Rapid social learning increased sensitivity to respect, and a drive toward new experiences are just a few of the factors that make adolescence a key window of opportunity. We review these research-based factors and a few more in this quick overview.
We are currently experiencing an unprecedented surge in the number of adolescents around the world. More than a billion adolescents are coming of age globally, with more than 42 million adolescents in the United States alone. These young people are not only the leaders of tomorrow—as trendsetters, early adopters of technology, and voices of modern social movements, they are already shaping our world. Here are six important facts we need to keep in mind about our youth:
1. Adolescence is a time of remarkable opportunity.
Although our brains continue to change throughout our lives, the adolescent years are a period of profound cognitive as well as biological, social, and emotional transformation.
At the beginning of puberty, neurons (brain cells) are gaining and losing up to 25 percent of their connections each week. By the time we reach adulthood that number drops to 10 percent. This rapidly changing adolescent brain is especially sensitive to the social environment during this period of development. This makes the adolescent years an especially rich time for experiential learning about social respect, decision making, and dealing with emotions. It’s also a key period for building resilience, even after earlier hardship. Heightened emotions during these years make adolescence a rich time for developing interests, passions, and meaningful goals.
Positive investment in the systems, policies and programs that support adolescents can help create trajectories that will shape the rest of their lives and the multi-generational communities they share.
2. Adolescent brains are adapting to the developmental tasks of this stage of life.
Adolescents are uniquely motivated to try new things and to focus on earning the respect of their peers, efforts that provide the learning they need to thrive as adults. Adolescent brains are neither immature nor incomplete. Instead, they are structured for the intense learning they need to propel them out of childhood and into the world.
The transition to adulthood requires a tremendous amount of new knowledge, skills, and social competence to successfully take on adult roles and relationships. A lot of this learning occurs through real-life experiences, including trial and error. To learn so much, so rapidly, in so many ways, requires keen attention to the people and social systems around you, as well as willingness to explore, try new things, and learn from mistakes along the way.
A toddler learning to walk may fall down about 100 times a day, but their repeated attempts and stumbles are neither irrational nor a sign of a cognitive deficit. Instead, their efforts are a sign that early childhood is an incredible opportunity to learn and adapt, and to master the skills they’ll need to become a more independent older child. Adolescence is a similar period of rapid learning and brain development, particularly around social learning and identity development. Adolescents’ focus on their peers and their attraction to novel experiences help them tackle the developmental tasks necessary to thrive as adults.
3. Adolescents are drawn to novel experiences.
During adolescence, the brain becomes more responsive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates good feelings, or feelings of “reward.” Adolescents are more likely than children or adults to be drawn to novel and intense experiences. Hormonal changes also increase the appeal of these new experiences, particularly those that promise to increase social status.
This desire for new experiences pushes young people to try out and develop their skills with new roles, relationships, and responsibilities, preparing them for the challenges of adulthood. It enables adolescents to become more independent from their parents, enhancing learning and curiosity, and helping them to develop their identity and agency.
To harness these drive-in positive directions, adolescents need safe and satisfying opportunities for positive exploration, such as trying out for a school play or playing on a sports team. Making meaningful contributions to their families, friends, and communities also feed this desire for novel experiences. The same brain regions that are activated by rebellious, “risk-taking” behavior are those regions activated by prosocial behavior, such as kindness and doing for others.
4. Adolescents are highly sensitive to respect.
Adolescents have an increased sensitivity to respect and to their standing in social hierarchies. This intense focus on belonging and earning respect is developmentally important, encouraging young adolescents to become more attuned to social and cultural norms, ensuring that they learn the skills they’ll need to adapt to the more complex social demands of adulthood.
Adolescents, more than younger children or adults, are highly sensitive to the presence of their peers and to threats to their social standing. Even as peers become increasingly important, adolescents still seek approval from parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. Research has shown that even small notes of respect from adults can lead to more positive trajectories for adolescents.
5. Adolescence starts earlier than we think and lasts longer than it used to.
Although many people use the terms “adolescent” and “teenager” interchangeably, adolescence covers a larger age range. Adolescence has a biological start, beginning at the onset of pubertal development, approximately ages 10 to 12. This early adolescent period may be a particularly important time to promote positive adolescent development.
The end of adolescence is sociological, ending with the adoption of the roles and responsibilities of adulthood, such as committed relationships, career, and financial independence, usually in the mid-to late-20s in western societies. Today, adolescence spans roughly 15 years in the United States and most western countries.
6. Adolescents are a force for good.
Adolescents have long been the trendsetters for society—adopting and adapting new fashion, language, and technologies that shape culture. They are primed to contribute to the world around them, as they develop the cognitive maturity to consider the perspectives and needs of others and the social skills to provide emotional and practical support in meaningful ways. Prosocial behavior appears to peak in mid-to-late adolescence.
This ability to help their families, friends, and communities, combined with their drive toward new roles and activities, positions adolescents to be forces for positive change in the world. Adolescents have been actively influencing lives and communities as key actors in nearly every major social movement in modern history. Adolescents have been at the forefront of societal change, from the Civil Rights Movement to protesting the Vietnam War to organizing for LGBT rights. Today, adolescents are leading efforts to end gun violence, stop violence against women, support DREAMers and other immigrants, and address the climate crisis.