Finding the Balance
By Tess Adams, LICSW
When it comes to parenting, especially adolescents, the conflicting messages and research abounds. An article in the morning paper shouts, “Your children are too stressed and overwhelmed, and anxiety is on the rise.” Yet, as you look ahead at high school and the college admissions process, it can feel irresponsible not to help your child build the best academic and extracurricular skill set possible to help them achieve their dreams. Is it possible to find a balance amidst the pressure from all sides?
During the adolescent years, the brain undergoes a massive transformation. While we think of teens as being those around ages 14–18, the true period of adolescent brain development stretches from ages 10–24. During this period, the brain peaks in its available gray matter— making it an age ripe for learning. In addition, the “pleasure-seeking” dopamine receptors in the brain increase, emotional responses in the amygdala increase, and the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for planning and decision-making) remains under construction. As you can imagine, this paints a picture of many young people you might know: they can pick up new skills so quickly, they are motivated by reward and social approval, they are easily stressed, and they tend to process everything on an emotional level first. One of the most remarkable factors of the developing middle school and teenage brain is the fact that it begins a process of pruning. This is where the brain takes all of that incredible gray matter and begins to form it into the special skills students will need to navigate the adult world. This pruning occurs primarily through repetition and rehearsal of these skills.
So how can you help your adolescent build on the incredible capacities of their brain, while protecting them from the emotional turbulence and stressors of the teen years?
Research increasingly points to the idea that avoiding stress is not the solution to building a resilient and capable adult. However, living in a state of constant stress and overwhelm can also lead to the potential for more complex anxiety to develop. In a New York Times article, “How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress,” psychologist Lisa Damour discusses that while chronic and traumatic stress can be toxic, the stress that comes with normal tasks, such as taking a big test, is a “typical and normal part of life.” She continues on to emphasize that because research has over and over told us that stress causes harm, we have become convinced as educators and parents that our job is to reduce stress, or to become stressed ourselves trying to find ways to prevent our children from encountering any obstacles. The article concludes by saying that not only is it important to reframe our view of stress as an important way to build capacity in young people, but this can only be fully achieved through providing equal opportunity for rest and fun. “Instead of trying to vanquish academic pressure, we should turn our attention to making sure students can rebound between bouts of intense intellectual activity, just as athletes rest between hard workouts . . . Students should be taxed by school, and they should have enough time to restore themselves.”
I recently taught a yoga retreat for mothers and daughters in the Berkshires. These were young children, mostly 6–8 years old, but I was delighted to find that many had been learning mindfulness and yoga skills at school, in afternoon programs, and at camp. Mindfulness and yoga are just a few of the tools that you can provide your child with. These are skill sets that allow children’s minds and bodies opportunity to strengthen the ability to shift from the heightened stress response state that can come from academic and social tasks, and back into their bodies and into the moment. These are moments where their nervous systems can move into a restorative “rest and digest” state. The more that they are given chances to practice and master facing the normal and healthy stressors that stretch them, and then regain their quiet and calm, the more deeply they will embed this skill set for future challenges.
A recent study done by the Boston Charter Research Collaborative, a partnership between the Center for Education Research at Harvard and MIT, reinforced this position strongly. A group of 6th graders were either assigned to a coding class or a mindfulness class. At the end of eight weeks, the group who participated in the mindfulness class reported feeling less stressed and better able to control their emotions. Half of the students who participated also underwent brain scans, and remarkably, their amygdalas showed decreased responses to stressful or scary stimuli. The students from the coding class did not show these same results.
When you begin your search for summer programs, my recommendation would be looking towards programs that allow your child to continue to build upon their academic skill set, but also allow them continued opportunities to play, hike, live in the moment, breathe, stretch, and bond in positive ways with peers. This time in your child’s brain and social development is a critical window to help them to reinforce and prune the pathways in their brain for a lifelong balance between work and play.
Tess Adams, LICSW, is a psychotherapist and yoga teacher. She is the Director of Counseling and the Wellness Program coordinator at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts.