'When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child and I acted as a child...'
- Extra Reading
But are modern children growing up too fast? There is increasing pressure to grow up faster as a result of our work orientated culture, educational systems, celebrity icons, entertainment and the media. Even dietary habits contribute to accelerating puberty. We are seeing increases in teenage pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse. Are we creating problems through curtailing childhood and what we know about the functions of play and other childhood pursuits that should help prepare us for adjusting to the demands of adulthood?
’WHEN I WAS A CHILD…’ ARE MODERN CHILDREN GROWING UP TOO FAST?
Professor Keith Kendrick
We are all very aware that in developed countries around the world societal pressures to achieve some form of useful autonomy in life as quickly as possible are intense. Fewer and fewer parents can afford to spend time at home with their children; birth rates are dropping so there are fewer siblings to interact with in the home environment; in the UK most children now enter reception classes at primary school by 4 years old and may well have been to play groups/nurseries for significant amounts of time in the previous few years; we face a long series of formal educational tests and challenges that can impact seriously on future employment opportunities right the way up until our early twenties; our cultures and their icons all emphasise growing up to do adult things as soon as possible, from the wearing of adult-style clothes and make up through to media representation of child lifestyles that seem more adult than childlike (“the cult of the little adult” if you like).
Does any of this matter? Does growing up faster actually have any negative consequence? Are current generations of youngsters becoming progressively disaffected with society and its values and unable to cope with its demands? Or is all this just symptomatic of the usual misperceptions that seem an inherent property of the so called “generation gap”?
I will not be able to provide definitive answers to such questions because for the most part the necessary research and statistics to directly address these questions simply do not exist – at least not with sufficient scale and objectivity. If you log on to “Google” on the internet and type out the question: “Are children growing up too fast?”, you will get an impressive number of hits although mostly reflecting opinions rather than hard evidence. However, what I can do in this lecture is to consider some of the important things that are going on during childhood and what work with other animals, and in some cases also with humans, can tell us about their functions in preparing an individual for adulthood.
Is childhood just an impatient waiting phase for adulthood?
" When I was a child I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a
child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." I Cor. xiii. 11.
Paul’s sentiments in his letter to the Corinthians express the idea that the values of childhood must be abandoned once adulthood is attained. On the other hand Herodotus supports the view that childish pursuits should be continued throughout life if sanity is to be maintained:
If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.
Still another view is that childhood is a necessary preparation for adulthood and that missing out on it can be a cause for regret:
Hors d'oeuvres have always a pathetic interest for me; they remind me of one's childhood that one goes through wondering what the next course is going to be like - and during the rest of the menu one wishes one had eaten more of the hors d'oeuvres.
Hector Hugh Munro
Indeed, childhood is in every sense a preparation for adulthood both in terms of physical and mental maturation. It is an essential stepping stone that allows us all to adjust optimally to the requirements that societal expectations and rules set for any adult individual to both integrate, exploit and enjoy living within it. By definition, individuals who fail to meet these criteria are classified as anti-social or in some way incapable of coping with societal expectations and therefore unlikely to experience a positive quality of life.
However, there is increasing pressure to grow up faster as a result of our work orientated culture, educational systems, celebrity icons, entertainment and the media. This leads to the three central questions posed by this lecture:
What childhood pursuits are important for physical, mental and social development? Are modern children being forced to grow up too fast? What impact is this having now and in the future?
What childhood pursuits and experiences are important for optimal physical, mental and social development?
The first important point that needs making is that aspects of human brain maturation continue from birth until into the late teens. During this long developmental period a child will learn from interactions with parents, siblings, relations, peers, teachers etc and will have both positive and negative emotional experiences due to these and other life events. Not only is this a phase of intense adaptation and information gathering, but the process of maturation is organised so as to structure it progressively in the most effective way. Of course, a child is strongly influenced by being taught by other individuals, but each also has at their disposal a highly effective self-help tuition kit that is present in the repertoire of the young of all birds and mammals – PLAY.
The importance of play
Play is a fundamental behaviour of juveniles in all species of birds and mammals. While adults can aslo show it, although at a much reduced frequency, they often give the impression that it is an attractive but wasteful expression of leisure that only the young with mininal responsibilities can indulge in. In truth, it is the work of youth it prepares an individual in an important variety of ways for adulthood.
Play and brain development
While the building blocks for brain development are created before birth and over 60% of human genes are involved, the brain is only about 25% complete at birth. The brain maturation process continues during the first two decades of life although of course brain networks can continue to adapt in the light of experience throughout the whole of an individual’s life. The type of play that humans exhibit changes during the various maturational stages of the brain.
Birth to 1 year - while all brain cells are present at birth, the first year of life is very important for the making of connections between then (synaptogenesis). This is particularly the case with sensorimotor areas in the first 2-3 months to help with movement and touch coordination and the visual and frontal cortices also develop rapidly during this time to improve visual discrimination and linking experience with reward outcomes and processing social signals.
Play during this period involves practice of the movement and sensory systems with interest in patterns, colours and sounds, exploring textures, grasping objects and performing simple actions with them. Play is highly repetitive like a form of practice. As the frontal cortex matures social aspects of play develop – games like “peek-a-boo” and one word naming of play objects.
2-3 years - There is a huge increase in brain synapses during this period up to around 1,000 trillion which is twice the number of the adult brain. The brain is about twice as active as well (which might explain “the terrible twos”). The specialised language production (Broca’s area) and comprehension (Wernicke’s area) regions of the brain develop as language communication expands rapidly and the links between the frontal cortex and limbic system regions such as the amygdala which mediate emotional responses heralds the start of understanding emotions, although controlling them is still difficult.
By the age of 2 examples of pretend play are seen, indicating that individuals are capable of symbolic thought. Children begin to transform objects and actions in their play “feeding and dressing” dolls, “driving” cars and trucks and “building” houses, garages etc. Language is also played with in rhymes and songs and “silly” sounds and pretend characters can talk, express emotions and perform actions. It is at this time they develop self-recognition and the beginnings of theory of mind (being able to put yourself in someone else’s place).
Brain frontal lobe networks develop considerably during this period as the brain gets to 90% of its adult weight by age 6. This allows faster and more efficient problem solving as well as increased attention and control over impulsive behaviour. Synaptic connections in brain motor and sensory systems are firmly established and the process of pruning (reducing numbers of synapses) has begun.
Play during this period is at its most elaborate and extensive. Children engage in complex theme play involving roles, scripts and costumes. By the age of 6 games with rules become a pervasive play activity as well as rule negotiations and discussion of “fairness”. Both co-operation and competition occur in these games as well as in spontaneously invented ones. Through this kind of play children demonstrate extensive symbolic thought capacities and ability to self-regulate and explain their own behaviour.
Maturation of the frontal lobes continues and synaptic pruning also begins in this important brain cortical region. The process of myelination of neural pathways within and between higher brain regions continues right into the end of teenage years which improves speed and efficiency of communication that in term leads to improved spatial memory, planning and problem solving, reasoning and ability to understand one’s own thinking (metacognition). During this period though individuals still use larger areas of their brains to carry out tasks than an adult would. Individual differences in brain structure also become more stable at this time.
Play becomes increasingly sophisticated and symbolic with pretend themes often carrying on for months. Symbolic board and computer games are popular and the more elaborate the rules the better. Many children tend to have been introduced to adult-controlled more organised games, such as sport, which require greater control of motor, social and cognitive processes.
Play, a biological imperative shaped by experience
While young animals of most other species mainly show relatively simple forms of play up to the age of puberty (rough and tumble play, play fighting and chasing) it is notable that the species which tend to have the most complex life styles engage in it most and with the most sophisticated repertoire. This naturally includes non-human primates and particularly the great apes where quite complex forms of social and object play are seen. Dolphins are also notable in the range and complexity of the games they play. It has been claimed that captive bottle nosed dolphins can show 317 distinct forms of play behaviour. One of these is blowing bubbles and catching them in the mouth before they reach the surface. To add interest and competition apparently they can make the task more and more difficult by releasing the bubbles closer and closer to the surface or modifing swimming style while the bubbles are released.
Apart from developing sensorimotor co-ordination these play interactions also help to sort out dominance relationships and promote social alliances and cohesion in the group.
Amongst other mammals it is the species who rely on their group hunting skills that show the greatest amount of play behaviour as juveniles. Play and play fighting are indispensible for developing both hunting skills and social co-operation. These species also seem happy to play with objects, presumably because they represent practice for catching and manipulating prey.
As humans we find play in animals extremely attractive and it represents a means of interacting with them. For example, playfullness is one of the key characteristics that attracts humans to cats and dogs who often seem to maintain an interest in playing for a large part of their adult lives.
