One of the (many) interesting aspects of adolescents is the developing brain - especially the prefrontal cortex. This portion of our brain regulates all of the seething energy of adolescence, sending impulses to other parts of the brain having to do with motivation and emotion. It encourages delayed gratification, long-term planning, and most of all, impulse control.
New research on the adolescent brain suggests that this area of the brain actually benefits from learning. Not necessarily book-learning, but actual hands-on learning. In the past, young people were taught skills while growing up - cooking, child care, mechanics, etc. They began their internship in childhood as opposed to their late twenties. Today's children go to school, but have very limited opportunities to be able to learn through trial and error within the safe confines of childhood. In other words, the ability to make mistakes, and learn from them, while being watched over by an adult. This has helped create a very long adolescence. Many parents are finding their children still children well into their twenties or early thirties. Why is this? Could it be because the developing brain actually needs to stretch and expand through experience? Researchers believe this to be the case.
They have found that young people respond much more to the reward systems in the brain than do adults, and what they want most of all is social rewards, and the respect of their peers. They also have a more deliberate response when they think other adolescents are watching. This explains why your normally sweet teen goes off the deep end and does something really stupid with their friends.
But beyond that, researchers now believe that the experience of actually delaying gratification affects the prefrontal cortex as much as the prefrontal cortex affects the ability to delay gratification. In other words, it is a symbiotic relationship. The brain develops as it is needed. In years past this portion of the brain was needed much earlier than it is now. People married, started careers and families much earlier in the lifespan. Now we have incredibly bright young adults that appear to be directionless, unable to commit to relationships or career choices.
So what is the bottom line from all of this? Give your children opportunities to learn through experience. Encourage them to cook, clean, fix things, go to summer camp, go to work with you, donate their time to nonprofits that are building homes, cleaning beaches, etc. In other words, allow them the opportunity to fail and learn from their experiences within the protected environment of childhood and adolescence. Their brain will thank you.