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Unlocking teenage emotional development

We all remember our teenage years – some of us with fondness and others with horror. The adolescent period is one of dramatic change. During adolescence we have to negotiate powerful peer pressures, begin to date, start to separate from our parents, deal with wild hormonal storms, and start to contemplate our future. Not surprisingly, the adolescent period is the time when the vast majority of mental health problems first emerge. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported that 14% of young people aged 12 to 17 had a diagnosable mental disorder. Yet this figure ignores the even larger number with anxiety, low mood, body image problems, or relationship issues that don’t have formal diagnoses. But not all is doom. Adolescence is also the time when leaders are born; when future doctors, lawyers, and scientists start their journeys; and when some of our strongest friendships are formed.

Understanding the forces that shape teenage development holds a key to building a stronger and more productive society. But we need much more information.

  • Who: Which teenagers will become our future leaders and who will develop emotional difficulties?
  • What: What do emotional difficulties look like in those years – how do they relate to each other and what is important for teenagers?
  • Why: What psychological and social factors influence the development of adolescents – why does one teenager become the social butterfly and the other the wallflower?

The RAW Project

At Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, we are conducting an exciting project to answer these questions. We will start with 500 young people in year 6 and follow them each year across high school.

We plan to conduct detailed assessments. Teenagers and their parents will each complete online questionnaires and then following this an interview over the phone. Teenagers will then visit Macquarie University and complete some interesting activities and tasks at our laboratory.

This information will give us one of the richest understandings of teenage emotional development in the world. Some of the factors we will be measuring include: mental health, coping, and wellbeing; parenting; internet and social media use; friendships; body image; sleep patterns; and how teens respond to rejection, frustration, and fear.

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