Message to my younger self

March 15, 2018

Who can forget the intense highs and lows of our emotions, the insecurity and confusion we experienced in our childhood and adolescence? Will we be happy, loved and safe?

For most of us, the worry and uncertainty are part of growing up. But for some, the emotional turmoil runs deeper. The suffering may stem from neglect, abuse, depression or other mental-health conditions that are often undiagnosed, let alone given adequate treatment and support.

Our children today face even more sources of anxiety, such as the constant pressures of social media, bullying/cyberbullying, sexuality and gender identity.

Looking back on how I struggled and suffered in my early days, I sometimes wish I could travel back in time to reassure my younger self that everything would eventually be OK.

Understanding the teenage brain

According to The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, by Dr Frances Jensen, the brain of teenagers is still developing; and the last part to be completed is the frontal lobe, which controls decision-making. This is the area of the brain that gives us insight, empathy and executive functions such as impulse control and the regulation of risk-taking behaviour.

Dr Jensen believes that this is why teens are so susceptible to the pernicious influence of social media; they simply don’t know when to stop looking – even when it hurts or alarms them.

We will soon know much more about the biology of the teenage brain. A landmark project called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development – or ABCD – Study is underway in the US. It aims to follow 10,000 children for a decade, from the age of nine or 10 into young adulthood.

Teams will use MRI scans to record the structure and activity of young brains. They will collect reams of psychological, cognitive and environmental data about each child, along with biological specimens such as their DNA. This information should allow scientists to probe how substance use, physical exercise and sports injuries, screen time, sleep habits and other influences may affect – or be affected by – a maturing brain. When that study reports back, the information will be invaluable.

Ending the stigma

I wish there had been better understanding of children’s mental-health issues when I was growing up. So I applaud children’s mental-health support charities such as Place2Be, the Child Mind Institute and Goldie Hawn’s Mindup for raising awareness on these issues.

Last May, the Child Mind Institute ran a campaign called #MyYoungerSelf, where celebrities such as Reece Witherspoon, Michael Phelps and Emma Stone talked about their own youthful anxieties. Each of the short films starts with a first-hand account of a particular person’s struggles, before they are revealed to be someone famous – among the most popular and accomplished individuals in the world.

The celebrities also revealed the advice they would like to have heard as a child, including “Be honest” and “Talk to a teacher”.

One new Australian programme called Flourishing at School – developed at Geelong Grammar School in Victoria – aims to improve positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaningfulness and accomplishment. It is now being trialled at a British boarding school.

I feel immense gratitude to the universe that despite all of the trials and tribulations, I was guided and protected. Those experiences shaped me to be who I am today and I genuinely like who I have become.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation