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The handy model of brain development

Posted on 01 May 2018 by Dr Claire Henry, Massey University

It can be a minefield to figure out what media content is suitable for young people in your care, how they might react to it, and how to discuss what they see in movies, TV shows, and video games.

You may have wondered: How does a teenager’s brain work? Why do they seem to think with their emotions? How do I talk to kids about sensitive issues that come up in the media? With 30 years of experience in the youth health sector, Dr Sue Bagshaw from the Collaborative Trust became our helpful guide to understanding the challenges and opportunities that media content can present for young people and their parents.

We picked Sue’s brains on all sorts of questions about young people and media, including how the brain develops. Her ‘handy model’ explains it in a memorable way, and begins to make clear why kids, teenagers, and adults handle a horror buzz differently.

Sue also emphasised that individual children can vary considerably in their reactions, even within one family. “To me, the most important thing parents can do with children or young people is spend time,” she says, “spend time with them to get to know their individual child and how they’re responding and how they’re growing.” One of the major shifts that happens at some point on the journey to adulthood is an ability to think in an abstract way. Sue explained the difference between a ‘concrete thinker’ and an ‘abstract thinker’ – two styles of thinking that process entertainment media in different ways.

Guiding young people’s viewing choices can be really hard for parents because it’s hard to determine exactly what age a child develops from a concrete to abstract thinker, and therefore what might be appropriate for them to watch. Sue is a big advocate for listening carefully to young people, which can help you be more aware of their thinking style. One of the problems these days is that parents often “don’t have the time to spend with their young people to get to know what stage they’re at, and therefore are a bit less restrictive with what they watch.”

Another challenge for parents and caregivers is that teenagers tend to think with their emotions, and adults sometimes forget what that’s like — even though we all think with our emotions when we get really stressed. Sue calls this “flipping your lid”; you think with your emotions and logical thought disappears. How should you respond when someone has flipped their lid? Talking to the emotions is the best way to start.

Sue also points out that teenagers often focus on the present rather than the future. “That’s the other thing about brain development and young people is that often they can’t see very far into the future — developmentally, it’s not there yet. So it’s really important to acknowledge that and talk about the now, and how it affects them now, rather than going, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine later, it’ll all settle down.’ There’s no later for them in their brains.” She recommends that parents calm and soothe young people first and then talk further about the issue or situation later.

Sue points out that part of listening is to listen with your eyes, paying attention to body language. Wires can get a bit crossed as the cortex comes online in teenage years, so teenagers’ emotional interpretation can get a bit crossed too. For example, often a young person will interpret a worried facial expression as an angry one. If a young person thinks their parent is angry, they may react angrily, and soon a conversation escalates into conflict. Sue suggests that parents be aware of the emotion on their face and check in with the young person, and the young person might also check in with them: “Are you angry with me, or just worried?”

Dr Sue Bagshaw’s explanations of youth development are a useful resource for understanding young people and empathising with the variety of ways they might respond to media content. Sharing her sage advice will hopefully bring comfort to parents in those moments when you’re about to flip your lid!

This video series was created by Dr Claire Henry, Lecturer at the School of English and Media Studies, Massey University, as part of the Minds Over Media collaboration with the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Dr Sue Bagshaw shows us her handy model of brain development


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