Positive and negative spirals and the plasticity of the adolescent brain

Contrary to what my parents remember about it, my own recollections of adolescence are quite positive. I remember it as a period of discovery and energy, spending endless hours with friends, hungrily soaking up new knowledge, experiences and skills. But I also took risks, acted on the spur of the moment without thinking the consequences through, and sometimes got in trouble. It was the period when I smoked my first cigarette, had a drink and stayed out all night dancing while my parents thought I was at a slumber party.

The concept of positive and negative “spirals” unfolding during adolescence was coined by neuroscientists Ron Dahl and Ahna Suleiman and is explained in a recently launched UNICEF compendium of expert commentaries titled The Adolescent Brain: A Second Window of Opportunity. With the objective of bringing neuroscience, programming and policy closer together to better fulfill the potential of adolescents, the compendium uses everyday language to summarize what we know about the adolescent brain, the impact of different environments on its development, and the type of interventions that are particularly fruitful during different phases of adolescence.

I was lucky to live in a supportive environment, surrounded by a caring family, friends, school teachers and other role models, and thanks to this the brain development and learning that took place during my adolescence spiraled into positive outcomes, both in the short- and long-term. Unfortunately, the “spirals” took a less positive direction for some of my classmates, turning into more difficult and unhealthy life trajectories, and in some instances ending tragically in drug overdose and car accidents.

Defined by UNICEF and WHO as the period between 10-19 years, adolescence is a time of rapid social, emotional, physical and neurological change that has lasting impacts well into adulthood. The negative spirals that Dahl and Suleiman refer to (see pages 21 – 25 here) are behavioral and emotional patterns that lead to short- or long-term negative outcomes, such as road injuries, drowning, suicides, mental ill-health, substance use, eating disorders, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, violence, etc.  Adolescents are extremely sensitive to their social environment and experiences such as bullying, inter-personal violence and exclusion often leave a lasting mark on the individual. Those who grow up in environments of chronic stress, such as armed conflict and extreme poverty are particularly vulnerable to long-term negative consequences. In fact, epidemiological research suggests that population stressors such as war and famine have their most negative impacts on an individual’s life span when experienced during early adolescence (10-14 years).

The discourse around adolescents is often negative, focusing on the onset of risky and negative behaviors, but as the compendium title suggests, adolescence is also a window of opportunity –  a time when positive behaviors, a supportive environment, and constructive social and emotional experiences can spiral into long-term positive outcomes. Many of the commentaries discuss the plasticity – or flexibility – of the adolescent brain and its ability to adapt to changes and challenges, learn new knowledge and skills, and even counteract some of the disadvantages and shortcomings that may have taken place during early childhood. As young people mature, they seek a sense of belonging and purpose, and as was the case in my own adolescence, this talent and energy needs to be supported by parents, schools and communities to facilitate healthy patterns of behavior, knowledge and skill acquisition, and responsibilities that serve adolescents well in adulthood.

For organizations like UNICEF, a great value of the compendium is the advice it provides around programming interventions and policy. It is clear that the promotion of safe and secure environments, socio-emotional learning, caring and supportive relationships (especially with parents and peers), healthy nutrition and sexual maturation and approaches that counteract the effects of stress (e.g. meditation and mindfulness training) are crucial to seizing the window of opportunity for positive spirals.

Although complex and still relatively new, adolescent neuroscience offers a deeper understanding of modifiable development processes and through scientist-practitioner efforts such as this compendium can be included in everyday responses to adolescent needs worldwide. At 1.2 billion, adolescents are the future and adults need to support them to prevent and overcome the vulnerabilities that are a natural part of this period, while also enhancing the unique opportunities that it brings.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank the nine specialists who collaborated with UNICEF to write a commentary for The Adolescent Brain: A Second Window of Opportunity compendium. She also wishes to thank Prerna Banati, her compendium co-editor.

Nikola Balvin is a the knowledge management specialist at UNICEF Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.

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