Tag Archives: adolescence

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 7, 2012



Boys who reach sexual maturity more rapidly than their peers have more problems getting along with others their age and are at a higher risk for depression, according to a Cornell study published in Developmental Psychology (47:2).

"The dramatic physical changes of puberty are paralleled by equally dramatic social and emotional changes because boys are transitioning into the new roles and expectations that go along with biological maturity," said lead author Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. Co-authors include K. Paige Harden, University of Texas at Austin; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University; and Julia Graber, University of Florida.

These changes mean big adjustments not only for the individual but also for their family and social network, she said. "In cases of rapid pubertal tempo, boys may progress through puberty at a rate that is faster than the social environment can feasibly respond."

During adolescence when friendships with peers are becoming increasingly important, it may be especially difficult for rapidly maturing adolescent boys to maintain friendships with their peers who aren't developing at a comparable rate, the researchers said. Problems getting along with others their age heighten the risk for depression and future mental health problems, they said.

Although there have been many studies on the timing of puberty, Mendle and colleagues were the first to research the effects of its tempo, beginning with a study published in 2010 that found a link between pubertal tempo and depression in boys. There was no association between the tempo of puberty and depression in girls, although the study replicated the well-established finding that an earlier timing of puberty in girls was associated with depression. The study also found that early pubertal timing in boys was associated with increased depression, though the effect of timing in boys was significantly smaller than the effect of tempo.

"These findings were an important step," Mendle said, "since virtually all of the puberty research to date has been conducted on girls. Very little is known about the role puberty plays in emotional health for boys, and virtually no research had been conducted on individual differences in puberty other than timing."

The current study looks at the potential mechanisms for the links they found between pubertal tempo and depression in boys, using a sample of 128 boys between ages 8 and 12 from the New York City metropolitan area. The parents and children in the study completed annual assessments measuring the child's level of physical development, depressive symptoms and quality of peer relationships over the course of four years.

Mendle and colleagues found that while most boys experienced fewer friendship problems over the transition from childhood to early adolescence, the early maturing and the rapidly maturing boys experienced more friendship problems over time. Those with the greatest increases in friendship problems had the greatest increases in depressive symptoms. Their analysis indicated that the link between maturation and depression was due to the changes in peer relationships.

When asked about the implications of her research for parents and people working with youth, Mendle replied, "Probably the biggest advice I can give is that puberty is a highly individualized process, and the way an adolescent appears externally is no indicator of cognitive or emotional maturity."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 15, 2012


Professor Valerie Reyna said that teens take dangerous risks because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived awards, speaking on March 13 to New York City media.

Teenagers take risks that might give most adults pause -- speeding through a red light, binge drinking or having unprotected sex.

Contrary to popular belief, such behaviors are often not impulsive and don't occur because teens think they're invulnerable. Instead, says Cornell human development professor Valerie Reyna, her research shows that adolescents are aware of the potential dangers of their actions, but make calculated choices to "play the odds" because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived rewards.

Sharing the latest evidence on adolescent brain development, Reyna punctured this and other myths for reporters at an Inside Cornell media luncheon March 13 at Cornell's ILR Conference Center in New York City.

Reyna's studies have revealed that adolescents tend to reason and assess risk via "verbatim-based analysis" -- where the mind focuses on precise details and facts and runs a complex comparison of the costs and benefits of a decision. Adults, on the other hand, more often use "gist-based intuition" to immediately understand the bottom-line dangers inherent in an action. Teen drivers may be inclined to race to beat a train, knowing there's a high probability they'll make it; adults would automatically sense that's a bad idea, realizing that it could be deadly.

"The calculation that teens make may be technically correct, but it ignores the categorical possibility of disaster," said Reyna of the College of Human Ecology. "If people are weighing the odds in potentially catastrophic situations, they're already on the wrong track."

To help vulnerable youths make smarter choices about sexual activity, nutrition and fitness, Reyna and Cornell Cooperative Extension partners are applying her research in a new extension-funded risk reduction project. Working with 189 youth ages 14-19 in Broome County, Ithaca, Queens, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, extension educators are teaching a gist-enhanced version of the Reducing the Risk curriculum identified as effective by the Centers for Disease Control.

Reyna developed two interventions -- one to reduce risk of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy and another to promote healthy eating and physical activity -- that teach teens how to apply gist thinking when temptation strikes. Through 14 one-hour lessons, students learn to quickly and automatically recognize hazardous situations and how to reflexively recall and apply their core values to sidestep such dangers.

"Even teens with strongly held values do not always retrieve those values when they need them," Reyna said. "They retrieve them later -- that's called regret. In risky situations, teens need to respond the way troops in battle do to gunfire: Don't reflect, just react and follow your values to get through."

"The students really responded to [the approach] and said how they had learned many of these things in health class but not in this way," said Eduardo Gonzalez Jr., a Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City (CUCE-NYC) educator who has taught the curriculum and who also attended the media session two other CUCE-NYC educators.

Initial findings support Gonzalez's impressions: Compared with control groups, students educated about gist principles were more likely to limit their sexual intentions and behaviors and number of partners, Reyna said.

Reyna also spoke about "The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning and Decision Making," a new book she edited that collects research from neuroscientists, educators and psychologists on how the teen mind develops.

The stakes, she said, are incredibly high when it comes to risky decision-making by teens. A wrong choice could lead to death or destroyed potential.

"But teens are not fated to negative outcomes from risky behaviors," she said. "We can give them strategies to avoid risk and turn around their life trajectories."

View the video of Reyna's Inside Cornell presentation

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, December 15, 2011 



Teenage brains undergo big changes, and they won't look or function like adult brains until well into one's 20s. In the first book on the adolescent brain and development of higher cognition, a Cornell professor helps highlight recent neuroscience discoveries about how the brain develops and their implications for real-world problems and how we teach young people and prepare them to make healthy life choices.

For the new book, "The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making" (APA Books), Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research, brought together an interdisciplinary group of leading scientists to focus on brain development and higher cognition, which is necessary for students to learn math and science and make good decisions. Higher cognition is the set of thinking skills students use to manipulate information and ideas in ways that lead to problem solving and new insights.

"A major implication of the provocative research highlighted in this book is the contrast between adolescents' cognitive skills, which are at a lifetime peak, and their frequent inability to use this competence in everyday decision making," said Reyna, who co-edited the volume with Sandra Chapman, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas; Michael Dougherty, professor of psychology at University of Maryland; and Jere Confrey, professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University.

"But the evidence suggests that the way young people learn, reason and decide changes [during this period] and can be changed," said Reyna. "We must move education beyond rote learning to fostering the cognitive skills essential for academic achievement and economic well-being in our knowledge-based economy. Higher cognition is a foundation critical for individuals and our country to be competitive. This volume introduces a new framework for interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists in neuroscience, psychology and education."

"The Adolescent Brain" addresses the major changes in memory, learning and decision making experienced by adolescents as they mature, beginning with a review of the changes in brain anatomy and physiology based on extensive neuroimaging studies. The ensuing chapters examine the developing capacity of the adolescent brain, covering such topics as the underpinnings of intelligence and problem solving, strategies for training teen reasoning abilities, effectively teaching mathematical concepts, the effects of emotion on reasoning, and factors that promote teen engagement in health-related behaviors.

The book wraps up with a chapter by Reyna and Ph.D. student Christina Chick that integrates the behavioral and neuroscience evidence in a process model of adolescent risky decision making. Chick and Reyna explain, for example, how massive pruning of gray matter in late adolescence fits with the growth of adolescents' ability to connect the dots and understand the underlying meaning of situations. This gist thinking facilitates recognition of danger and protects against unhealthy risk-taking, they say.

The book is intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and psychology and for education policymakers and educators, especially in mathematics.

Reyna will present a talk on the "Adolescent Brain" March 1 at 4-5:30 p.m., 160 Mann Library.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.


Reyna Lab

Reyna Lab 2011

Students from Valerie Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making have been working in collaboration with New Roots Charter School in Ithaca as well as Cooperative Extension offices in New York City and Broome County to offer innovative curricula to teens.

The goal of the project is to reduce adolescent risk taking by providing effective interventions in the areas of sexual health as well as nutrition and fitness, while also gathering research data to improve the interventions. By working with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the team is assessing how best to move this program beyond the laboratory team and into the community.

The project is proving rewarding, not only for the youth who are taking the classes, but for the Cornell students involved in the research and teaching.

“Teaching health education to teenagers has also helped cement my interest in pursuing adolescent medicine as a career,” said Claire Lyons, ’12. Graduate student Anna Kharmats added, “the students [at New Roots] inspired me to apply to the New York City Teaching fellowship program to which I have been accepted."

Read more in this newsletter the students created about their activities at New Roots.