Play for all species is a key adaptive tool for survival and therefore like all important behaviours its expression is linked to brain dopaminergic reward systems. If play is unable to activate these systems it is not normally maintained.
However, the propensity to play is not completely hard wired in any particular species and can be influenced by rearing environment. To a large extent this influence is exerted by the presence of other juveniles, particularly siblings. However in species that bond closely with their offspring parents also get in on the act.
Sheep and goats for example differ considerably in their propensity to play with goats doing so far more frequently. In cross-fostering experiments we carried out in sheep and goats we observed that we could reduce play in goats by giving them a sheep at a foster mother and increase it in sheep given a goat as a foster mother (Kendrick et al 2001). The adults of these species don’t normally play much but the influence of the foster mother is to create an attraction towards her species. Thus cross fostered lambs preferred to play with kids and vice versa, and it was these cross species interactions between juveniles that influenced play frequencies. So even species that show an apparent low motivation to play can be persuaded to do so in the right social circumstances.
Effects of play deprivation
The importance of play for social and emotional development and even for some sensorimotor skills has been shown by a wide range of animal studies. Most of these have been confounded by the use of total social isolation to achieve this which makes it difficult to interpret whether it is really the lack of play that is responsible. Some of the most cited experiments are those by the Harlows in the USA during the 1960s where rhesus monkeys were raised individually without maternal care and grew up to have very significant problems with social and sexual interactions with other members of their species.
However, work with rats has systematically tried to look at the impact of play deprivation rather than social deprivation either by anaesthetising or removing other juveniles. Such studies have universally reported that this causes problems with sociosexual development as well as aggressive and defensive behaviours. Generally non-social behaviours are unaffected. One interesting finding is that play deprivation is still likely to be the main contributor to the often severe sociosexual dysfunction seen in individuals after complete social isolation. If socially isolated rats are just given 30 min a day of play with another juvenile then this virtually completely negates the effects of social isolation.
There may also be critical periods for the influence of play on development of normal adult sociosexual behaviours. One study has shown that just two weeks of isolation during the 4th and 5th week of life produces effects (van den Berg et al. 1999). In rats this period corresponds to the maximum frequencies of social play.
Another interesting observation on rats is that play is controlled by the same kind of homeostatic mechanism as motivated behaviours such as eating, drinking and sex. Following a short period of play deprivation rats will accurately compensate by playing more when they get the opportunity.
What about humans? A number of lines of evidence suggest that play deprivation also has significant effects in us too, although there have been few good quality studies for obvious reasons. Children who have been play deprived are likely to have been abused and neglected in many other ways which might contribute to social and emotional problems in adulthood. However, a recent study has reported altered levels of release of two of the key neuropeptide hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, involved in control of social bonding following periods of neglect during early life (Wismer Fries et al 2005). This study compared children raised normally in families with children raised in institutions for an average of 16.6months at some stage during the first 3 years of their life and who were then adopted. The study showed that blood levels of the two social bonding hormones were elevated in family raised children when they interacted with their mothers, but not strangers. On the other hand, in the neglected children they showed no change when they intereacted with their adopted mother – even after periods of up to 4 years post-adoption. This provides at least some suggestive support for the observed problems that such neglected Institutionalised children can have with forming social bonds in adulthood and to the claim that the most critical period for play to produce its social effects is during the first 6-7 years of life.
Are modern children playing less?
There are a number of factors one would need to consider in trying to answer this. On the one hand reducing family sizes and increased numbers of families where both parents work might suggest this was the case. However these factors are often compensated for by nurseries and playgroups and attendance at schools from the age of 4 in many parts of the UK. Also the range of toys and computer games has vastly increased the number of play activities children can engage in. What has changed though is the amount of time individuals may spend in the social interaction components of play with the progressive increases in time spent watching television or on computers. True, these can represent social and emotional situations but arguably they are a poor comparison with the real thing even though computer games can involve characters with whom some level of interaction is possible.
