Teenagers: They're sullen, they're rebellious and they take inexplicable risks – even if they should know better.
If you find your child an enigma the moment he or she becomes a teen, that's because adolescence is, indeed, confounding. But U.S. psychologist Laurence Steinberg says it's not teenagers who are confused; it's the rest of us. Society has a contradictory and irrational approach to dealing with young people. We don't let 16-year-olds into R-rated movies, yet we let them drive – arguably a far more dangerous activity. We don't let them drink alcohol, yet we sometimes treat young offenders as adults when they commit serious crimes.
In his engrossing new book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Steinberg calls for a radical change in how we think about and deal with adolescents. For starters, he redefines the term adolescence to include 10-year-olds to young adults up to the age of 25, reflecting a stage of development in which they aren't yet socially or financially independent from their parents and their brains aren't yet fully mature. To make this case, he draws on science that suggests individuals have heightened "neuroplasticity" during this stage of life, where their brains are more malleable than in adulthood.
Understanding how the adolescent mind works not only helps us get children through their awkward, pimply years, it compels us to take advantage of this unique period of development to set them up for success, says Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology at Philadelphia's Temple University.
We reached Steinberg by phone last week in Seattle, where he was promoting his book:
You point out society often treats teens as more mature than they are, and just as frequently treats them as less so. Why are we so confused?
I think in part we're confused because we don't have a single chronological age that we use as boundary. In most parts of the world, 18 is the age of majority – it's the age of majority for everything. In North America, we have different ages for just about every different decision – and not because of what we know about how people develop, but for idiosyncratic, practical reasons. For instance, the reason we try children as adults sometimes for serious crimes is people just get outraged by the crime, and they say, 'Well if you do something that bad, you must be an adult.' That doesn't make any sense.
Adolescents are as smart as adults. Why do they do stupid, risky things?
The prefrontal cortex [the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking] is pretty much structurally mature by 15 or 16 years old. What continues to develop after that are the connections between the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain, especially those responsible for the experience of emotion. To exercise self-control when you're in an emotionally arousing situation, it helps to have better connections.
Why do campaigns targeting adolescents, such as preventing teen pregnancy, tend to fail?
Because our attempts are grounded in this, I think, unrealistic belief that if we explain to adolescents what can happen to them if they engage in risky behaviour, then they won't engage in that behaviour. But, it turns out, this is very good at changing what kids know, but it's not very good at changing how kids act. I can tell you everything you need to know about why you and your partner should use a condom, but if you and your partner start fooling around, you're not going to think about what you learned in your sex education class.
What we need to do is to stop using this approach that says we're going to change kids and instead try to change the context that kids live in. One of the best-known examples involves the reduction of teen smoking. That accomplishment was primarily not through anti-tobacco education, but by raising the price of cigarettes to make it harder for kids to get them.
The prime time for kids' experimentation with drugs and alcohol and sex is between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when they're out of school and their parents are at work. So, if we provide more structured, supervised activities for kids during those hours, we could do a lot more to prevent alcohol and drug use and precocious sexual activity than any classroom-based instruction could ever hope to accomplish. They're not going to get high if there are adults around watching them.
You say we need to shift our focus from getting teens to survive their adolescence to getting them to thrive. What's missing in our approach?
We need to expose kids to novelty, challenge and stimulation during adolescence when the brain is still plastic. We need to engage them in activities that are likely to specifically improve their self-regulation. And we need to change how we evaluate what we're doing away from the mere prevention of problems and toward positive developments. Our approach now is, 'Well, if we've raised adolescents and they're not drug addicts or in jail, we've done a good job.' We ought to set the bar a little higher than that.
The parenting tips you offer in your book – setting clear expectations, being consistent – seem a lot like advice for rearing small children.
Yes and no. It's more a question of the specifics than the general actual style. The authoritative parenting style I describe – a combination of being warm but firm and gradually allowing your child to become more independent – it turns out it just works at all ages. It's the way you express your warmth or the things you're firm about, the things you let your child be independent about – those things change, but the basics of good parenting are the same.
This interview has been condensed and edited.