THE WAY FORWARD

Psycho/Social Development and Physical Development and the role of Peers

The issue of peers taking a major role in the establishment of behaviour has always presented however in the modern “wired and social networking world” this peer role is now more pronounced than ever. The dominant peer gathers around her/him a collection of “wannabes” who are seeking “buy-in” in a psychological, physical and social sense. This promotes “behaviours to impress”, rituals really, and mostly these behaviours are attempting to demonstrate an individual’s power over their own life, which is independent or self-focused , as opposed to interdependent or other-focused. Once this independence is illustrated to, and accepted by, peers then the interdependent aspect of “belonging” becomes the dominant behaviour determining force. This is the concept of “the gang, tribe or club” behaviour mentality. Rules are then established to protect the gang, tribe or club, to keep things as they are (the role of rules is to maintain the current paradigm) to ensure that the social hierarchies are maintained and not dislocated or threatened. These behaviours in adolescence, which is defined as the period between the onset of sexual maturity and the attainment of adult roles and responsibilities, is a time of relational experimentation, of identity being established relationally. Few want to be alone or a “loner”. It is here in relationships that peer acceptance becomes the dominant behavioural defining force. This personal and relational developing process involves vulnerability, risk taking and peer-directed social interaction. Social behaviours of the young promote the establishment of independence and then interdependence as well as creating greater emotional and behavioural experimentation. This is critical and can be very positive however it can also, at times, lead to mistake, mismanagement, dysfunction and even a loss of control.

Emotional self-regulation skills develop more slowly than social and physical development. The concept of self-worth is at this time, and probably from this time forward, developed through peer comparison or a “hero comparison”. This is the power and role of peers. How do I stand up, or compare? Is the defining question. Will I be liked? Will I “fit in”? Will I be admired? Will I direct the behaviour of others? Will others direct my behaviour or do I have control over my own behaviour? The challenges are many in a social context and these are superimposed upon layers of personal expectations, or parental, institutional or societal expectations that are often realistic but can also at times be unrealistic or “out of touch” with the context in which life is lived.

Unfortunately (and fortunately) the adolescents brain development is not directly tied to physical and/or social (relational) development and this means that decisions made are not always processed as such decisions are, or may be, when the brain is fully developed. The need to belong is a dominant socially developing brain decision-making process. The human brain is a social brain. At this adolescent stage of development this decision-making process could be described as naïve. The brain has yet to develop the maturity to create decision making processes that deal with all information let alone the understandings of such information within the living context needed to make wise decisions. This leads to the question often posed “what were you thinking?”

Risk taking is really what growing up is about. Mistakes are of course made as growth takes place. The management of these mistake made is critical to the establishment of a positive way forward for the adolescent. It is an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary process. Those managing the growth path must approach the mistakes with great care and a focus that is positively enabling to growth rather than a protection approach that can inhibit and overtly take control from the adolescent. The authorities that are interacting with the adolescent must not try to make decisions for the adolescent but must carefully guide and educate. The process of granting independence is critical as is the education associated with interdependence. The understanding that life is relational and that all live in relationships is paramount to the construction of a positive way forward. Peers have the dominant behavioural influence at this growing-up stage. How peer behaviour is “supervised” is again a challenge and can either damn of foster positive growth in the psycho/social and physical growth stages. The effective management of mistake promotes growth, resilience and the capacity to take positive steps with confidence into the relational world. Over-controlling management retards growth, resilience and the capacity to independently grow into interdependence and the positive relational world. Prosocial behaviour is not promoted by over controlling for risk taking is then either reduced, and the growth to interdependence becomes really an anxious struggle, or risk taking becomes cavalier, almost careless, and again the growth to interdependence is retarded substantially. It is important to manage mistakes with care, kindness and forgiveness.

To assist all grow through these critical peer dominated stages it is necessary to establish a positive and moral culture based upon care. Culture does direct behaviour and the capacity to direct risk taking to promote appropriate growth through independence to interdependence. The culture needs to provide direction, expectation, measured and sensible protection as well as a sense of excitement and hope. Safety is important however safety should not eschew risk taking. Guidelines rather than rules need to be in place. The important and underlying elements of a quality relationship must guide this development process. Trust, forgiveness, integrity, hope and compassion are pivotal. The capacity to relate to others is being developed. All relationship formation involves risk taking and becoming vulnerable. The capacity to form friendships, allegiances and a sense of belonging is tied to one being brave enough to form relationships upon contribution. This is constructed upon the adolescent possessing a sense of self-worth. It is critical to establish cultures that enable all to grow within a context that promotes confidence and the positive capacity to relate. This is the “empathy march”, the gradual movement from being primarily self-centred to being primarily ‘other’ centred.

The establishment of social relationships and a sense of identity are central challenges as children enter adolescence and as adolescents step towards adulthood. Both are complicated in contemporary culture, where youths’ social worlds are characterized by unprecedented amounts of time spent with mass media and exposure to commercial forces as well as different values relating to how to live and what is acceptable. The modern culture does promote being self-centred. Overcoming the hedonic self-centred emphasis and navigating this psychosocial development stage is tricky at best. This is where the living culture can assist. Risky behaviours can undermine healthy social development. Interestingly, studies around gratitude seem to counteract such forces and help youth thrive. Gratitude, if promoted in concert with care, kindness and forgiveness within the cultural, can assist the empathy march and can direct growth. It can assist and lubricate the way forward.

John Hendry
June 2015


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