I am often asked, “Why did my intelligent, college-bound teen daughter jeopardize her future by stealing an item? She got caught and now has a criminal case filed against her!” But with immature brain development and little experience in independent decision making, it is truly incredible that emerging adults do as well as they do.

Just for purposes of comparison, let’s peek into the life of an inmate in a maximum security prison. Imagine a life devoid of sensation and control. You live in alone in a small defined space. You may not choose where you live, where you go and what you do. You are ordered around by persons entitled to restrict your liberty. You are not permitted to wear certain clothing, have facial hair or wear cosmetics or jewelry. Your ability to move freely and are drastically restricted. You must ask permission to perform basic human bodily functions.
Oftentimes, you are completely separated from other persons. On the rare occasion when you are permitted to interact, the selection of peers, when this interaction may occur and the nature of the interaction is severely curtailed. Visual and auditory stimulation such as music, television, computers and printed materials are limited in scope and availability. You may not prepare or consume the food of your choice and have no input in the type and preparation of nourishment received. The availability and amount of the food is limited by external forces.
There are no opportunities to leave the confined space and you do not have access to society at large. When you are released into society, you are monitored in your daily activities by the parole department, advised where and with whom you may live, advised as to where you can work and precluded from freedom of association.

Now, look into the life of an “emerging adult.” This term is designated for the 16-25 year-old group who are increasingly being treated as adults yet do not possess a mature brain and may not be able to evaluate the consequences of their actions.
Imagine a life where sensation is everywhere but so is external control. You live in a very structured and restricted environment. You have very little discretion as where you live, where you go and what you do. Laws require that as a minor, you live at home and attend school. You present yourself to your superiors and are ordered to perform physical and intellectual tasks which are closely monitored and calibrated. As time progresses, the tasks increase in difficulty and you are pressured to distinguish yourself from other students by superior performance academically and in extra-curricular activities. You are rarely alone; you live with a small defined cohort (your family) and spend your days with a second larger cohort (the other students and teachers). Any discretionary free time is often limited in time and by the applicable supervisorial cohort (e.g., coaches and instructors.) You may be required to seek part-time employment which not only limits discretionary free time but injects an additional supervisorial element, the employer.
Your appearance, actions and speech are closely monitored. You are directed to conform your behavior, speech and expressions to a strict rubric for a multitude of hypothetical scenarios or rules of etiquette. You have very limited freedom of expression. Your ability to choose the content of your speech and when speech may occur is curtailed. Often, you must request advance permission to talk. Your locker and person may be searched without consent.
You have very little to no income and any money is spent is monitored. One or both cohorts may dictate which clothing to wear, whether cosmetics or a preferred hair style may be worn and when. Your food choices are selected by others.
Yet, on an increasing basis, you are released into society from the constraints of the cohorts and are able to function in the world unsupervised and free from any and all restrictions. You may drive, you may move freely and you are subject to all laws and penalties as any other adult who possesses a fully formed and mature brain. You are treated by society as an independent individual capable of exercising complete discretion in all aspects of life despite the fact that you have a little to no experience doing so.

Consequently, when emerging adults err or break the law, their actions seemingly without reflection or deliberation; this action should not be shocking. It does not seem so perplexing a question to ask why poor decisions were made when significant restrictions give way to little to no supervisorial or regulatory support simultaneous with society’s welcoming of them as full fledged adults. An inmate has a parole officer but the developmentally immature fledgling adult flies solo. So missteps and poor decisions making should be expected and increased freedom in monitored decision making as the teen ages should be encouraged.

*The next blog entry on this topic analyzes sensation seeking and the importance of peers in the daily life of the young adult.