One expert’s opinion: Puberty and risk-taking behavior

The primary causes of death and disability among adolescents are problems of emotion and behavioral control, writes Ronald Dahl, M.D., Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He includes accidents, suicide, homicide, depression, drug abuse, violence, reckless behavior, eating disorders, and health problems related to risky sexual behavior. Dahl discussed risk-taking behavior among adolescents in a recent lecture at Brown University. While many things improve between childhood and adolescence – strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, immune function, and resistance to cold, heat and hunger – overall mortality rates increase by 200 to 300 percent. Adolescent problems are well known, but are the changes in behavior based in biology? Are there specific changes in the brain that lead to emotional changes at puberty, which in turn increase the amount of risk-taking and thrill seeking?

Dahl defines adolescence as that awkward period between the beginning of sexual maturation and the attainment of adult roles and responsibilities. This period sees the gradual relaxation of adult monitoring as young people assume responsibility for themselves. This developmental sequence involves changes in the body and brain. In general, children do quite well during adolescence, but most parents notice three ways in which adolescents differ from younger children. First, there is an increase in conflict with their children. Adolescents are not more likely to argue with their parents than they did at younger ages, but the intensity of emotion is much higher. Second, their moods are more volatile. Third, adolescents take more risks, actually seeking out experiences that evoke strong emotions and feelings.

During this period, Dahl points out, a person becomes reproductively mature, much cognitive development occurs, and judgment and self-regulation skills mature as well. Changes in the brain are linked to each of these developments. Since the mid-nineteenth century, however, major changes have occurred in the rate of pubertal development. Research in Europe and the United States has shown that between 1860 and 1960, the onset of menstruation dropped from 15 1/2 years on average to about 13 years. Currently the average age of menarche is 12, though, for many girls these changes begin at 10, nine, eight or seven years of age. This is particularly true for African-American girls. But at a time when physical and sexual maturity are beginning several years earlier, marriage and adult responsibility are starting later. In 1970, the average age at marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men. By 2000, it had changed to 26 for women and 27 for men. Many adult milestones like starting a career, buying a home or becoming a parent are now occurring more than a decade after the physical changes of puberty. Dahl says that “in a relatively brief period, adolescence has expanded from a two-to-four-year interval to an eight-to-15-year interval.” Dahl concludes that the brain system responsible for sexual maturation is being activated earlier and igniting the passions and strong motivations of puberty at younger ages.

Correlation with age, not sexual maturation

Dahl contends, however, that most measures of cognitive development correlate with age and experience rather than sexual maturation. Therefore, while children are physically more mature at younger ages, their ability to think logically, plan and reason does not keep pace. He uses the metaphor of starting the engines without a skilled driver. “What’s been happening over the past 100 years,” he says, “is that there has been a shift to an earlier timing of puberty which results now in several years .with a sexually mature body, sexually activated brain circuits. Yet there is a relatively immature set of [the] neurobiological systems necessary for self-control, for affect regulation, for emotional intelligence.” Emotional and cognitive development requires not only developmental processes in the brain that continue to mature into late adolescence in the early 20s, but life experiences that shape those abilities and skills. Dahl believes that there is compelling evidence of an increased risk for disorders of self-control and difficulties navigating complex social-emotional situations because of the large disparity between physical and emotional maturation. Children and young adolescents may look more mature, but they still need time to refine their abilities for self-control and emotion regulation, and they need parents and other adults to monitor them while these skills develop.

Dahl reminds us that while adolescence is a time of great vulnerability, it is also a time when children can become intensely motivated to pursue higher goals. He contends that educators and parents need to think about who is influencing our adolescents’ passions.

“What’s Killing Our Kids? Expert Discusses Puberty and Behavior in Adolescence”,The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2004, pp. 1, 6-7.

Published in ERN March 2004 Volume 17 Number 3

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