The Middle Years

Wellbeing in the middle years – a psychologist’s perspective

In the Festival for Healthy Living, artists work mostly with primary-aged students and students in the “middle years” of schooling. Here, Educational Psychologist Lyn O’Grady shares some of her knowledge about the development and wellbeing of students in the middle years.

The following text and discussion are adapted from a presentation given by Lyn at the Artist Training Program Artists Intensive in June, 2009.

Where are young people coming from?

Adolescence is sometimes not that far away. I will draw here on personal experience as well as research to reflect on how young people communicate and why parents sometimes feel disconnected.

What is the difference between a child and adolescent? Hormones are raging: new hair, breasts, pimples, erections, breaking voices, weight changes, physical growth and awkwardness, sexual interest and events. Adolescents’ thinking is changing, becoming more philosophical, there is peer pressure – wanting to be part of something – and they have a broader way of seeing things. There is self-consciousness, altered sleeping habits, experimentation, friendships, and physical strength. Lots going on, from even nine-year-olds (some girls have their first period at seven or eight now).

My daughter did not look forward to the two digits; others embrace it. It’s a time of greater responsibility, and of life choices plus the expectation of adults. There are a lot of contradictions. Once many girls brought journals as a memento – now it’s Twitter or Facebook, in the public eye. Writing a diary contributes to building self-awareness, of “where do I fit in the group” – but it can also be about heartbreak.

Access to the internet raises a whole lot of issues that were not there 20 years ago. At what point does contact become cyber bullying? How does technology affects young people? Current technology is getting away from us. Now there are cameras in phones, which creates the danger of pornography and so introduces legal implications. Primary schools are now having to deal with this.

Are adolescents getting enough sleep? Research shows that a rise in melatonin levels manifests a biological shift in sleeping patterns – a preference for going to sleep later in the morning and waking up later. At the same time they need more sleep.

Artist 1: Kids have always shown their private parts, but cameras create a greater problem. We had it in the past – we used to write notes and I was pulled up, but now it’s on a bigger scale.

Artist 2: With the internet it follows you to your home, it’s 24/7.

Artist 3: On the plus side it’s easy to organise a party!

Lyn: If you are ill, it keeps you connected. So it’s weighing up benefits and dangers, the rapid change. It’s harder to protect kids from certain knowledge. Not everyone has a computer, so there is disadvantage. So because they are sleeping later and getting up earlier, they are getting squeezed. Some schools have experimented with starting school later and finishing later. (The Station in Yarram has trialled this.)

Health Professional 1: You can experiment also with the beginning of the day – like offering breakfast first.

Lyn: Now we can see what is happening to the brain, and have a better understanding of the adolescent. Some parts are hard-wired and some are pruned when comparing childhood and adolescence. There are a whole lot of factors: the brain may be pruned, but it’s not permanent, there are different pathways. You need to have a broad range of interests to develop the brain. The emotional part of the brain (amygdala) is hot spot for adolescents. The least active part is the part that controls that (the frontal lobe – thinking about or reflecting on choices and decisions).

Therefore risk-taking comes into a lot of this: experimenting with stuff, rebelling, breaking away from the family. Risk-taking can be scary but can also bring about positive results – you can take risks and learn! But the question becomes, How can we put parameters around this? This can be negative, where adolescents think, “I don’t care what happens”. No risk is no good, but the at the other extreme – what is happening there? You sometimes have to break through that communication block (for example, grunting). Arts are really good for that. Hoodies and grunting – they’re about control, putting up armour: saying to adults: “you wouldn’t understand.”

Health Professional 1: That can also be a body image issue, covering up as much as you can. It also offers anonymity.

Artist 1: It’s also a costume, or a mask that boys use.

Artist 3: A young person that will not take off baseball cap – it defies the notion of respect.

Lyn: Young people can sometimes misread facial expressions – they cannot see if a parent is getting angry.

Artist 4: A friend adopted two Ethiopian children, and they saw visitors as clowns because we were so expressive, saying “How are you?” and so on.

Lyn: Expressions are innate, but for adolescence, there are some difference between childhood and adolescence that they cannot recognise. Parents are relieved to be able to make sense of these behaviours. Adolescents are so highly emotional they cannot necessarily see or are they not empathising with adults. I found with my three boys that if I was angry or in pain they thought it was them. Adolescents are sometimes in their own world, like a two-year-old.

Artist 5: I read that failure in reading of expressions particularly applies to boys?

Lyn: Sometimes it’s to do with cultural expectations and sometimes a way of communicating. We are talking about a huge cultural diversity.

Artist 3: Adolescents feel that adults could not understand them – maybe that young person does not want to connect with or be dependent on their parent.

Health Professional 1: A lot of this is about identity.

Artist 6: And a lack of empathy – how could anyone like something they don’t like?

Lyn: Kids are used to being entertained. What is important to young people? As part of my research, I gave kids a camera for a week or so. I explained the use of the camera, and went through legal and ethical issues – putting boundaries around taking photographs. I looked at what might be different between kids with and without intellectual disability. They brought in lots of home pictures: I had lots of pets, lots of stories and lots of meaningful connections – we talked about loss of childhood and the pressures of adolescence.

Artist 1: I’ve run a professional workshop for 13- to 19-year-olds, and the things they are into are extraordinary.

Lyn: I had to be really careful. The main themes were the importance of family relationships – naturally, parents were important to these particular kids, which may be different for less supported kids. Kids are worried about the environment, about being in shops, about how they look. They like spending time with friends and family. At what point does this become unhealthy? Extreme shifts in behaviour, low moods for long periods, unusual behaviours, unusual degrees of risk, significant eating/sleeping changes, suicidal ideation or talking about suicide: that needs to be explored.

Health Professional 1: It’s a particular issue for FHL, because we can’t control that. I was given a beautiful piece of work about girls talking about suicide in the garage, but I remembered there was a boy who died risk-taking on the railway. I talked to them and they were angry because they felt people had forgotten this boy. That kind of thing can come up and we need to recognise if there is an underlying issue.

Lyn: It needs to be followed up with another person – the follow-up processes within school. Artists need to report through. Often there is a lot of trust in the creative process and the sharing of information. Primary in this is that students’ safety is the most important thing. You need to build sustainable relationships so that when you leave, other people can take over.

Artist 7: You would never compromise a student, but be clear where boundaries are crossed.

Lyn: You are constrained but also protected by structures within school. It’s critical to build relationships with other people within the school.

Artist 8: This is where we have a legal obligation to pass things on – I let my students know that I must by law report certain things.

Artist 2: I say the same things to my students from the word go.

Artist 8: I tell them that I want them to tell me but I make it clear to them I would be obliged to pass this on.

Artist 2: If I am worried about their safety.

Lyn: Barriers to seeking help from school include confidentiality issues, so family and friends are important. It is also important to build resilience, things such as positive psychology approaches and school-wide positive behaviour support.