See a poster the students created about the Reducing the Risk intervention and work with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

New York families will soon have more access to evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse among middle school students and their families.

The PROSPER partnerships - which stands for PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience  - are a model for implementing substance abuse prevention programming based on real evidence. The program links Cooperative Extension, public schools, and local communities to choose proven programs that serve the needs of individual communities.

Last month, New York was chosen as one of five states in that will continue the process of forming a PROSPER Partnership, with Cornell serving as the university partner. Read more

Last fall, when an 18-year-old Rutgers student killed himself after a live video showing him having intimate relations with another young man was transmitted on the Internet, public attention once again focused on the risk of suicide among gay teenagers.

But Ritch Savin-Williams,  professor of developmental psychology, argues in this January 2011 New York Times article that the evidence for normal gay youth is less well-known because studies that don't find group differences between gay and straight youth are more difficulty to get published. Read more

Savin-Williams is also quoted in a March 2011 New York Times article on controversey over gay-friendly curricula in schools. Read more

reprinted with permission from Cornell Chronicle, Feb 2, 2011 
Gary Evans


Growing up poor increases a person's chances of health problems as an adult, but a new Cornell study shows that being raised in a tight-knit community can help offset this disadvantage of poverty.

Poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness are less likely to smoke and be obese, reports the study, published in January's Psychological Science journal.

Environmental psychologist Gary W. Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, recruited 326 rural upstate New York children when they were about 9 years old and their mothers. About half of the children lived in or near poverty; the rest were from middle-income families. Periodically, Evans and co-author Rachel Kutcher '08 visited the participants to measure their health and exposure to various risk factors.

When the participants were about 17 years old, they and their mothers filled out surveys that assessed how connected their communities were and how much social control they felt they had. For example, mothers were asked to say how much they agreed that "one of my neighbors would do something if they saw someone trying to sell drugs to a child or youth in plain sight"; the teenagers were asked whether they had adults whom they could ask for advice. The teens also completed surveys on behavior, including smoking, and had their height and weight measured.

"Youth from low-income backgrounds smoked more than those who grew up in more affluent homes," the study concludes. However, if they lived in connected communities, "the effects of early childhood poverty on adolescent smoking were minimal."

Evans found similar results when assessing the teens' body-mass index, a standard measure of obesity.

"You may be able to loosen those connections between early childhood poverty and negative health outcomes if you live in a community with good social resources," Evans said (see sidebar for more on childhood poverty and obesity).

Evans and Kutcher believe adolescents in communities with more so-called social capital may have better role models or mentors; or perhaps in a more empowered community, where people feel comfortable stopping someone else's bad behavior, the young people feel less helpless as individuals. They might believe that "you have some control over what's going to happen to you," they suggested.

Still, the authors warned, social capital can help poor youths, but it is not a remedy for the health problems associated with impoverished living in childhood. Poor adolescents, even those in communities with more social capital, are still less healthy than their middle-income peers.

"It's not correct to conclude that, if you just improve social capital, then it would be okay to be poor," Evans says.

The work was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomics Status and Health.

Poorer children are heavier -- in part because of their environments

Nancy Wells


Poor diet and lack of exercise aren't the only risk factors for childhood obesity, report Cornell researchers. So too are low-income environments, which are fraught with more family turmoil, violence, noise, crowding and lower housing quality.

The researchers found that poor children gained weight more rapidly during childhood into early adulthood than children from middle-income families. In further examining the link between childhood poverty and body mass index, they found that it was risk exposure that accounted for the increased weight gain by the youth in poverty.

Researchers have long been aware of a link between poverty and obesity -- the poor suffer from higher levels of obesity and early childhood poverty is more strongly linked to adult obesity than current income.

But, "Our research shows that exposure to multiple risks, which are common in low-income environments, plays a critical role in setting children on a life course trajectory for obesity," said Nancy Wells, professor of design and environmental analysis and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health (100:12).

The researchers -- who also included Anna Beavis '07 and assistant professor Anthony Ong -- analyzed the relationships between obesity, childhood poverty and cumulative risk exposure in 326 children in rural upstate New York; the youngsters and their mothers were interviewed when the youths were 9, 13 and 17 years old. About half the group lived at or below the federal poverty line at initial recruitment. Poverty level, height and weight, and exposure to risk were measured.

"Poorer children become overweight adults, at least in part, because they face a greater array of risk factors over the course of their childhood," says co-author Professor Gary Evans. "The next step is to look more closely at how and why multiple risk exposure leads to obesity and when we better understand this, what can we do about it."

