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.