As adolescents mature, their lives project more and more into the social world, and they interact with social systems and organizations, including schools, law enforcement, businesses, and social services and health systems. The importance to their development of the ecosystem of institutions within which adolescents grow has been widely recognized since it was first highlighted in Bronfenbrenner’s (1974, 1977, 1979) “ecological” theory of child development. A flourishing adolescence depends on all the institutions that surround youth, contributing to their learning and socioemotional development as well as protecting their safety. The social ecosystems within which today’s youth are maturing reflect sweeping social changes, many of which were touched on in the preceding chapters.
The committee’s charge directs us to help child-serving systems apply the accelerating knowledge about adolescent development to their own work. The following chapters will carry out that charge. Our prefatory comments here will address three important topics. The first is the increasing complexity of the tasks that all these systems face in a rapidly changing world. The second is the pivotal importance of supporting parents and families in helping their adolescents flourish, a topic of personal as well as scientific interest to us all. Finally, we conclude by discussing faith-based institutions as an example of the many community-based organizations that can be utilized to support youth—beyond the four systems specifically named in the committee’s charge.
The path to adulthood in contemporary society entails navigating a highly complex ecosystem of specialized social institutions. A successful college application, for example, might require an adolescent to navigate government systems (e.g., a FAFSA application as well as state financial aid forms), private company systems (e.g., the SAT, administered by the College Board), the education system (e.g., college applications, facilitating school-college communication), and the private consumer education market (e.g., private SAT tutoring). An institutional ecosystem such as this, made up of a large number of differentiated and specialized institutions, poses distinct challenges, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged youth. While socioeconomically advantaged families have the resources to “knit together” this patchwork of institutional demands, choices, and costs, disadvantaged youth may have less success in integrating them without guidance (Jackson, 2019). So, for example, even if an adolescent from a socioeconomically disadvantaged family can navigate the education system and the SAT, she may make mistakes in navigating the financial aid systems required to fund her college education.
In many ways, these increasingly complex challenges have altered what it means to be an adolescent today. Systems and organizations that were created for prior generations to guide and support adolescents—especially their schools—in many ways have not kept pace with the changing contexts and needs of today’s adolescents.
Part II of this report, comprising Chapters 6 through 9, stresses that to meet the developmental needs of today’s adolescents, the nation needs systems and strategies that are different from those designed for prior generations. Adolescents need all sectors in society—including government, schools, and other community institutions—as well as their families to share responsibility for identifying new settings and pathways that create possibilities for adolescents to flourish and thrive.
These four chapters discuss the four adolescent-serving systems named in the committee’s charge: education, health, child welfare, and justice. Although we discuss the systems separately, the committee notes that to best serve adolescents these systems cannot continue to operate in siloes. Collaboration and coordination across systems are needed. Several approaches at the federal, state, and local levels have been implemented to break these siloes down, with varying levels of success. For example, states across the country have created “Children’s Cabinets,” which create a formal setting for interaction and collaboration across adolescent-serving
sectors at the state level.1 Other states and localities have begun to develop global budgets, which break down silos in funding and allow for greater collaboration across systems. Given the committee’s charge, we do not detail the efficacy of these efforts but, rather, focus on specific opportunities for cross-system collaboration. These opportunities are noted throughout the subsequent chapters.
It is also important to note that the committee’s recommendations for systems change in the following chapters are not the only ways for society to support and promote positive adolescent development and ensure that all adolescents have the opportunity to flourish. As discussed in Chapter 4, one of the vexing problems facing adolescents and their families today is growing inequality in income and wealth and the compounding impacts of growing up poor in this country. Thus, one might envision a set of policies and programs that combat economic inequality through provisions in the tax code or the implementation of a universal basic income, which may in turn reduce rates of child and adolescent poverty and lead to better outcomes for youth. While such proposed policies merit serious consideration and Chapter 4 discusses some of them, the committee does not make specific recommendations along these lines, as they are outside the scope of this report.2
Key to any consideration of systems change are the availability of funds and the prudent allocation of resources to evidence-based programs. Many of the health, social, and educational supports needed by adolescents require long-term investment rather than brief episodic or categorical responses. While successful models of interventions that promote positive outcomes for youth have been demonstrated in the field, institutions and policy makers often failed to take advantage of these models by disseminating them and scaling up their implementation. Emerging research in the neurobiological and socio-behavioral sciences provides a renewed opportunity to further enhance and improve existing services, programs, and policies by ascertaining what works, for whom, and under what circumstances. The political challenge, as mentioned in Chapter 1, is to take the necessary steps to assure a long-term commitment grounded in heightened awareness of the importance of investing in young people during this critical developmental period, an investment that will affect the life-course trajectory of future generations of adults.