The importance of the nature of early social interactions
Many of us are aware of links between experiencing abuse during childhood and increased likelihood of problems with antisocial behaviour, emotional disturbances, social integration and showing similar abuse towards others. Learning clearly plays an enormously important role in social and emotional devlopment in all social species and I have discussed this is previous lectures on the influences that parents can have on their offspring’s behaviours and social and sexual preferences (“Is having a good parent more important than having good genes?” – December 2002). Some of the most dramatic examples of this are how less attentive mother rats will rear offspring with a high stress and poor learning phenotype and quite independent of genotype. Similar observations have been made for effects of mothers on aggression phenotypes and from my own work with sheep and goats on the development of social and sexual preferences (Kendrick et al. 2001). These effects can also occur in humans (see my lectures: “Is having a good parent more important than having good genes?” (December 2002) and “Addicted to love, beauty or sex?” 14th February 2005).
In recent years evidence has accumulated showing that while there are innate mechanisms for perceptual and speech capacities in humans these are strongly influenced and tuned by experience. One interesting recent study on humans in relation to abuse in early childhood illustrates this well. It shows that experience of early abuse can have long term effects on subsequent ability to discriminate angry facial expressions as opposed happy and sad ones (Pollak and Kistler, 2002).
I mention these kinds of studies just to further illustrate the main point of this lecture which is that experiences during childhood are extremely formative in the social and emotional domains. As a consequence, anything that acts to curtail or impoverish it can have a long term impact, although there is little doubt that extreme abuse and neglect during this period are likely to produce the most damaging and serious effects.
Advancing the age of puberty and teenage pregnancies
In recent years one of the major lines of evidence cited to show that modern children are growing up too fast in developed countries is advancement of puberty in both sexes. In populations of Northern European origin for example the average age of menarche has reduced by 3 years over the last 100 years. A recent UK study has reported that one in six girls now show signs of puberty at 8 years old, compared with one in a hundred just a generation ago. Indeed, puberty now occurs in girls between the ages of 8 and 13 and between 9 and 14 in boys. It is no longer something that is linked to becoming a teenager but occurs in many between the ages of 10 to 11 and has led to the concept of “tweens” where traditionally teenage puberty-related changes are now occurring earlier in this pre-teen age group. The attainment of puberty brings with it a whole range of physical, psychological and emotional challenges and so arguably this should represent a serious issue if it is occuring at too young an age for individuals to cope.
Many different views have been expressed as to the likely causative factors involved. One of the most controversial of these is that it is due to so called endocrine disrupters in our modern environment – i.e. the presence of oestrogens in plastics etc. The rise in childhood obesity which I discussed in my lecture “Diet and obesity: manna from the Gods or the food of destruction” (November 2004) may also be a contributory factor due to high levels of oestrogen in fat causing earlier puberty in overweight girls.
The question of whether the current early age of puberty is abnormal for our species has recently been challenged however. In an article published this year by Peter Gluckman from New Zealand and Mark Hanson from the UK they have suggested that the current age is probably actually similar to that in Paleolithic times (Gluckman and Hanson, 2006). They argue that evolutionary pressures operate to select traits that match the organism to its environment and that this would end up linking the timing of reproductive competence to social maturation. They suggest that in hunter-gatherer Paleolithic times this was achieved. However, as human cultures became settled and agriculture based they developed more complex and psychosocial requirements and the development of these became slower. In these cultures there was also a gradual delay in sexual maturity caused by poorer nutrition and childhood disease. However in modern economically stable developed nations these latter aspects which delayed reproductive development have all but gone and sexual maturity has reset to its early level. On the other hand psychosocial development now takes even longer. Thus now there is an approximate 5-year gap between reproductive and psychosocial maturity.
However, there are other lines of evidence which suggest that emotional aspects of rearing environment can also advance puberty. A recent American study on the impact of divorce has shown that girls living in step families are twice as likely to reach puberty early as ones from non-divorced homes (rising from 18% menstruating by 11 or younger in non-divorce homes to 25 % in divorce homes and 35% where there was a step-father). In homes containing a step-father girls were, on average, menstruating 9 months earlier. It is possible that this reflects a similar effect that is seen in females of many other animal species when they are exposed to the odours of a strange male.
Another recent small study has shown that mood disorders such as depression in a mother can also advance puberty of their children, although this may primarily reflect increased levels of stress in the f ami ly associated with this.
Teenage sex and pregnancies
A UNICEF report published in 2001 starts by saying: “In the world’s rich nations more than three quarters of a million teenagers will become mothers in the next twelve months”. A further half a million would have sought an abortion giving a total of 1.25 million teenage pregnancies.
Teenage birthrates in the UK are the highest in Western Europe with one in ten babies born in England being to a teenage mum. Infant mortality rates for babies born to teenage mums are more than 50% higher than average and accounted for 12% of all infant deaths in 2000 (around 400 deaths).
While overall the percentage of individuals giving birth in their teens has dropped in many countries in the last 30 years with better contraception and advice, the amount of sexual activity has increased and the age of first sex has decreased.
It is difficult to assess the long-term consequences of having children in your teens and opinions still vary as to how serious a problem for psychosocial development this is. Nevertheless it cannot easily be viewed in a positive light and the trend towards increasing interest in sex and the declining age at which it becomes important for children is another clear indicator that society is encouraging children to become adults faster and faster. Unsuprisingly therefore most countries now have active programs aimed at reducing teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases although the fact remains that sex is becoming of increasing interest and prevalence in children.
A recent report from a teenager survey in the USA (http://www.heritage.org/Research/Family/cda0304.cfm) supports a conclusion that sexually active teenagers of both sexes are far more likely to be depressed and attempt suicide – although one should be perhaps a little cautious in interpreting this!
Advancing the age of completing formal education
There is little doubt that the UK education systems are amongst the highest pressure ones in the world and finally education chiefs are admitting that maybe we are overdoing the amount of formal assessments being carried out through repeated SATS tests as well as GCSEs and A levels. Even with losing a year through leaving school after GCSEs to work in an advertising agency in London for 18 months I still managed to obtain A levels and a first degree and a doctoral degree by 25 which put me 2-4 years in front of the vast majority of colleagues taking similar academic routes in the USA, Japan and Europe. True, we may end up gaining more Nobel prizes per capita than in other countries but it is less clear whether this high pressure system produces the well rounded education coupled with social and emotional stability that is required by over 99% of the population.
Of course it is very difficult to assess what impact our fast-track education system might be having on the ability of our children to cope with the social and emotional demands as well as those of work in our society. Early learning for reading, writing and languages is clearly an advantage. Many aspects of early education can also incorporate play elements that can be extremely important for both a childs social and educational development and may be missing from a home environment without other siblings and working parents. However, the long-term academic advantages of “hot-housing” have always been questionable. There is no real evidence to suggest that getting to a PhD early conveys any kind of long-term advantage other than perhaps joining the ranks of the employed more quickly. On the other hand individuals experiencing this kind of academic fast-track treatment often do experience some social and emotional integration problems.
Behavioural and Emotional problems in children/teenagers
Overall, many studies have suggested that in nearly all developed countries the prevalence of conduct problems, depression and suicide in young people is increasing, although methodological limitations have often made it difficult to have absolute confidence in this trend. A recent UK study however seems to have confirmed this using data from compatible surveys conducted over a 25 year period (Collishaw et al, 2004). Such changes must be the result of environmental influences since while emotional behaviours have a significant heritable component there has been insufficient time for genetic selection to have occurred
The teenage brain
Before considering specific areas of increasing concern with social and emotional problems in children and adolescents it may be worth first reminding you of some important facts about the nature of teenage brain that make it vulnerable. I considered this in part of my last lecture “Why do we gamble and take needless risks? (March, 2006) but I will just briefly repeat two of the points made. In the first place the fact that the frontal cortex is still developing up until at least the late teens means that control of impulsive behaviour, cognitive assessments of risk, moral judgements and general emotional control and interpretation are all still in a relatively immature state compared with adults. Coupled with this the reward areas of the brain that mediate our pleasureable responses to experiences seem to be less responsive than in later life and therefore teenage “boredom” thresholds are indeed low and they need constant stimulation to overcome this. This strong stimulation is precisely what play and social interaction activities are supposed to deliver as opposed to other alternatives such as antisocial behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse and unprotected sex etc. In short, the child and adolescent brain is designed in such a way that it needs to be stimulated constantly by experiences that are pleasurable. If it does not get these through normal childhood activities it will find alternatives. Those alternatives are very often ones that are seen in the adult world that they are constantly being encouraged to join.
Antisocial behaviour and violence
The Collishaw study has shown a substantial increase in adolescent conduct problems between 1974 and 1999 in both sexes. Twin studies have indicated a 59% environmental influence on antisocial and violent behaviour of which the majority (43%) is due to non-shared environmental factors, i.e. likely to be mainly outside of the family.
