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.
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