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Pointers from the Program: Let’s Rethink Adolescence

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 03/30/2015 | Featured Columns & Series

Adolescence gets a bad rap. Too often it seems we treat this as a period to just get through, just survive—for kids and parents. In our culture adolescence is viewed merely as the bridge between childhood and young adulthood but not given much credit on its own. “Quick, kids. Hurry across, avoid traffic, and we’ll see you on the other side.”

A lot of our ideas about the turbulent middle school years come from media and literature—kids being teased and pushed in lockers, mean girls, raging hormones and major family upheaval. But what if we saw this time as a time of cultivation? Growth? A period unto itself where we weren’t just rushing our children through. What if we used the time to actively connect, tend and nurture?

Two of my favorite reads right now on this topic are Brainstorm by Dan Siegel and The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen. Both books reexamine our notions of adolescence from a neurological perspective. A key point is that “raging hormones” are not the explanation for adolescent behavior. The teen brain is developing rapidly, and not since toddlerhood has such construction taken place. This sheds light on why, for example, teens act more emotionally to situations and how to best guide them. They are not just being irrational or overreacting. The emotive part of the brain is being developed during this period.

This knowledge doesn’t mean letting adolescents off the hook for impulsive decisions or emotional outbursts, but it does give a context to the behavior that allows us to see this as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Jensen explains that the flexibility and growth in the brain at this time means that adolescents have “a window of opportunity for increased capacity for remarkable accomplishments.”

At Girls on the Run, we believe that young people bring a lot to the table at this age.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I liken it to our general agreement about the “terrible twos.” We understand that “No!” and “Mine!” are developmentally appropriate responses at this age. We don’t fault 2-year-olds for thinking the world is theirs. They are just figuring out that they have some control over things and are testing that hypothesis. We also understand that we have to teach them about options, sharing, boundaries, etc. So what if we took a similar approach for middle schoolers?

Reframing negative views about adolescents:

  • They are overly emotional becomes they care deeply about things. What an opportunity for cultivating empathy, connections and service.
  • They are overly concerned with peers becomes they are turning their focus outward. What an opportunity to talk about support systems outside the home and picking and choosing peer groups who can help along the path.
  • They are immature becomes they are willing to try new things. We can stop treating them as young adults who continually make bad decisions and use this time as transformation and exploration. What an opportunity to expose them to lots of experiences, people and ideas.
  • They are unmotivated becomes let’s find out what motivates them and build on that. What an opportunity to find out interests and cultivate them by talking about current events, and exposing them to different careers, life paths and activities.

At Girls on the Run, we believe that young people bring a lot to the table at this age. This is the approach we take in our middle school program Heart & Sole, creating a positive space for adolescents to do all of the things mentioned above, with a curriculum that facilitates the process.

So I invite you to rethink adolescence. Let’s use this period to expose our middle schoolers to new experiences, give them space to talk about what’s important to them and teach them skills to deal with the issues they identify as significant in their lives.


Pointers from the Program is a column from the team at Girls on the Run International who develop our curriculum and oversee our program and pedagogy. These columns share perspective from the curriculum and our experience in the field with the many thousands of 3rd- through 8th-grade girls our the program.

Heather Pressley, PhD

Author

As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley now brings her experience in education to Girls on the Run, ensuring programs are relevant, engaging and girl-centered. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather is navigating the world being a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her four-year-old daughter. 

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