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Putting the Brakes on Adolescent Impulse

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Teenagers do the dumbest things. Case in point: a reportedly intoxicated high school senior watching a championship lacrosse game recently in New Jersey came unglued when his team lost and he saw a parent on the opposing side filming the winners' celebration. Cursing the offending mother for daring to record the festivities, he then punched the outraged father for jumping to his wife's defense. Rumor has it that the excitable lad left the stadium in a police car.

What possessed this young man, and others like him, to behave so foolishly? Laurence Steinberg, in his powerful new book Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, gives us fresh answers. And the man has gravitas: he's a psychology professor at Temple and esteemed author, having written the definitive college text book on the subject -- Adolescence, now in its 10th edition. In his latest work, Steinberg explains what's going on in the adolescent brain in a way that makes sense even to those of us who found Rocks for Jocks an intellectual challenge. More important, he forces us to rethink our assumptions about this developmental period, and calls on grown-ups to use these findings from brain science to build better schools, craft better laws, and be more effective parents.

Adolescence begins with puberty and ends, ambiguously, with the makings of adult independence: marriage, financial self-sufficiency, employment. "Experts define adolescence as beginning in biology and ending in culture," he writes. What used to last for as little as five years, now can linger for as long as 15, and may creep up to 20. This is so because kids reach puberty earlier, especially among the poor, and fully separate from their parents later, especially among the well-off.

Two important changes to the brain take place during this period. In the first, puberty activates the limbic system, which is associated with strong emotions, sensation seeking, and impulsivity; Steinberg calls this "starting the engines." The second change is more gradual and takes place in the prefrontal cortex, what Steinberg calls the brain's "braking system." The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functioning, and its development permits us to think rationally, plan ahead, and consider the consequences of our actions -- that is, to develop self-control. This part of the brain starts developing before adolescence, and is finished by 16 or 17, providing our high school juniors with a modicum of rationality. But fine-tuning the braking system takes years, often into the mid-20s, which makes adolescence "like driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes."

It's the misalignment of the two systems, and the seductive pleasures of the limbic system, that make adolescence so risky. Drug use, suicide attempts, depression, and accidents like drownings spike during this period. Impulsive and ultra-sensitive to rewards, especially those that trigger approval from peers, older adolescents wind up doing what more rational adults consider, frankly, idiotic. The joy that comes from impressing your knuckle-headed friends -- I'm going to go punch that father! -- shouts down the sensible prefrontal cortex, which is quietly advising you to consider what an arrest record will do for your college options.

It's the job of the adults to help older adolescents become better drivers, so they balance the gas pedal of the limbic system with the brake of the prefrontal cortex. For all the finger-wagging adults level at kids, this is where we have failed them. Many American high schools are cauldrons of tedium and low achievement. They are unhappy places where kids do what they must to get by, and no more. Parents do little to promote self-control, hoping instead that changes in teachers or curricula will stimulate a desire to excel.

In some cases our courts try teenagers as adults, as if the differences in brain development have no bearing on the nature of their guilt. And our laws pertaining to adulthood, which determine when "kids" are legally responsible for their actions, are a jumble of inconsistencies: 17 to drive, 21 to drink, 18 to vote and join the military. If kids are confused about when to clean out their bedrooms and start buying their own health insurance, maybe they're just reflecting back what they see from us.

Thankfully, Steinberg includes some fascinating advice that's sure to displease just about everyone. Parents, the best way to promote the necessary self-regulation in your kids -- to get the voice of the prefrontal cortex to rise above the louder limbic system -- is to be an authoritative parent, starting early. Be a strict but warm supervisor, neither autocratic nor permissive, and make yourself visible, especially after school. Even level-headed adolescents are susceptible to peer approval, and are most likely to get in trouble when unsupervised. What about parents who don't enforce regular rules consistently? "Your child's misbehavior is your fault, not his," Steinberg writes.

American high schools have even more work to do. Steinberg points the finger at two causes for the decline in kids' performance in high school. The first is our culture, which Steinberg believes trivializes student achievement. (Surely he's not referring here to affluent communities around the country where stressed-out high school strivers work themselves into a frenzy over college admissions; in these communities, the culture of achievement seems to weigh too heavily.)

The second concerns the failure of schools to build the non-cognitive tools that contribute to success: determination, perseverance, and self-regulation. Here he echoes the ideas of journalist Paul Tough, whose book How Children Succeed illuminates the importance of character development, particularly grit, in promoting academic success.

How can schools teach these intangibles? Steinberg suggests five distinct methods: specified brain exercises; mindfulness training; physical exercise; mind/body exercises like tai kwon do; and strategies that build self-control. And if something has to go to make way for this kind of non-cognitive training, let it be much of the health education students get. DARE programs, anti-smoking campaigns, and sex education are built on the "ludicrous" premise that adolescents take risks because they're not properly informed of the dangers. (High prices killed teen cigarette smoking, he believes.) In his view, to reduce drug use and teenage pregnancy, schools would be wiser to train students in self-regulation.

As for the mixed-up laws that affect adolescents, we should revise them in keeping with our greater understanding of the developing brain. Don't force pregnant 16-year-olds to get parental consent before having an abortion; this is a "cold" decision, capable of being made after careful thought, which the 16-year-old brain is well-equipped to handle. But raise the legal driving age to 18, because so much of what's done behind the wheel depends on "hot" decision making -- fast, impulsive, and possibly fatal. Better to give the teenage brain another year to cook, so that the responsible prefrontal cortex might intervene before the young driver decides he can make it through the yellow light if he just floors it.

Steinberg encourages us to consider the positives of a lengthy adolescence, at least for the middle and upper classes: kids with still-developing and plastic brains are not forced to settle down and take any old job before they're mature enough to make such life-altering decisions. As with most things, it's the poor who stand to lose from a lengthier adolescence. For a variety of reasons, including the stress that comes from growing up destitute, self-regulation is often lacking in the poor, and poverty doesn't make room for a lengthy education. "Rather than lamenting how long it takes young people to become adults and encouraging them to speed things up," Steinberg writes, "we should focus our attention on how to help all young people in their twenties -- not just the economically advantaged -- benefit from the delayed transition into adulthood."

Steinberg's essential book serves the same purpose for parents of adolescents as the work of the late Louise Ames did for those of babies, toddlers, and young children: it makes sense of these mysterious creatures, puts their behavior in some kind of context, and makes it a little easier to forgive their sporadic follies.