Understanding the health and development of adolescents is an important element for ensuring the transition from child to adult. Adolescence is a time of significant change for a young person. It marks a period during which a child moves from relying on the judgement and authority of others to learning to make independent and responsible choices. Add in physical changes – not the least of which is a remodelling of the brain’s basic structure in areas that affect logic, impulse control, intuition and language – and it becomes clear why this may be such a difficult period for a young person.
Adolescence is a time for developing skills for healthy adulthood and of experimentation in activities that may be beneficial to health. It is also a time of experimentation in potentially harmful activities. For most, these experiences will not ultimately be damaging, but others will develop behaviours that are harmful to their health in adolescence and later life. Supportive relationships with families and peers, in schools and the community can lessen the incidence and harm of risky activities; they can also encourage health-enhancing behaviours among adolescents.
The development of adolescents is also influenced by their social environment. The likelihood of engaging in potentially risky activities such as getting drunk or using drugs is higher when people around them do so.
A number of themes show up in the research on adolescent development. We find that there will be clustering of behaviours. This means that individuals who engage in one risky behaviour (for example, smoking) are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours (insufficient physical activity or excessive alcohol use).
Resilience is a second important theme. It has been used to explain why some individuals and groups overcome obstacles better than others. Resilience is a sort of insulating capacity that enables people to cope successfully or to bounce back in the face of adversity or risk. Resilience increases with the number of developmental assets an adolescent possesses.
Developmental assets are described as positive relationships, opportunities, competencies, values and self-perceptions that teens need to succeed. These may be external (support, empowerment, boundaries, expectations) or internal (a commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, positive identity).
Assets and feelings of connectedness play important roles in healthy development, including protecting youth against risky behaviours, promoting positive and healthy choices and building resiliency in youth to help them cope with challenges and difficulties. The more assets an adolescent possesses, the more likely they are to engage in positive, health-enhancing activities and the less likely to engage in activities potentially harmful to their health.
Engagement and empowerment are both features that strengthen an adolescent’s development. Engagement comes from involvement in meaningful, organized activities such as school, music, sports or community work. Empowerment comes from having safe social spaces where adults enable youth to play a role in planning and decision-making.
Adolescence can be a trying time, but it can equally be an exciting and rewarding time of change, action and evolution from child to adult.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.