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Young adult brain development: What you need to know

Here's how to support your young adult’s growing brain power to help them make the most of their opportunities.
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Over the last decade or two, scientists have conducted new research in brain development with results having a potentially big impact on how we think about young adults. The emerging research has shown an increase in brain development that starts in adolescence and continues into the early 20s. This could mean that while we see 18-24 year-olds as fully functioning adults, their brains haven’t reached their full maturity just yet.

While most of the brain’s general architecture is developed in early childhood, the area of the brain that continues to mature through young adulthood is responsible for the sort of self-control that helps us make thoughtful decisions, delay gratification, and rein-in risk-taking. This doesn’t mean that young adults are incapable of making good decisions or that they have no control over themselves. What it means is that they must work harder than mature adults to stay focused, make responsible choices, and avoid risky behaviors.

Neurologist Judy Willis says technology has changed the demands on brain development for kids born after the year 2000, leaving a disconnect between the brain they need and the brain they have. With the internet, smart phones, and 24/7 connectivity available for most teens, Willis says the developing brain is often overwhelmed by information overload. And while the brain is still developing, this can lead teens and young adults to appear unfocused, not goal-oriented, and to engage in risky behaviors.

There is some debate among scientists about the conclusions that we can draw from the results of research on technology and the brain at this time. Regardless of the debate, neurologist Judy Willis says there are ways to support your young adult’s growing brain power and help them make the most of their opportunities and build the skills they need to meet the challenges they face.

Use self-management to build brain strength

One of the breakthroughs in recent brain research involves neuroplasticity – the ability for the brain to change in response to experience. Think of the brain like any muscle, the more it is used, the stronger it becomes. By offering more ways for your young adult to exercise their decision-making skills and impulse control, they’ll be building brain strength.

One way to do that is to encourage your teen’s independence and make sure your young adult takes responsibility for themselves. They should be picking their own classes, planning their own schedule, and handling their own workload. If they ask for your help with a problem, don’t solve it for them. Instead, ask them what they think they should do. If you think what they’re planning to do is wrong, simply asking “Is there another way you could handle this?” will help them identify other options. Temple University Psychology Professor Laurence Steinberg recommends encouraging students to reach out to advisors on campus if they need more help. If you give them all the answers or if you’re making decisions for them, they aren’t building these skills themselves.

Another way to support their development is to encourage their goal-setting skills and impulse control. Meaning, their ability to focus on something they’d like to accomplish in the long-term and resist a temptation right now. This can also be thought of as their “true north” or “purpose.” Maybe they’re in school with the hopes of becoming a doctor, or they’re working two jobs to make ends meet while applying for a training program. Simply talking to them about their main goal, and the steps they plan on taking to realize that goal, can serve as a gentle reminder and may help them stay focused.

Encouraging your young adult to be healthy in other areas of their life is also key to supporting development. Sleep, exercise, and nutrition are all important to promote brain health. Steinberg says mindfulness and meditation can also help in developing self-control. Next time you are with your young adult, take a yoga or meditation class together. It’s not only a great bonding experience, but could help your teen learn some strategies to support their development.

Discuss substance use and effect

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading cause of death in young adulthood is unintentional injury, with the majority of deaths being caused by motor vehicle crashes. Later in life, you’re more likely to die from heart disease or cancer. While young adulthood can be a time of great growth, it can also be fraught with new peer pressure, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and unintended consequences.

While the brain is still developing the self-control area, the area of the brain that processes reward is still in overdrive. This process starts in adolescence but continues into the 20s. Steinberg says this is like having a car with a really great accelerator but poor brakes. Drugs and alcohol often also lower a user’s inhibitions, meaning they are more likely to engage in risky behavior like unprotected sex or driving under the influence. Adding substance use to a brain that is still developing can expose your young adult to dangerous situations. It’s important to talk with your young adult about their choices around substance use.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Judy Willis, Neurologist and Teacher, University of California Santa Barbara and Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Laura H Carnell Professor of Psychology, Temple University.