Focus On Youths

Adolescents In America Are In Trouble

They Need The Resources To Get Through One Of Life's Toughest Transitions

August 04, 2009|By Mary Ann McCabe and Andrew L. Yarrow

Adolescence is a critical time - it is just that simple. In homes across America, parents are feeling pressure to hurry up and prepare teens to be independent. In popular culture, teenagers are characterized as being all about hormones and rebellion. In reality, "adolescence" is a widening span of life from about age 12 to the early to mid-20s. It encompasses both "youth" and "emerging adulthood" and involves some of the most complex biological, cognitive and social changes in human development - second, perhaps, only to early childhood development. Policymakers should be applauded for their growing attention to, and investment in, early childhood programs, but they need reminding to also invest in the formative and critical period of adolescence.

On the one hand, puberty has crept ever younger, so adolescence begins earlier than ever. On the other hand, the age when young people attain self-sufficiency (completing education, supporting themselves, marrying, having children) has shifted later and later. Those in their late teens and early 20s often depend on their parents for longer periods (a trend exacerbated by the recession) or are floundering if they do not have a safety net. Those dependent on government services and programs find that these typically end at their 18th birthday. Recent brain research indicates that most people do not attain full maturity until their early to mid-20s. Society needs to keep pace with this new extended span of adolescence.

Why is it so important to focus on this dozen-year age span that includes up to 60 million Americans? First, we generally do not understand adolescence in the early 21st century, with too many of our ideas rooted in mid-20th-century stereotypes. Second, adolescents face a host of unique problems and challenges that are not being adequately addressed. And third, adolescence, the launching pad to adulthood, has many enduring effects on society, including public health and the economy.

Adolescent educational, social, medical, emotional and other life experiences shape what kinds of citizens, workers, family members and leaders our nation will have.

Moreover, as the National Alliance to Advance Adolescent Health recently reported, many social indicators for 12-to-21-year-olds are not good: the school dropout rate is scandalously high; morbidity and mortality rates are double those of young children; 26 percent report a sexually transmitted disease; 21 percent are diagnosed with mental health problems; 17 percent are obese; 65 percent do not receive preventive care, 28 percent engage in binge drinking; up to 25 percent are victims of violence; one-third of states do not require the same Medicaid care standards as for young children; and only 17 percent of pediatricians feel qualified to treat adolescents.

Making matters worse, 16 percent of these young people lack health insurance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that adolescents are more vulnerable than adults, due to brain development, to becoming addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs.

Finally, this age group has high unemployment rates and poor labor-market outcomes. Not the best harbingers for adult success.

These problems are exacerbated by misconceptions about adolescence. We believe every 18-year-old is ripe for residential higher education; in reality, the shift from home to college is often emotionally jarring, and some young people are simply not ready. We believe that every 22-year-old (or 18-year-old) should be ready for the work world, when not all have the training and social and emotional maturity to be productive workers.

Contrast popular conceptions with recent advances in our scientific understanding of the biological, behavioral and social underpinnings of adolescent development: It is now known that some developmental changes begin with the onset of puberty, but others are dependent on age and experience; the interval between these early and late changes is precisely what creates the prolonged period of "adolescent development."

Advances in neuroscience and developmental research have clarified two key facts: Puberty leads adolescents to experience heightened emotions and seek high levels of excitement, yet they do not have fully mature brain systems for regulating their emotion and behavior - the last area of the brain to fully develop. Most adolescents have the capacity for sound reasoning and decision making, yet their decisions can be greatly influenced by heightened emotions and peer influences.

Importantly, their resulting propensities for risk-taking, which can lead to health, education and work problems, do not level out until their early 20s. While "adolescence," biologically, extends beyond the legal age of majority and our expectations for assuming adult responsibilities, society makes adult-like demands on adolescents due to their physical and cognitive maturity without recognizing these underlying vulnerabilities.

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