The Teen Brain
Chances are, if you have a teenager or two living at your home, you may have been puzzled by how their minds work. Or how you should kill them. Either way, you’re definitely not alone in this quagmire: they wouldn’t be able to tell you either.
Parents, siblings, psychologists, and pretty much everyone and the grandfather of that oh so adjusted adolescent who suddenly murdered his whole family, have agonized over what makes those years between childhood and early adulthood so mind boggling.
At least, since the concept of adolescence itself was created around the time the Industrial Revolution. It definitely changed forever the way humans were supposed to be raised, grow and leave their homes to join the world workforce and form families of their own.
Such radical changes haven’t stopped reshaping the nuclear family ever since. After WWII, specially, new generations effectively took the helm of society mores with the birth of a youth culture that suddenly was no longer expected to follow on their parents’ footsteps.
The pill and the sexual revolution of the 1960s helped to consolidate such rupture with the past. Soon enough, to form a new family wasn’t the priority and goal of independence from your parents home and upbringings.
ROMEO & JULIET ARE DEAD
Puberty is now kicking in at an earlier age, while at the same time, children have come to take on adult roles later and later, according to psychologist Alison Gopnik.
The first fact may be related to eating habits, while the delayed maturity phenomenon has been a longer process, ignited by the industrialization and sped up by our information age, according to leading theories.
Gopnik goes back five hundred years, to Shakespeare, to shed light on how much ground has been covered in our perception of the teenage, raging hormone years.
After all, hadn’t been for Romeo and Juliet’s “intense combination of teenage sexuality and peer-induced risk,” driving them to the classic tragedy, the 13-year girl “would have become a wife and mother within a year or two,” and he would have hardly survived much longer after that.
The truth is, even today adolescence is not completely acknowledged as a legitimate period of human development in many cultures.
It’s mostly the highly industrialized, Western societies that have been grappling for generations now with the puzzlement of seeing many a bright young person wind up heading to an unfulfilled and frustrating life of underachievement and arrested emotional development.
ADULTHOOD COMES LATE
Blame it all in the teenage mind and its ever extended years of delayed adulthood. Or in the two recognized neural and psychological systems that are thought to trigger the change of children into adults.
Neuroscientist B.J. Casey suggests that adolescents act reckless because they overestimate the rewards, not only for underestimating risks to achieve them. The explosion of the first love, the satisfaction of the school championship are in fact experiences that will never be replicated.
Seeking the prize is also a factor in gaining peer respect, according to developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg. He noticed that reward centers lighted up much more in brain-scanning tests when they thought another teenager was watching what they did, and they took more risks.
To counterbalance this apparent risk-taking behavior, there’s the control system in our brains, that channels and harnesses the energy toward a long-term goal. It does that even when it implies to making decisions that will delay gratification.
Such system relies on our brain’s continuous learning processes as it evolves throughout life. It’s the trial and error strategy we all go through in order to perfect our professional abilities, interpersonal relations, even the way we take our chances or decide not to.
What these theories arguably show is that contemporary children don’t have these two systems in synch. While they reach puberty earlier, there’s an enormous gap between what they learn at home and school, and what they’ll actually need to practice in life to become a professional.
Unlike what happened prior to, during and a little after the Industrial Revolution, today’s work place resembles little the domestic reality and the experience gained in school benches. On the other hand, even at home, basic skills like cooking and care-giving are also almost never part of growing up.
For Gopnik, what ultimately may do the trick of turning teenagers better prepared for the challenges of the real world would be exactly allowing them to experiment with such world while still in the safety of their adolescent years.
CHILDREN HAVING CHILDREN
Since our brains are shaped by experience, the idea is to expose the young to the kind of life he or she would seem inclined to favor. And that’s when our puzzlement comes full circle and we realized that we haven’t advance much on our understanding of this difficult period.
For the main complain from both parents and the children themselves is that they simply have no idea what they would like to do. That is, except watching gross YouTube videos for most of their waking hours, and playing video games to death.
But despite the practicality or lack thereof of any new idea about how to safely usher children during these tumultuous times, there’s an important element almost always missing in this discussion: that parents need to be parents, not best buddies, not shopping companions, not playing partners.
We’re afraid that, as long as the emphasis is on what the teenager should or shouldn’t do, we won’t be going to far. That is, specially if their moms and dads act as if they still have an ax to grind about their own missed chances and arrested childhoods.