The World Health Organization (WHO) defines adolescents as persons between 10 and 19 years of age. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines the age of “child” as persons under the age of 18 years. Therefore, a great majority of “WHO defined adolescents” are included in CRC’s age-based definition of “child”.
In Singapore, the National Youth Council defines youths as those between 15 and 35 years old. However, for varying reasons, there are different definitions of an adolescent or “a child” under Singapore law.
Under common law, while the age of majority is 21 years old, according to the Children and Young Person Act (CYPA) 2001, a “child” is a person below the age of 14 and a “young person” means a person who is 14 years of age or above but below the age of 18 years. A “juvenile” means a person who is 10 years of age or older but below 16 years of age.
The Employment Act defines “child” as a person below the age of 15 years, and a “young person” is a person 15 years of age.
The Women’s Charter 1997 defines “a child” as a “child of the marriage who is below 21 years”, and a “minor” as “a person who is below the age of 21 years and who is not married, or a widower or a widow”. Under the Women’s Charter, any person who has carnal connection with a girl below the age of 16 years, is guilty of an offence.
The Penal Code provides that an offence of statutory rape is made out if (among other things) a man has sexual intercourse with a girl even with her consent if she is below 14 years of age. This means that a “child” below 14 years old cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse.
The Smoking (Control of Advertisement and Sale of Tobacco) Act prohibits the sale or giving of tobacco products to persons under 18 years.
Under the Custom (Liquor Licensing) Regulations, it is an offence for a licensee to permit a person under the age of 18 to consume alcoholic liquor at the licensed premises or for the person under 18 years to purchase alcoholic liquor.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), defines a “child” as someone below the age of 18.
Regardless of how a “child” is defined, these laws are designed to promote and protect the best interests of the children, to punish those who victimise them, and to ensure appropriate treatment for their recovery and social integration.
Separate from the age-definition of adolescents, in many cultures, adolescence is equated narrowly with the onset of puberty and the cycle of physical changes culminating in reproductive maturity.
In other cultures, adolescence is broadly understood in other terms that encapsulate intellectual, psychological, social, emotional, and moral terrain as well as the physical aspects of maturation.
The many physical, sexual, cognitive, social, and emotional changes that happen during this time can bring anticipation and anxiety for both children and their families.
There are many views points and approaches we can take to appreciate and understand the adolescents’ maturation, to anticipate the growth and even equip ourselves with the skills to deal and manage it.
For me, I view the maturation and growth through the lens of neuroscience and use it to develop strategies to intervene at the behavioral level. There are essentially some big and important changes happening in the brain during adolescence? I shall acquaint you with some of them.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, The brain reaches its biggest size in early adolescence. There is gender differences in this regard.
For girls, the brain reaches its biggest size around 11 years old. For boys, the brain reaches its biggest size around age 14. But this difference does not mean either boys or girls are smarter than one another!
The brain continues to mature even after it is done growing. Though the brain may be done growing in size, it does not finish developing and maturing until the mid- to late 20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature.
This area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. Because these skills are still developing, teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors without considering the potential results of their decisions.
The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt. The teen brain has lots of plasticity, which means it can change, adapt, and respond to its environment. Challenging academics or mental activities, exercise, and creative activities such as art can help the brain mature and learn.
Many mental disorders may begin to appear during adolescence. Ongoing changes in the brain, along with physical, emotional, and social changes, can make teens vulnerable to mental health problems.
All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is a time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—can emerge.
Teen brains may be more vulnerable to stress. Because the teen brain is still developing, teens may respond to stress differently than adults, which could lead to stress-related mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Mindfulness, which is a psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment, may help teens cope with and reduce stress.
Teens need more sleep than children and adults. Research shows that melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) levels in the blood are naturally higher later at night and drop later in the morning in teens than in most children and adults. This difference may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens do not get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can make it difficult to pay attention, may increase impulsivity, and may increase the risk for irritability or depression.
The teen brain is resilient. Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development actually may help protect against long-term mental disorders.