Adolescence Unplugged Part 2

Part two of a two-part series (Part 1) on understanding and engaging with adolescents, published in Teachers Matter magazine, this article explore adolescent stressors and the role lighthouses play in adolescents lives.

 “Regrettably in many secondary classrooms today adolescent students are still doing things and learning in ways that have characterized classrooms for decades and that unfortunately have long been shown to be ineffective.- Corbin, B 2008, Unleashing The Potential of the Teenage Brain: 10 Powerful Ideas, Corwin Press, USA, p. 11

In the last article I explored the biological changes that take place during the bumpy ride of adolescence that partially explain some of the challenges that the Millennial adolescent struggles with. Not only are they undergoing massive changes physically, biologically and emotionally they are caught up in a world where massive change is the norm. Change of any kind impacts individuals of any age in different ways children and adolescents often struggle more because they do not have the benefit of a fully developed reasoning brain. Change creates stress. Adolescents also process their world through their amygdala rather than their as yet underdeveloped pre frontal lobe and together with the surging sex hormones, they feel things much more deeply and intensely so managing their swirling unpredictable emotional world is another source of stress for today’s adolescents. Boredom in the classroom is a brain antagonistic state and can be the trigger for inappropriate and often disruptive behaviour. In a nut shell, today’s adolescents are exposed to more stress than ever previous generation.

They are often wired by high energy drinks, chronic lack of sleep, self medication, and on top of that feel pressured to look cool, own cool stuff and be forever connected via mobile, email or social networking site. Many children have both a computer and TV in their bedrooms and that gap in human connectedness is very hard to rebuild when the bumpy ride of adolescence starts.

I firmly believe that many adults, including parents and teachers, are failing the adolescents in their lives by not monitoring them and protecting them sufficiently from stress and other dangers.

Emotional overwhelm – strong stressors.

This occurs when we feel overloaded by life. Some of things that can overwhelm adolescents especially are:

  • Car accidents
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Nasty, malicious gossip
  • Failing at school
  • Depression
  • Other mental illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Loss of job
  • Abuse of any kind
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Betrayal
  • Criminal activity
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Gender confusion
  • Discrimination
  • Serious illness
  • Personal injury
  • Family disharmony
  • Sudden unexpected life change
  • Unresolved conflict
  • Pressure of expectations
  • Perceived failure
  • Being late
  • Living outside your honour code

Reducing stress levels in adolescents lives brings enormous benefits.

The value of good sleep and how it reduces stress  

Adolescents need more sleep than pre-pubescents or adults. Most are running a sleep deficit, and this has significant negative effects on their well being on many levels. An article in the Weekend Australian Magazine (24 November 2007) highlighted recent research which showed that the more learned during the day, the more sleep required at night. This is so the brain can process and consolidate the memories. Vital gene activities need to occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) to ensure synaptic plasticity, or the strengthening of neural connections. Without deep sleep, these activities do not occur.

Many adolescents sleep with a consistently active mobile phone, are easily distracted by their global friends on various social Internet sites or play games that absorb them far too much for them to sleep!

Another interesting finding from research is that sleep deprivation makes people recall unhappy memories over pleasant memories. This finding is enormously important in relation to troubled teens and many people who struggle with deep depression and despair.

Improving adolescent sleep has always been important, especially for those struggling with stress, emotional overwhelm or anxiety. Now it seems that moods are also very affected by lack of sleep. The research also supports teenagers starting school at a later time, as their brains are not ready for learning early in the morning. The results from the few Australian schools which are trialling later start times, have been very supportive of this research.

The final part of the research which deserves mention is the powerful link between obesity and sleeplessness. Sleep loss elevates the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is lipogenic, meaning it stimulates the body to make fat. Human growth hormone is also disrupted. Normally secreted as a pulse at the beginning of sleep, growth hormone is essential for the breakdown of fat (Weekend Australian Magazine, p. 36).

Sleep is essential for the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual well being of every individual – this is not only important for children and teenagers whose brains are still developing. Our behaviour is moderated by moods and emotions which all come from the brain. A healthy appreciation of the value of good sleep is a life skill.

What are the consequences of insufficient sleep in adolescents?

