What’s Going on in There?

African American girl standing against light gray wall with brain sketch and gears on it. Concept of thought process

What brain science says about helping young people grow and thrive into adulthood

By Alex Lohrbach

Raising an adolescent — one who is in foster care or not — comes with the weighty responsibility of ensuring their safety, stability and well-being. Because adolescence is an extraordinary developmental phase, it is also fraught with ups and downs that parents (or caregivers) and young people must negotiate thoughtfully and with great care. But because adolescents are growing in many ways — emotionally and physically — it is easy to think of them as “mini-adults.” That’s why when young people make what a typical adult might consider a risky choice, the common reaction often sounds like this:

“Why did you do that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“What made you think that was OK?”

And quite often, the young person’s answer is “I don’t know.”

Sometimes that answer seems defiant and frustration ensues on both sides.

But if we pause, zoom in on the adolescent brain and ask, “What’s going on in there?” we can begin to understand more about what young people are experiencing internally, how that manifests externally in behavior and how adults can respond in effective and supportive ways.

With the help of significant findings in neuroscience research during the past decade, we now know that the adolescent brain continues to develop into a young adult’s mid- to late-20s — with a major growth spurt occurring roughly between ages 12-26. This growth spurt is completely unique to adolescents, meaning, they are not mini-adults, nor are they big kids, which is marked by a few specific changes.

It is during this time that the brain is experiencing “neuroplasticity,” which means adolescent brains are extremely sensitive and are changing their shape in response to their experiences and the environment. This debunks the notion that teenagers and young adults are hard-wired and set in their ways and affirms that, instead, adolescents are quite malleable and impressionable. This window of neuroplasticity is a major opportunity for healing and learning and underscores the importance of stability and connections because every single interaction and experience has an impact on the developing brain.

To leverage this period of development, it is important to understand how young people process information and make decisions. Neuroscience shows us that young people are still developing the prefrontal cortex until the mid- to late-20s. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that houses “higher-order functions” needed to thrive into adulthood, which include:

  • Planning ahead
  • Organizing and focusing attention
  • Thinking critically
  • Regulating emotions
  • Controlling impulses

These functions do not develop in a vacuum, however. Intentional experiences are required for this part of the brain to develop. This is critical because what is being learned and reinforced during adolescence becomes more concretely imprinted on the brain, and what is not being promoted or the parts of the brain that are not being used are being “pruned” away.

Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing during adolescence, young people are primed to be brave and take risks to learn, push boundaries and become increasingly independent. Adolescents can cognitively weigh risk as well as adults; however, their brains are often unable to resist the thrill and excitement of taking risks.

Science is teaching us that taking risks is both normal and necessary for young people to build the decision-making muscles in their brains. Examples of these risks might look like running for student government, applying for a job, joining a sports team; however, it might also look like staying out past curfew or having unprotected sex. It is important to understand that while young people engage in risk-taking behavior, brain scientists confirm that young people will likely continue to moderate their risk-taking behaviors as they mature and develop skills that help them better weigh the consequences of their actions. But while they are in the thick of their risk-taking years, adults can open doors and provide opportunities for healthy risk-taking as well.

While this period of development and spike in risk-taking applies to all young people growing up and transitioning into adulthood, young people in foster care often face more burdens and barriers to engage in healthy risk-taking and often face harsher punishments than their peers who are not in foster care.

For example, when a young person who is not in foster care takes their parents’ car, they might get grounded; however, for young people involved in systems, such an event might result in a placement disruption or a juvenile justice charge.

Be compassionate and patient — adolescents are still developing. Engaging in conversations that encourage reflection and introspection are key to supporting young people in their own development because emotional regulation and impulse control are developed in the context of relationships with others.

Because young people in foster care often experience inconsistency in relationships and the way they are communicated with, it is important that caregivers are aware of young people’s developmental needs and have skills to help them mature and thrive.

To learn more about what adults can do to support young people, check out the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Brain Frames series here.

Alex Lohrbach is a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where she leads the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative’s youth engagement efforts. Her work has included the development of resources such as The Road to Adulthood and Brain Frames: Short Tools for Positive Interactions With Youth in Foster Care.

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