|Children, Adolescents, Family|
Childhood ends with the onset of puberty. Teenagers undergo profound changes in mental tendencies and abilities as their brains change during and after puberty. Puberty raises the ante so that the relatively safe play of younger children is replaced by the more dangerous and consequential play of teenagers. Parents are often unprepared for the major transformations that occur after puberty and feel estranged from the new person emerging awkwardly and contentiously in their own home. I noticed a bumper sticker that said: "Teenager for sale cheap - take over the payments."
Parents of teenagers will often doubt that they have any role to play except to offer custodial support and then recognize that their jurisdiction is limited. I have attempted to help many parents change the diet of their sick adolescents and often failed. The reasons for failure are apparent to most parents. Let us review the status of adolescents hoping for some insight:
The time-honored principle of adolescent management is to fill idle time with useful work, learning and supervised play. Otherwise, teenagers use idle time to hang out in groups and engage in activities that frighten the adult community. Idle time is dangerous time.
Teenagers are in the business of separating from their family and are drawn to the values, activities and norms of their peer group. They seek role models in the media and imitate examples of costume, values and behavior that seem attractive to them. You could argue that other teens, movies, music, video games and television programs are strong influences, stronger than parental example or advice.
Old and New, The Teenager's Limbo
Teenagers have a tense mix of old primitive features in their mind and new modern ideas. They tend to manifest old primate group behavior and at the same time develop individual, modern personalities. Adolescent society is stratified, competitive and relatively unforgiving. Teenagers cluster in small groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. They manifest ancient human social patterns spontaneously and the importance of group affiliation with their peers takes precedence over family affiliation. Family values and teenager group values often conflict and the conflict is seldom resolved in favor of the family unless parents are determined and on the job 24 hours a day.
The parents’ main task is to locate their children in peer groups that have the most congruent values with their own. Teens who hang out on the street inevitably resist, oppose and challenge societal values. They get into trouble fast. Individual teenagers may have a well-developed understanding of the adult rules, but even those with a well-developed sense of local mortality will participate in behaviors that the adult community finds unacceptable.
Girls, like boys, cluster in small tribal groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. Teenagers tend to invent their own vocabulary and use jargon to identify members of their own social group. Teenage groups are not kind to outsiders and adolescent society reflects all the strengths and weaknesses of an adult society sometimes in exaggerated, dramatic ways.
Teenagers of both sexes are narcissistic and are often trapped in selftalk and case making. Girls are gossips and use language as a weapon. Some teenagers are kinder than others and develop an idealistic view of human life and may be at risk because they are too trusting and suggestible. Other teens are more cynical and aggressive and practice power politics in school hallways and cafeterias.
JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye, published in 1951, remains a contemporary description of the sensitive, disappointed adolescent who find himself or herself in a limbo, the transition from child to adult. The book begins with Holden Caufield stating: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Dougan, a teenager writing in a New York Times (2010) discussion had this to say:" Asking a bunch of adults whether or not Catcher in the Rye will really reach teenagers is pretty funny, if you ask me. This only helps prove Salinger’s point — adults were once young and disillusioned themselves, but they’ve grown out of it, and they assume the rest of the world has grown with them. I’m 18 years old and every bit as confused and wandering as Holden. When I read this book for the first time, I laughed so hard I cried and cried so hard I could barely breathe. Yeah, my generation has Twitter and Facebook and cellphones and what-have-you. The world is always changing in little ways like that. It’s the big things that don’t change — and even in an era of such impossible interconnectedness, there is no way to circumvent the feeling of being utterly alone and misunderstood. Plenty of teenagers still love Catcher in the Rye. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of tributes to Salinger the day he died. If that doesn’t prove that this book has got appeal that spans generational differences, I don’t know what could."
The greatest cause of teenage suffering is to be excluded from a desirable group. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied, ridiculed, sexually harassed, beaten, robbed and sometimes killed, even by nice children in affluent Canadian and American suburbs. Alienation pushes an unwanted teenager toward one of four destinations:
Alienated individuals can form groups that express their disappointment and anger in destructive ways. Often these groups borrow costumes, ideology, ritual and values from old malevolent ideologies. The skinheads, for example, adopt fascist values and admire German Nazis of the 1930’s and 40’s who now epitomize, to most reasonable adults, evil intentions and despicable deeds.
The next greatest cause of suffering is to be rejected by a desirable male. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied and ridiculed even by nice female children in affluent suburbs.
According to Campbell:[i] “Campbell found that female adolescent disputes often center upon three issues relating to successful mate choice: management of sexual reputation, competition over access to desirable males and protecting established relationships from take-over by rival females. Interestingly, the peak age for female assault occurs at ages 15-19 compared to the male peak at 20-24 reflecting girls earlier sexual maturity… suggesting that the rise in female aggression during adolescence, like that of males, is associated with mate selection. Nanci Hellmich,[ii] writing about mean teenage girls in the USA suggested: “Experts use the term "relational aggression" to describe the cattiness, meanness and nastiness that happens between some people, but especially among girls… Girls may gossip, spread malicious rumors, write nasty e-mails, give the silent treatment, exclude people from social events, betray secrets, snicker about someone's clothes or mannerisms behind their backs. They may tell a girl that they're not going to be friends with her unless she does what they want.”
SmartPhones Mental Health Crisis
Psychologist, Jean Twenge summarized the dramatic changes in teen life, following the introductions of smartphones and social networking. She wrote, for example: The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking”kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent. Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting because its onset is delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school."
Twenge identified a global withdrawal of teens into a virtual reality that has created a mental health crisis. The solution is simple - throw away the smart phones and engage teens in real world interactions, teaching them to cooperate and pursue goals that will benefit everyone.
[ii] Hellmich, N Girls' friendships show aggression at younger ages. USA Today. 04/09/2002
Jean Twenge. Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis. The Atlantic Sept. 2017.
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