  • Missed school
  • Sleepiness (including micro-sleeps)
  • Negative synergy with alcohol
  • Tiredness (decreased motivation)
  • Irritability and low-frustration tolerance
  • Over-eating, and yearning for high fat foods
  • Difficulties with self-control of attention, emotion, and behaviour
  • Difficulties with focused attention, irritability, emotional ability
  • Affected regulation and Cognitive Emotional Integration
  • Direct effects on learning, memory consolidation


Reducing Stress by Caring and Guiding

Adolescents can be very volatile, especially when flooded with negative brain chemicals that occur if they feel threatened, tired or are having a misery mood. They are also highly susceptible to increased stress from unsafe environments, toxic adults, too much threat in the learning domain and social alienation.

Reducing stress in their world especially in their schools is vitally important. Schools need to stop using shame based punitive blaming behaviour management programs because this is an enormous source of stress for todays students. The increasing levels of violence and aggression in our schools show that adolescents are struggling to manage their uncertain world. Most adolescents are running negative inner scripts that criticise, judge, blame and shame and they need help from the adults in their world to see things from a more rational place.

Many young people who seem attractive, intelligent and confident on the outside are torn apart on the inside by insecurity, anxiety and self-doubt. – Bainbridge, D., Teenagers: A natural history, (2009).

Every adolescent will make a dumb decision at some point during their bumpy ride to adulthood sometimes the mistake will be serious. Here are five steps that can help teachers and parents support an adolescent overcome a negative experience and help them recognize:

1. It was not an OK thing to do ownership of poor choice.

2. They are sorry it happened apologise to all who have been hurt.

3. Repair the wrong and make it right restitution and restoration.

4. Forgiveness for self and others.

5. Acknowledge the valuable learning experience growth and awareness.

The stronger the pastoral care or student services team in a high school, the healthier will the students be on all levels. The more that adolescents feel they belong, and that they have a valid place in a community, the less violence and the less abuse will be present in that community, and schools are a form of community. Today’s adolescents need more support than ever before and when schools focus on offering this support, the benefits are life-changing. Research shows that the presence of charismatic adults who care build a significant protective factor in adolescents lives. I call them lighthouses.

Key attributes of a lighthouse:

  • Solid and reliable
  • Offers protection
  • Well-informed about adolescent development
  • Friendly
  • Shines a light in the darkness
  • Models healthy adulthood
  • Offers silent guidance
  • Gives hope
  • Committed to the greater good of all, not just the pursuit of self

Lighthouses have to be able to develop a relationship that allows them to sow seeds of potential and shines a light on the invisible sign that hangs around every adolescents neck:

“Make me feel I matter”

Many adolescents feel invisible, unheard or that they just don’t matter. It took me a while to realise this when I was teaching. It started to dawn on me when I noticed that some mornings as I headed from the staff car park to the English office, a student or two would be leaning on the brick wall that was on my route. These were students I had approached separately the previous day at lunch. They were not in any of my classes, but I had noticed how lonely they looked eating lunch by themselves. Recognising this reaction, I searched for the students who sat alone, had obvious physical challenges or appeared to be avoiding their mainstream peer groups. I learned their names and made sure I smiled when I saw them. I even acknowledged them in the street. It didn’t take long before the row of students who greeted me every morning grew to more than a dozen some days up to 20. The simple act of being noticed made these students feel better. It may not have seemed like a big thing in the scheme of the curriculum, but it was huge for the students. This is an example of how we can all pause a little in our busy lives and shine that light.

Every adolescent needs a lighthouse to help them navigate the uncertain waters of adolescence.

Lighting the flame of potential, while being realistic about adolescent development, is extremely important. Young people are hard on themselves and adept at self-criticism and self-sabotage, and often get stuck in patterns of limitation. Lighthouses can help them see beyond these limitations. Lighthouses do not rescue, advise or make judgements on an adolescents behaviour, instead they act as a mirror so the young person can see the world from a different perspective. They can offer coaching that empowers and guides and this need to be done as respectfully .

Research shows that adolescence is a time of confusion, massive change and serious risk. It is also a time of enormous potential in the development of new skills, knowledge and abilities. The more support the better they will manage the unique stressors of this very bumpy time of life. Schools play an enormous role in protecting and supporting the Millennial digital natives.

People who have had a strong connection with a strong positive role model during adolescence are much more resilient throughout their life. – Bahr, N. and Pendergast, D., The Millennial Adolescent, (2007).


©Maggie Dent 2010

Bahr, N. & Pendergast, D., The Millennial Adolescent, ACER Press, Victoria, 2007.

Bainbridge, D., Teenagers: A Natural History, Portobello Books, London, UK, 2009.

Corbin, B., Unleashing The Potential of the Teenage Brain: 10 Powerful Ideas, Corwin Press, USA, 2008.