The Emerging Adult Brain Jan22

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The Emerging Adult Brain

• Wisdom-Cultivating Conversations With Your College Student •

The college years are a time of incredible growth and transformation! The young adult mind is capable of unprecedented reasoning, the social world of college provides a crash course in love and friendship, and the academic load shifts from high school’s mostly pre-determined classes to a learning campaign fitted to the unique interests and passions of the student.

Academics, relationships, part-time jobs… college students stand on the cusp of adulthood. No longer children, but in many ways not fully adults, this stage of development presents with both opportunities and challenges.  For parents, it can be an effort to keep pace with the changes.  It’s no secret that college students face dilemmas of judgment and decision-making that can keep parents up at night— for good reason.

Young adulthood is also a time of incredible opportunity.  Advances in science, psychology and sociology mean that we understand the emerging adult brain now better than we ever have before.  And those challenges of judgment I just mentioned?  We can now identify the specific skill sets that any individual needs for healthy decision-making.  Best of all, we understand how these skills sets unfold in the young adult brain—and what we can do to support their development.

If you have found yourself proud beyond words over your student’s maturity one moment—only to be bewildered by an emotional storm the next, you aren’t alone.  From a neuroscience perspective, adolescence runs roughly from age 12 – 24, explaining why the smart and talented young adult you raised can occasionally revert back to the judgment calls and emotional landscape of a high school student.

What’s Going on in that Brain?

During the teenage and young adult years, the parts of the brain responsible for expressing emotions and seeking gratification mature more quickly than the parts that generate good judgment, impulse control, and balanced decision making.  So, from the perspective of neuroscience, an emerging adult is someone whose emotions and impulses are significantly more developed than his or her ability to manage either.

This can come as daunting news.  If it’s a brain thing, how do we safely guide our college students through the myriad decisions they will face before brain maturation is complete?  Well, one more important piece of neuroscience provides the answer!

Allow me to introduce the prefrontal cortex, which is located just behind the forehead.  This part of the brain is responsible for a cluster of skill sets called the executive functions.  These include the ability to effectively sort through data (including past experience) to reach a decision, the capacity to set priorities based on future goals and to make choices consistent with them, mindfulness of consequences, controlling harmful impulses, delaying gratification, and skills like organization and time management, among others.  Development of the prefrontal cortex is correlated with healthy decision-making around substance use, risky sexual behaviors, and other perils of adolescence.  I like to call the prefrontal cortex the Self-Management Center.

Here is the scientific tidbit that puts a whole lot of power back in the hands of parents:

The prefrontal cortex develops most powerfully in the context of relationship and connection.

Within relationship and constructive interaction, brain growth is stimulated.  Intense learning and development take place.  And this can be as simple as a thought-provoking conversation with your student about a controversial topic.  As natural as an honest sharing about the conclusions you have come to about substance use, sex, and healthy dating relationships.  As basic as a two-way dialogue about the opportunities and pressures your young adult faces.

You don’t believe they are listening?  They are.  You’re sure that all your advice goes in one ear and out the other?  It doesn’t.  This is a process.  And the accumulated wisdom that your child stores from her exchanges with you matters.  As these positive interactions support her brain’s development, it will be your voice she hears when she stands at the crossroads.

As simple as the answer is, it is easier said than done.  Caring deeply makes it difficult to stay calm when your child is facing a serious risk, or when he has impulsively made a harmful choice.  The guidelines below are designed to move communication out of the frustrating lecture-argument cycle and into the realm of Wisdom-Cultivating Conversations, in which brain maturation can occur.

1. Stay calm.  When the brain is flooded with emotion, the “thinking” parts shut down and fight or flight takes over.  Staying calm keeps the thinking parts functioning, and allows your young adult to absorb what you are saying.

2. Keep the conversation two-way.  The brain is engaged when one has an active role in the conversation.  Lectures cause tune-out.  When you find yourself becoming frustrated or demanding as you talk, take a step back.

3. Stay curious.  Pepper your conversation with questions.  “What do you think about this?”  “What was going through your mind when you did that? What were you feeling?”  “If you were your best friend looking at this situation, what advice would you give him/her?”  Everyone feels respected when asked what he or she thinks.

4. Listen to understand.  This means more than staying silent while you plan the next thing you’re going to say.  No matter how frustrated or anxious listening makes you, approach it with the goal to understand.  Feeling understood is validating.  You will likely find that your young adult is much more willing to hear what you have to say once she feels truly heard.  Your listening also gives her a chance to “try out” her own thoughts and opinions with a wise adult as audience.  Wouldn’t you rather she does this with you? Listening will also give you a rich gift: Knowing your child better.

5. Be honest.  I will sometimes say to a risk-taking student, “You know, I want to be honest and tell you that what you’re describing makes me feel scared for you.”  When this is said calmly and with concern, it can take the conversation to a whole new level.  Listening must be balanced with sharing.  Share your concerns, and why you’re concerned.  If appropriate, explain how you achieved your conclusions from your own life or other lives that you have witnessed.  These are the relatable nuggets of wisdom that he will remember.

6. Be respectful.  Parents are sometimes surprised at the level of detail college students share with me.  I am certain that they share so openly because they know that I respect them.  When I hear about an error in judgment, I strive to keep my own critical judgment in check.  Criticism closes down communication.  Treating young adults with respect teaches them to expect respect in relationships, and to step away from relationships in which respect is missing.

7. Help make space for inner wisdom. First and foremost, you want your child to be safe.  After that?  You want her to learn how to make wise decisions that are true to who she is. Ask, “What does your emotional mind want? What does your reasonable mind want?” How can you meet both those needs?

8. Put your young adult in conversation with peers who are growing. Many volunteer organizations, campus clubs and community groups are designed to support the development of wisdom. My own experience cultivating wisdom in young adults has culminated with my Emerging Adulthood Therapy Groups—a setting for young women in high school and college to join with growth-oriented peers to support each other in forming healthy relationships, finding academic and vocational direction, building positive family connection, navigating their increasing independence, and learning to develop and attend to their inner wisdom.

These guidelines can help to create the conditions needed for maturation and growth, but breaking out of ineffective communication patterns with your college student can be challenging.  For additional support, SoulFull offers several avenues for fostering healthy adolescent and family development, including individual, family and group therapy, and parent coaching to equip young adults and their families to increase their capacity for self-management, healthy decision-making, and positive communication.

Joy Malek, M.S. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of SoulFull: Psychotherapy, Life Coaching & Creative Workshops. Joy specializes in empowering adults and adolescents to dig deeper into times of challenge, loss or transition to discover what brings them fully alive. An adolescent/young adult specialist, Joy works with students and their parents to cultivate wisdom for healthy decision-making, foster self-respect for quality relationships, acquire skill in managing strong emotions, and develop a vision for a future that inspires them.


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