Risks and extraordinary potentials of the adolescent brain. Interview with Tania Di Giuseppe, psychotherapist and head of psycho-pedagogical research
What happens in the brains of adolescents and what is the latest from the psycho-pedagogical research and projects of Patrizio Paoletti Foundation? We find out in this interview with Tania Di Giuseppe, head of the Foundation’s psycho-pedagogical research area.
A question frequently asked by parents and teachers who are grappling with adolescents is: What happens in the minds of these youngsters? How come that their behavior is so peculiar and how is it possible to help? How does the Patrizio Paoletti Foundation research respond to this question?
It is important for parents and educators, teachers of adolescents, to know that the areas of the brain that develop last are those assigned to emotional regulation.
Just think, it is only beyond the age of 20 that the development of executive functions is completed. We are talking about those areas of the brain devoted to specific and very important functions such as the ability to make decisions, to self-soothe, to understand the effects of one’s actions on oneself and others, the ability to recognize, accept, and manage one’s emotions, to identify priorities, to organize one’s thoughts. All these skills are not yet fully developed in young adolescents. For this reason, our youngsters experience a true amplification of inner emotions and feelings. The result is that they experience things with great emotional intensity that appears incomprehensible to our eyes at times.
A teenager in the throes of strong emotions such as anger, sadness, or euphoria does not have adequate tools to reason, evaluate, and take care of themselves. They need an adult, knowledgeable and authoritative, who is able to listen, remain calm and present in the here and now, to be able to help them understand themselves, to manage the stormy sea of their emotions. When there is no understanding and orientation of emotions in the lives of young people and the adult community disregards these needs, we are faced with suffering that manifests itself in seemingly incomprehensible behaviors of self-harm, suicide, and violence.
This happens because we do not know what is going on in the minds of teenagers, and this void of knowledge does not allow us to recognize the early warning signs of distress and to acquire, therefore, the tools we need to help teenagers grow.
Through empathic dialogue, through the use of rules, adolescents must be guided to become autonomous in managing their emotions by understanding the effects of the behaviors that those emotions may prompt them to perform.
At the same time, the adult must remind the adolescent that emotions play a very important role in our lives: if recognized and managed, they can give meaning and vitality throughout our existence. Indeed, adolescence is a stage of life characterized by extraordinary vitality and an intense desire for exploration, and it can also be a time of vulnerability, if the young person is not emotionally trained.
The focus of FPP’s neuropsycho-pedagogical research reminds us that it is precisely at this stage of life that we can do a great deal by resuming our adult role as an example and guide for our youngsters. Let’s remember that during adolescence the development of abstract and conceptual thinking takes place, so there is a broadening of awareness that allows adolescents to be able to access new deep questions about the meaning of life and about themselves.
We adults can and should accompany our youth to find a deeper dialogue with themselves, with their own planning ability, with their dreams and desires, and invite them to spend time planning those actions that will turn them into reality.
With FPP’s training and research projects, we focus on studying the impact and process of those methods and techniques that enable adults to rediscover their own role as emotional coaches (as John Gottman would say), and through the development of ad hoc trainings based on the best scientific knowledge such as the Spherical Model of Consciousness and the Pedagogy for the Third Millennium (PTM) we help young people get to know themselves, manage their inner world to discover their talents and live with a greater sense of common humanity.
Patrizio Paoletti Foundation’s psycho-pedagogical projects involve adolescents living in different environments: from schools to emergency settings and juvenile prisons. What role do outer environments play for these youngsters and what does it mean to build an inner environment that supports healthy growth?
This question would require ad hoc consideration for each environment and context mentioned, as different situations are specific and very complex. We can however simplify as much as possible and emphasize that in PTM an inner environment that supports healthy growth refers to a very specific educational process: creating an internal structuring of references, meanings, and content that enables our youngsters to learn from everything and anything means implementing the cognitive reevaluation of experience in a proactive way in them, that is useful not only for personal benefit but for the benefit of the whole that they are part of.
This special inner environment, which is a model to aspire to, is potentially possible thanks to the effort of those who are part of the outer environment, that physical space inhabited by teachers, parents, educators, all those who as adults have the role of guiding the new generations and thus constitute the contexts and circumstances of our adolescents’ experience
Inner and outer environment coincide in a virtuous mirror in which the more the external environment is organized by aware adults through educational stimuli that enhance the ability to transform adversity into opportunities for growth, the more our youngsters – those who experience that environment: school, home, prison community – will be able to develop, grow and evolve by being able to know themselves not only for who they are and what they have been (think of the stigma of punishment for juveniles with histories of crime), but more importantly for what they can become: more aware and able to produce new responses to life.
Hence our great focus, by means of research, on the training of adults, teachers, parents, educators, care-givers, all those engaged in the complex and fascinating challenge of educating oneself to educate.
What is the latest from the psycho-pedagogical research conducted by Patrizio Paoletti Foundation, the current projects and scientific publications to explore further?
Key educational agencies such as schools and families have been impacted massively by the pandemic of COVID-19, to the extent that the most recent research in the field of wellness tells us that we are facing a new emergency: the worsening mental health of adolescents and adults. We are facing a new real educational and social emergency. For these reasons, the promotion of positive individual and interpersonal resources involving not only young people but the entire educational community has become a priority in our activities over the past three years.
From 2022 to date, we have already reached more than 3,500 adolescents, teachers and parents across schools through specific educational trainings that allow us to investigate and monitor the impact on adolescents and adults, of certain constructs we hold dear such as prefiguration, silence, self-compassion and the ability to transform difficulty into opportunities for growth. Analyses of the results and publications are in full swing.
Our training and research projects see us involved in responding to this emergency, and our challenge as a research organization is to make our trainings increasingly effective in promoting the well-being and key skills that our kids and teachers and parents need to cope with the complexities of the present. This is possible both through serious and rigorous measurement of the effects of the proposed trainings on young people and adults and through the ability to bring innovation to the proposed methods and techniques, the result of the experiences and feedback gathered.
I would like to conclude this interview by sharing a preview of one of the many significant testimonies from the young people we are analyzing, about the educational experience of Prefigure the Future, among our flagship projects dedicated to promoting resilience in the school community:
Before I participated in this project, I didn’t think that human beings could manage themselves, manage themselves, their emotions … instead after participating in this course I understood something very important: we can have a lot of power over ourselves and we can improve ourselves, improve our emotions, improve our goals, and at the beginning I actually didn’t think this was possible!
This testimony of a 14-year-old student, along with other feedback on the project, will be discussed in our upcoming articles on the adolescent mind and its potentials, also for the benefit of the community.