1 Children’s Cabinets are typically made up of the heads of all government agencies with child- and youth-serving programs. They meet regularly to coordinate services, develop a common set of outcomes, and collaboratively decide upon and implement plans to foster the well-being of young people (Forum for Youth Investment, 2018).
2 For further consideration of policies and programs to reduce childhood poverty, see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2019).
When adults prepare to become parents for the first time, they are often bombarded with advice. And while the advice may be subject to debate—formula or breast milk? co-sleeping or crib?—resources on how to best raise an infant or young child are readily available. Moreover, everyone understands that the stakes at this time in a child’s life are quite high. Indeed, amidst widespread agreement about the critical nature of the first few years of life, investments in supports for parenting and early childhood education continue to garner support.
But the reality is that parents and other adult caregivers are no less important for adolescents than they are for young children: both young children and adolescents need secure attachment from parents as a foundation for healthy development and strong relationships. In fact, during this critical period of development, parents are essential for ensuring that adolescents flourish and thrive. While the role of parents certainly changes compared to early in life—adolescents are very different from young children—their significance does not. The process also remains much the same: the relationship between parents and adolescents continues to be “transactional,” meaning the parents and adolescents respond to one another in a reciprocal fashion, and both of them continue to change through this process (Sameroff and Fiese, 2000). Indeed, sometimes an adolescent’s behavior can have more of an effect on how parents behave than parents’ behavior has on their adolescent children (Lansford et al., 2018). Despite this reality, parents of adolescents are often left to navigate the changing terrain on their own or are told to expect nothing but challenge and conflict.
A few current trends are especially salient for current parents of adolescents. First, earlier onset of puberty and later transitions to adult roles have lengthened the adolescent period, which may mean protracted parental involvement and a need for flexibility as youths’ needs change (Steinberg, 2014). Second, today’s adolescents are digital natives,3 which creates new kinds of opportunities for parental monitoring and communication (Ball et al., 2013; Hussong et al., 2018). Third, the U.S. population is more racially and ethnically diverse than in previous generations, and family structures (e.g., blended families, grandparents as caregivers) are more diverse as well (Pearce et al., 2018). Last, amidst the trend of widening economic inequality, some parents are raising adolescents under great financial strain, postponing their own expectations while continuing to support their young adult offspring (Hussong and Jones, 2018; Mullainathan and Datta, 2011).
Diversity in personal values, cultural norms, relationship dynamics, and access to resources means the relationship between adolescents and their primary adult caregivers can look quite different across families, neighborhoods, and geographic locales. Family socialization practices, wherein adult caregivers transmit their values and norms and model behaviors, always occur in context and are impacted by social position and resource availability. For example, when parents experience marginalization as a function of their race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or stigmatized family structure, this often necessitates that they practice particular kinds of socialization with the intention of preparing or buffering the youth in their households against discrimination as well as to instill a sense of group and self-pride (Jones et al., 2018; McBride Murry and Lippold, 2018; Stein et al., 2018).
While there is no prescription for being the “perfect parent” to an adolescent, decades of research suggest a few practices that are consistently associated with positive youth outcomes across contexts (Lansford et al., 2018; Steinberg, 2014). The first recommended parental practice is being supportive. While the details of what support and “warmth” look like is informed by cultural norms and family contexts, adolescents need to feel valued, loved, and safe, just as they did in early childhood. Being attuned to young people’s emotional needs and knowing what is going on in their lives has important benefits for development throughout adolescence (Steinberg, 2014).
A second vitally important parental practice is being firm. This involves setting boundaries and expectations around appropriate behavior, and consistently communicating these expectations to adolescents. Being firm while also showing support is particularly important. In practice, supporting adolescents during this period of time necessitates flexibility, since the needs of a 13-year-old can be quite different from those of a 19-year-old. The goal is to provide just enough support so a young person can learn how to address challenges and make decisions on her or his own (Steinberg, 2014).
Being both firm and supportive likely sounds easy enough; however, the reality is that parents and other primary caregivers are living in the same context of inequality as adolescents. The spaces and places where families live impact opportunities, and parents are no more immune to toxic environments than are adolescents. In addition to its direct impact on adolescents, stress impacts parenting, and in the context of limited economic resources and financial stress, parents’ emotional, psychological, and temporal resources are often taxed (Mullainathan and Datta, 2012).
Beyond the immediate family context, there are important ways in which parents and families intersect with institutions and systems (e.g., education, health), and those intersections can directly or indirectly shape trajectories of adolescent development. Maximizing the opportunity of
adolescence in the context of inequities goes beyond direct support to adolescents themselves. While it is outside the scope of this report to detail all the intersections between families and other systems, a few cross-cutting issues are worth highlighting:
- As noted in the following systems chapters, parents’ engagement with youth, through parenting practices and other forms of socialization, is an important lever for minimizing negative system contact (e.g., preventing justice-system involvement) and maximizing optimal system engagement (e.g., promoting positive school and health outcomes). Thus, resources to support meaningful parent-adolescent relationships are needed, but as noted earlier, such resources are often targeted exclusively toward parents of young children.
