Addressing the paradox of youth

20:34, Jul 01 2010

Sir PETER GLUCKMAN and HARLENE HAYNE explain their newly released report to the Prime Minister on how to help young people "weather the storm of adolescence".

New Zealand adolescents face real challenges in their transition from childhood to adulthood - young people in this country have high rates of antisocial behaviour, drug abuse, pregnancy and suicide relative to those in most other developed nations.

At the request of Prime Minister John Key we are assembling evidence on what actions could be taken to improve the transition through adolescence for New Zealand's young people, and this week we presented an interim report that identifies the issues.

Adolescence is characterised by a paradox.

On the one hand, adolescents are at their peak in terms of physical health; they are no longer at risk for many childhood diseases and they are not yet susceptible to the illnesses that characterise old age.

Despite their outstanding physical health, there is a 200 to 300 per cent increase in the rates of death and disability during adolescence.


These morbidity and mortality statistics are due, in large part, to problems in adolescents' ability to control their emotions and actions.

In other words, adolescents' risky behaviours have adverse consequences for their physical and mental health.

Ronald Dahl, professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, says that adolescents often make "reckless choices that the average nine-year-old would say was a pretty dumb thing to do".

Some of the key issues facing adolescents in New Zealand include high rates of injury (especially as a result of motor vehicle accidents), suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health problems and sexual health problems.

So how can we explain adolescents' risky behaviour?

Why are adolescents more likely than adults to abuse alcohol, smoke, use illicit substances, commit antisocial acts and drive recklessly or while intoxicated?

The underlying issues are complex, but one contributing factor is the mismatch between a declining age of puberty, reflecting better child health, and increasing societal complexity which exposes limits on the rate of brain maturation.

Components of brain function that promote judgment rather than risk-taking behaviour do not fully mature until well after 20 years of age.

Thus our ability to think like responsible adults may not develop until well into the third decade of life.

A gap is thus created between normal biological maturity (which occurs early) and social and emotional maturity (which takes much longer).

Relative to the state of affairs 100 years ago, adolescence is now a longer and more prominent part of the life cycle.

But other factors also play a role. Recent changes in how young people communicate with each other, in their sources of authority and in their definitions of acceptable behaviour, have been profound.

The internet, texting and Twitter provide young people with the ability to form very complex social networks. The status of the family and teacher as role models who establish the boundaries of acceptable behaviour has been usurped by a media that focuses on celebrity behaviours that might be regarded as antisocial at best, and harmful at worst.

We need to devise ways to help young people transition through this dislocated environment.

Many parents have major difficulties in placing boundaries on their children's behaviour against this more complex network of influences. They are understandably scared that their attempts to do so will lead to rebellion and greater risk-taking behaviour.

Changes in social structure, and in particular the greater fragmentation of family structure, have emerged so quickly that intergenerational transfer of knowledge about the appropriate tools that parents can use has been lost from many parts of society.

Families can be a great source of strength for adolescents, but they can also be a source of harm.

Domestic violence and other forms of family conflict have negative consequences for later mental health and achievement in children and adolescents.

Physical, sexual or psychological abuse during childhood leads to problems in adolescence including suicide, substance abuse, criminality and economic failure. Maltreated children in turn sometimes become initiators of abuse.

We must focus on identifying children at increased risk for adverse psychological outcomes from abuse or parental conflict and on identifying evidence- based interventions to support these children and their families.

Depression affects a fifth of young people by the age of 18 and New Zealand has the highest teenage suicide rate of Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development countries.

Psychological difficulty, even in milder forms, is associated with disengagement from education or employment during adolescence. There is a continuing deficit in the availability of, and access to, high quality mental health services for adolescents and their families.

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Many young people exposed to several risk factors, including negative family, peer group, socioeconomic and biological factors, weather the storm of adolescence with no serious emotional, behavioural or physical problems.

A key question is what makes these individuals so resilient in the face of adversity.

There is increasing evidence to show that social skills and emotional development in adolescence are affected by the quality of early childhood education and experience.

Better social and emotional skills contribute to higher rates of high school completion and reduce adolescent involvement in risky behaviours.

Countries that place greater emphasis on the development of these skills from early childhood appear to have lower levels of adolescent morbidity.

Life skills education is also important, yet is a weak component of New Zealand's education system.

Our challenge as a society is how to respond to the new phenomenon of prolonged adolescence.

We may need to reconsider many aspects of society, such as the rights of young people, the focus of education, the delivery of health services and the approach to youth justice.

* Sir Peter Gluckman is chief science adviser to the Prime Minister and professor of Paediatric and Perinatal Biology at the University of Auckland; Harlene Hayne is deputy Vice- Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, at the University of Otago and a professor in the university's department of psychology. The interim report is available from the website

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