Staff Perspective: Treating Our Adolescents in Uniform

Staff Perspective: Treating Our Adolescents in Uniform

Dr. Andrea Isreal

BLUF: If you work with our United States Service members, you may be treating more adolescents than you realize. Did you know that contemporary theories of human development consider adolescence to extend to about age 25? If we think of adolescence as extending to about age 25, adolescents comprise a large proportion of U.S. Active Duty and Selected Reserve service members.If we think of adolescence as extending to about age 25, adolescents comprise a large proportion of U.S. Active Duty and Selected Reserve service members. Based on data from the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy (2021):

  • More than 45% of Active Duty service members are 25 years old or younger, and 32.9% of Selected Reserve members are of this age group.
  • Among Enlisted ranks, they represent the largest proportion of Active Duty (51.6%) and Selected Reserve (38.5%) personnel. However, they are less likely to be Officers (14.4% of Active Duty and 5.4% of Selected Reserve personnel).
  • Of interest, adolescents 18-25 years of age make up a large share of the Marine Corps enlisted personnel force (72.7% Active Duty and 68.3% Selected Reserve).

Why the change?
This “lengthening of adolescence” to 25 years of age may make total sense to you, or you may be a little skeptical. Either way, it is a significant enough shift from traditional models (that had adolescence “ending” around age 18) that it seems warranted to provide a brief discussion of two major points driving the rationale for the change.

First, the brain continues to undergo significant developmental changes through the mid-20s. Thanks to research and advances in neuroscience, we now better understand that several areas of the brain develop well past age 18. For example, the prefrontal cortex experiences growth well into the 20s, which mediates executive functioning, impacting abilities such as modulating attention, planning, organizing, thinking ahead, and anticipating outcomes. These abilities all influence higher-level critical thinking and decision-making. Adolescence is also a period defined by rapid development in the brain’s emotional centers, including the limbic system, which helps explain the heightened emotional states experienced by adolescents. Older adolescents are still learning how to regulate emotional arousal and react to stimuli, and they may not be as skilled in anticipating the intensity of an emotional response to novel stimuli.

Second, over a few short decades, we have seen massive societal shifts in the ages at which generations reach certain social milestones. In a way, we have seen a collective delaying of milestones traditionally associated with adulthood. Take work as an example. Since 1960, the college enrollment rate has increased by almost 50% (Hanson & Checked, 2023). So whereas the minority pursued postsecondary study in 1960, now the majority (62.7%) of high school graduates pursue postsecondary study. With this delay in entering the workforce, we have seen delays in things like living independently and even getting married. The median age at first marriage was 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men in 1960 (Cohn et al., 2011), whereas in 2019, it was 28 and 29.9, respectively (Population Reference Bureau, 2019). In a few short decades, the average 23-year-old man or woman has gone from working, married, and potentially being a parent to continuing to learn and explore with “settling down” still several years away.

Implications for Treatment
So, how much does this really matter for your work with younger service members? Arguably, quite a lot (although, of course, we always keep in mind room for individuality and personal experience).

Here are some ways that I have found 18 to 25-year-old service members pretty consistently demonstrate differences from their older counterparts:

  • They’re still working on emotional regulation, and it is more difficult for them to anticipate the intensity of their emotional response to novel experiences or stimuli. This is probably due in part to how heightened their emotional response may be, but also the fact that they have fewer life experiences to pull from to help them fully understand what certain situations may be like/bring for them until they occur. When considering their behavioral responses, remember that older adolescents are still building mastery towards impulse control and exercising judgment in the face of emotional arousal.
  • They may need extra tools and strategies to help accommodate the ongoing development of their executive functioning skills. The inherent structure and discipline of military life will help, but to remember appointments and self-care tasks, they will benefit from agendas, schedules, checklists, timers, and other organizational tools. I realize we all could use these tools, but they may be especially critical for older adolescents to keep them from the frustration (or consequences) of forgetting important tasks.
  • Adolescent-age service members often have adolescent-age interests, especially with the current generation of digital natives. I’ve found it helpful (maybe even necessary) to talk about gaming and social media. Relatedly, I’ve found that it is important to help this age group consider how they will manage relationships if/when they cannot access social media and other internet-enabled services due to their duties. This is a huge stressor for many of them, and often there is a real sense of relief when there is compassionate understanding that their friends seem to expect people to be able to keep in constant contact. They worry about losing relationships when they cannot do so.
  • Adolescent service members may start taking on more “adult-like” tasks earlier than their civilian peers, including getting married and having children. In part, they have income, and make genuine sacrifices that carry a different weight from commitment to further education. This can be a source of great pride and strength and sometimes a point of frustration when civilian peers cannot relate (especially if a strong friendship from childhood is no longer as strong). I have seen this reaction, especially when adolescent-age service members transition from military to civilian life.

If you want to learn more, watch for an upcoming CDP asynchronous training, “What’s Trending With 21st Century Adolescents.” You’ll be able to find it on our DoD Child Collaboration Study webpage ( in the coming weeks!

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Andrea Israel, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist serving as a Military Behavioral Health Child Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.


Cohn, D., Passel, J. S., Wang, W., & Livingston, G. (2011). Barely half of U.S. adults are married – a record
. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project.

Hanson, M., & Checked, F. (2023). College enrollment statistics [2023]: Total + by demographic. Education
Data Initiative.

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2021).
2020 demographics profile of the military community. Department of Defense.

Population Reference Bureau (2023). Median at first marriage (U.S. Indicators).