Written and Narrated by Jacob Knowles
Working with adolescents certainly has it’s ups and downs. Within the school setting, we informally are witness to longitudinal research showing the changes young people face during development. This includes when they are faced with both common and unexpected situations. Parents and Teachers often spend time analysing, reflecting on and planning for supporting their young people so that they are prepared for inevitable changes and able to respond in an educated way.
A particularly interesting period to observe is towards the end of Early Adolescents (usually between the ages 10-14). This is a period of dramatic change for young people with an ‘explosion’ of new, maturing aspects of life that begin to become important. The Raising Children Network explores three of these areas noting Physical, Emotional and Social change as particularly important.
For boys and girls, physical changes vary greatly both in how and when they occur. Girls tend to go through growth spurts earlier than boys and this in turn leads to significant other physical changes. In boys, puberty comes ‘early’ for some and ‘late’ for others despite having no set time to arrive. There exist something of a competition to undergoing these physical changes as it shows a perceived level of being more like an adult but at the same time a rollercoaster of trying to understand how and why it is happening.
Educating our young people about what changes they should expect before the process begins can take away much of the ‘fear of the unknown’ and reduce stress and anxiety. We should encourage our young people to ask questions and we should be ready to provide accurate and suitable information to increase their awareness.
One thing we as adults mustn’t do is expect our young people to initiate these conversation. Certainly there are some students who are more naturally inquisitive than others. These students will seek out adults that they feel comfortable learning from and tend to be fact and data driven. For most students, the idea of asking an adult about physical changes they know their body will undergo is not a positive one. This does not make them any less interested but their guardedness can be misinterpreted as not wanting to talk about it and so often we as adults simply don’t.
Physical changes are usually easy to observe and so responding to these can be less challenging. Whilst their body is maturing physically, it is important to remember that their brain development (including thinking skills and emotional development) are happening at their own speed. The old adage that ‘what we see on the surface doesn’t always match what’s happening underneath’ is important to keep at the forefront of our minds when engaging with our young people.
During this time, young people tend to exhibit strong feelings and intense emotions in situations when normally they would not. The unpredictability of these can lead to increased conflict with parents and carers, teachers, siblings and within friendship groups. The brain during this time is undergoing massive changes to work out how to control and express emotions in more ‘grown-up’ ways. Young people may also become more sensitive to the emotions of significant adults in their lives. This sensitivity can be positive and an enhanced level of empathy shown however may also lead them to misread body language and facial expressions again causing conflict. The focus here for adults must be on not overreacting to a situation by making assumptions based on their behaviour. It will take time, but the skills necessary for responding to the emotions of others will continue to develop during this period.
An obvious yet important factor in emotional changes is how the young person now sees themselves. Their body is changing, they are experiencing new and complex emotions and caught somewhere between becoming an adult but still being a child. They are likely to become extremely self-conscious and develop a number of strategies to ‘mask’ this to the world. It is common for a young persons self-esteem to be significantly affected by appearance, or by how they think others see them. Again, it is vital that we support our young people, build them up, reassure them and create environments based on open communication.
In addition to physical and emotional changes, young people during this period are frantically working out who they are and how they fit in to the world. During their early years, children tend to be happy being a part of larger groups and conforming to group rules and responsibilities. Children are happy to be known by the school they go to or the club they play for and abide by the values learnt there. As children enter early adolescents, they begin searching for something more personal and begin to look at their own identity. It is common for young people to want to break away from their normal interests and try new things including music, clothing styles, appearances and friendship groups.
We must remember that the search for greater independence is common during this time. School holiday plans and activities that you had worked on during the term may be seen as ‘lame’ or ‘boring’ to them now and they just want to do their own thing. Finding a balance between completely changing plans and affording them some independence is important. They are still children and they must know that there is always a safe place to return to if their new world becomes too overwhelming.
The development of identity can often see young people seek out new experiences. This includes ones that adults know are risky or dangerous. The mind of a young person during early adolescents does not always read situations in a controlled manner. Impulse control is also still developing and so the relationship between adult and young person is likely to be tested. Control here is key. Not in a physical sense but as adults being able to control our emotions in responding to their behaviours.
The period of Early Adolescents is crucial for young people. Physical, emotional and social changes are both inevitable and extremely necessary as they mature in to young adults. It is during this time that we must help our young people strengthen the development of their personal values and morals. They will still look to significant adults in their lives for what they say and how they act and this will become another factor in how they develop. They will need to be reminded of right and wrong and be allowed to explore the world but be held accountable for their actions. No two journeys will be the same so we must be organic and adaptable in living this journey with them.
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Assistant Principal – College Operations