What exactly is adolescence?


For many parents, understanding a bit about their teenager’s brain development can be helpful in navigating the sometimes difficult adolescent years.

But first, what exactly are the adolescent years?

What does the term “adolescence” even mean? Researchers and scientists have had a pretty difficult time coming to a consensus definition. Broadly speaking, the term means “to grow up” and refers to the developmental stage between childhood and adulthood.

The beginning of adolescence is usually pretty straightforward. The onset of puberty brings about some physical changes that are easily observed. The end of adolescence is a bit more tricky. When does one become an adult? It turns out, that answer varies significantly across different cultures and even within cultures over time. In the United States, our laws reflect this ambiguity. For example, one can often obtain a driver’s license at age 16, but cannot rent a car until age 25. One can sign a legally binding contract at age 18, but cannot consume alcohol until age 21. It’s almost like the department of motor vehicles, insurance industry, judicial system and FDA all have different definitions of what makes someone an adult.

Why is this?
It may have a bit to do with brain development. The limbic areas of the brain responsible for things like memory and emotion reach full maturity around age 18. However, the upper levels of the brain responsible for our most complex reasoning and decision making (often referred to as “executive function”) don’t reach full maturity until ages 23–25.

This means that many “adult” children aged 18–25 might still need a bit of help with their emotional regulation. This doesn’t mean they’re immature. It just means they haven’t finished developing their upper level brain structures quite yet.

This can be enormously helpful to keep in mind, especially for parents of college-aged students.

Eric McClerren, LAPC
emcclerren @ growcounseling.com