The study of adolescent brain development has come a long way. It is now better integrated with a broader understanding of psychological, social and emotional development and new and unexpected insights are helping us to rise above negative stereotypes like the “terrible teens”. There is a growing appreciation of adolescence as a time of rapid growth, learning and change. A decade of research studying adolescence makes clear to me the importance of clarifying the truth about this crucial stage of human development.

Here are some important misconceptions:

We over-problematize

Negative stereotypes of adolescence go back at least as far as the time of Aristotle, who noted: “[Youth] are heated by nature as drunken men by wine.” Shakespeare lamented: “I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty (…) for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

Such dour portrayals of adolescence are rooted in half-truths. It is true that the onset of puberty begins an awkward, emotionally volatile, and (often) confusing phase of life, replete with increased risks and vulnerabilities. Yet, it is equally important to recognize that adolescence is a time of remarkable opportunities – a dynamic period of adaptation and foundational brain development.

While igniting passions in adolescence can, indeed, fuel destructive feelings and reckless behaviour, youthful passions also give rise to inspired goals, immortal poetry, falling intensely in love and bold innovations in music, art, fashion and technology. From the perspective of developmental science, adolescence is a time when young lives can pivot rapidly, in negative or positive directions. Thus, this is a crucial developmental phase for optimism and investment — a window of opportunity to promote positive change during a formational period of social and emotional learning.

We blame it on their brains

It has become popular to attribute a great deal of the problematic and risky behaviour of teenagers to deficiencies in their brains, the result of immaturities, imbalances or weakness in the function of their prefrontal cortex, for example. Unfortunately, these are often unhelpful, over-simplified, cartoon versions of what is actually taking place. The normal developing adolescent brain is not broken, deficient or impaired. Rather, it is very well adapted to the fundamental task of adolescence: learning, in particular, exploring, trying new things and learning about the larger social world and one’s place in it.

In our adolescence, we must acquire a new and sufficient level of knowledge, skills, and social/cultural competence, to successfully take on adult roles and mature relationships and to function relatively independently. This transition from being a child to becoming an adult requires an enormous amount of learning. This includes acquiring a great deal of specialized knowledge. It also includes developing a staggering range of complex skills along with a functional understanding of oneself and one’s social world. Key aspects of these new capacities are acquired through trial-and-error experiential learning. To learn so much, so rapidly, in so many ways, requires some degree of exploration, risk-taking and learning from mistakes.

Consider, for example, a similar rapid learning process much earlier in life. A toddler learning to walk typically falls down about 100 times a day. Yet, we do not tend to blame these falls on functional deficits in the toddler’s brain, nor do we regard their strong tendency to continue to explore (and fall again and again) as a reflection of irrational risk-taking. Rather, we recognize that these early years of life (learning to walk and talk and so on) represent a remarkable period of formational learning, adaptation, and brain plasticity. Adolescence represents another distinct maturational period of rapid learning and brain development, one that is oriented to new kinds of social learning and identity development. At puberty, an increase in tendencies to explore and take social risks helps to promote new kinds of experiential learning. This contributes to adolescent vulnerabilities (and mistakes with serious consequences). Yet it also contributes to formational learning that can have a long-term positive impact throughout their lifespan.

 Population of adolescents aged 10-19 years, by region
Population of adolescents aged 10-19 years, by region
Image: UNICEF

We underestimate the brain’s capacity for learning and development.

While it is well recognized that the first few years of life represent a vigorous period of learning and brain development, it is a serious misunderstanding to believe this neural plasticity ends at three, five or 10 years of age. Learning and brain development are dynamic processes that continue throughout childhood and adolescence. Importantly, the onset of puberty starts a second phase of rapid growth (pubertal growth spurt), dramatic physical changes (including sexual maturation) and distinct neuro-maturational changes. Advances in the developmental science of adolescence are providing new insights into how these brain changes appear to create windows of opportunity—a time when healthy versions of experiential learning can have strong positive influences on trajectories of health, education, social, and economic success.

These advances point to a deeper understanding of adolescence as a sensitive period for new kinds of social learning. At the onset of puberty, individuals appear to become extra-sensitized to feelings of social acceptance/rejection, being respected/disrespected, and wanting social admiration. These intensified self-conscious emotions can promote healthy motivations, such as seeking ways to make valued contributions and earning prestige through hard work and accomplishments. These amplified emotional sensitivities can also contribute to problems and vulnerabilities, such as increases in social anxiety, a risk of depression and reactive aggression.

More broadly, adolescence appears to be an important developmental stage when social and emotional learning experiences can shape individual differences in feelings of motivation - heartfelt goals. It is a time when young people are searching for meaning and larger purpose, not as abstract rational ideas, but in ways that connect to their igniting passions and lead to inspired goals that can influence an entire lifetime.

Calling them teenagers leads to misunderstanding

There are two reasons to hesitate before using the term teenager. Firstly, teenager tends to evoke negative associations linked to the stereotypical problems of adolescence. Secondly, in a strict sense, this term refers to a narrow age range of 13-19. Adolescence is a broader developmental period, which begins with the onset of puberty and continues until taking on adult roles, which can last sometimes well into the twenties. One reason why this is an important distinction is that puberty has started at earlier ages in recent history, particularly among girls. From a developmental science perspective, the transition from childhood into adolescence (the early stages of puberty, which typically begin by age 10 in girls in developed regions of the world) may be a particularly important window of opportunity.

On the one hand, the stereotypical problems of adolescence (depression, substance use, accidents and reckless behavior) often become most evident during the late teenage years (ages 15-19); but on the other, there is growing interest in targeting very young adolescents (age 10-14) for early intervention and prevention efforts, prior to the emergence of more serious problems. For example, two major global efforts targeting youth in low and middle-income countries, have identified very young adolescents as a highly promising approach. Similarly, some youth intervention efforts have focused on the transition to adulthood (extending into the 20s) to address structural barriers in society that amplify vulnerabilities during these social transitions. Taken together, these examples highlight the value of conceptualizing adolescence broadly, in terms of developmental processes rather than as simply an age in the teens.

We forget to see them as a force for good

In many ways, the most compelling set of issues in the field of adolescent development comes from a global perspective. We are currently experiencing an unprecedented surge in the number of adolescents in the world. Moreover, the information technology revolution is fundamentally transforming many aspects of adolescents’ social learning experiences. Youth are often the early adopters and innovators of new technology. This can amplify vulnerabilities, such as exploitation and radicalization. However, technology also can create unprecedented opportunities, including education, social connection, innovation and learning. This is a critical moment, a pivotal time in the lives of hundreds of millions of adolescents.

At the same time, we are facing a pivotal crossroads in human history. Despite unprecedented progress in technology, education, health and global communication, we are challenged by rising inequalities and ecological concerns about a sustainable world. Today’s youth are a critical part of the challenge — and a crucial part of the solution. What could be more important than prioritizing investment in opportunities to help tip the balance towards positive trajectories? Not only for this generation of adolescents but also, perhaps, for the trajectory of human development on this planet.