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How to Turn Your Child's Teen Years into an Age of Opportunity

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, shares why adolescence lasts for a longer period of time now than ever before, and how you can help guide your teen through positive influences.

hipster teen girl

From slammed doors to pierced belly buttons, adolescence is perhaps the stage most parents dread—the ‘battleground’ where your beloved child can go from making you beam with pride to sob with despair.

Aaaand, here’s the bad news. Studies show that adolescence now lasts longer than ever before. Not only that, but violence among American teens ranks among the highest in the world, adolescent abortion rates are up, and so is binge drinking and marijuana abuse among teens. So how can parents, and kids, safely navigate through such a fraught period?

In Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), nationally recognized adolescent expert Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., blends his 40 years of experience along with recent scientific findings to demonstrate that, far from being the minefield every parent fears, adolescence is in fact the perfect—and perhaps last—opportunity for parents to help their child master self-control, learn good judgment, and make the right choices in life.

You call adolescence “the new zero to three,” based on recent research that shows that an adolescent’s brain has essentially the same ‘plasticity’ as a toddler’s. Should parents be dedicating as much time to their adolescent’s growth and maturity as they did when that child was a preschooler?
We need to invest during times when the environment allows it. Adolescence is a second period of heightened brain elasticity, which makes this a stage of tremendous opportunity. But it’s a double-edged sword: An adolescent can be as easily damaged by harmful experiences as he or she can be influenced by positive ones.

You write that adolescence today lasts 15 years, from age 10-25. Why is it a much longer life stage these days?
If we judge adolescence as starting with puberty and ending when a person reaches financial independence, it is twice as long now as it was in the 1950s. It’s been stretched at both ends—puberty can now start at 10. And, since it is critical for someone to have a degree to get a job these days, many kids aren’t leaving home until age 25. That delays financial independence, marriage, and parenthood. So now we’re facing a totally different situation from our parents’ generation—and it requires a better understanding and new rules.

There are three main reasons why kids are reaching puberty at least two years earlier than they did throughout the 20th century: obesity, endocrine disruptors that affect hormones (found in things from foods to plastics), and artificial light (from too much screen time and its effects such as lack of sleep).

Is extended adolescence a bad thing?
Well, earlier puberty is not a good thing. It can lead to depression and eating disorders in girls, and increased cancer risks for women (especially breast cancer). It leads to boys getting into substance abuse and delinquency much earlier—and because their brain is still developing, boys are actually 10 times more likely to get addicted if they start abusing before the age of 15.

On the flipside, ultimately it’s not that bad to delay adulthood! Heightened brain plasticity means that the longer the adolescence is, the more the ‘window’ stays open. Then again, it depends on what you’re doing. Are you watching talking cats on YouTube, or learning through new experiences?

American teenagers lead the developed world in binge drinking, college dropouts, and youth violence. How can we as a society, and as parents, stop the cycle?
There are many things we can do, but whether we actually do these things is a political question. We certainly need to address the high school calendar. The prime time for adolescent mischief is between 3pm and 6pm, right when mom and dad aren’t home. So we need communities and schools to provide things for teens to do. We need to keep them busy with sports, extra classes, etc. Another solution is to make schools more difficult, more challenging, and less boring. We are afraid of seeing our kids fail, but it’s only through failure that you see persistence, determination, and grit. These noncognitive skills are better predictors of who does well than grades and talent.

You note that one-third of all students who enroll in college never graduate, and that more college freshmen need remedial education than have ever taken a single AP class. What is your theory behind these statistics?
Simply put: Our high schools are too easy. Government tests that indicate patterns of achievement show that while fourth grade and eighth grade have improved, 12th grade hasn’t improved at all in 40 years. This is what kids themselves tell us in surveys. One out of 6 students says he’s never taken a single difficult class. The kids can’t oversee themselves, and they’re just not challenged or prepared enough.

How, in a nutshell, can parents make a difference in the way they bring up their adolescent child?
Well, 50 years of research shows that kids raised by authoritative parents score higher in terms of self-control, have better peer relationships, and are less likely to have sociological problems. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. If we can help kids develop better self-regulation, we will improve the health and well-being of the nation as a whole. In my book I list the specific steps that parents can take, including lessening the chances that your child goes through early puberty, reducing his or her exposure to stress, and not being afraid to love your child too much.

Finally, is there any hope for the teenage soul?
Historically, adolescence has always been a challenge. Even Aristotle said kids are “cheeky” and can’t control their impulses. That element of adolescence is clearly “part of the program,” it’s hardwired. However, the approach to raising an adolescent should not be a self-fulfilling prophecy: You’ll get what you expect if you expect it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. If parents can just adapt their approach, they will discover that adolescents are funny, observant, intelligent, and engaging.


Dr. Laurence Steinberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University. He is a nationally recognized expert on psychological development during adolescence, and is the author of more than 350 articles and essays on growth and development during the teenage years. He is the author or editor of 17 books.


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