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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. Between August 2016 and July 2017, we recruited 525 young people, who were in Year 6, and we’ve been following them ever since, through their high school years.

We are conducting detailed assessments. Teenagers and their parents each complete online questionnaires and an interview over the phone. The teenagers also visit Macquarie University to complete some interesting activities and tasks at our laboratory.

The information we collect is helping us uncover some of the richest understandings of teenage emotional development in the world. Some of the factors we measure 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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