Pre-teens – a second window of opportunity
We all know that the early years for a child are an essential time for healthy growth and development, particularly between conception and 3 years. Children’s brains are at their most active during the first five years of life, which means neuroplasticity (when brains make neural connections in response to environments) is rapid.
‘Early Years’ (0-5) is the ‘first window’
The kind of learning that happens when neuroplasticity is increased is enormous. Brains, during this time, are shaped by experiences. For example, we don’t teach toddlers to speak; they learn to speak by being exposed to our words. Their brains are changed through experiencing the language they hear around them. This ‘early years’ stage is the first window of opportunity we have to shape our children’s brains and it’s why parenting the under 5s is so intense – their learning is so rapid, it’s hard to keep up with them!
The pre-teen adolescent years (9-14) is our ‘second window’
Recent research published by Unicef says there’s another, a ‘Second Window of Opportunity’ and it is within the brains of adolescents. They classify adolescents as being 9-14 years, highlighting the first two years after the onset of puberty as being the crucial time when we can have the most influence. For girls this would between the ages of 10-12 and for boys, 12-14 years.
Help your children before the problems associated with teenagers start
This is good news for parents and casts a much more optimistic light on ‘The Teenage Years’. These are no longer years through which we have to survive, rendered powerless by the fact that the teenage brain is not yet developed. Rather, we have a chance to help our children BEFORE the problems start. We can help them thrive.
So what do we need to look out for?
Alongside the huge physical and mental changes that are occurring within our pre-teens, they are also fulfilling the important job of trying to find their place amongst their peers. Their emotions are heightened and they have a strong sense of wanting to belong, to be accepted and admired. On the flip side, they are extremely sensitive to feelings of rejection, embarrassment and humiliation. Although they enjoy getting more respect, they also realise they have increased responsibility. The combination of this can lead to stress; and it is stress that is an adolescent’s greatest vulnerability. Another potential problem is associated with their motivation for immediate gratification, often leading them towards risk taking and sensation seeking.
Use these difficult situations to help them form a healthy pattern of responses
Our job is to encourage them to form a healthy pattern of behaviours in response to situations they find difficult. We need to have the right communication skills to do this – ones that focus on our children and our relationship. This will help them understand that feelings of frustration are a natural part of learning and in time, their resilience will increase along with their self-esteem. We also need to create an environment of stability and support – a safe place to return to after the important work of discovering and establishing their social identify. Finding out what makes them feel valued and recognised will ensure they have some sense of belonging at home.
Invest time in your pre-teens
By investing time in our pre-teens and building strong relationships with them, we will be able to have a profound effect on shaping their brains for their future.
Reference: Balvin, Nikola; Banati, Prerna (2017). The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity – A compendium, Miscellanea UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence
This article was previously published in the East Anglian Daily Times (Archant Newspapers) Family Section on Friday 3 May, 2018