- Interventions aimed at parents and other adult caregivers can benefit youth. For instance, parent training and family-based/multi-system interventions are among the most effective at preventing or reducing child maltreatment (see Chapter 8). In the education sector, sending messages to parents about their child’s school absences has been found to improve student attendance (Rogers and Feller, 2018). It may be that contemporary approaches aimed at “nudging” people toward behavioral changes (e.g., text message reminders to complete financial aid forms; Castleman, 2015) could be leveraged to benefit parents, which in turn would benefit youth.
- While parents can be important partners for optimizing adolescent outcomes, there are also ways in which parental involvement in systems can exacerbate challenges. The education, health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems are complex and difficult to navigate. Resources to help parents understand these systems are often lacking, and when under duress parents may make uninformed, rushed decisions or defer to those in positions of authority to determine the fate of their adolescent child. Parents and adolescents from historically marginalized racial/ethnic or low-socioeconomic groups are most likely to be effectively disenfranchised in this process.
- Structural barriers can tax families, especially those most in need of support, making decision making more complex and stressful. Improving access to resources accessibility—for example, by minimizing technical jargon, complicated enrollment processes, and extraneous restrictions and maximizing geographic and temporal availability and “one-stop” access—may increase the cognitive and emotional bandwidth parents need to support adolescents more effectively, as will enacting policy changes that lower structural
barriers for families, such as establishing flexible workplace and family-leave policies (Daminger et al., 2015).
Ultimately, the immediate family setting remains one of the most important and influential contexts for adolescent development. Parental support and involvement play a critical role across all four sectors—education, health, justice, and welfare—by maximizing their adolescent child’s optimal outcomes, mitigating any negative outcomes, and (or) preventing the child’s involvement in the child welfare or justice system. As starkly illustrated in Chapter 4, “family resources”—which refers not only to income and wealth but also to time, protection, and emotional support—represents one of the most important determinants of adolescent outcomes. Although parenting is not something easily measured, in all the ways this report has illuminated concerning neurobiological and behavioral development it too “gets under the skin” in an adolescent’s development.
As Chapter 4 discusses, parents differ widely in all the domains of resources that they can bring to bear in rearing their children, including their own time and energy. The least advantaged parents need resources through social assistance to effectively support adolescents during this period of opportunity, so investing in youth also requires investing in the adult caregivers who support them. Such investments must be multilevel and multisectoral; interventions to change parenting behavior may be futile if systems themselves are not attuned to parents’ most pressing needs.
Many community-based organizations interact with and support youth and families. One important type of community-based organization is faith-based institutions. Religious faith, and its attendant institutions, can play an important role for adolescents and their families. In the United States, faith is common among young people (ages 18 to 29): 73 percent are at least fairly certain that they believe in God, and 64 percent attend religious services at least a few times a year. Among young adults ages 18 to 29 in the United States, 36 percent identify as Protestant, 36 percent as unaffiliated with any religion, 20 percent as Catholic, and 2 percent as Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or some other faith, respectively (Pew Research Center, 2014).
The extant literature on adolescent religiosity and spirituality and mental and emotional health shows a largely positive effect of religion in young people’s lives. In a systematic review of studies on religiosity and spirituality and related adolescent mental health outcomes published between 1998 and 2004, 18 of the 20 studies examined showed a positive relationship (Wong et al., 2006). More recently, a study of Latter Day Saints
students at Brigham Young University found that greater religiosity predicted lower levels of depression and anxiety (Sanders et al., 2015), while in another study religious social support was found to mediate the effect of discrimination on psychiatric disorders among Black adolescents (Hope et al., 2017). In a small qualitative study of Black youth ages 12 to 20 in East Oakland, California, young people reported using faith, prayer, and religious practices to cope with stressors in their environments and family lives (Dill, 2017). For some of the youth in this last study, their faith directly informed their drive to serve their communities (Dill, 2017). However, religious engagement may not be protective for all adolescents: among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, religiosity has been associated with greater rates of internalized homophobia (Shilo and Savaya, 2012) and suicide behavior (Gibbs and Goldbach, 2015).
In addition to the religious services they offer, houses of worship serve as hubs of both religious and secular community life. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions offer educational, spiritual, and civic resources to their communities (Nguyen et al., 2013), including, importantly, an opportunity to engage. As discussed in Chapter 2, the neurobiological and socio-emotional changes that occur during adolescence prime youth to become active participants in community life. As such, offering opportunities for positive youth engagement is essential for supporting the development of adolescents, as well as the health of their communities. Community and faith-based organizations can play an important role in providing opportunities for youth to engage.
