We looked at what sorts of social strategies help teens win close friends of the same and opposite sex. We asked whether aggressiveness and breaking rules – what we will call being a rebel – sometimes make teens well liked by their peers.
We found that empathetic children who also show some rebellious and antisocial behaviours have more opposite-sex friends in the early years of high school than those who were merely empathetic and followed the rules. But in the latter years empathetic children who keep to the rules beat their more aggressive peers and had more opposite-sex friends.
We wanted to find out why some people who display antisocial behaviour are socially successful
But we wanted to find out why some people who display antisocial behaviour are socially successful. We also wanted to know if this behaviour was equally effective in opposite and same-sex relationships. Perhaps aggression and rule-breaking is attractive to the opposite sex but repellent to the same sex?
Measuring empathy and aggression
We addressed this question in a large, longitudinal study of friendship development in high school. The study assessed 2,803 students in 16 different schools across two different Australian states and five different time points between Years 8 and 12. We used both self-reports and peer-rated measures.
We measured empathy and antisocial behaviour (aggression and rule breaking) using self-reports. Empathy is the capacity to understand others’ emotions. Students were asked to rate statements such as: “When someone is feeling down I can usually understand how they feel,” and “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.”
Aggression and rule breaking also involved scoring statements of students engaging in arguing, fighting with other children, destroying things and bullying others. The scales in our study have been widely used and validated in former research.
We measured friendships using peer nominations of who youth felt where their close friends.
Our research identified four types of young people:
nice youth (around 36% of all participants, with 70% being female and 30% male) – these young people are high in empathy and avoid hurting others
rebels (around 11% of participants, 31% female and 69% male) – these young people hurt others, break the rules and have little empathy
nice rebels (around 18% of participants, 67% female and 33% male) – they have the ability to be both empathetic and hurt others
nonplayers (around 36% participants, with 28% being female and 72% male) – they use neither empathy nor aggressive strategies.
The nice rebels were the most interesting group. Theory suggests people who exhibit these qualities have an advantage over others because they can use empathy to build social alliances and aggression to become dominant in those alliances.
Nice people win
In Years 8-10 (around 13-15 years old) the nice rebels had more opposite-sex friends than the nice youth. The plain rebels tended to attract fewer opposite-sex friends than both the nice youth and the nice rebels, but these rebels still did better than the nonplayers, who were relatively invisible to the opposite sex.
However, the nonplayers did about as well as both types of rebels in same-sex relationships.
But in Years 11-12 (around 16-17 years old), the nice rebels lost opposite-sex friends and became less popular with the opposite sex than nice youth. The plain rebels also lost friends and became similar to the nonplayers in opposite-sex friendships.
The story gets even better (if you like nice youth). Throughout all of high school, the nice youth had more same-sex friendships than all other groups and higher wellbeing than both the nice rebels and the rebels.
At first, young people might have seen the nice rebels as charming, fun and powerful. However, over time, they experienced the rebel acting aggressively and, eventually, this disrupted the friendship.
What about mental health?
We also used self-reports to assess children’s wellbeing. We found the nice rebels and rebels consistently reported lower levels of self-esteem and worse mental health then the nice youth and nonplayers.
Females paid a higher price for being in one of the rebellious groups, experiencing worse mental health and self-esteem than their male counterparts.
We also found important differences between males and females. Females paid a higher price for being in one of the rebellious groups, experiencing worse mental health and self-esteem than their male counterparts. We speculate society may be more rejecting of rebellious females who are aggressive and break the rules.
The study had its limitations. Research is needed to determine what motivates young people to rebel. We also need to better understand why rebels experience lower self-esteem and worse mental health than the nice youth and nonplayers.
But what our research does show is that being nice is not only the ethically right strategy, it is also the most effective. Nice strategies such as taking perspective and giving can help young people build strong social alliances.
Do you find it refreshing that being nice wins in the end?
School involvement includes parents participating in events such as parent-teacher conferences and volunteering in the classroom. Home involvement includes parents talking with children about school, providing encouragement, creating stimulating environments for learning and finally – helping them with homework.
The paper found overall, it was consistently beneficial for parents to be involved in their child’s education, regardless of the child’s age or socioeconomic status. However, this same analysis also suggested parents should be cautious with how they approach helping with homework.
Parents helping kids with homework was linked to higher levels of motivation and engagement, but lower levels of academic achievement. This suggests too much help may take away from the child’s responsibility for their own learning.
Help them take responsibility
Most children don’t like homework. Many parents agonise over helping their children with homework. Not surprisingly, this creates a negative emotional atmosphere that often results in questioning the value of homework.
