Navigating Child to Adolescent transitions: A Compassion Focused Approach

by | Oct 2, 2023 | Parenting | 0 comments

As a forensic psychologist at The Harlow Therapy and Coaching, I often work with families who are navigating the challenging transition from childhood to adolescence. This period is marked by profound changes in the brain, behaviour, and emotions, making it a crucial time for parents and caregivers to understand how best to support their young ones. In this blog post, I share insights into the brain changes that occur during this transition and how a Compassionate Focused Therapy (CFT) approach, specifically Paul Gilbert’s Three Emotion Regulation / Motivation System model, may help caregivers support their child through this stage of incredible change.

The Adolescent Brain: Under Construction

Adolescence is a time of remarkable transformation in the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain undergoes significant rewiring during this phase, particularly in the prefrontal cortex—the region responsible for decision-making, emotional regulation, and impulse control. This remodelling process, known as synaptic pruning, involves the elimination of unnecessary neural connections while strengthening and refining others.

The prefrontal cortex’s maturation is crucial for adolescents to develop skills like planning, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. However, the process isn’t completed until the mid-20s, making adolescents more prone to impulsive decisions and emotional fluctuations.

The Role of a Compassionate Focused Approach

Compassionate Focused Therapy (CFT), developed by Dr. Paul Gilbert, is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes self-compassion, emotional regulation, and the cultivation of positive mental states. CFT provides a framework that can be particularly beneficial for adolescents and their caregivers during a time of significant biological, psychological and social change.

  1. The Threat System:

An adolescent can experience heightened activity in the “threat system” because of the breadth of transitions and changes occurring all at once. This system is responsible for detecting and responding to potential dangers. In the context of adolescence, this heightened sensitivity can lead to increased emotional reactivity and susceptibility to stressors.

CFT supports individuals, including parents and caregivers, to recognize when the threat system is activated in themselves or their adolescents. Through self-compassion practices and emotional regulation techniques, individuals can learn to soothe the threat system and respond to stressors more effectively. For parents and caregivers, this means providing a safe and supportive environment for their adolescents to express their emotions without judgement.

  1. The Drive System:

The drive system is responsible for motivation, ambition, and goal setting. During adolescence, due to brain changes such as myelin formation, this system can become overactive, leading to intense desires, impulsivity, and risk-taking behaviours. CFT helps individuals, including adolescents, set and pursue their goals while maintaining a healthy balance.

Parents and caregivers can support adolescents by encouraging them to identify and pursue their passions and interests. By doing so, adolescents can channel their drive system energy into positive endeavours.

  1. The Soothing System:

The soothing system is the key to emotional regulation and well-being. Adolescents often struggle with emotional regulation due to the ongoing development of their prefrontal cortex. CFT offers tools for adolescents and caregivers to enhance their soothing system.

Practices like mindfulness, self-compassion, and relaxation techniques can help adolescents and their caregivers manage emotions more effectively. Caregivers can model these techniques and create a nurturing environment where adolescents feel safe to explore their emotions and seek support when needed.

Applying Compassionate Focused Therapy approaches to Parenting

To apply CFT in parenting during the transition from childhood to adolescence, consider the following strategies:

  1. Self-Compassion: Parents should practice self-compassion to avoid self-criticism and guilt. Adolescents need caregivers who can model self-compassion as a way to cope with the inevitable challenges of this period.
  1. Emotion Regulation: Teach adolescents emotional regulation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness. Encourage them to use these tools when faced with emotional turmoil.
  1. Communication: Create an open and non-judgmental space for adolescents to express their feelings and thoughts. Active listening and empathetic responses can strengthen the parent-child relationship.
  1. Boundaries: Set clear, consistent, and age-appropriate boundaries to provide a sense of security while allowing adolescents room for growth and independence.

Understanding the brain changes that occur during the transition from childhood to adolescence is essential for parents and caregivers. A compassion focused approach, using Paul Gilbert’s Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) principles, provides valuable tools for navigating this challenging period with empathy and support. By fostering self-compassion, emotional regulation, and effective communication, caregivers can help adolescents thrive as they journey into adulthood.

Written by Nina Preston

Written by Nina Preston

BSc, MSc, CPsychol, CSci, AFBPsS Consultant Forensic Psychologist Chartered & Registered Psychologist

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