What adolescent brain research tells us about aging out of foster care

Gary Stangler, Executive Director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative sat down with us to discuss some of the recent research about the adolescent brain. It turns out – and this comes as no surprise to any parent of a teenager – that adolescents are not adults.

So if teens aren’t adults, why are we letting them age out of foster care unaided, and expecting them to act like adults?

Most 19-year-olds who age out of the system will not yet have completed high school, thanks to the multiple interruptions in their education due to a high number of foster placements. So, we expect someone with a teenage brain to find a place to live, get a job to support herself, find a car to get to that job, all while finishing high school and planning for college?

Given what we know about the adolescent brain, this isn’t just a tall order – it’s closer to impossible.

At 19, the brain’s executive decision making areas – mainly the frontal lobes, including the prefrontal cortex – are still underdeveloped. These areas won’t be fully developed until around age 25. So functions like judgement, reason and decision-making in a 19-year-old are wildly different from that of an adult.

Add to the mix shifting dopamine levels, and we see a natural predisposition toward high-risk behaviors, like sex, substance abuse and petty crime. The consequences of these behaviors may not be so bad for a typical 19-year-old, who has parents and loved ones to help guide her through the fallout from a bad decision. But what about a 19-year-old whose adult relationships have all expired? Where do they go for advice on consequences? Usually, nowhere. That’s why 71% of the young women have children by age 21 and  up to 60% of the young men are convicted of a crime.

Extending supports to youth aging out of care until age 21 isn’t just the kind or economically smart thing to do. It’s the logical thing to do. A 19-year-old mind still needs guidance in making decision and help getting settled into a stable life they can build on.

Learn more about the adolescent brain research from Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative now.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Teen/Early Adulthood
One comment on “What adolescent brain research tells us about aging out of foster care
  1. […] population is transient. They’re at an age where poor decision making is a practically a biological imperative. Most of them are state wards. They often have histories of trauma. And they’re susceptible […]

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