Homework has often been linked to student achievement, promoting the idea children who complete it will do better in school. The most comprehensive analysis on homework and achievement to date suggests it can influence academic achievement (like test scores), particularly for children in years seven to 12.
But more research is needed to find out about how much homework is appropriate for particular ages and what types are best to maximise home learning.
When it comes to parent involvement, research suggests parents should help their child see their homework as an opportunity to learn rather than perform. For example, if a child needs to create a poster, it is more valuable the child notes the skills they develop while creating the poster rather than making the best looking poster in the class.
Instead of ensuring their child completes their homework, it’s more effective for parents to support their child to increase confidence in completing homework tasks on their own.
How to help kids with homework
1. Praise and encourage your child
Your positivity will make a difference to your child’s approach to homework and learning in general. Simply, your presence and support creates a positive learning environment.
Our study involved working with recently arrived Afghani mothers who were uncertain how to help their children with school. This was because they said they could not understand the Australian education system or speak or write in English.
However, they committed to sit next to their children as they completed their homework tasks in English, asking them questions and encouraging them to discuss what they were learning in their first language.
In this way, the parents still played a role in supporting their child even without understanding the content and the children were actively engaged in their learning.
2. Model learning behaviour
Many teachers model what they would like their students to do. So, if a child has a problem they can’t work out, you can sit down and model how you would do it, then complete the next one together and then have the child do it on their own.
3. Create a homework plan
When your child becomes overly frustrated with their homework, do not force them. Instead, together create a plan to best tackle it:
• read and understand the homework task
• break the homework task into smaller logical chunks
• discuss how much time is required to complete each chunk
• work backwards from the deadline and create a timeline
• put the timeline where the child can see it
• encourage your child to mark completed chunks to see the progress made on the task
4. Make space for homework
Life is busy. Parents can create positive study habits by allocating family time for this. This could mean carving out one hour after dinner for your child to do homework while you engage in a study activity such as reading, rather than watching television and relaxing. You can also create a comfortable and inviting reading space for the child to learn in.
Parents’ ability to support their child’s learning goes beyond homework. Parents can engage their child in discussions, read with them, and provide them with other ongoing learning opportunities (such as going to a museum, watching a documentary or spending time online together).
The date for an important exam is looming. You know you have to study for it. Suddenly, it’s the evening before the dreaded date, and you feel like you haven’t studied enough, if at all. It’s time to try cramming all the information you can into your brain.
We know that to do well in exams, you have to remember your material to then demonstrate your knowledge during the test. But is an intense night of study an effective way of learning?
Learning information that can then be recalled in an often stressful environment is taxing on the brain.
In the best situations we can forget things like our colleague’s names when trying to introduce them to someone.
In a high pressure situation our brains can easily perform sub-optimally.
How to remember information in the long term
In cognitive psychology, a discrimination can be drawn between deep and shallow processing of information. This is known as the Levels of Processing theory which was proposed by researchers in the 1970’s. They argued that “deep processing” led to better long-term memory than “shallow processing”.
Shallow processed information can be encoded by the brain based on the simple characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning. So the knowledge is only able to be stored in short-term memory stores, where it is only retained for a short period.
Cramming can work for a short-term recall of the information, but this information will rapidly be lost.
To process information deeply, the meaning and importance of the information is encoded. Relations between concepts are linked together in an elaborate manner, so more understanding of the information is able to be demonstrated.
Due to the more meaningful analysis of the material, stronger and more long lasting memories can be formed.
Taking the time to elaborate and assign meaning to information allows easier recall. However, this process takes time, and when an entire subject needs cramming into your memory in a short period of time, deep processing can’t be performed.
So cramming can work for a short-term recall of the information, but this information will rapidly be lost.
Re-reading notes is not enough
Re-reading through notes is often not enough to cement information into your memory.
Condensing information down into single word cues can then efficiently trigger the recall of large amounts of information.A way of encoding information more deeply is to write diagrammatic notes. Spider diagrams, mind maps and concept maps are visual stimuli and are more easily remembered than a list of points or blocks of text.
Hand writing revision notes can also help you learn information more deeply and helps you to get into the practice of writing rapidly in an exam setting.
Typing on a computer can also increase distraction, as the temptation to procrastinate can increase.
A lack of sleep can affect your performance
The dilemma presented is that you can either stay up and study to commit as much information to memory as possible, or forfeit a night’s sleep. Last minute revision is synonymous with a poor night’s sleep, if any sleep at all.
Sleep, however, is essential in forming enduring memories – and a lack of sleep is shown to be self defeating in terms of memory recall.
Last minute revision is synonymous with a poor night’s sleep, if any sleep at all.
