Humans are complex. We have intricate networks of specialized cells, organized into specialized machinery called organs, conducting the daily business of maintaining life. Humans can adapt to a wide range of environments and use learning to express the local language as well as the customs of social behavior. The design is elegant.
However, as impressive at is may seem to observe the uniqueness and complexity of the human design, what’s even more impressive - if you think about it - are the built in second chances. Our adaptability comes in spurts, which if harnessed, make rapid growth and change possible.
As a clinician, I have always enjoyed helping people with the big transitions in life: puberty and the start of middle school/high school, young adulthood and leaving home for education or career, marriage, divorce, retirement… Among the big transitions, puberty and young adulthood are aided by nervous system change, making these the most delightful stages* to support. (I’m always shocked when other professionals dislike treating teens and young adults! How could anyone disagree that they are the most fun? When the brain is in the midst of change, how wonderful to help things along the right path!)
Puberty is a second chance. At puberty, diseases can abate and new abilities can spring up. And most impressively, puberty offers a second chance to the developing brain. Brains learn rapidly for a window of time beginning around puberty, changing disease disposition, especially in mental health. The brain is actively changing for a window of a dozen years. A once anxious child may emerge from adolescence without much anxiety thereafter. The problem seems to take care of itself. A distracted elementary school student may morph into an attentive high schooler, college student, and adult contributor.
When parents, educators, and mental health professionals can harness the active change in the brain during adolescence, we can support lasting change in the nervous system, and wire in better health. When a teen starts seeing a counselor for anxiety, and she learns a new way to think about her fear along with a set of strategies for coping, those new ideas take deep root in her brain.
Embracing adolescence as a time for learning helps us see what an opportunity it provides for growth and healing. Wouldn’t you agree?
*Actually, puberty through young adulthood is one long stretched out stage of brain development, not two separate stages as we have been taught to believe.