence can have lifelong impacts.

This blog is the final post in a three-part series on adolescent brain development. Click on the links below to read parts one and two:

Part One of our “Brain Development” Series: General Brain Development

Part Two of our “Brain Development” Series: The Brain and Crisis Situations