No wonder, then, that researchers studying a phenomenon known as social buffering found some puzzling results when they studied teenagers. Social buffering is a way of describing the protective, positive effect of one individual on another. It describes the power of one person to reduce another’s stress.
But how does that response change as kids grow older? That’s what the neuroscientist Dylan Gee, now at Yale University, wanted to know. She studies how brain circuits mature, and has found that puberty is a turning point for dealing with stress. In children up to the age of 10, mothers calmed down the amygdala by engaging prefrontal circuitry in children’s brains that works to control stress. In adolescents, who were 11 to 17 in this study, Mom’s presence no longer worked the same magic. The brain’s response to stress remained highly reactive. On the plus side for teenagers, the necessary brain circuitry for managing the stress—a network that connects the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex—is more fully developed, so they are on their way to mature responses.
But things get more complicated later in adolescence. Researchers from the University of Minnesota induced stress in 15- and 16-year-olds using the same lab test we saw earlier that combines stressors like public speaking and mental arithmetic. Not only did the presence of friends not reduce stress, it made things worse. “We were blown away … until we thought about it,” said Megan Gunnar, the lead investigator and an expert on social buffering. She realized that the structure of the experiment increased the level of social evaluation because the speech teenagers had to give was about why someone would want to be their friend. “So your friend is actually sitting there helping you evaluate yourself. Oh my God!” Gunnar told me, with the wisdom of hindsight.
Gunnar suspects that further investigation of what’s going on at this turning point will be very instructive. “Up until puberty, your parents are actually physiologically scaffolding you,” Gunnar said. Then that changes. “Parents are supporting you [in adolescence], but they’re not in your hypothalamus anymore. They’ve moved out of your body.”
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