The field of neuroscience provides evidence that adolescence and early adulthood are filled with opportunities for young people to heal, grow and develop the skills necessary to thrive in adulthood. Learning about the development of the brain from ages 10 to 24 and how to use this information is essential to crafting effective interventions and supporting young people and promoting their well-being and success into adulthood.
The brain in adolescence might be compared to a sprinter who is gradually learning to become a marathon runner. During adolescence, different regions of the brain begin to integrate, and the prefrontal cortex starts an accelerated pace of development.
The prefrontal cortex houses our abilities to:
Compared with the adult brain, the adolescent brain has much less white matter, which is the connective wiring that helps information flow efficiently from one part of the brain to the other. This means that adolescents still rely heavily on the emotional center of the brain for decision-making, reacting to rapid-firing pleasurable emotions and rewarding sensations — the sprint.
But as they move through this period of development, young people gradually begin to shift more to the prefrontal cortex when making decisions and navigating their worlds, taking context, experience and future implications into consideration in a way that a marathon runner might when pacing and fueling herself for the long run. The development of better decision-making and impulse control, experts agree, explains why most young people will grow out of adolescent misbehavior without significant interventions.
Perhaps most importantly, as the brain develops, different regions of the brain connect and communicate with each other in a process known as neural integration. One of the most highly integrated parts of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. This speaks to why it is critical for young people to live in families and in their communities during these years, so the brain builds the neural pathways for connection and civic engagement.
This shift in development happens over time and looks different for different individuals. Young people can be impulsive and shortsighted. The right opportunities can make the most of a young person’s sprinting brain — rewarding accomplishments, providing new outlets for affirmation from peers — while also building the marathon skills of going a little further each time, training and learning from mistakes.
Strong connections, healthy habits and positive relationships are like having the right shoes and optimal weather for the race. Conversely, chronic stress, trauma, the experience of institutional and internalized racial inferiority and unhealthy self-medication during adolescence serve as the hills, potholes and headwinds in the way of reaching the finish line.
Youth-serving systems and policies often are at odds with what the science of brain development shows young people need. Practitioners can use these research insights to help improve youth well-being.
For example, young people in child welfare systems often experience “strains” that tax their rapidly developing brains. These inhibiting factors include the continuing effects of childhood adversity and trauma, frequent moves among foster homes and schools and leaving foster care without a permanent family or adult connection. For young people of color, who are disproportionately represented in foster care and experience poorer outcomes than their white peers in child welfare systems, typical adolescent risk taking is often criminalized.
The science of brain development also argues against the traditional juvenile probation model. It has been proven that teenagers respond better to rewards and incentives for positive behavior than they do to threats of punishment for misbehavior. The evolution of the sprinting brain into the marathon-running brain is taking place over a longer period of years than ever before. Long-term confinement of youth for the kinds of mistakes inherent to their sprinting brains is tantamount to a runner fracturing their ankle; it stops the race. Their futures are shattered — permanently altered because of a mistake whose consequences their brains didn’t have the ability to grasp.
Due to several suspected factors, including increased obesity, endocrine disruptors (such as pesticides) and family stress, it has been well documented that the onset of puberty starts earlier for adolescents — ages 9 to 12 — than it did in the past. And while adolescents may appear to physically mature faster than before, their brain development is spread out over a longer span of time. As a result, adults may assume that young people are more mature than they actually are. Research has shown that this phenomenon, called “adultification,” is particularly true for young people of color. One of the most severe consequences of adultification is increased exposure to the juvenile justice system, which comprises approaches that, at their core, were built for adults and rely heavily on surveillance and rule following — negative consequences that don’t elicit a positive response from the adolescent brain.
Workforce development efforts are finding success by implementing positive youth development approaches, which take advantage of how the young brain is changing, to help young people build positive relationships and practice the executive skills needed to succeed in the workplace.
Explore our blogs and resources below to find key facts and data related to adolescent brain development that can be used to promote the well-being and success of young people.