The Promise of Adolescence

Adolescence is a Time of Potential

A new report by leading researchers from around the country pushes us to rethink how we view adolescence. They argue it’s a time of tremendous potential. The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunities for All Youth was published by the National Academies of Medicine. It highlights the latest science on teen brain development. And, it takes a look at how teens’ biology and environment impacts the rest of their lives. We’ve combed through all 492 pages to bring you the most important findings for parents.

The report defines adolescence as extending from age 10 (when puberty typically begins) through age 25 (when brain development is largely complete). Adolescence spans four periods: early, middle, and late, and young adulthood. Certain milestones usually mark these phases. Starting high school during middle adolescence. Getting a driver’s license near the start of late adolescence. Leaving home to begin young adulthood. It’s important for parents to understand (and celebrate!) how their teens are developing because it can shape relationships. 

It’s important for parents to understand (and celebrate!) how their teens are developing because it can shape relationships. 

Important Brain Connections are Made in Adolescence

Teen brain development is truly remarkable! Brain connections become stronger and even more efficient. Unused pathways are “pruned” away so teens are able to learn more quickly. And, the parts of the brain that respond to rewards are especially sensitive making teens eager to have and learn from new experiences. These are just some of the reasons we like to think of teens as “super-learners.” 

Teens are developing more mature problem-solving skills and their own unique identity. They’re learning how to adapt to new surroundings. These new surroundings, like high school or the workplace, challenge teens in ways that help them learn through trial and error. In some cases, these new surroundings may expose them to activities, like drinking, smoking, or unsafe sex, that could harm their healthy development. Fortunately, there are several things parents can do to prevent or disrupt dangerous risk-taking, such as using a Lighthouse Parenting style, coupled with a strategy like the code word.

Environments Impact Our Biology

Another major finding has to do with the interaction between our biology and the environment. This connection affects us throughout life, but we now know that what happens during adolescence can dramatically change the direction their lives take.

The report reveals a teen’s environment can “get under their skin.” The environment involves many different settings families find themselves in — from schools to healthcare settings to juvenile justice systems. Teens exposed to toxic or dangerous environments may suffer harm to their brain development as well as their overall health and well-being. Whereas teens exposed to healthy and supportive environments are more likely to flourish. 

Parents are a Guide for Teens

Parents are an essential guide for teens as they go on the journey through adolescence. They have control over an important environment — the home. They can also work to influence other environments, such as the school or doctor’s office. Being warm and kind to your teen can go a long way toward supporting them to flourish. Using appropriate monitoring and discipline strategies can help keep them safe and teach important lessons. Sadly, not every family has equal access to top-notch schools. And the medical system can be challenging to navigate. But, there are ways parents can involve themselves in the school community to improve their teen’s experience — both at the school and from home. And, parents can help teens make critical decisions in healthcare settings. In these ways parents can help put teens on a path towards becoming happy, healthy, and successful adults.  

About Andy Pool

Andrew Pool, Ph.D., M.Sc. is a Research Scientist at CPTC. He has a doctorate in Public Health with a concentration in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Temple University.

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