What are your most vivid memories? When you hear a song from your high school years, do you still know every word? Did you do something dangerous as a teen that you would never do today?
After reading Steinberg’s Age of Opportunity, I understand why events and emotions from adolescence are more intense than during any other period. I see now that risks and rewards are experienced differently, causing adolescents to be more prone to risky behavior than adults.
According to Steinberg, there’s more potential for growth – or harm – during adolescence because of the teen brain’s “plasticity.” Steinberg explains that the brain is “softer” and more pliable during adolescence than after the brain has been “allowed to harden” in adulthood. Ordinary occasions are encoded more deeply and trigger stronger emotions during adolescence, which explains your teen’s overreaction to seemingly mundane things as well as your vivid memories from high school.
Adolescence, therefore, is a time when the brain is primed to learn new skills; it’s the ideal period to go to college, learn a trade, master a musical instrument, and cultivate a hobby. It’s also the time to develop creativity, self-regulation, and reasoning.
However, a teen’s brain is also more vulnerable to long-term damage from physical and emotional harm brought on by things like drugs, environmental toxins, trauma, and stress. Since teens are less risk-averse and more reward-sensitive than adults, they are naturally drawn to risky behaviors at a time when these behaviors can do the most damage.
Alcohol and nicotine can permanently affect the adolescent brain, and repeated use creates the illusion in teens that they need to drink or smoke to feel normal amounts of pleasure. This need forms the basis for long-term addiction. Given that “40% of American high-school students drink monthly,” sometimes binge-drinking, there is cause for concern. Add that the average age of onset for serious mental health problems is 14 and that most mental health disorders start between the ages of 10 and 25, that concern is heightened.
A Longer Adolescence (Is it Good or Bad?)
With puberty coming earlier and adulthood (marriage, careers) delayed longer, adolescence now lasts approximately 15 years, longer than it ever has before. The popular perspective, which Steinberg describes here, is one I held prior to reading his book: “[…] young people have chosen not to take on adult roles because they’re lazy, self-absorbed, and spoiled,” he says. Parents have coddled their twenty-somethings, raising them to believe they are “entitled to a grand life,” which includes giving them “plenty of time to find themselves.”
Steinberg debunks this view and considers recent findings about the brain’s development, giving a positive spin to postponed adulthood: “Whether delaying the transition to adulthood is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how these extra adolescent years are spent.” Graduate school or intensive professional training, for example, can maximize the benefits of the brain’s plasticity post-college. Without such opportunities, however, prolonged adolescence just provides our kids more time to harm themselves.
Recommendations for Parents, Teachers, and Coaches
Steinberg, therefore, recommends trying to change the setting a teen inhabits to maximize opportunity and minimize risk. This means providing more supervision, especially during after school hours or when adolescents are in peer groups. We must rethink our culture’s collective belief that it’s okay to let adolescents—with their inherently immature judgment—be unsupervised for much of their time. We’re probably better off leaving our 8-year-olds home alone than our 15-year-olds!
Supervision doesn’t have to mean suffocation; we could supervise better by exposing our teens to novelty and challenge and helping them explore new skills and hobbies. If we teach teens to thrive rather than merely survive, Steinberg says, they’ll be less stressed and better able to reason, plan ahead, and control emotions.
This is critical in a culture that has been largely permissive when it comes to things like drinking, drug use, and unprotected sex. A “just say no” position is ineffective, says Steinberg, because it doesn’t change the way teenagers think. Our current health education programs teach kids the inherent risks in specific activities, but when teens are emotionally aroused—which happens often during adolescence—they don’t consider consequences. That’s why it’s more effective to provide teens with opportunities to enhance self-control.
As parents, teachers, and coaches, this often means being firm and judiciously enforcing rules, which makes children feel safe as opposed to rudderless. Parents need to find the balance between involvement and independence, between being disengaged and intrusive. We must emphasize self-direction and orchestrate a smooth transition for our adolescents from external control to internal control.
Steinburg’s “four rules” for a “decent life” might provide that framework. In short, he says, stay in school, wait for marriage to have children, honor the law, and avoid being idle.
Steinburg’s Age has been a revelation for me as a parent, inspiring me to be a better guide during my teens’ amazing, formative years. But the book has also informed my work as a camp director. His description of the ideal environment for adolescents mirrors the summer camp experience. For teen campers and young adult staff, camp offers novelty and challenge within a structure that keeps them safe. Adult interaction and supervision of groups is the norm, and rules are consistently enforced. At camp, adolescents can be innovative and take safe risks, experiencing the reward they covet without the harm they would likely find in another environment. And unlike at school, camp experiences help develop important non-cognitive skills like grit and personal responsibility. Camp offers amazing potential for growth at time when young people need it most.
Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Laurence Steinberg
Five reasons great parents send their kids to camp (Sunshine Parenting)
Three things to teach your kids about alcohol (Sunshine Parenting)
Enjoy your Teen Daughter (Sunshine Parenting)
Hug your Teen Today (Sunshine Parenting)