Depression and anxiety
The number of teenagers with emotional problems has also been increasing since the 1980s and these are primarily due to depression and anxiety disorders. Major depressive disorder occurs in 2-4% of children although it is rare before the age of 8. In adolescents this rises to 4-8% and is more common in girls. While most episodes of depression in adolescents last less than 9 months in 70-80% of cases there is a recurrence in 70% within 5 years and around one-third will have recurrent episodes during adulthood. 30% of children experiencing clinical depression will go on within 5-10 years to have bipolar affective disorder.
Anxiety disorders are even more prevalent and affect 5-18% of all children and adolescents. In about half of these cases there is comorbidity with them having more than one anxiety disorder or clinical depression as well. Again these disorders tend to reoccur during adulthood.
Suicide and suicide attempts among teenagers continue to be a problem and this is, of course, linked to increasing incidences of depression (it is estimated that as many as 50% of individuals with depression will attempt suicide at some stage). A recent report by Childline states that around 1000 children considered suicide in the last year which is a 14% increase over last year. In the USA 2 million adolescents a year attempt suicide.
Anorexia nervosa and bullimia are also conditions that often coexist with depression and anxiety disorders and can effect between 0.5 and 4.2% of females at some time during their lives.
Drug and alcohol abuse
In a survey carried out for the NHS and published on 24th March 2006, 11% of 11-15 year olds said they had taken drugs (mainly cannabis), 9% had smoked at least one cigarette and 22% drunk alcohol within the last month (survey was conducted during 2005).
It has long been recognised that animals will often mutilate themselves when exposed to constant anxiety and stress. It often takes the form of an almost compulsive/obsessive behavioural trait and is regarded as a clear sign that an animal is not coping with its social or physical environment. Although the neurochemcial changes that accompany this type of behaviours are not fully understood they are very likely to involved brain reward systems such as dopamine and opioids. Perception of pain seems also to provide a transient release from emotional tension.
This type of behaviour is also shown in humans under similar circumstances. Self-harming is characterised by individuals cutting, burning, scalding, banging, scratching or poisoning themselves or pulling their hair or even breaking their bones. One of the most alarming trends in recent years has been the number of young people resorting to self-harm as a method of coping with emotional problems. A report just published jointly by the Camelot and Mental Health Foundations has concluded that on average between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 11-25 year olds engage in self harm (Truth Hurts – Report of the National Enquiry into Self-harm among Young People – March 26th 2006:http://www.selfharmuk.org/). This is equivalent to two individuals in every school class and to a total of 800,000 in the UK population. Since most individuals are embarassed to admit to self-harm because of the negative reactions they tend to receive from family, friends, teachers and even health professionals this could well be an significant underestimate. The injuries inflicted can also be far from trivial with 142,000 admissions a year in accident and emergency departments in England and Wales and around 50,000 actual hospital admissions. These were primarily as a result of self-poisoning.
However, more information is required on these worrying statistics as well as a more detailed breakdown of genders and ethnic group differences. While self-harming typically is not exhibited until at least 12 years old, cases as young as 7 and 8 have been reported. At the other end of the age spectrum self harming can also continue into the 20s. There may also be peak periods of concern, with one study reporting that as many as 1 in 5 girls between 15 and 17 had self-harmed.
The important conclusion from this report is that self-harming is not about attention seeking but is a genuine coping strategy for dealing with mental and emotional distress. It tends to be shown by individuals who are bullied, have difficulties with social relationships and have low self-esteem. It is described by many as “getting out all the hurt, anger and pain”, “bringing them back to life”, “the only way to release feelings”. It is somewhat self-perpetuating with the strongest predisposition towards use of self-harm being experience of another close individual having used it. Typically individuals report that each incident of self-harming brings a transient relief from distress. Because relief is short-lived the behaviour can quickly become highly repetitive as in other species. Once started it also seems to be very difficult to give up. The following are comments made by teenagers on why they use self harm and emphasise clearly how problems with societal expectations and emotional stress are central issues:
‘Pain works. Pain heals. If I had never cut myself, I probably wouldn’t still be around today. My parents didn’t help me, religion didn’t help me, school didn’t help me but self-harm did.’
‘My emotions can vary rapidly and be very intense. If in an emotionally charged situation, I will either during or shortly after harm myself. I’m not good at dealing with emotions or communicating mine to others.’