In addition to engagement, faith-based organizations may support adolescent development through identity formation. In this key task of adolescent development, young people work to establish a coherent identity independent of their families. Many faiths include rituals to mark a child’s transition into adolescence, and with it, a greater role within the spiritual or religious community. For example, some Jewish youth have a bat mitzvah (for girls) or bar mitzvah (for boys) at age 12 or 13, which cements their status as full participants in Jewish religious life. In preparation for the ceremony, youth are taught and mentored by clergy and lay leaders in the congregation to take on the responsibility of Jewish adulthood (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2002).4 In Navajo culture, the kinaalda ceremony celebrates the coming-of-age of young women in a ritual that lasts 2 to 4 days. Kinaalda engages family members and community elders in support of an adolescent girl’s growth and development, instilling pride in Navajo culture, identity, and community (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2002).
4 In some congregations, the bar/bat mitzvah includes a service project that engages youth in the broader community.
These introductory comments emphasize the growing complexity of youth-serving systems and the need for greater collaboration across systems to better support youth. Key to fostering better youth outcomes and coordination across systems is supporting parents, caregivers, and families in navigating these increasingly complex institutions. While the education, health, child welfare, and justice systems are the focus of the committee’s charge, community-based institutions, including faith-based organizations, play a very important role, particularly in neighborhoods where they provide a safe haven from stress of violence. Promoting a flourishing adolescence will require the engagement of all society’s sectors.
In the following chapters, the committee outlines recommendations for reforming the education, health, child welfare, and justice systems. Taken together, these recommendations constitute a blueprint for developmentally informed systems change. Although each set of recommendations is targeted to a particular system, the blueprints reflect several cross-cutting themes—informed by the neurobiological and socio-behavioral science of adolescent development (discussed in Chapters 2 and 3) and an understanding of the troubling and increasing disparities in opportunity outlined in Chapter 4.
Adolescence is a sensitive period for discovery and learning, providing opportunities for life-long impact. The adolescent brain has evolved to meet the needs of this critical stage of life. Human developmental processes are now conceptualized as continuous, rather than occurring in discrete stages as was originally thought. A sequence of sensitive periods of brain maturation proceed from conception through adulthood. In adolescence, these developmental changes heighten reward sensitivity, a willingness to take risks, and the salience of social status, necessary propensities for exploring new environments and building non-familial relationships. By exploring and taking risks, adolescents build cognitive, social, and emotional skills necessary for productive contributions in adulthood.
Learning how to make decisions and to take responsibility for shaping one’s own life are key developmental tasks of adolescence. Adolescents are active participants in their own development. Their developing competencies in flexible problem solving, their awareness of and concern with others, and their openness to exploration and novelty make this a particularly opportune time to support agency and leadership and promote engagement. While parents and other responsible adults must respect the developing agency of adolescents, they must also provide guidance to guard against impulsive or ill-considered decisions.
Forming personal identity is a key task of adolescence. The increasing diversity of U.S. adolescents and the nation as a whole requires youth-
serving systems to be culturally sensitive and to be attuned to the integrated needs of each adolescent. Young people become increasingly aware of and attuned to their social status during adolescence, and institutions, policies, and practices may reinforce status hierarchies and stereotypes about members of groups that are nondominant or stigmatized in society. Moreover, adolescents have distinct physiological, socio-emotional, and cognitive needs that must be recognized and addressed as they mature.
Supportive familial, caregiver, and adult relationships play a significant role in fostering positive outcomes for adolescents. Adult caregivers are no less important for adolescents than they are for young children. Adolescents need secure attachment from adults as a foundation for healthy development and strong relationships.
Adolescence provides an opportunity for recovery and repair. Because of the malleability and plasticity of the adolescent brain, maladaptation in behavior and brain structure stemming from stressful and harmful exposures during earlier developmental periods may be remediated during adolescence. Redirection, recovery, and resilience are possible. Insofar as the brain is healthy, individuals have the capacity for resilience.
Disparities in family and neighborhood resources and supports, biased and discriminatory interactions with important social systems, and resulting inequalities in opportunity and access severely curtail the promise of adolescence for many youth. Potent structural inequalities and other societal determinants shape adolescents’ life trajectories, reducing access to the opportunities, services, and supports as well as exposing youth to risks, stresses, and demands that “get under the skin,” adversely affecting the body and brain during this critical developmental period. These striking differences in opportunity are associated with differences in outcomes—in health, safety, well-being, and educational and occupational attainment—and in trajectories over the life course.