Scientists still do not fully understand why sleep is so important for brain function, but it is known that sleep is important in the consolidation of memory.
This is the process of forming an enduring memory from short-term stores into long-term memory.
Your brain goes through different stages of sleep. The deepest stage of sleep is known as Slow Wave Sleep and this period is proposed to be vital in the consolidation of memories.
The hippocampus is essential in the consolidation of memories, in particular in forming episodic memories, which requires linking the features of a memory together.
Studies have revealed in mice that the neurons in the hippocampus activated during learning a maze became active again during Slow Wave Sleep. The reactivation of neurons is proposed to strengthen the new connections.
So a good night’s sleep after learning new information is essential to forming memories. It’s beneficial to get sleep rather than staying awake and going into an exam without rest.
Procrastination can pile on the pressure
Despite the deadline of exams to study for, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing, like rearranging a bookshelf, or cleaning your desk, instead of revising for an exam.
The tasks we can occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are typically immediately rewarding but only have a short-term value.
The tasks we can occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are typically immediately rewarding but only have a short-term value.
The more important task of studying can lead to a bigger reward – passing the exam, however this reward is not immediate.
Humans tend to be motivated for small, immediate rewards. The value of passing a test certainly outweighs smaller, immediate rewards like playing video games; when the deadline approaches, the importance shifts. This usually leads to a long night of study before the exam.
It has been suggested procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.
Leaving an important task until the last minute increases adrenaline and stress hormones, and you can get a rewarding “rush” once its complete. The reinforces the idea that such people work better under pressure.
Familiar environment can prompt memory
Even if you arrive at the exam the morning after a long night of cramming, feeling sleep deprived and as if you haven’t learnt enough, all may not be lost.
Being in the exam hall at school or university can help you recall information. The familiar environment can increase performance as the stimuli around you can prompt memory.
The show, which worked with charities Samaritans and Mind on the episode, broadcast a special edition, which looked closely at the journey of the character Lily Drinkwell, and her friends Peri Lomax and Yasmine Maalik – as well as their parents and guardians – and explored themes of self harm and cutting among teenage girls.
It came at the same time as a report showed there had been a steep rise in incidents of self harm among teenage girls. The findings, based on data from GP practices across the UK, showed that self harm among girls aged 13 to 16 had risen by 68% in the past three years.
The study by researchers at the University of Manchester found that self harm was three times more common among girls than boys – and that those who self harm are at much greater risk of suicide. Self harmers are 50 times more likely to try to take their own lives.
The research also revealed that it is socially deprived areas where the greatest increase of self harm is seen. These children are also less likely to be referred to mental health services within a year of their first incident, compared with children living in more affluent areas.
In Australia, the statistics are similar, with over 10 percent of 14-15-year-olds reporting that they had self harmed in the past 12 months (and 5 percent of children in this age group reporting they had attempted suicide).
Girls are more at risk of self harm than boys. A quarter of girls in this age group admitted that they had thought about self harm and 15 percent had actually self-harmed, versus 8 percent of boys thinking about self harm and 4 percent reporting they had actually self harmed.
A cry for help
Working directly with adolescences in therapeutic communities, I have seen self harm used by children time and time again as a form of communication – about their state of mind and inner world. They cannot always tell you, but they can show you their pain.
In this way, Armando Favazza, the US writer and psychiatrist has explained how self harm can usefully be thought of as “a morbid form of self-help”.
There is also a lot of evidence that suggests early traumatic memory from childhood is held in the right brain hemisphere, and cannot be accessed symbolically through language because of the immaturity of the infant brain.
The theory goes that memory of these traumatic experiences then tends to be become “somatised” or experienced within the body. So for children who have experienced abuse and mistreatment, self harm can be a method of externalising internal wounds by showing this on the surface of the body.
The fact that more of these harming behaviours are seen in teenage girls is of course concerning. But as the psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Fiona Gardener explains:
Self harm typically begins in adolescence, and is characterised by an adolescent state of mind.
Adolescence itself is transitional, a period of uncertainty, and its duration has lengthened in recent years – with some girls experiencing their first period as young as nine years-old. At the other end, adolescence may be extended with many teenagers staying longer at home because of poor job prospects and rising rental and housing prices.
This means that children remain dependent on parents for longer and are instead compelled to explore their independence in the virtual world – and this of course has consequences.
Then there is also the highly pressured and image obsessed world many teenagers are growing up in – which is most acutely felt by girls. Children these days live in an age of selfies, online status, updates and instant communication – with sites such as Instagram and Snapchat emphasising appearance over content.
