Mr James McIntosh, Director of Marrapatta Outdoor Education Centre and Mrs Carol McIntosh, Outdoor Education Teacher
The moment a new-born child draws breath, our role as a parent is clear. It is to nourish, guide and teach this delicate, completely dependent being so that ultimately they will be able to function effectively by themselves. Our task as a parent, or as an important other, is to gradually evolve ourselves into redundancy as our children become autonomous. Sounds easy!
When children are young we eagerly anticipate and celebrate the tiniest of milestones: first smile, first word, first tooth, first day at school. Learning comes fast and in obvious ways; each developmental milestone is celebrated and supported by eager onlookers.
As our flourishing child approaches the teen years, some of these milestones may no longer be as eagerly anticipated. Physical changes morph their bodies so that they are more adult-like, and their emotions can run high. Their thinking can at times seem irrational and reactive as they start to push against the limits of their independence. Although positive, this can be an overwhelming and tumultuous phase for all involved. Siegel (2013), in his book Brainstorm, reminds us that it is important to embrace these changes and honour the necessary processes of adolescence. It is when our teens developmentally start to assert their independence and their adult likeness, and where they relish personal control and the ability to make choices and decisions for themselves.
Independence, unlike some other milestones, is difficult to pinpoint. There are many aspects to consider when assessing when an adolescent has developed full independence. Hudson (2012), author of Raising Resilient Teenagers, stresses that building resilience and independence is a process, not a particular event.
Neuroscience is informing us that a significant consideration in this process is the change occurring in the adolescent brain. The notion that what you were born with is what you’ve got is no longer accepted and we are learning that adolescence is a time of particular and significant change (and opportunity) in the brain. Grey matter is pruning — engaging in ‘neural Darwinism’ (Edelman, 1978) — removing unnecessary and no-longer-useful connections, making way for the rewiring of new connections; white matter is building, laying down a fatty sheath and strengthening pathways of connectivity and speeding up the signals in the brain.
Two particular areas of the adolescent brain are actively transforming. First, the limbic system, where emotions and social information is processed, experiences heightened activity in the dopamine-driven neural circuits producing a haste for reward, impulsivity and a propensity to seek risk. Second, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, evaluating risks, controlling impulses, and judgement, is developing. This reconstruction occurs in different areas of the brain at different times, working from the back to the front of the brain, with the frontal lobe the last to fully connect (Jensen, 2015). Construction is not complete until the early twenties. This malalignment of the construction phase leads to complications.
Despite the challenges and inefficiencies of the adolescent brain, the introductory remarks in The Adolescent Brain: learning, reasoning, and decision making (Chapman, Confrey, Dougherty, Reyna, 2012) emphasise that the adolescent brain is cognitively malleable and is able to acquire advanced reasoning skills under the right conditions of training. The brain reshapes itself to meet recurring processing demands. If we are preparing adolescents to be more independent, then ‘teens must gain experience making their own decisions and solving their own problems in order to develop key executive functions like problem-solving and impulse control’ (Jensen, 2015). Parents can skillfully help here, offering support and asking reflective questions from the side, to assist the adolescent’s grappling process and ability to see possible options. Occasionally, a well-timed piece of encouragement will be needed to motivate adolescents to leave their comfort zones, while at other times, gentle guidance and firm boundaries may be required.
Providing a range of opportunities to develop and practise skills associated with independence develops strong neural pathways and default settings. The habits, skills and thinking developments laid in adolescence establish an important foundation for adulthood (Chapman et al., 2012). It is for this very reason that our guidance of teens at this time is critical. Despite the tendency for there to be some pushing away and, in some cases, total exclusion of adults by our teens as they attempt to adopt more adult-like traits, it is important that adults are involved, modelling and building learning scaffolds to assist them in their effort, even if our instinct may be to leave them to their own devices. Boundaries are still imperative. Structure and routine provide consistency and a sense of familiarity which helps to provide adolescents with the confidence to wander, explore and return.
Finding opportunities to take responsibility, practise self-care and make increasingly complex decisions is an important element in the progression towards independence. Like any journey there are going to be highs, lows and detours, many of which will provide pertinent teachable moments.
In this age of self-conscious parenting, descriptors such as ‘helicopter parenting’, ‘black hawk parenting’, ‘lawnmower parenting’, ‘curling parenting’ and ‘children raised in captivity’ have emerged. Parents, in their well-meaning way, are hypervigilant when it comes to the experiences of their children; often making decisions, solving problems for them and buffering them from failure and harm. The pitfalls of such parenting are now surfacing as society is witness to more young adults who are ill-prepared for the challenges of the world outside the family home. Hypervigilant parenting has created a paradox. Parents with good intentions wanting to assist and protect their children are creating just the opposite and, instead, we see children with an undermined sense of their actual selves and a malnourished sense of independence and resilience. This is not to say that parents should leave them alone completely as there are also well-documented and obvious pitfalls of under-parenting. The challenge for us is to find the balance of involvement and connection while also letting our much-loved adolescent take greater control and make decisions.
Grose (2010) acknowledges that giving adolescents sufficient space to develop their independence is potentially the greatest challenge, but asserts that if we look for opportunities that allow learning one step at a time, thereby creating scaffolds, we create conscious ways of encouraging independence, at the same time ensuring that we empower them to make good choices for themselves. As they become more responsible and capable, they are granted increasing levels of independence. However, allowing children to do things for themselves requires time and patience.
Parents are not solely responsible for developing independence; schools play a pivotal role in providing an array of opportunities to practise and support this process. Throughout the four years of Outdoor Education at our Marrapatta campus, students are presented with experiences that compel them to make choices, experiment with strategies and demonstrate responsibility. The programmes are deliberately structured to nurture this independence and to help them take the next step towards interdependence. While we may not celebrate a distinct Independence Day, these experiences are helping to wire students’ brains for the journey towards independence.
Chapman, S. B., Confrey, J., Dougherty, M. R., Reyna, V.F. (Eds) (2012). The adolescent brain: learning, reasoning, and decision making. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Edelman, G. (1978). The Mindful Brain. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Grose, M. (2010). Thriving! Raising exceptional kids with confidence, character and resilience. North Sydney, NSW: Random House Australia.
Hudson, C. (2012). Raising resilient teenagers. Shellharbour, NSW: Charisbel Consulting.
Jensen, F. (2015). The teenage brain: A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. London: Harper Thorsons.
Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.