Adolescence is a time of contradiction in our society. We don’t trust teens, yet we expect them to behave, think and react like adults. We have set up systems and structures that operate exactly opposed to the biological realities of adolescence.
- The majority of mental illnesses first emerge during adolescence, and are the most effectively treated during this period, yet the state’s school-to-counselor ration is nearly double the recommended 1:250.
- Teens are more sensitive to rewards than losses, yet we are quick to punish and expect self-motivation and self-regulation.
- Teens are universally more reckless – across cultures and by all types of risk. They even drown more often than other age groups. The majority of teens admit to criminal behavior in self reports. Yet we label those we catch as delinquents just as they are developing a self-image.
- Teens are uniquely sensitive to peer influence, especially during times of trauma, yet we hold teens who’ve committed lower level offenses alongside more serious repeat offenders for months at a time while they await treatment programs.
- Teens are uniquely vulnerable to trauma, yet we staff detention centers with poorly paid, undertrained guards who would not qualify to work in prisons or schools. Then we do not hold the guards accountable when they abuse our at-risk kids.
- Adolescence is a time designed to be dependent on a rich environment and social climate for healthy development – yet we send teens to adult jails, where they sit in isolation for months while they await trial on adult charges. Treatment that has been shown to be associated with higher risks for suicides, self-harm and mental illness – in healthy adults.
We need to do better.
We are wasting a decade of heightened potential with our faulty policies. The first step is to understand the science of adolescence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has pointed to this science in requiring juveniles to be treated differently: adolescents are less mature, are wired for impulsive recklessness, and are more vulnerable to outside pressures and influences, and thus more malleable. It’s time for policymakers to follow suit and take advantage of the great potential of teens.
Teens are uniquely, and permanently, shaped by their environments and experiences. The teenage brain is simply designed to rely heavily on the environment to shape a person’s identity. This makes teens uniquely vulnerable to stress and trauma yet also amazingly flexible. Adolescence is a major fork in the road – experiences and choices during this time determine a life’s path. The key to success is a teen’s environment and resources; two things we, as a society, can shape.
Adolescence is an age of malleability
Adolescence is the second, and last, period of heightened malleability. We all accept that children between birth and age three are highly sensitive to trauma and neglect due to their rapid development of basic life skills, like language. Teen brains are also quickly developing, but they are focused on the soft skills of life that ultimately determine life outcomes – skills like the ability to reason logically, plan ahead or control emotions. Whether, and how, these skills develop depends heavily on the youth’s environment – what does it demand? What does it enable?
The adolescent brain is focused on maturing the reward, relationship and regulatory systems – the regulation of our experience of pleasure, the way we think about others and our ability to control ourselves. These are the systems most responsive during adolescence – and the most vulnerable to harm.
Teens are sponges for information – built to be tuned in to the environment, even when they are unaware. Experiences always shape the brain: how we process events and the world around us and how we make decisions. Because teen brains are focused on developing the self-regulation and emotion processing centers of the brain, teens are uniquely sensitive to such molding.
Just as the brain is at this heightened period of malleability, it is also solidifying connections. This makes damage done during adolescence increasingly difficult to undo later. This also has a benefit: learning something new and challenging can make it easier to learn more later, lengthening the period of heightened malleability.
Adolescence is an age of sensitivity
Teen brains develop in three stages: as puberty begins, the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, goes into overdrive. Teens are more emotional – higher highs, lower lows; more sensitive to the opinions of others, and more focused on having exciting and intense experiences. Then the brain begins working on organizing its connections to build better executive functions, like problem solving, decision making and planning ahead. Finally, toward the end of adolescence, the brain shifts to improving interconnectivity to improve maturation and self-regulation: the emotional and logical brains get better at communicating. Young adults get better at controlling impulses, considering long-term consequences and resisting peer pressure. Their in-the-moment choices simply get better.
Teens are more finely tuned in to their environments – they perceive more slights and are prone to overreact. These are also the years when we are the most sensitive to peer influence – the mere presence of peers in the next room increases recklessness. This is much more than “peer pressure” and is universal across cultures; even mice exhibit this.
Teens process the world through their amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. The teenage brain simply feels more intensely – more anger, more happiness, more stress – more. This is why we all remember more from our adolescence than any other age; these emotions help to solidify even the most mundane of memories. Nothing will ever feel as good as it did in adolescence. Even a simple sugar cube lights up the teenage brain in ways children and adults cannot imagine. On the other hand, teens are less sensitive to loss – this is why positive motivation is more effective than potential punishment.
Everything feels so much more pleasurable during the first half of adolescence that teens will put themselves in danger for a chance for a reward. Risky behavior, violence, self-inflicted injuries, unintentional drownings, unplanned pregnancies, property crime, and fatal car accidents all peak in adolescence. Teens are universally more reckless – across cultures and by all types of risk. This sensation seeking peaks at age 16. Older teens are just as smart as adults – they understand risk and the dangers. They actually don’t feel any more invulnerable than adults. They just don’t have the tools to manage their reactions.
Adolescence is a time of vulnerability.
The sensitivity of adolescence makes it a vulnerable time. The teen brain is extraordinarily vulnerable to stress and trauma. Trauma during adolescence can have long-lasting impacts on par with early childhood trauma, as the key centers of the brain developing – memory, identity formation, decision making, self-regulation and planning – are vital to their independence.
We can do better
- We should focus more on our teens’ environments than on changing teens.
- We need to protect teens from the harms they can do to their own lives.
- We need to empower teens with tools to navigate their circumstances.
- We need to challenge teens and allow them to fail. The brain remains plastic longer when exposed to this sort of challenge and novelty.
- Teens can accept responsibility and be held accountable, but punishment is ineffective as a deterrent and counterproductive in most cases.
- Teen mistakes are best met with a focus on rehabilitation and protection.
Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity
Juvenile Justice and the Adolescent Brain, Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior.