How to Make the Most of Adolescence
Birth2Work Co-founder, father, grandfather
Windows of Opportunity
The brain is a remarkable organ. Learning occurs throughout our lives, so the brain is always undergoing changes. But there are certain times during a person’s life when the brain is at its highest plasticity—able to modify its own structure to make new connections and strengthen existing ones.
At Birth2Work, we describe these times as “Windows of Opportunity.” By knowing when these periods are, you can harness this built-in fast track to learning and receive the biggest return for your efforts.
Just like in the toddler years, adolescence is a time in which the human brain is primed to learn through experience.
The First Window
As infants and toddlers, the learning we do is initially focused on three particular functionalities:
- Physical – learning to crawl then walk
- Cognitive – learning to speak and process language
- Emotional – learning self-evaluation
The Second Window
However, as the child gets older, there is a second window in which there is increased learning that is focused on:
- Social skills – learning to interact with others
- Responsibility – learning to value your contribution to a larger group
- Life skills – taking care of yourself
What’s Happening to My Teen?
Any parent of a teen knows that these years are full of changes. We often think of the physical changes that occur at this time, but we must recognize the incredible changes also occurring in the teen’s brain.
As a child reaches adolescence, the prefrontal cortex in the brain continues to develop and mature with a significant growth spurt just before puberty. This means that well used connections in the brain are strengthened while the unused (and therefore deemed unnecessary by the brain) connections are pruned away for the sake of efficiency.
Example: learning to play an instrument well during this window will likely result in a lifetime of ability.
Learning through doing and continuous repetition strengthens skills.
What You Can Do to Help
Anchor your children in the world around them to make them better people.
Engage a child’s brain in learning and repeating the social skills, responsibility, and life skills that must be attained during this time. You can facilitate a regular stream of real-life experience to which they can apply their expanding cognitive and social capabilities.
- Take your teen to vote with you; to a city council meeting; to Washington D.C.
- Take your child to a laundry mat so they understand the use of industrial machines and how to wash their clothes in the dorm.
- Talk to your teen about the charitable donations you choose to make and why.
- Discuss what it means to be a good friend and focus attention on the world outside of their immediate sphere.
- Don’t shy away from having challenging discussions with your teenager. There are gentle ways, through tone of voice, agreements of actions and timelines and consequences, that can make the exchange in a challenging conversation less heated and more respectful on both sides. Discuss what you expect of one another. This will teach them to better handle conflict with others as they grow more independent.
Take Advantage of Your Time Together
Adolescence is an in-between time when a person gets the experience they need to begin to grow into a functioning adult of the future. After the window closes it becomes much harder to teach the “old dog new tricks.”
The brain’s plasticity and resilience enable learning anything at any time later in life, too. But what is learned during windows of opportunity can be learned masterfully. Make sure the first thing your child learns about social skills, responsibility, and life skills are what you want him or her to know and practice for the rest of their lives.
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