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The right risks: How to keep normal behaviors from ruining teens’ lives

In the last 15 years, researchers have made some important discoveries about the relationship between adolescent brain development and social behaviors. Psychologist Lawrence Steinberg, for example, has proposed that the relative strength of the social-emotional system in adolescence contributes to risk-taking. He notes that adolescents seek social rewards in their interactions with peers, and they don’t always accurately assess how behaviors that are socially rewarding may hurt them in other ways. Some people struggle with impulse control disorders throughout their lives, but the challenge of impulse control in adolescence appears to be normative and (relatively) short-lived on the whole.

I’m a parent of an adolescent, so I know that “normative, short-lived” behaviors don’t always feel that way. My son makes mistakes—as we all do—and it can be hard to watch. As a parent I can only give him time to gain perspective and maturity, guide him as best as I can, and remember that he’ll do fine in the long run.

But as a researcher I recognize that society should think more seriously about how to help our emerging adults make successful transitions. Institutional expectations and environments aren’t always aligned with the realities of adolescent development, which can result in debilitating consequences for America’s youth. Nearly one-fifth of American adolescents live in poverty, and are thus more likely to live in unsafe communities and attend schools with high drop-out rates—all of which threaten a young person’s ability to bounce back from their adolescent mistakes. And community institutions may enforce consequences, such as incarceration and school failure, that have serious repercussions for young people’s adult lives: between 50 and 75 percent of young people who are jailed as adolescents go on to be incarcerated as adults, and potentially one-third return to prison before even reaching adulthood.

Unfortunately, as Steinberg notes, interventions that focus on what adolescents know or understand do not measurably change risky adolescent behavior. He observes that “a more profitable strategy might focus on limiting opportunities for immature judgement.”

What might that look like in practice? It does not mean that we limit opportunities for young people to make decisions—trial and error is an important part of growing up. It may mean that we avoid placing young people in environments that limit or harm their chances in life. How can we do that for adolescents and emerging adults who have such a small margin of error? A few organizations and scholars from across the United States might provide some guidance.

  • According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 40 percent of juvenile confinements are “due to technical violations of probation, drug possession, low-level property offenses, public order offenses and status offenses (activities that would not be considered crimes as adults, such as possession of alcohol and truancy).” As noted in a brief video prepared by the Foundation, juvenile incarcerations result partly from adults’ belief that harsh consequences will convince young people to take responsibility for their actions. But confinements actually put young people at further risk for negative outcomes, and are disproportionately applied to young people from minority backgrounds.
  • In Massachusetts, Roca stresses patience and proactivity with young people who are out of school, not working, or engaged in behaviors that impede adult success. The organization expects that the young men and women they work with will struggle with impulsive behaviors—and when youth stop attending program activities and return to negative behaviors, staff are expected to reach out and re-engage them. In contrast, many other organizations have strict rules about attendance when working with adolescents, and see little use in serving young people who do not engage in activities when there are others who can benefit instead. But this attitude may leave young people without supports that can help them grow.
  • In many schools across the country, students who do not hand in homework get zeroes. Too many zeroes can result in course failure even if they know the material, which can snowball into further school failure and even cause the student to drop out. At least one researcher has pointed out the unnecessarily punitive effect of a zero when students are graded on 100 point scales. Others propose multiple strategies for grading that tie student assessment to learning instead of homework completion.
  • All of these examples pose serious questions about how to help young people mitigate the negative consequences of their behavior: How do we ensure public safety if adolescents engage in risky behavior? How do we communicate to young people that violent and antisocial behaviors need to be curbed? Why should we provide expensive programs for adolescents who do not attend when there are others who will? How do we teach our adolescents increasingly complex academic skills if they do not do homework?

The cliché is true: there are no easy answers. But we should think about protecting our young people by modifying institutional practices, and we should reject solutions to young people’s problems that place all responsibility on them. At the same time, we should not avoid holding them accountable or avoid high expectations, but we should consider the long-term consequences of how we do so.

Karen Walker, Senior Research Fellow


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