Bullying and pressure on social media is also an ever present threat. This is a threat that doesn’t just follow you home, but comes into your house with you, goes to bed with you and even on holiday with you – it is inescapable.
Fighting the feelings
What all this shows, is that children are being given too much of what they don’t need and very little of what they do.
This comes at a time that child and adolescent mental health services are inadequately resourced. If children get access to help they are often placed into short term cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). But this isn’t always the answer, because self harm tends to be more about emotional difficulties than cognitive processes – which is what this type of therapy focuses on.
Ultimately though, this rise in self harm needs to be seen for what it is, a cry for help, and a way of communicating the pain and upset these teenagers are feeling. And given the scale of the problem, these heartbreaking figures speak volumes about the experience of growing up as a girl today.
If you have been affected by any issues in this story, or you need support and information, you can call or textKids’ Helpline on 1800 55 1800 24/7. It’s free to call, even from your mobile. Chris Nicholson, Deputy Head of Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex
While it’s clear that adolescence is a period of life that is rife with stereotypes, there is some truth to the cliches. Many neuroscience studies have now established that there are significant changes happening in the brain in adolescence. And the things that teenagers are often derided for – like their risk taking and vulnerability to peer pressure – are actually rooted in changes occurring in the brain. There’s just one problem with this: plenty of teenagers don’t fit the stereotypes.
We all know from personal experience that the way teenagers think and act can vary widely depending on which teenager you’re talking about. But despite this, the vast majority of studies to date have focused on averages: what happens on average to the brain during adolescence, or how do adolescents behave and feel on average?
Relying on averages in this way has an important statistical benefit – in that researchers are more likely to be able to detect a genuine effect if they average their findings across lots of participants. But the obvious cost is that these general findings don’t apply to everyone.
Understanding individual differences
In a recent paper, my colleagues and I argue that this needs to change. From now on, adolescent brain research needs to give more attention to these important variations between teenagers – what is known in the field as “individual differences”.
Besides documenting that all teenagers are different, we also need to start understanding why this is the case. Studies already investigating this have shown that genetics, nutrition, parenting and mental illness all affect the way our brain develops and the way we behave in adolescence. And in our latest paper, we looked at three other factors that might affect brain development: socioeconomic status, relationships with peers and culture.
Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s social and financial standing in society, and is often gauged by their parents’ education level and the overall family income. Research has already found that your brain develops differently across adolescence depending on your socioeconomic status. But what we don’t fully understand yet is why. It might be, for example, that being brought up in a lower income environment is more stressful or is linked to different types of nutrition, and that these in turn affect brain development, but more studies need to be conducted on this topic.
Studies already investigating this have shown that genetics, nutrition, parenting and mental illness all affect the way our brain develops and the way we behave in adolescence.
Classmates and culture
The kind of relationships that adolescents have with their classmates also affects brain activity. Adolescents with a history of being bullied, for example, show different patterns of brain activation to certain social information – their brains appear to be more sensitive to the experience of being left out. By the same token, having lots of friends and a history of being liked by classmates also affects brain activation, and may make you more resilient to developing mental health problems.
Across the world, adolescents also grow up in vastly different cultures, which affects many aspects of their lives – from how many years they spend studying, to when they get married, and even how much time they spend with their families.
Research has already found that your brain develops differently across adolescence depending on your socioeconomic status.
Recently, scientists have become interested in how this might mirror differences in adolescents’ brains. We already know that adults from different cultures show interesting differences in their brain activity and brain structure, and this is now starting to be investigated in adolescents.
Just your average teenager
The reason why most adolescent brain research hasn’t look at individual differences yet is partly because the field is only about 20 years-old, and new research areas need to start with the basics – the averages – before they attempt to understand the nuance.
There are also practical reasons. Brain imaging technology to date has not been good enough to map exactly how specific factors like peer relationships might affect brain development. Then there is also the fact that to have enough power to detect reliable findings, large sample sizes are needed.
This means hundreds, sometimes thousands, of teenagers. At the moment a brain scan costs about £500 ($930) per hour, so sample sizes are very often limited by cost. One way to resolve this issue is for scientists to share their data with each other, and this is now starting to happen.
All brains are different
Recognising that all adolescents are different has really important implications for things like education or advertising. If, for example, the way in which adolescents learn is dependent on their specific pattern of brain development, then educational strategies that are based on averages will only have limited use.
Similarly, advertising campaigns for things like sexual health, if based on the studies that are averaged across participants, will work for some adolescents but not others.
The sooner we understand the difference between adolescents, the sooner we can integrate this information into schools and policy. This is important, because after all, there’s no such thing as an average teenager, and we need to remember this as we continue to refine our understanding of the adolescent brain.
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