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26/06/2018 – The Trinidad Guardian. / Two of the many important changes that occur to children during adolescence are growth and development. It’s easy to see the changes in growth. Children may grow several inches and put on ten pounds in a month. Development is difficult to see, especially when it is hidden by what the observer may consider as “bad behaviour”. Once you understand what is happening to the adolescent’s brain, it becomes easier to understand the behaviour, which is never deliberate but rather a reflection of what is happening inside the brain.

Whereas growth is an increase in size, development is an increase in function, ie, new and complex skills have to be learned in a rather progressive fashion, one building on top of the other, to reach a certain goal. The goal of all child development, including adolescent development, is to become a mature, reasoning adult. Many people never fully attain this.

Defining a mature human adult is not easy. Three things most psychologists believe necessary is someone who accepts responsibility makes independent decisions and becomes financially independent. That encompasses things like the ability to differentiate between rational decision making and emotional impulse; the ability to listen to and evaluate the viewpoints of others; the ability to take ownership and responsibility of personal actions and the ability to be aware of personal insecurities and self-esteem.

To develop these abilities, adolescents have to undergo certain experiences: they take risks; they are self-conscious and they become acutely conscious of what their peers think of them.

Adolescents, like children, have to learn these new skills by changes that must occur within their brain during the adolescent years, changes that are often stimulated by the experiences they face, all of which may have a negative or positive effect on the structure and organisation of their brain.

One critically important skill is a sense of self. A sense of self, of who you are, enables adults to accept responsibility and make independent decisions.

Human babies are born with a rudimentary sense of self. Within 24 hours of birth, babies are able to tell the difference between being touched by another’s hand and their own hand. Yet up to about two years, children seem unable to differentiate between themselves and their mothers. But it is during adolescence that our sense of self becomes particularly important to us. Think back to how self-conscious you were in early adolescence (around 11-14). This is when you became increasingly aware that others have the capacity to evaluate you. Self-consciousness can become so bad that you may have imagined an audience looking and evaluating you. This so-called “imaginary audience” appears to be a characteristic of many Trinidadians. It’s a belief that someone is always looking or listening to them. It also explains the fascination of social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, which have all been designed to appeal to the adolescent desire to share information about themselves and to be evaluated by others.

Risk taking, another typical adolescence activity, is related to the quicker maturation of the emotional centres in the brain, making the adolescent highly emotional, and to the much slower maturation of the parts of the brain that control the emotions. Car insurance companies have known this for years. People aged 16-25 have more car accidents than people aged 26 or over. That’s why young people’s car insurance premiums are higher. What’s less known is that young people are much more likely to crash when they have a passenger in the car with them, especially another adolescent. In contrast this is a protective factor for adults over 26.

Isn’t it fascinating that insurance companies have appreciated for years that people under 26 have not matured sufficiently to get regular car insurance? One wonders then, why 18-year-olds are allowed to vote?

One wonders why they are encouraged to don a uniform and go fighting for old men? We force ripe them.

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