‘I don’t deal with daily stress well, so when extra events occur however big or small, my tension levels rise, resulting in my needing a “release”. Self-harm has proven to be most successful in dealing with this.’
‘We’re expected to be good daughters/sons, good siblings, very good students, thin and beautiful, talented,and good friends. Constantly these expectations are far too high for teenagers to meet, and so we come to think it’s our own fault, and gradually, begin to hate ourselves for not being able to meet society’s expectations.’
Are some individuals more predisposed to risk than others?
As I have discussed in previous lectures: “Stress, anxiety and depression SAD” (October 2004); “Aggression: the biology of war and peace” (January 2005); “Why do we gamble and take needless risks?” (March 2006) variants in some specific genes are associated with an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression disorders, high levels of aggression and various forms of addiction. For example, these include the serotonin transporter (5HTT), monoamine oxidase A, the dopamine D4 receptor gene and an increasing number of others. However, these only convey increased risk in association with environmental factors such as numbers of major stressful life events experienced. There is thus a critical gene x environment interaction. During early life in particular this kind of interaction can lead to epigenetic reprogramming where transcriptional regulation of genes can be altered in response to environmental experience and in a heritable manner (see Rutter, Moffitt and Caspi, 2006 for a review). So in the end while some individuals may well be slightly more genetically predisposed to develop psychosocial problems the key trigger factors are primarily environmental.
What, if anything, can we do about this?
This is very much a societal issue and as such there are few quick fixes, although raising awareness that there is a current and likely future problem is an important first step. While it is easy to express simple platitudes such as “children should be encouraged to exhibit and enjoy childish pursuits and not to become little adults before they are ready”, this does not make them any less true.
We have nearly a 5 year gap that has opened up in the young in developed countries between reproductive and mental maturity due to the complexity of modern societies. We particularly need to focus on providing better developmental support for young people during this period although all stages of childhood are important for psychosocial development. This not only involves less pressure to take up adult roles in society too quickly but also creating the most appropriate interactive social and play environments that promote the learning of psychosocial skills – including playing and interacting more with other individuals rather than alone with computers and other multimedia attractions.
Above all of course childhood should be a positive, happy and enjoyable phase of an individual’s development. It is no great surprise that a recent review of 225 studies involving many different cultures has concluded that while it may often follow that success in life makes people happy, it is also true that happiness and a positive emotional attitude is more likely to lead to adult success in marriage, friendship, income, work performance and health (Lyubomirsky et al 2005).
If we want future generations to “see the glass half full rather than half empty” and be more successful, we should pay more attention to making sure that childhood is a happy period that, while being an essential preparation for adulthood, is also important in itself and not simply a period in limbo waiting for the main event to start.
Play is the work of childhood
Its nature changes to match needs of brain development
Play deprivation causes problems with sociosexual development
It may also impair release of peptides important for social bonds
The nature of play in modern society may not always be optimal
There is now a 5 year gap between reproductive and psychosocial maturity
Teen sex issues still a problem and may not make them happier
Is fast track education really an advantage?
The teenage brain needs appropriate stimulation otherwise it will find alternatives
Large increases in adolescent conduct problemsIncreased adolescent depression and anxiety disorders
Increased drug and alcohol abuse
Increased levels of self harming
Children need more encouragement to act as children rather than adults
A happy childhood may help promote success as an adult
…….but perhaps there are still some adults who will never grow up.
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Holloway KS and Suter RB (2004) Play deprivation without social isolation: housing controls. Developmental Psychobiology 44:58-67.
Kendrick KM et al (2001) Sex differences in the influence of mothers on the sociosexual preferences of their offspring. Hormones and Behavior40:322-338.
Lyubomirsky S, King L and Diener E (2005) The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin131:803-855.
Pollak SD and Kistler (2002) early experience is associated with the development of categorical representations for facial expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99:9072-9076.
Rutter M, Moffitt TE and Caspi A (2006) Gene-environment interplay and psychopathology: multiple varieties but real effects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47:226-261.
Van den Berg CL et al (1999) Play is indispensible for an adequate development of coping with social challenges in the rat. Developmental Psychobiology34:129-138.
Wismer Fries AB et al (2005) Early experience in humans is associated with changes in neuropeptides critical for regulating social behaviour.Proceedings of the National Academy of Science s102:17237-17240.
© Professor Keith Kendrick, Gresham College, 6 April 2006
This event was on Thu, 06 Apr 2006
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