On September 3, Linda Flanagan published her review of Laurence Steinberg's new book on adolescent development, "The Age of Opportunity." Dr. Steinberg is one of the country's foremost experts on adolescent development and the work has been eagerly awaited. It's a solid, important book for parents; the problems will be more about the ways in which Steinberg (and others') works will be interpreted to parents by a mass media which often does a desperately bad job explaining science and research to parents anxious for good information and prone to feeling guilty for "doing it wrong." My comments appear below.
Dr. Steinberg was a large influence on my work, having heard him speak many times at Temple in the 1990s. His book is indeed helpful for parents and he's a trusted expert in the field of adolescent development.
With all due respect, though, the hardest thing about a new work like this being published is contending with the "mediated" effects of how brain research and often tentative neurobiological findings are brought into the public discourse. The pressures to publish short, easily-digested pieces in sources like the Huffington Post, for example, lead to quick, pithy summaries that are, unfortunately, often inaccurate and sometimes dangerous. This is ubiquitous in translating research into the public realm through digital mass media. I often worry about what parents will make of incomplete, incorrect or inaccurate information presented as a fait accompli. Here are a three (of many) examples from your piece:
1) "Adolescence begins with puberty." No, it doesn't, actually. "Adolescence" as a distinct period in human development, and puberty as a component part of adolescent development which allows for the possibility of sexual reproduction, are different. Adolescence is a bio-psycho-social developmental period. In the United States, especially, children often begin adolescence before they begin puberty, because of the media-driven hyper-social cues as to what constitutes "being a teen." Those cues are picked up and expressed in behavior/attitude often long before puberty begins. In fact, certain behaviors have been shown to be related to the early induction into the pubertal stage.
2) "It's the misalignment of the two systems, and the seductive pleasures of the limbic system, that make adolescence so risky." I don't think that Dr. Steinberg would agree with this characterization. "Risk-taking" and "sensation-seeking" are highly normative aspects of adolescent behavior. This strict dichotomy between the "out of control" limbic system (a contested concept in neuroscience to begin with, ie.g., that there is a "limbic system") and the "in-control, rationality of the executive functioning prefrontal cortex" is not supported by most competent neuroscientists or cognitive psychologists. Yes, there is ONE theory of "bottom-up" control of the early-adolescent brain. In this theory, the "predominantly" affective components of brain development located closer to the central structures of the brain versus the distal prefrontal cortex develop first, owing to a principle of human development that human structures mature from the center to the periphery. I'm not trying to split hairs or argue arcane points of brain development. But there is a dominant narrative in the media that says teen brains are ruled by emotion and therefore they don't think well. Your characterization of Dr. Steinberg's work repeats this narrative and it's not supported by the science. It can lead parents to believe that their teen has a brain that just inherently seeks dangerous risk because that's how it is, biologically-speaking. Every single teen develops differently from every other teen. I cannot stress this point enough. Thinking and feeling are not entirely distinctive neurological processes, somehow "located" in different areas of the brain. Boys and girls, in general, develop differently. Individual girls develop differently from each other, as do boys. Development is based upon biology and biography, genetics and environment. Risk-taking is fundamentally about the engagement in novel behavior. All healthy adolescents take risks, because that's how the world gets discovered anew for each generation of humans. If parents think of "risk" as primarily about "risky behavior"...and if they're thinking--incorrectly--that their immature "limbic systems" are seducing them into engaging in these dangerous, "irrational" behaviors, it makes it harder for both parents AND teens to feel the agency that is actually rapidly developing for them to monitor, judge and make decisions about just how, when and whether they express their natural risk-taking impulses. In fact, many normal teens NEED to take risks that appear "pointless," "redundant" "irrational" or "extreme" to adults, for the purpose of developing the very inhibitory control we hope they'll eventually demonstrate. The processes of figuring out the right balance of action and inhibition involve thinking and feeling, the limbic structures and the prefrontal cortices. It's all of a piece.
3) A mercifully brief and personal point: citing the concept of "grit" makes me cringe. This concept does not enjoy the kind of empirical support necessary to hold it up as a key idea that Steinberg's work is echoing. "Grit" is the latest buzz word in a sea of buzz words that often get parents more anxious about yet another way that they're failing to keep their child on the conveyer belt from "best" preschool to "best grade school" to "best middle school" to "best high school" to "best college" to "best job" to "best life." But this is for another conversation.
I appreciate the enthusiasm of your review piece. But when you characterize the processes of adolescent development as being a particular and uniform way for teens,--it makes for good copy--but you may being doing more of a disservice for both parents and teens than you intend.
Michael Y. Simon, LMFT Oakland, California Author, The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenagers