How the adolescent brain develops, how unprecedented levels of technology impact upon, and how counsellors can help.
There are stories all over the news at the moment of young people’s poor mental health and high levels of anxiety and depression in girls. This causes much concern for counsellors. A cocktail of issues has arisen: frustrations with CAMHS and children’s social care thresholds, safeguarding and concern for care leavers, burnout of social workers, poor parenting, unrealistic expectations of short-term therapy, and the need for long-term work. The children and young people we work with are mixed into all of this.
This distils Graham Music’s Brighton Therapy Workshop in October 2016, with key takeaways for those couldn’t make it. It looks at the idea that adolescence stops only when we become independent. Graham’s training explored brain development, the effects of technology and internet use, and the impact of maltreatment and ‘worrying adolescence’ and pornography.
What neuroscience shows us about the teenage brain
Adolescent brains can take up to the age of 25 to fully mature, and the pre-frontal cortex is not formed until the mid 20s. This means that the teenage brain is reconfiguring, developing a new capacity for abstract thinking and a new autonomous identity from parents/caregivers which inevitably requires some risk taking.
This suggests that teens are under a huge amount of neurological stress, and are profoundly different to adults in brain processing. In adolescents it is often the amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain to do with fight/flight responses that is triggered, and this explains why teenagers can over-react and erupt so quickly. Teens unavoidably confuse emotions; they have less capacity to understand others’ perspectives and this can trigger reactivity.
All of this suggests the vulnerability of adolescents, and how their ‘metamorphosis’ at this important age is sadly less supported by society and adults in general, than younger children. Maybe because they are less cute! Parents and caregivers ‘scaffold’ the development of toddlers but don’t do the same for adolescence. This brings up the question of how much is our response to teenagers related to parental needs, including to have them grow up fast?
Adolescent brains are vulnerable brains and not surprisingly it’s the time that most mental health problems develop, which often goes undiagnosed. It is worth considering what is normal adolescent risk taking and what is ‘warning’ adolescence risk taking, with research on the impact of technology, alcohol, and pornography on teen brain development. With peers being the main focus of teen life, teens are far more inclined to be influenced by peers than by adults. This is not to mention how bombarded with consumer culture and pornography young people’s brains are.
The Buzz Trap in a new technological age
When a teenager is developing, the need to separate from parents and take risks may be hijacked at this vulnerable time by substances, sex and technology. This can be referred to as ‘the buzz trap’ of the dopamine system. Modern life with porn, technology and substances, is unprecedented for the developing teenage brain. This can mean that a teenager can feel like an engine without a driver, with hundreds of different demands on their attention popping up as notifications on their smartphones.
‘Screenagers’ average 6.5 hours per day on technology with oscillating between devices making it difficult to concentrate in class and leading to technology addictions and massive problems with sleep. Research shows that highly stressed individuals use drugs more. Tech use also hijacks the dopamine system, with teenagers spending increasing amounts of time on tech to defensively manage anxiety.
Tech companies have a vested interest. With computer games and technology designed to be ‘variable,’ they trigger the dopamine centres in brain, and are therefore addictive. While the dopamine system functions the prefrontal cortex is effectively halted (the prefrontal cortex being where our ‘moral self’ lives, as well as our self-control, decision making, empathy and planning abilities). This is effectively the opposite of being mindful.
How to help as a counsellor or therapist
As a therapist, it is important to share some of our knowledge about adolescence and brain development with teenagers and young people – particularly around the dopamine system and their reliance/relationship with tech and porn. It is possible that a ‘mature brain’ can offer some insight and supportive information to younger vulnerable brains.
In sharing information or knowledge, it seems particularly important to be factual and non-judgemental, so as not to come across as punitive or ‘parenty’. It’s important to acknowledge young people’s main purpose of disengaging from dependency on adults. Counsellors and therapists could have a particularly important role. They are not a parent or a peer, but instead giving teens and young people the benefit of contact with a safe adult brain in the therapeutic setting.
Therapy must adapt to the modern world
In the technology era, therapeutically it seems appropriate to check in with this generation of young people and be curious about what their relationship is with technology and pornography. These are potentially very real facets of their lives now, and part of nearly everyone’s ‘system’ and experience and therefore part of what we need to consider as therapists. A young person may have their main relationships online, but they are still their main relationships, and therefore important for therapy. How do we as therapists accept this cultural change? And do we really accept how it is for young people now?
It is particularly important to consider how the ‘soothing and connection’ can be too small in busy, modern ways of living and even more so for teens who have experienced maltreatment. Maltreated children grow to become adults with a different prefrontal cortex capacity which results in poorer executive functioning and emotional regulation.
As therapists we may be working with all these things and so need many resources, in addition to our core training, to adequately respond to clients. We need to really empathise and understand their world is different to ours, and in that respect they are best placed to explain it to us. This becomes a chance in itself for deep understanding and connection.
Is therapy enough?
A therapist has 50 minutes a week compared to other powerful influences on young clients’ brains. Can therapy be successful when competing with the day-to-day interactions young people have with technology? Up to recently, the therapy space was ideally a sanctuary from other negative human interactions. Now therapy is a human space – it is separate from other relationships, including a relationship with technology and the internet. This highlights the importance of keeping technology out of sessions, such as asking clients to keep phones off.
The therapy spaces we offer can importantly ‘hold young people in mind,’ and this experience is what is often missing and also essentially where the healing can begin. The ability of social workers to build relationships with young people has reduced significantly, so therapy may be one of a very few quality human spaces remaining. It’s where young people are held in mind and where their social engagement system and mentalising capacities can begin to be linked and the window of tolerance expanded.
Enhancing our understanding of teenage lives
Adolescent brains take till 25 to fully mature and longer still for some people, and therapists need to expand their view of what influences young people (it’s more than family and peer relationships now). Young people are best placed to educate us about their lives – the world is potentially toxic out there, and we as therapists need to provide a link to humanity that is incredibly important and valuable.