Adolescence Can be Better Than You Think
Q & A With psychologist Laurence Steinberg on new lessons on brain science
Wandering through the parenting section in a bookstore, Dr. Laurence Steinberg noticed that most of the books on adolescence had the word “survival” in the title. Yet recent discoveries in brain science show that adolescence is a period of heightened brain plasticity, comparable to the first years of life.
Rather than a stage to survive, Steinberg believes that adolescence, which now last three times longer than it used to, offers opportunities to instill resilience, self-control. Given the right kind of support and guidance, adolescents can thrive and develop important skills for lifelong success.
Why did you write this book?
I felt like there was a terrible disconnect between the science of adolescence and the media’s portrayal of adolescence. I thought this would be a good chance to pull together the scientific research in a different way and highlight the plasticity of the brain during this period and the opportunities this brain plasticity provides.
What do you think parents should know about the adolescent brain?
The arousal of the brain’s limbic system is driven by puberty. Hormones increase the levels of dopamine and the brain’s reward system is accelerated. That's why kids do stupid things. The pre-frontal cortex (which is still developing) is the brake. It’s impacted by experience. This time of brain plasticity is a great opportunity to strengthen self-control.
How can parents help?
The average kid today is more anxious than people diagnosed with anxiety a decade ago.
- Make sure your kids get adequate sleep. Your sleep system is regulated by what time you wake up, not what time you go to sleep. If you let kids catch up on sleep by sleeping late on weekends, you are undoing the progress they have made during the week and their systems will have to reset on Monday morning.
- Limit screen time, especially at night. I am worried that kids are plugged in all the time.
- Make sure your kids get aerobic exercise. It’s important for brain development.
- Don’t over schedule your kids. Practicing mindfulness has a positive impact on the adolescent brain, but you can’t be mindful if you are overscheduled.
How can schools help?
Brain development is enhanced by challenges and novelty. Yet many high school students complain that school is boring. Studies that have tracked American children’s moods over the course of the day find that they experience the highest levels of boredom during the school day.
As students progress from elementary to middle and high school, the work becomes more challenging and the need for self-reliance become more important.
We should rethink secondary education to focus, not just on academic skills, but also on strengthening students’ non-cognitive skills.
Are you optimistic about the future of our adolescents?
Yes and no. I think that, because of income inequality, we are creating a country of winners and losers. Because of poor nutrition, greater exposure to stress and less challenging schools, poor kids are at risk of impaired prefrontal cortex development. This creates a cumulative disadvantage.
Poor kids don’t have the same opportunities as affluent kids to develop neurobiological capital. Adolescents, who delay the transition into adulthood because they have the support to do so, reap the benefits of a longer period of brain plasticity during which higher order brain systems continue to mature.
Adolescents are susceptible to positive influences, not just harmful ones. Prolongued adolescence can be a good thing because it offers opportunities to develop important life skills.
Let’s stop acting like adolescence is a race to see who gets to adulthood first.