Adolescent Development

Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

what are they thinkingThe latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science came this week and caused me a ‘major’ personal dilemma. My book club meets on Monday, and my Kindle tells me I’m only 2 percent of the way through Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I will be expected to discuss with a modicum of intelligence. But this is a special issue of CDPS, entirely devoted to research about the adolescent brain—a topic I’m going to be writing a 2,500-word article about in the very near future.

To read or not to read was not the question so much as which to read.

I settled on a compromise. I’d allow myself one article about teen brains and then devote myself wholeheartedly to Major Pettigrew. But where to begin among the fifteen research articles in this special issue? Clearly I stand to pick up some valuable personal pointers from the one on decision making. But I focused instead on an article about a skill that forms the foundation for good decision making. I began with B.J. Casey and Kristina Caudle’s research titled “The Teenage Brain: Self Control.”

The crux of their study was why teens are subject to a 200 percent higher risk of harm during this time of their lives compared to childhood, even though they actually have a much higher reasoning capacity and are faster, stronger, and more resistant to disease.

Before they focus on the answer to this question, Casey and Caudle suggest that many of us may already think we know it. But if we’ve been getting most of our information from oversimplified media reports or from pop-psych books, we may have fallen victim to one of the following myths about the teenage brain:

1. Myth: Adolescent behavior is by nature irrational or deviant.

You’ve heard the pat analogies about teen thinking. “Teen brains are like a race car with no brakes or steering wheel,” the saying goes.

Casey and Caudle have performed some of the research that may have led to popular overgeneralizations like this one. However they write, “To suggest that this period of development is one of no brakes or steering wheel is to greatly oversimplify it.” In fact, under certain circumstances adolescents can actually outperform adults in regulating impulses. Which circumstances? Those in which emotional information is absent.

Adolescence is a phase during which we need to practice independence in preparation for adulthood. Perhaps in part to prompt us toward independence, we also become increasingly sensitive to social cues during this time. Sometimes these social cues are powerful enough to exert an emotional pull. Thus, explain Casey and Caudle, “when decisions are required in the heat of the moment (ie., in the presence of emotional cues), performance falters.”

In other words, the “race car with no brakes or steering” analogy is only accurate in some “heat-of-the-moment” situations. In cooler, less emotionally-charged situations, teens are perfectly capable of acting rationally.

That said, this common adolescent “emotional hijack” condition is not the fault of an overactive amygdala as it is sometimes portrayed in popular media. The “amygdala hijack” described by psychologist Daniel Goleman is a very real phenomenon that can occur in children and adults alike, but it isn’t the same situation we see commonly in teen decision making. And neither is this adolescent hijack the fault of a “defective” prefrontal cortex, as we’ll see next.

2.  Myth: Adolescents can’t make rational decisions because of their immature prefrontal cortex.

It’s true that the prefrontal cortex is still developing in teens, but it is not defective. Teens can make rational decisions. Just before puberty, research has found, the brain experiences a burst of neuronal growth to provide for a period of pruning before adulthood. During the important adolescent stage of development, prefrontal connections are far from absent. Rather, as Casey and Caudle point out, they have been there since birth and are continually being strengthened through adolescence by the teen’s daily experiences.

“What is changing during this period of development is the strength of connections within prefrontal circuitry as individuals learn to adapt to changing environmental demands,” the researchers write. Specifically, they observe enhanced activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex when teens are successful in suppressing “heat of the moment” responses, an ability that increases with age. But when teens were unsuccessful in depressing “heat of the moment” responses, the researchers saw increased activity in the ventral striatum, “a region critical for detecting and learning about novel and rewarding cues in the environment.”

You might call it a “ventral-striatal” hijack, in a sense. But this tension between reward circuitry and control circuitry doesn’t indicate an irrational or deviant brain. Rather it’s a natural step on the way to achieving the control and independence necessary to prepare for adulthood.

3. Myth: All adolescents go through a perod of “sturm and drang,” or emotional rebellion.

Simply put, some teens go through a stormy period and some teens don’t, and like all other behavior, the difference seems to involve both genetic and environmental influences on self regulation.

A 40-year followup to the famous “marshmallow study” showed that the same people who had shown difficulty in delaying gratification as children still had difficulty with self regulation as adults in their mid 40s. Clearly, individual differences in self-control can persist. But we also know that self control is a skill that can be strengthened with practice.

Adolescence is a time when the brain is more capable than ever before and is being fine-tuned. It’s a period ripe with opportunity for parents to contribute to the process without taking full control over it. After all, teens need opportunities to practice, which includes being allowed the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed. “Indeed,” write Casey and Caudle, “if the objective of adolescence is to gain independence from the family unit, then providing opportunities for adolescents to engage in new responsibilities is essential. Without opportunities and experiences to help optimally shape the adolescent’s brain and behavior, the objectives of this developmental phase will not easily be met.”

Much like the objectives of my book club if I don’t return to Major Pettigrew immediately.

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