It is widely accepted that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. In fact, from the moment the fetus begins to take shape in the uterus, outside factors can have a negative or positive influence on brain chemistry, a fact that continues through infancy and into our teenage years. An increased understanding of how the brain structure evolves during adolescence, allows us to realize the importance of connection with others at pivotal times in its development. In our modern society, where technology has taken control of most of our social interaction, we often see the youth of today transfixed on a digitized version of the world. Within that virtual screen sized world, virtual interactions with virtual “friends” or “connections” help to create an environment where little, or no, genuine face to face contact is made. Teenagers need connection. In today’s world, perhaps more than ever before. Therefore we should start to address this fact.

A famous study(1) undertaken by John Bowlby, did much to highlight the human need for interaction and connection in infancy. He found that the way a caregiver/parent interacts with a baby will influence the child’s ability to bond with others when they grow up. Bowlby demonstrated that development of an insecure attachment with a caregiver, causes an inability to show affection to others, along with various negative mental and emotional consequences in later life. In its extreme form, active neglect in early childhood can develop into issues such as delinquency, aggressive tendencies, depression and even psychopathic characteristics(2). It’s worth noting that most adolescents who present with serious forms of substance abuse, also have instances of negative attachment experiences within their history. Although damaging, issues relating to poor attachment are not irreversible. Individual therapy and, where possible, family therapy, can help individuals learn to reform and develop their own healthy personal attachments.

Socialization and Connection

Smartphones and other devices make socialization difficult for adolescents and young adults. The ability to socialize is absolutely crucial to positive, personal development in these formative years. The reason humans need to socialize is ‘to create safe connections between each other, so that when things get tough, we have each other for support.(3)’ Learning how to relate and behave in a way that is mutually respectful and beneficial, are key aspects of socialization. Engaging in face to face relationships with peers and forming lasting friendships, knowing who to trust, and who not to, can help foster both safety and security for a young adult.

Due to the technological advances and the rise in social media, today we need to encourage our young people more than ever to socialize face to face. Meaningful conversations can seldom be had via a keyboard or touch screen, and it’s all too easy to project a virtual avatar that is doing fine. Developing brains need one to one interaction, friends, fun and connection in order to prosper. Snapchat followers or Facebook friends offer little more than a virtual thumbs up.

Dr. Brené Brown researched connection and authenticity in modern society and found that fear was the underlying cause of many issues we face today. She discerned that our current society has split into tribes, be that political, gender, race or religion, and that the result is a polarized societal structure. An “us and them” that often seems devoid of empathy and consideration. 

Fear of vulnerability. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of the pain of disconnection. Fear of criticism and failure. Fear of conflict. Fear of not measuring up. When we ignore fear and deny vulnerability, fear grows and metastasizes. We move away from a belief in common humanity and unifying change and move into blame and shame. We will do anything that gives us a sense of more certainty and we will give our power to anyone who can promise easy answers and give us an enemy to blame.(4)”

How then in this environment do we allay these fears and discuss problems with one another? When fear is the driving force that surrounds us, is it possible to open up in an authentic manor? Dr. Brown implores us to learn how to be brave in the face of this apparent adversity and to push for that human connection and to engage in genuine interactions. Our children need to see us doing this. It is by example that they will learn.

Connection Through Engagement and Helping Others

Adolescents are emotionally primed to engage. Developmental neurobiologist Ron Dahl has described early adolescence as a phase of igniting passions, during which structures, processes, and support for positive and meaningful engagement shape trajectories of development into adulthood.(5)’ In a study conducted by Tian-Yi Hu, it was found that chemicals called endogenous opioid peptides were released into the adolescent brain when they undertook the task of helping others. These chemicals can help a teen with pain control, give balance to mood and increase a sense of well being(6).

Peer to peer support or charitable work, the very act of doing something for others provides a sense of well being associated with security and connection amongst others. Because of the many links demonstrated in peer reviewed studies between good mental health and peer to peer engagement and altruistic activities, the health sector openly promotes youth engagement strategies that focus on peer to peer support, such as peer education, designed to role model healthy behaviors.  We also note those who actively engage in peer to peer activities develop greater self-confidence, improved communications, leadership and interpersonal skills, higher aspirations, and lower rates of health risk behaviors(9). 

Connection with others, being part of a wider society, whilst also experiencing empathy and compassion are essential components for the developing brain of an adolescent in order for them to reach full adult cognitive potential. Given that addiction is a devastating and isolating condition, learning to connect, socialize and actively take part in peer to peer activities, as well as learning early on how to be altruistic and help others, could act as a powerful protective factor when combating drug and alcohol use.

Sources:

  1. McLeod, Saul and John Bowlby. “Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.” (2010).
  2. ibid.
  3. https://www.theinvisiblelion.com/blog/why-social-anxiety-is-not-a-contradiction accessed 16/11/2019
  4. Schawbel, D. Forbes. (2017). Brené Brown: Why Human Connection Will Bring Us Closer Together. accessed 16/11/2019
  5. Dahl RE. Adolescent brain development: a period of vulnerabilities and opportunities. Keynote address. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2004; 1021: 1–22 as discussed in Patton, George C., et al. “Our future: a Lancet commission on adolescent health and wellbeing.” The Lancet 387.10036 (2016): 2423-2478.
  6. Hu, Tian-Yi et al. “Helping Others, Warming Yourself: Altruistic Behaviors Increase Warmth Feelings of the Ambient Environment.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 7 1349. 5 Sep. 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01349.
  7. ibid.
  8. Patton, George C., et al. “Our future: a Lancet commission on adolescent health and wellbeing.” The Lancet 387.10036 (2016): 2423-2478.
  9. ibid.