Adolescence should last till the mid-twenties.

  • The age at which teenagers are considered adults has shifted over the centuries, depending on the demands of a culture.
  • Although adolescents’ cognitive abilities are frequently comparable to adults’, they may struggle with mood regulation and executive function.
  • Modern demands, such as social media pressures, suggest that broadening our definition of adolescence could benefit today’s youth.

Adolescents are struggling, and they don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to recognize that. In reality, the parents and instructors of our burgeoning teenagers are the ones who see it the most clearly. For a long time, we’ve known that adolescence, as we’ve understood it since Piaget, needed to be revised, but it took the COVID pandemic to bring this to light. It’s time for adolescents to move on to a new stage.

Though it is known for a long time that children as young as 15 can have cognitive capacities comparable to adults (Brown, 1975; Keating, 2004), a recent neuroimaging study shows that this is still the case.

According to (Sommerville, 2016, Tamnes et al., 2010), the human brain continues to develop well into the third decade of life, with the most recent development taking place in the prefrontal cortex and striate cortical circuits: brain areas responsible for executive functioning and synthesizing cognitive and emotional inputs for decision-making (Casey et al., 2016; Goldberg, 2001; Sommerville, 2011).

In a 2016 New York Times interview, neuroscientist Leah Sommerville stated: “On cognitive tests, for example, adolescents perform about as well as adults. However, if they are experiencing significant emotions, their scores may suffer. The issue appears to be that youngsters have not yet acquired a strong brain system for controlling emotions.”

Adulthood age

It was expected to discover evidence in the study for this post that the accepted age of adulthood (also known as “the age of majority”) was gradually pushed back throughout the ages as life expectancy improved and intellectual activity eventually substituted physical work. After all, the legal age of marriage in America used to be 12 for girls and 14 for boys (Dahl, 2010), while the age of religious maturity in two of the world’s oldest religions—Judaism and Catholicism (i.e., the age of the rituals of Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation)—has been set around 13 for centuries in both (Minnerath, 2007; Olitsky, 2000).

However, a well-researched law review by Vivian Hamilton (2016) detailed how the accepted age of maturity has shifted back and forth throughout history as a consequence of each culture’s demands. For example, in the United States, the age of majority was formerly 21 but was gradually decreased to 18 in the mid-twentieth century to suit the demand for soldiers during WWII.

Even more astonishing, early Roman law established the age of complete maturity at 25 years old, creating the minimum age for young males to engage in formal acts and contracts without supervision. Furthermore, between the ages of 15 and 25, young Roman males were placed under the temporary guardianship of adults known as Curatores, and “until they reached twenty-five years of age, a curator’s consent was required to validate young males’ official acts or contracts.”

Indeed, it appears that our Roman forefathers understood something about adolescence that we could profit from revisiting: children require more time to mature before being burdened with the entire range of adult obligations and expectations. Curators had the same role for teenagers in ancient Rome as mentors, therapists, and guidance counselors do today, but for a much longer length of time. As a psychologist who received her training in a university counseling center and works with undergraduate and graduate students, It is known firsthand that how essential Roman curators (and their modern equivalents) were in the lives of young adults in their mid-twenties. Leah Sommerville’s research, which suggests that adolescents need longer time to build neurological and behavioral mechanisms to prevent their emotions from impairing their thinking abilities, corresponds to my experience with undergraduate and graduate students in their twenties.

The emotional stakes of everything that today’s adolescents try to do have been raised in ways that no preceding generation has ever experienced. These pressures are too much for many healthy individuals, let alone children in their teens and twenties who are still waiting for the brain development and experiential learning that will help them develop emotional resilience.

For these reasons, it is believed that we need to broaden our understanding of adolescence to include a time that stretches beyond adolescence and into the mid-twenties. In short, the experiences of treating undergraduate and graduate students, have shaped the worldview to the point where we should now consider age 25 to be the new 18 in terms of psychological maturity.

References

Higgins A.; Turnure J. (1984). “Distractibility and concentration of attention in children’s development”. Child Development. 55 (5): 1799–1810. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1984.tb00422.x.

Schiff A.; Knopf I. (1985). “The effects of task demands on attention allocation in children of different ages”. Child Development. 56 (3): 621–630. doi:10.2307/1129752. JSTOR 1129752.

Keating, D. (2004). Cognitive and brain development. In R. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Kali R.V.; Ferrer E. (2007). “Processing speed in childhood and adolescence: Longitudinal models for examining developmental change”. Child Development. 78 (6): 1760–1770. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01088.x. PMID 17988319.

Brown, A. (1975). The development of memory: Knowing, knowing about knowing, and knowing how to know. In H. Reese (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.

Publishing, Harvard Health. “The adolescent brain: Beyond raging hormones – Harvard Health”.

B. Dahl, Gordon (2010). “Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty”. Demography. 47 (3): 689–718. doi:10.1353/dem.0.0120. PMC 3000061. PMID 20879684.