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Most of us have heard that the category of “teenager” came about after WWII. Before that, in a mostly agrarian society, you were either a child or an adult and the demarcation was when you went from being directed and cared for by your parents to being responsible for yourself and caring for others.
The word “teen” was introduced as early as 1818 referring to a person who was 13-19, “teener” from 1894, and “teen-ager” from 1922 (1). But the terms didn’t stick and didn’t carry a sociological group identity until after WWII. Being a teenager became its own sub-culture that revolved around like-ness, popularity and a fear of being on the outside.
Increasingly, the modern teenager relies more on peer-pressure than family relationships and values. And, peer pressure and group dynamics is known to be one of the highest risks for adolescent drug and alcohol experimentation and use. In one chapter of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson discusses teenagers at length (2). He writes, “Psychologist Laurence Steinberg, put people of various ages in a simulated driving game. Adults drove the same, whether or not they had an audience. But teenagers took twice as many “chances” when their friends were watching. Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the influence of their peers.”
In Hold On To Your Kids by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld (3), we are reminded that in the past, children took their social cues from the adults around them: parents, grandparents, teachers. Children were adult-oriented. And, that all children need attachment – if they do not receive that attachment from their parents, they will search for it and find it in peers. The authors debunk many of the notions that push parents to send their children out into the world of peers, including the need for socialization, for esteem, or to relieve boredom. Socialization, they say, should place third in a child’s development, after connecting and maturing.
But there is a physical component to teen perils that is equally as strong as the sociological one. The period between 9-14 yrs is considered the “second window of opportunity” (the first window being between 0-3 yrs) when young people experience a rapid period of brain development and learning. The adolescent brain does not fully develop, especially in a few critical areas, until sometime in their 20’s. Their frontal lobes, the decision-making areas of the brain, are not fully integrated. This executive function area is where planning, goal initiation and impulse control take place – the area (most) adults think with. The pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, is enlarged, playing an over-sized role along with the emotional center, the amygdala, where teens process information (4). It’s easy to see why the teen is an accident waiting to happen – risks are enticing, and maybe even essential for healthy development as they prepare to be launched into becoming independent adults.
The question for parents and society is how can we guide our teens away from peer pressure and into the process of maturing and taking risks that are not likely to cause harm to themselves or others? Or, even better, how can they mature into other-focused, instead of self-indulgent, young adults? (5) Having friends whose families we know and who share our values is vital. One area where we failed our kids was not giving them opportunities to sacrifice for others. Because of our demographics, we weren’t connected to families who had needs, which historically would have been some of the ways entire families served others in their communities. Thus, our children didn’t experience the deep satisfaction and pleasure, the rush of positive neurochemicals, that come from the joy of giving on a regular basis. They did, however, have very loving and deep attachments to their grandparents and even when JL was in active heroin addiction, he made the time to visit his Nonna in the hospital and to be with both of them for holidays.
These are just a few ideas I can offer for the perilous years of adolescence. As I wrote in Opiate Nation, in our modern societies’ where risk is not an inherent part of daily life – especially for the teens for whom taking risks is a bigger part of their makeup – they will seek out risks or something to give their pleasure center the infusion of positive neurochemicals it needs. I believe that if young people are healthfully attached to their family, not overly influenced by peers and given the chance to experience the joy of contributing to society, it will help them walk through those risky years and give them habits that will benefit them throughout their lives.
- Teenager: https://www.etymonline.com/word/teenager
- Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. The teenager emerged in the middle of the 20th century thanks to the confluence of three trends: compulsory education, the post-war economic boom, and technology. In the wake of the industrial revolution when children left the farm and were sent to work in factories, the societal push-back began compulsory public education, leading to the creation of a teenage culture. The post-war economic boom gave rise to fewer children, more prosperity, leisure time and a consumer culture. And the advent of the car and buses brought freedom and independence from parents in dating, working, and socializing.
- Hold On To Your Kids by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld. The secret of parenting is not what a parent does but rather who the parent is to the child. It is not a lack of love or of parenting know-how, we are told, but the erosion of the attachment complex that makes our parenting ineffective…Parents are intended to be the primary recipients of that attachment. But as peers press in and parents withdraw, the attachment shifts…it is not so much that parents are parenting differently as it is that they no longer have the knowledge (or the time) to connect with their children. We all need someone to look up to – children more than adults. It is through such orientation that we learn what is acceptable behavior, how to act, and what to do in social situations… take a look at the attachment that can come online even while children are apart. The online world is an answer to that desire for attachment, but the digital intimacy it creates is lonely. The last section of the book instructs readers with simple ideas and steps on how to hold on to their children and become the child’s compass point while still providing boundaries.
- Understanding the Teen Brain. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051
- Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by H. Stephen Glenn