CHANGING THE WAY PARENTS THINK ABOUT THEIR TEENS
OFFERS NEW OPPORTUNITIES
Laurence Steinberg, PhD., November 4, 2014 GPS Event
There are innumerable books written on the difficulties parents encounter when raising teens. But try to find one book extolling the pleasures and virtues of the task. Laurence Steinberg Ph.D., a leading expert in adolescence and professor of psychology at Temple University, ought to know. He’s written seventeen books and hundreds of articles on teen development.
Now in his new book Age of Opportunity – Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence Steinberg wants parents to see this time in their lives as an opportunity to embrace and enjoy the changes occurring with their children.
In a two hour midafternoon presentation on November 4th at Glenbard South High School Steinberg offered educators and parents the benefit of his forty plus years of experience. He began with the sobering fact that there is a real disconnect between what science tells us of adolescence and how it is portrayed in our popular culture. The United States doesn’t “deal well with adolescence.” Steinberg explains, “American teens lead the world in obesity, binge drinking, illicit drug use and STDs.”
Girls are developing into puberty by age twelve. A century ago they didn’t reach puberty until fourteen and one half. Boys are also maturing two full years earlier than a century ago. Several factors are at play, including increases in obesity and the use of chemicals in our environment. Even the increase in children’s exposure to light, which affects the levels of melatonin they produce, has had an impact.
Conversely, it is taking longer for children to move from adolescence to adulthood. Why? Because teens are staying in school longer, are financially dependent on their parents longer, and they are taking longer to marry and have children of their own. As a result, adolescence for today’s children lasts about fifteen years, which is two times longer then it did when their parents were adolescents.
What science has discovered about the adolescent brain can help parents to better understand the changes their teens are experiencing. Generally, during adolescence people have deeper and richer recollections than at any other time in their lives. They remember the books they read, the music they listened to, the movies they saw. This occurs because of the adolescent brain’s neuroplasticity.
Steinberg explains that during adolescence the brain is still being “built.” It is transforming itself and is the last time when the brain will ever be that flexible. In adulthood the brain loses its elasticity. Steinberg uses the analogy of the difference between being able to remodel or redecorate a house.
Different parts of the adolescent brain are more elastic at different times. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions like planning, self-regulation and decision-making, is the last to develop.
Steinberg believes that self-control is most important to development. Adolescents who exhibit self-control are happier, succeed more often and have better relationships. This factor translates into how economists have determined the four basic rules for avoiding poverty.
1. Graduate from high school.
2. Don’t have a child before marriage.
3. Don’t break the law.
4. Don’t be idle.
In other words, self-control is the best protection against negative or risky behavior.
Puberty has many affects on the brain. It makes the brain more “elastic” which aides in the acceptance of new information. Also, dopamine is released in greater quantities at this time intensifying emotions and pleasurable experiences. That is why teens become “sensation seeking.” They will seek an experience even if there is risk because the “reward center” in the brain is so activated but the frontal cortex is still not fully developed. As Steinberg puts it, “Adolescents engage in risky behavior, not because they are not informed but because they have no braking system.” To help parents cope with adolescent behavior Steinberg asserts that we need to “change the context in which adolescents live and not try to change adolescents.”
As an example of what he means, Steinberg explains that teen smoking has declined, not because of adults teaching teens about the health risks but because the cost went up thus making it harder for teens to obtain cigarettes.
Another example Steinberg uses is the Graduated Driver’s License program in the State of Illinois. Teen driving fatalities have fallen, not because we are teaching them better of the risks of driving but because we have changed the way they can obtain a driver’s license.
Steinberg points out that, statistically, the most dangerous time of the day for teens is between the hours three p.m. to six p.m. when they are least likely to be monitored by an adult. During these hours teens are more likely to use illicit drugs, engage in sex or engage in delinquent behavior. One way to curb this behavior would be to offer after-school programs for teens so that they can be engaged in productive activities.
Steinberg maintains that looking at brain science should help shape public policy. He believes that if we know adolescents can’t think like adults yet then we shouldn’t be charging them as adults when a crime is committed. If a teen remains in the juvenile justice system he or she has a better chance of getting the counseling needed to change behavior.
We know that American teens do not perform scholastically as well as teens in other developed countries. This has been attributed to a lack of demand of high schools students. There is a lack of “rigor” in their coursework. Only one out of six students’ in high school reports taking a challenging class. Most report that school is too easy and boring. To help teens parents need to encourage them to take harder courses and to challenge themselves.
For their frontal cortex to develop adolescents need to develop determination, perseverance, and grit. That can only happen when they are challenged and along the road experience failure and learn to stick with something.
Steinberg explains that the adolescent brain remains elastic when it is introduced to “novelty.” He says, “In adulthood we trade a life from unpredictability to predictability. If a person in his or her twenties can stay in situations that lend to new experiences it will prolong the brain’s plasticity.”
Above all, Steinberg wants us to stop thinking of adolescence as a problem and more of an opportunity. To do that he recommends the following:
1. Spread the word that adolescence is a time of brain growth. Resources and funds should be used for adolescents as much as it is for preschoolers.
2. We need to better educate parents on how to parent adolescents.
3. Make school more challenging for all students.
4. Realign laws so that they make sense when dealing with adolescents.
5. Stop making adolescence a race to get to adulthood. Make this time more stimulating and challenging for teens.
There are so many positive experiences to embrace during adolescence. Focusing on those can make the challenges seem less so.
By Suzanne Burdett
Glenbard parent and freelance writer