Adolescent Development

Adolescent Development

    Whether it is typical behavior, such as risky skateboarding, not preparing for an exam, or reacting to an unfair call in sports, or more troubling behavior such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, running away, or delinquency, a teenager’s actions can only be understood in the context of his/her unique combination of immaturity, disabilities and trauma. Services for the young person—in child welfare, juvenile justice, wraparound, schools, or mental health—must be designed to meet his/her specific needs coming from immaturity, disabilities and trauma. Findings about adolescent brain development and the recognition that teenagers think differently from adults are now well-accepted, but far less attention has been given to how to respond with interventions that meet the unique needs of a young person. A youth’s unacceptable actions are often the primary basis for determining placement in group care, a different school, a juvenile facility or adult prison, but behavior by itself tells us little about the individual or what it would take for him/her to be successful at home, school and other areas.

    Immaturity. Even late in their teens young people usually have immature thought processes, including: (a) Not anticipating: Adolescents often do not plan or do not follow their plan and get caught up in unanticipated events. (b) Minimizing danger: Risk-taking typical of adolescents reduces their use of mature cognitive strategies--they seldom consider the worst possible outcomes of their actions.  (c) Feeling threatened: Decision-making can be very immature when a teen is scared, particularly if they have been mistreated in the past.

    Adolescents gradually refine a stable definition of themselves. Becoming good at something is an essential aspect of identity development.  Doing well in school, arts, sports, or a hobby is how adolescents define themselves. Belonging to family is the framework for identity and remains powerful for teenagers. Identifying with peers is another important source of acceptance. Many youth have not experienced success, particularly in school, and still have an unformed identity, making them more vulnerable to involvement with peers who are also unsuccessful.

    Disabilities. As many as half the youth involved in juvenile justice or child welfare have learning disabilities which affect them not only in school, but at home and in the community especially in comprehending others and following directions. Of particular concern in these teenagers is how their disabilities affect planning, self-monitoring, and changing behavior in response to failure. By the time the learning disability is identified, many children are lacking in basic skills necessary to comprehend schoolwork. Often the child with disabilities gets into a negative cycle of self-dislike and attention-seeking that interferes with school participation. Truancy—due to feeling picked on and embarrassment for not being able to comprehend the material--can begin early in children with disabilities, and not attending school puts youth at risk of other problems.

    Trauma. Most youth involved in juvenile justice or child welfare have been traumatized by abuse and/or loss of parent and/or exposure to violence. Trauma typically slows down development in children and, depending on the individual, can interfere with all aspects of the child's functioning (even when symptoms do not meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Traumatized children and adolescents often have trouble concentrating in school, are fearful, have nightmares and may seem emotionally detached and pessimistic about the future. Aggression can be a defense against the feeling of helplessness common among traumatized children. Depression is a frequent reaction to trauma, but often is not diagnosed in troubled youth: usually their problem behavior at school and home are the focus of professionals and parents rather than their underlying sadness. Adolescents with a history of trauma have been found to be at risk of substance abuse, often relying on drugs and/or alcohol to escape sadness.

    Supporting a young person to understand the needs behind his/her behavior is an important first step to figuring out triggers and effective coping skills. In attempting to control youth behavior, adults unintentionally trigger traumatized young people who react to adult limit-setting as victimization (regardless of adult intentions). These youth respond to confrontation and mandatory rules by becoming more entrenched in unacceptable behavior. The community-based and residential programs to which they are sent by child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and school systems are often too inflexible to recognize that this may not be defiance (which is how it is handled), but rather past trauma causing the youth to see the adults as disrespectful or abusing power.

    Girls in foster care and juvenile justice have trauma-related behavior problems that are often poorly understood. Developmental research has identified stressors on girls that make them more vulnerable, especially during physical maturation and school transitions, and may contribute to an enduring sense of unworthiness affecting their placement in foster care and involvement in delinquent acts.

    Dr. Beyer has offered adolescent development training, on understanding what is behind a youth’s behavior and how to respond, for many groups across the country.