Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence
Parenting expert, Lynne Griffin in conversation with Laurence Steinberg.
Posted Sep 08, 2014
Why did you write Age of Opportunity?
There were two driving forces that motivated me. The first is that if you look at statistics on the well-being of American young people, you see quite clearly that things are not going well. Our high school students lag behind teens in many other developed nations on measures of achievement. At the same time, American teenagers lead the world in a wide array of problems, like obesity, STDs, violence, and binge drinking. I wanted to write a wake-up call. The second reason is that there have been tremendous advances in our understanding of adolescence, in part because of the growth of brain science, that haven’t really influenced the way we think about the period as much as they ought to. As a scientist who has been studying adolescence for forty years, I wanted to share this exciting knowledge with the general public.
A number of books about the adolescent brain have been published in the past few years. What’s different about this one?
Yes, that’s right. And they pretty much all cover the same territory, mainly emphasizing the ways in which the development of the frontal lobe helps kids develop better self-control. And while this is certainly true, it’s only part of the story. In fact, the most exciting discovery about the adolescent brain hasn’t received any attention outside the scientific community at all. Studies are showing that adolescence is a second period of heightened brain plasticity, just like the first three years of life. This makes adolescence a really vulnerable time—because the brain can be damaged by harmful experiences—but it also makes it a time of tremendous opportunity. I want parents and educators to know this, so that they can take advantage of the opportunity and protect kids from harm. Part of my goal in writing the book was to explain how to do both.
You point out that adolescence is more than twice as long today as it was in the 1950s. Why has this happened, and why does it matter?
It’s often said that adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture—it starts with puberty and ends when people establish their own households and become financially independent. If you look at the statistics on both of these markers, you see how adolescence has grown over time. The age of puberty keeps dropping, but it has been taking longer and longer for young people to become adults. I think of adolescence today as beginning around age ten and lasting until twenty-five or so for many people. This has led to a lot of confusion about how we should judge young people’s behavior. How should we treat a ten-year-old girl who has gone through puberty and is attracting the attention of boys who are much older? How should we view a twenty-four-year-old who is still living at home and dependent on his parents for financial support? These are challenging issues for parents who grew up during a time when adolescence started later and ended earlier.
Many people have raised concerns about how long it is taking for young people to move out of adolescence and into adulthood. But you argue that delaying adulthood isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and that in some respects it may even be beneficial. This will come as a surprise to lots of readers. Can you explain a bit?
I think that today’s twentysomethings have gotten a bad rap. They are being caricatured as immature and self-absorbed, and are criticized for behaving in what I think are completely rational ways given the world we now live in. But even more important is the fact that brain science is suggesting that the window of adolescent brain plasticity begins to close when we stop exposing ourselves to novel and challenging experiences. So delaying entrance into the routine and repetitive activities that are typical of most work environments (and a lot of marriages, for that matter) may actually be good for you!
Some parts of the book report findings from your own research. What has most surprised you?
There are three findings that I’ve been especially struck by. The first is that adolescents are highly susceptible to the influence of their peers in ways that are more powerful than what we usually think of as “peer pressure.” We’ve done brain imaging studies showing that simply knowing that their friends are in the next room affects adolescents’ brains in ways that make them more likely to behave recklessly. This doesn’t happen to people over twenty-five, though. The second surprising finding is that even mice seem to be susceptible to this peer effect—but only when they are in the “adolescent” phase of mouse development. And the third is that a lot of behaviors we observe in American teenagers are fairly universal. We’ve just finished a study of adolescents and young adults in eleven countries, and patterns of psychological development look far more similar than not in these markedly different contexts.
Several of your previous books have been for parents. Will parents benefit from reading this one, too?
Very much so. One of the points that I stress throughout the book is the importance of self-regulation for adolescent success and well-being. Self-regulation has always been important, but it’s become even more so because adolescence is now so long. Pretty much any good job these days requires a college degree—or more. It takes a lot of self-control to delay gratification and stay in school that long. The good news is that we know what parents can do to help their kids develop this important ability. I devote an entire chapter to an explanation of how to parent in a way that fosters self-regulation. I also have a chapter that explains how schools can do this, too.
You argue that the lengthening of adolescence has contributed to income inequality. This isn’t a connection that is immediately obvious. What led you to this conclusion?
The delayed transition into adult roles makes life much harder on people who have weaker self-control. And the more I looked into the evidence, the more I saw that the things that contribute to poor self-control disproportionately affect children from disadvantaged families. The sorts of environments that many poor children are born into expose them to experiences that disrupt brain development in regions that are essential for self-regulation. Their parents are less likely to parent in ways that are known to build self-regulation. The factors that contribute to early puberty, which also challenges the development of self-control, are all more common among poor children in the United States. And poor families are less likely to have the resources to protect their kids from failures of self-control. When you add it all up, you see how the elongation of adolescence has really created winners and losers.
You write that we need a radically new approach to raising adolescents. What are we doing wrong, and how can we get it right?
We tend to think of adolescence as a problem waiting to happen. As a result, we have incredibly low expectations for the period—we are satisfied if our kids survive these years without something terrible happening to them. And the plasticity of the adolescent brain certainly makes it a more vulnerable time. But, as I point out, plasticity cuts both ways. During periods when the brain is malleable, people are more susceptible to positive influences, too, not just harmful ones. So instead of just trying to help our kids survive, I want parents and educators to starting thinking of adolescence as a time when we can actually help them thrive. That’s what the title of the book means—adolescence is an age of opportunity.
Lynne Griffin is the author of the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer and the parenting guide Negotiation Generation. You can find her online here: www.LynneGriffin.com, and at www.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and on www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.