-- Karene Booker, extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development

By Karene Booker

youth from Cali, Colombia

Youth engage in restorative justice activities at Casas Francisco Esperanza in Cali, Colombia.

Key features of community programs to help marginalized youth and young adults successfully transition to adulthood include mentoring and opportunities for work and leadership roles, according to a Cornell study in Latin America.

The 18-month "action research" project, "Opening Pathways: Youth in Latin America" ("Abriendo Caminos: Jóvenes en América Latina"), engaged four organizations in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia in a process to better understand ways that community programs can make their community a better place for youth and young adults.

"Institutional innovation is needed to support the transition to adulthood," said Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. "The ingredients for success have changed. The institutions that have traditionally fostered the transition to adulthood no longer function well for all or even a majority of youth."

mother's group in Bariloche, Argentina

A mother's group from the Por un Manaña program meets in Bariloche, Argentina.

In a global perspective, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are developed and prosperous. However they have very large income inequality and large populations in poverty. While education levels have been rising, they still have low levels of secondary and postsecondary education, high youth unemployment and underemployment, and early childbirth for women.

In prior research, Hamilton and Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program, identified three assets critical for youth to advance in society: a sense of purpose and agency, including having both a life plan and the confidence to enact it; the competence needed to work productively; and connections to others (social capital) to formulate and achieve their goals.

They have identified six common structural features among successful youth-oriented programs that help nurture these assets. They are:

  • public-private partnerships that combine learning and earning;
  • opportunities for youths to take responsible social roles;
  • opportunities for youths to take leadership roles
  • opportunities for youths to take responsible civic engagement roles;
  • exposure to a wide variety of pathways to the future; and
  • mentoring.

"Our project was designed to test and refine this conceptual framework of developmental assets and structural features," said Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program. The project provided insights into how these elements are created and manifested, she added.

In addition to initial site visits and frequent communication with the partner organizations, the research team organized three conferences during the course of the project to bring the partner organizations together to catalyze learning and exchange.

At the first, teams from each program, including youth, identified critical issues and began to plan action research to explore them. At the second, the teams shared what they had done and learned and planned their next action steps. At the third, they were joined by representatives of foundations, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to discuss themes cutting across the different programs and considered joint actions. Participants agreed that they could benefit from continued expert assistance and networking as they built on what they had learned to improve their programs.

"Rather than being a time simply to tell others what they had done, the conferences proved to be a continuation of action research," said the Hamiltons, who hope to help create a larger network to further address mentoring and employment in particular.

Other members of their action research team included Davydd Greenwood, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology, and six bilingual student research assistants.

The project was supported by Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland.

For More Information:  See the full report.

Ritch Savin WilliamsDespite the media's dangerous -- and false -- suggestion that a suicide epidemic is striking young gay men who have been bullied, a Cornell sexuality expert believes there has never been a better time to grow up as a sexual minority.

Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of developmental psychology in human development, director of Cornell's Sex and Gender Lab and author of "The New Gay Teenager," spoke with reporters Nov. 9 at an Inside Cornell media luncheon at the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan.

Savin-Williams studies the similarities among sexual-minority youth and all teens, as well as the ways in which sexual-minority adolescents vary among themselves and the sexual development of heterosexual youth.

"All of these young men dying in a short period of time led a lot of people to believe there was a suicide epidemic among gay youth. We don't know that all these youths were gay or that they died because of the bullying. What bothers me most is that these young lives were being portrayed as being extremely problematic, and almost as if all gay youth were about trying to kill themselves or were an unhappy, fragile group of kids." Read the full story

Kim KopkoCornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) is preparing communities across New York for an innovative system to more effectively deliver research-based programs to prevent substance abuse and risky behavior in young teens.


With a two-year, $60,000 Greater Opportunities (GO) grant from the National Institutes of Health, CCE will adapt the PROSPER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) Partnership Model, which pairs CCE systems with public schools to provide a range of interventions for at-risk youth. PROSPER offers proven prevention strategies backed by more than 20 years of NIH-funded research.

"The initial PROSPER/GO funding is a great opportunity to build capacity for community- and school-based family and youth programs that have a track record of success," said Kimberly Kopko, New York state liaison for PROSPER and extension associate in policy analysis and management. "PROSPER/GO aligns closely with the missions of CCE and Human Ecology and will also bring resources for our faculty researchers looking at designing interventions to engage youth."