UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake
Few things irritate adolescents more than being told what to do – or how to think.
Their need for independence is not only emotional. Adolescence is a critical developmental phase of life, a time during which children acquire the social skills they need to thrive as adults.
Just as critically, it is also the time in which their brains develop – or fail to develop – in a way that enables them to reach their full potential in life.
We already know that in the earliest years of childhood, children’s brains form neural connections at a rate never to be repeated. This is the first window of opportunity to influence the development of children’s brains through nutrition, stimulation and protection from violence and other harms.
But a growing body of scientific knowledge shows that experience and environment also combine with genetics to shape the brains of adolescents. This presents a second, crucially important window of opportunity to influence the development of children’s brains – and thus, their futures.
In 2016, UNICEF hosted The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity, a symposium that brought together experts in adolescent neuroscience to discuss this emerging science and how we can apply it to support all adolescents – but especially those already facing risks to their well-being, including poverty, deprivation, conflict and crisis.
The articles in this compendium elaborate on some of the ideas shared at the symposium. Together, they provide a broad view of the dynamic interactions among physical, sexual and brain development that take place during adolescence. They highlight some of the risks to optimal development – including toxic stress, which can interfere with the formation of brain connections, and other vulnerabilities unique to the onset of puberty and independence.
They also point to the opportunities for developing interventions that can build on earlier investments in child development – consolidating gains and even offsetting the effects of deficits and traumas experienced earlier in childhood. Evidence shows that practical approaches – including safe and secure environments, or the presence of a caring adult – can help counteract the effects of trauma and lay a better foundation for optimal development.
The symposium also highlighted the importance of greater collaboration between the scientific research community and development professionals to develop and implement policies and programmes that apply the new science – something we at UNICEF will explore more concretely with partners in the months and years ahead.
With 1.2 billion adolescents in the world today, all of us have a stake in helping them to reach their full potential. For today’s independence-seeking adolescent is tomorrow’s doctor. Tomorrow’s teacher. Tomorrow’s worker. Tomorrow’s leader.
Their future is the future of our world.