True adulthood does not begin in the western world until 25 because young people are putting off settling down for longer, a psychiatrist has claimed. Although the transition from child to adult is traditionally marked at 18, in fact, crucial neurological changes are now still happening into the mid-20s.
Beatriz Luna, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh believes that putting off responsibilities such as marriage, a career or parenthood, encourages the brain to stay in a state of adolescence. Consequently teenagers are no longer grown-ups at 18. “It’s probably closer to 25,” said Prof Luna.
“I guess the implication is that when the environmental demands are those that require you to become a responsible adult, meaning you have a lot of responsibilities to take over, that might be signaling the brain to stop a certain type of plasticity because now you really need stability and reliability.” The trend has been dubbed ‘kidulthood’ by commentators who in recent years have noticed a shift towards irresponsibility in the behavior of young adults.
Parents should also be warned that adolescents are hard-wired to ignore them until their brains are fully developed. Professor Luna said although the brains of youngsters were capable of acting like sensible adults, they were often overridden by signals which encouraged them to seek out risk.
“Parents often believe that their teenage children are doing things to annoy them on purpose, but that’s not how their brains work” she said.
“It’s not that your child is trying to make your life miserable, there are biological reasons that they are acting that way. It happens will all species. At that age their brain is telling them to start leaving the nest and taking chances. They are discovering new freedoms.”
Prof Luna said her research has shown that the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain controlling adult-like reason and planning – is active in adolescents, but it is trumped by the hormone dopamine which triggers feelings of happiness when taking risks. "I really want to dispel this idea that adolescents are unable to use their pre-frontal cortex for planning and reasoning. They really have the capability,” she said.
“Sometimes adolescents act just like an adult so you get confused when they do stupid things. But they need that variability of experience and to be able to do things. “It’s not that they are not listening but what they do is determined by the increase in motivational processes in the brain that is meant to encourage them to venture outside of the nest.”