Many people call me all the time saying, “It’s so great to have kids.” And I joke with them, “Just wait until they’re teenagers…”
What is the teenage issue? Well, there are a lot of changes happening in society and in our physiology which explains some of what happens with teenagers. Kids today reach puberty a lot earlier than they did in previous years. And they reach adulthood a lot later. It’s amazing to me how many callers say, “I have a kid age 23, 24, 25, 27…etc. living at home and not doing anything.” Plus, we never know why kids don’t think something through. Somebody once said, “If you think of the teenage brain as a car, today’s adolescents acquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and know how to brake.”
- Puberty is kicking in earlier and earlier. A leading theory points to changes in energy balance – -as “Mother Laura” has said many times.
- Kids are eating more and moving less. Weight gain seems to have something to do with kids entering puberty earlier.
- Children also come to take on adult roles later and later. Think about 500 years ago. Shakespeare knew the emotionally intense combination of teenage sexuality and risk taking could be tragic. Look at Romeo and Juliet. Had they not belonged to warring families, they probably would have gotten married at 13.
So what happens when kids reach puberty earlier and adulthood later? They have a lot more problems because they don’t have an established identity as an adult.
Psychological and neurological systems need to develop in concert with each other. According to a recent study from Cornell University, emotion and motivation is tied in to the hormonal changes of puberty, and the areas of the brain that respond to rewards reveal adolescents aren’t reckless because they underestimate the risks. Teenagers don’t seem to have a neurological issue, but instead overestimate the rewards or find the rewards more rewarding than adults do. So, they will engage in behaviors with no hesitation and no breaks because the little “zing” is just everything – e.g. the incomparable intensity of puppy love. What teenagers want the most are social rewards. They want to be respected and liked by their peers. That’s the built-in mechanism.
The second crucial system in the teenage brain has to do with controls. That’s the system which inhibits impulses, guides you in decision making, and encourages long term planning. This system requires learning. And we don’t do much of that. Think about what most teenagers do today. They mostly hang out…party…party some more…party a little bit more and after that, play video games and text — they spend their lives doing anything but learning.
In the past, you had to practice gathering, hunting, cooking, and caregiving all the way from childhood to early adolescence in order to become a good hunter, gatherer, or caregiver. The part of the brain responsible for learning all this then gets wired appropriately for adult use. But today we don’t have kids apprenticing at anything. We have them mostly playing all the way through childhood. We have very few kids working on a farm, working in stores, or working with their parents. Few kids are working anywhere. Very rarely is this seen anymore. We have prolonged childhood forever.
In contemporary life the two systems that have to do with control and risk taking are not worked on by experiences, because our kids aren’t having any. Our kids are having very little experience with the kind of tasks they will have to perform as grownups. I remember when I was in middle school, I had classes where I learned to sew, type and cook. It didn’t matter if I was going to do that for a living or not. Everyone had to learn these basic things. Guys went into shop classes and learned how to make things. We were teaching our children by experience to build things, to be patient through the process, and to apply themselves. We don’t do those things anymore. Just think of the things we all grew up with that taught us to be responsible, control our impulses, and postpone our gratification. This was very important. Now our kids are getting into all kinds of trouble, and they are not able to function as young adults.
So, what do we do?
We have to start with our kids earlier. It’s not just because we are “disciplining them and teaching them character.” It’s because their brains actually need this exercise in order to function in a mature way. They need it. Concretely, what we need to do is to stop babying our babies. They have to take on responsibility. That’s why I think all 18 year olds should go in to the military. After spending two years in the military, they’ll learn a lot about responsibility and controlling their impulses. I really like that in the Mormon religion; young people have to go on a mission someplace in the world to help others and perform tasks. They learn a tremendous amount, enrich their brains, teach themselves control, postpone gratification, and learn to solve problems. They don’t just turn to mind altering chemicals.
For a more in-depth perspective, Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California Berkley, wrote a good article in the Wall Street Journal called “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?”