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Column: Preparing kids for high school, long before they get there

Who were you in high school? Did you like yourself? Do you think others liked you or thought you were a jerk? Adolescent research shows that how successful we are in the adult world has all to do with who we were at 16.

What you looked like and felt like in high school has direct correlation with your earning power, success in relationships, self-esteem, and what kind of music you like in your adult life. Height at 16 indicates positive earning potential in adulthood. Your teenage weight and attractiveness affects your adult self-esteem even if everything changed in college. So says the cover story in the recent edition of New York Magazine.

Many studies on the developing brain of the adolescent show us that important changes in the prefrontal cortex (the section that governs reason, impulsivity, comprehension of abstractions and self-reflection) are in process during the high school years but are not complete until the mid-20s. Thus the more primitive, emotional, fight-flight-or-freeze parts of the brain — the limbic system — still have more hold on the teen experience.

This is why, as B.J. Casey, neuroscientist at Cornell University explains, adolescents are notoriously bad at self-regulation. Everything the teen does and feels is more intense, whether they are associated with good or bad experiences. Casey and two colleagues discovered that the fear response to a particular trigger from the teen years is as strong later in life when the trigger is no longer present than it was at the time the fear was first provoked.

Approximately 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders “can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier years” because they never developed the tools at the time to control their anxiety.

Lawrence Steinberg, developmental psychologist at Temple University, says that the early years are critical to understanding how children learn in school, but if you want to know why people turn out the way they do, look to the adolescent years. “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

High-schoolers who experience depression, social rejection and isolation are far more impaired in adult life, this article claims, even if those experiences drastically change in adulthood. Who we were in high school predicts who we will be as adults.

The conclusion drawn by the New York Magazine author, Jennifer Senior, is that if teens behave and feel more intensely in adolescence than at other times of their lives and are working out identity for the first time while preoccupied with how they appear to others, then “most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents…. At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they are most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf.” In other words, the high school experience is a recipe for shame.

Certainly many teens sail through high school successfully and with increased self-esteem. Is it because they are tall, attractive and smart? Or is it because they have developed self-regulatory skills earlier on that help them cope through these years of vulnerability. Sometimes high school provides an environment suited to a student’s need; thus the student thrives. But certainly not in all cases.

More than ever I am convinced that connective parenting from the early years creates a solid foundation the child can stand on throughout those vulnerable, self-doubting, adolescent years.

Connective parenting allows for self-regulatory skills to develop because the child learns to problem solve rather than be punished or told what to do. Through acceptance and support, parents are able to teach even very young children strategies for managing their feelings and reactions instead of being overrun by them. Identity is stronger when the young child’s experience is reflected back and understood rather than criticized, praised and rewarded, or denied.

With connective parenting, the child learns:

• With acknowledgment, empathy, and acceptance: My feelings and experiences are normal and are understood by the most important people in my life.

• With problem solving: I can figure out how to handle situations and not be dependent on someone else to tell me what to do.

• With conflict resolution: I can express my feelings whatever they are and hear what someone else has to say about me. Without blame or punishment, we can work out a solution.

Blame, criticism, punishments, threats and arbitrary consequences leave a child feeling powerless, misunderstood and not good enough — shaky ground on which to embark on even shakier ground. To enter adolescence with the well-established shame intrinsic in traditional reward and punishment parenting is truly throwing our children into the lion’s den.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach. Email questions or topic requests to bh@bonnie harris.com.

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