Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed the adolescent period as a time when mindfulness interventions are an especially good fit, particularly in the college setting. Patricia Broderick, PhD, author of Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance, agrees that there is ample opportunity for implementing mindfulness, particularly Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with teenagers.
According to Broderick, adolescence is a time of unique possibilities and challenges in development. Research has revealed dramatic transformations in the adolescent brain that specifically relate to education and learning. The adolescent brain undergoes the process of rewiring itself, depending on what is learned and experienced. This stage of reorganization may be particularly sensitive to inner and outer experiences related to emotions and social relationships (Blakemore, 2008).
- In adolescence, changes in the brain mainly occur in the frontal and parietal corticles, which are the site of executive functions, a general term used to describe higher-order cognitive processes (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006).
- Myelination of the frontal cortex, which allows for smooth and efficient processing of information, proceeds continuously over the course of adolescence but is not complete until early adulthood. During adolescence, the creation and myelination of new synaptic connections occurs, along with the pruning of unused, unpracticed connections. These activities are most pronounced in the prefrontal cortex, located right behind the forehead—which plays a role in self-control, judgment, and emotion regulation—and in the temporal lobes, which serve language functions and contribution to emotion regulation (Sawyer et al., 2012; Casey, Giedd, & Thomas, 2000; Sowell, Thompson, & Toga, 2007).
- Because the adolescent brain is, in many ways, rewiring itself depending on what is learned and experienced, this stage of synaptic reorganization may be particularly sensitive to inner and outer experiences related to emotions and social relationships (Blakemore, 2008).
- In the case of learning, mild stress can enhance memory, but chronic or excessive stress can damage parts of the brain that are critical for new learning and memory consolidation (Sapolsky, 2004).
At the same time, risk-taking behavior among adolescents is at an all-time high. But the propensity toward risky behavior is not sufficiently kept in check by a well-functioning internal monitor (prefrontal cortex), which researcher JoAnne Dahl (2004) describes as “turbo-charging the engines of a fully mature car belonging to an unskilled driver.” The pattern of neurobiological changes that occurs in adolescence may make adolescents particularly sensitive to distress during this period (Walker, 2002), and many researchers now consider adolescence to be a stress-sensitive period of development (Steinberg, 2008).
- Compared to other stages of the lifespan, the changes in hormone levels that occur during adolescence are the most rapid (Fataldi et al., 1999).
- In addition to increases in pubertal sex hormones, greater activation of the HPA axis has also been demonstrated. Recent studies have found that levels of cortisol rise gradually through middle childhood and increase rapidly around age thirteen (Walker & Bollini, 2002).
- Studies of adults have consistently linked increases in HPA reactivity, as measured by cortisol increases, with unipolar and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Müller, Holsboer, & Keck, 2002; Post, 2007; Walker & DiForio, 1997).
- Some evidence suggests a similar pattern for adolescent disorders, notably depression (Birmaher & Heydl, 2001; Goodyer, Park, Netherton & Hebert, 2001). Both hormonal changes and maturation of the HPA axis appear to influence how the brain gets reorganized (Romer & Walker, 2007; Walker, Sabuwalla, & Huot, 2004).
Today’s adolescents also face a host of environmental challenges that can threaten their social and emotional well-being, including:
- The poor fit between developmental needs and the structure and curricula of schools (Eccles, 2004)
- A decline in academic orientation and motivation starting in the early adolescent years (Gutman, Sameroff, & Cole, 2003)
- Increasing psychological separation from parents (Darling, Cumsille, & Martinez, 2008)
- Increasing susceptibility to peer influence (Sim & Koh, 2003)
- Pressures of romantic relationships (Collins, 2003)
- Participation in antisocial or risky behaviors (Reyna & Farlet, 2006)
Heavy exposure to media also presents a significant challenge to today’s teens. Media messages serve as standards for social comparison that may undermine self-esteem, mold expectations for normative behavior, and amplify values that may be at odds with those of families and communities (Comstock & Scharrer, 2006). Research in this area has shown that:
- Increases in feelings of distress in early adolescence are largely attributable to increases in depressed mood (Garber, Keiley, and Martin, 2002; Hammen & Rudolph, 2003) and conflicts with parents (Larson & Richards, 1994; Laursen & Collins, 1994).
- Declines in positive emotionality have also been reported in adolescence (Collins & Steinberg, 2006), and the onset of depression is occurring at younger and younger ages (Cross-National Collaborative Group, 1992).
- A 1993 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2001) that provides a list of threats to adolescent well-being was recently updated to include school problems (including learning disabilities and attention difficulties), mood and anxiety disorders, adolescent suicide and homicide, firearms in the home, school violence, drug and alcohol abuse, HIV, and AIDS; and the effects of media on violence, obesity, and sexual activity were called “new morbidities.”
The sheer number of challenges that adolescents face in navigating this developmental stage may overwhelm their available cognitive and emotional resources, especially for those who have experienced less-than-optimal conditions in infancy and childhood. Adolescence is a sensitive period for emotional development, and the onset of many mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and schizophrenia during adolescence highlights the need to take the well-being of youth very seriously (Paus, Keshavan, & Giedd, 2008). While research suggests that the adolescent brain is vulnerable to permanent stress-related alterations in the context of pubertal neuroplasticity, this period also can be a time for interventions and opportunities to reduce or reverse the adverse effects accumulated from earlier insults (Romeo & McEwen, 2006).
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