Adolescence is a rough time. Teens are acutely aware of relationships and social status, but they don’t yet have the psychological and emotional fortitude to let social struggles roll off their backs. They also don’t have the life experience to know that setbacks or failures are temporary and can be overcome.
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But psychologist David S. Yeager at the University of Texas has discovered that giving kids information about how they and their peers are still growing and changing has an inoculating effect on stress levels.
Dr Yeager asked one group of teens to read a science article, written in a chatty tone, about how personality in young people is still developing. He also asked them to read first-hand accounts from teenagers about how they managed stressful social situations by recognising that social setbacks are temporary, and how people (including themselves) can change. A control group was not given either piece of information. Then the two groups were asked to perform a stressful public task: To give a short speech to an audience of unfamiliar teens. Unbeknown to them, the audience had been instructed to fold their arms and appear hostile to the speaker.
The group that had been given the preliminary lesson on personality and change managed the stress of the speech to a hostile audience pretty well. The control group, however, showed very elevated stress levels. The researchers continued their study in the real world of the classroom, measuring the cortisol levels of Year 9 students who also reported their negative social interactions throughout the day. The students who received the lessons on personality and social malleability weathered the social storms much better than those who hadn’t.
Now, one key factor, as the New York Times points out, is that the teens got the first-person lessons from other teens. As Dr Yeager said, “We’re asking kids to persuade other kids. … That feels respectful to them, and motivating.” In other words, it might not be quite as effective to have dad deliver a lecture on how “this too shall pass”. So if you can, enlist older kids, such as siblings and cousins, to confide about their friendship ups and downs. Or start a conversation at your kid’s school about the science of adolescent development and evolving social landscapes, and enlist seniors to mentor younger kids. The sooner they learn that change is inevitable and high school isn’t forever, the happier they will be.