Adolescence and the College Search: A Perfect Match?

By Lydia Denworth | January 26, 2015 | Psychology Today | Topics: Parenting and Family, Science and Health

Embracing the teenage brain’s natural tendencies may help the process.

Teenager considers choices

My oldest son is sixteen and a junior in high school. The other day we sat down with his college guidance counselor for the first time. Between that meeting and next December stretch months of thinking about college: visiting campuses, deciding where to apply, taking standardized tests, and assembling applications.

Here’s how I’d like it to go: My son thoughtfully considers what he wants to study and what environment will suit him best, he manages his time well, completes his applications efficiently, and then wows the socks off admissions officers. Meanwhile, my husband and I offer just the right amount of advice at just the right moments and exert just the right amount of pressure, maintaining high expectations yet making our son feel supported and valued throughout.  When it’s all over, he ends up somewhere he thinks is special, and where they think he is special, too. And, of course, the chosen school happens to be one his father and I secretly had in mind from the start (i.e., now).

A mother can dream. He’s a teenager (though a pretty terrific one) and smooth sailing through the college search appears to be rare. For the record, my husband and I might well be the ones who don’t hold up our end.

It occurs to me, however, that the latest thinking about the adolescent brain provides another way to look at this year of our lives: The college search could be perfectly suited to teenagers’ natural tendencies.

College application

“Adolescence is the developmental transition from dependence on a parent to relative independence,” said neuroscientist B.J. Casey at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in a 2012 lecture.  She went on: “It’s characterized by increased experimentation, heightened sensitivity to social pressures, and novelty seeking.”

Historically, such behavior has been seen as all bad. “Adolescence: always a problem,” is how science writer David Dobbs summed it up in a terrific National Geographic feature that first introduced me to the work of Casey and her like-minded colleagues.

Thanks to the recent revolution in neuroimaging technology and the resulting ability to actually look inside the brains of adolescents, neuroscientists now understand that the brain is not done developing until around the age of twenty-five. Furthermore, that development moves in a wave from back to front, with the areas responsible for judgment and reasoning in the pre-frontal cortex the last to come on line.

You could assume that simply means that teenagers are even less mature than you thought, and on some level you’d be right. But perhaps, says Casey, all of these behaviors we have traditionally seen as problematic are adaptive—exactly what evolution ordered up to help kids successfully transition out of childhood and into adulthood. If teenagers were too cautious and reasonable, in other words, they might never strike out on their own. We grown-ups need to understand this and not make it too hard—out of fear of risk and bad decisions—for teenagers to successfully navigate this stage of life.

What does this have to do with college? Look at Casey’s list of typical behaviors this way:

Teenagers seek novelty: College, by definition, will be a time of change, and it can be a chance to try something new—to live in a different part of the country, to meet new people, and try new activities.

Social connections matter: All of my son’s friends and classmates are facing the same challenges, excitement, and stress this year. Emphasizing the ways that can make him feel supported and part of the group will benefit all of us.

Adolescents experiment more: A year devoted to creative exploration of places that will make you happy could be a positive outlet.

Psychiatrist and author Daniel J. Siegel adds one more important teenage tendency in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Mind.

Teenagers feel things intensely: Let them! The risk is that what a teen will feel intensely during this time is anxiety, but the message my son’s college counselor delivered was that he has an opportunity to hone in on and pursue his passions, a.k.a, the things he enjoys most intensely.

Seeing the positive side doesn’t mean I’ve gone all rose-colored glasses on my son. I know there are aspects of this process that will be difficult—the aforementioned time management, for instance, is especially hard when your ability to delay gratification isn’t fully formed. That’s where his father and I can be helpful. Maybe we’ll hold our tongues on other aspects.

It’s not only neuroscientists who suggest this can go well. Not so long ago, I bumped into my friend Barbara. “I loved looking for colleges with my kids,” she exclaimed. “We got to spend so much time together. It was all about figuring out who they were as people.”  Honest, that’s what she said.

Perhaps the hardest part will be getting my middle-aged brain to be as open to the possibilities as my teenager’s brain will be.