UCLA CDA’s Allyson Nesmith talks with NSCA member Rhonda Boyd, PhD, about how adults can support youth mental health and wellbeing.
How can we support the unique developmental needs of adolescents?June 12, 2023
Filed in: Health & Wellbeing
How can we support the unique developmental needs of adolescents?
This was one of the questions tackled at our second annual Brain Development Symposium, by Dylan Gee, PhD, Associate Professor, Yale University and Shimica Gaskins, JD, President and CEO, GRACE/End Child Poverty CA. Science journalist Lydia Denworth moderated the discussion.
Specifically, we wanted to know how we can address these developmental needs to help young people who have faced earlier adversity.
To kick off the discussion, Dylan explained what is unique about the brain during adolescence. “I think one of the things that has really stood out to me is that adolescence is a time of increased plasticity,” said Dylan. “This kind of narrative that what happens early is the only thing that matters has really been debunked in the sense that we know that there’s so much opportunity for change during the adolescent period.”
This plasticity makes the adolescent brain adaptive to their environments. “There are a lot of ways in which recovery is possible, and healing is possible,” said Dylan. “We need to be putting the resources into the programs and support that can facilitate that.”
For example, developmental science shows that young people have a need to explore and take risks, and it is a normal and important part of their development. This understanding has already led to positive changes in the juvenile justice system in California, and the ways in which the court system treats youth, Shimica explained. “We’ve been able to really use the science for that critical period to do a lot to change the criminal legal system,” said Shimica. “We were able to follow the federal trend and reduce solitary confinement because the brain science said how horrible it was for young people to be isolated and alone, and what it does to their long term psyche.”
Shimica is also part of a group that works with Los Angeles County to reduce incarceration—and so far they’ve been able to reduce the number of incarcerated youth by 60 percent over the last 6 years. “I think part of that was working hand in hand and having the science to make the case for why the investment is better spent elsewhere,” said Shimica. Los Angeles County now has its first Office of Youth Development, designed to provide opportunities for communities to have access to youth programming and connected mentors.
This access is important because research also shows that adolescents have a need for connection. “We see time and time again that having strong social support, such as a caregiver who’s supportive, a teacher, a friend, or a peer is one of the most potent protective factors in youth’s life,” said Dylan. In the foster care system, understanding the role of connections with family leads to policies that support family reunification when possible. In the juvenile justice system, this understanding has led to a federal trend to reduce solitary confinement for youth.
Shimica and Dylan also stressed the importance of conversations between researchers and the communities who can use this scientific understanding to support young people, such as communities of color and/or adolescents themselves. “Having that information and knowledge as caregivers and supporters and communities is really critical to being able to address the policies and programs and investments that need to happen,” said Shimica.
When having these conversations, it is crucial to spread messages that young people are resilient, that they have strengths, and that they can adapt—“using language like heightened plasticity, and really thinking about the unique strengths and opportunities of adolescents,” said Dylan.
“You know,” Dylan concluded, “When we think about adolescence as a period of intense exploration and excitement, when I think about adolescents…adolescents are so cool and amazing and have so many strengths. That gives me hope.”
- Adolescence is a time of increased plasticity within our brains. This creates a second window of opportunity when interventions can create positive change, even after earlier challenges.
- Adversity in childhood isn’t deterministic–recovery and healing is possible in adolescence. That’s why we need to put resources into the programs and the kinds of support that can facilitate positive development.
- Young people’s proclivity to explore and take risks is a normal part of development. This understanding has already led to positive changes in the juvenile justice system in the way the court system has begun to treat young people differently than adults.
- Having strong social support from a caring adult–a caregiver, a teacher, a friend, or a peer–is one of the most potent protective factors in a young person’s life. In the foster care system, understanding the role of connections with family leads to policies that support family reunification when possible.
- In Los Angeles County, the science of adolescent development helped make the case that it’s not enough to eliminate programs and practices that are harmful to youth, like incarceration. We also need to provide resources to support positive development, such as access to youth programming or to a connected mentor.
- Researchers and others who understand the science of adolescent development need to have conversations with the communities who can use this information, like communities of color and adolescents themselves.