Understanding Adolescents: What can we learn from teenagers?
We have all been teenagers. This period of life is a huge part of what it means to be human. We learn who we are and shape our identities in relation to others around us, peers, family and other role models. Often, mental health problems first emerge during this tumultuous time. Indeed these changes in mental state lead many to ask: why is adolescence important? How can parents ‘survive’ the teenage years? Famous psychologists, Elkind, Erikson, Freud all have a position on the psychological nature of adolescence. Moreover, we are beginning to explore biological and cognitive bases of teenagerhood. These include insights into the shape and form of the brain, the development of the frontal lobes and the functions of the amygdale, amongst other things. All giving sound, reasonable answers to the question of what makes teens behave the way they do. Yet I feel that perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. We need to understand, not only the emotional and physical significance of adolescence on young people in isolation but also what these changes reflect about the nature of human experience. Most mental health issues that teenagers experience are dealt with, better and more inclusively, than the rest of the population. Since adolescence reflects, primarily, changes in a mental state, how can we use this universal period of growth in order to better understand mental health problems and the formation of new and ‘less wrong’ stories for all members of society? How can we depart from notions of normality in order to create a more holistic and inclusive experience for young and old alike?
One of the fundamental aspects of adolescence is emotional change. Young people go through an experience commonly known as ‘teenage angst’, which explains many facets of the teenage experience. ‘Normal’ angst is seen as loneliness, strong and complex emotions dealing with identity and sexuality, feelings of immortality and, of course, bouts of sadness and anger that can disrupt a previously quiet family life. Since adolescence has always been a part of the human experience it makes sense that, with the birth of psychology, a great deal of attention would be paid to this period of development. Erik Erikson identified this period as ‘learning identity vs. identity confusion’. Erikson writes,
“During successful early adolescence, mature time perspective is developed; the young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-consciousness and self-doubt. He comes to experiment with different - usually constructive - roles rather than adopting a "negative identity" (such as delinquency).”[i]
Interestingly, those experiences that depart from the norm, say depression in place of ‘regular’ adolescent recalcitrance are also dealt with in a more effective manner. Erikson, along with other psychologists such as Freud, focus on a series of deterministic notions of adolescence, which appear to be fundamentally at odds with actual reality. Modern, prevailing sentiment states that the young are more malleable and capable of changing their outcomes. For that reason, teenagers who succumb to depression, anorexia or self-harm are more likely to experience positive outcomes than adults. Despite the barrage of literature stating the issues associated with ‘problem’ teens, society in general believes that teenagers are not a lost cause, unlike adults or even very young children. This period of transition makes them more likely to change previous destructive patterns and intervention in the form of therapy or rehabilitation may impact teens in a more effective manner. Whether these notions are actually true is almost beside the point. Social attitude is more effective in producing support or otherwise for new and different narratives. Society acknowledges the adolescent story of transition and change and for that reason is better equipped at helping those young people who need it.
There can be no discussion on the experience of adolescence without mentioning the role of brain structure. Along with, and perhaps enhancing, the emotional changes, there are several physical changes that occur within the teenage brain. It takes several years for the pre-frontal cortex to fully develop in the human brain.[ii] This is a part of the brain long thought to control behaviour, a mental Jiminy Cricket. For adults the structure is fully developed, unlike adolescents. Scientists believe that this structural difference offers an explanation as to why teenagers tend to be risk takers. Teenagers are also growing, in every sense of the word and this means that their brains are also growing as well. They are producing a great deal of ‘grey matter’ or ‘nervous tissue responsible for information processing’[iii], which contributes to their ability to learn and acquire new skills.
Yet the complexity of the brain is such that no one area is fully understood. The emotional changes experienced in adolescence occur both through and because of the changes in the physical brain. No one aspect of growth is more important than the other. The structure of the brain is inextricably linked with other emotional functions that occur within the brain. Although popular culture enjoys being able to pinpoint certain behaviours to changes or even aberrations within the brain, scientists are still sceptical. Like genes, brain structure can be influential but does not determine behaviour. This notion has severe implications for other aspects of mental health. Society in general deals with adolescence in a far more open and excepting manner than with other individuals who have mental problems, because issues of mental health are an integral part of the adolescent experience. The changes within the brain and the emotional turmoil mark all teenagers, not just the exceptional ones. The support for teens who go through a ‘tough patch’ is enormous, especially when compared with the kind of support offered to adults or even young children who experience similar kinds of difficulties. This acceptance results in part because of physical changes that society can happily point to when discussing issues associated with teens. The change is tangible. However, this disregards other changes happening in the brains of non-adolescents. Although their structural changes may not be as acutely felt by society at large, no brain exists that does not grow or transform in any way. Not only that, but no brain changes structurally without an emotional change and this ongoing process deserves to be a focal point in the acceptance of new narratives.
The perspective of the teenager on adolescence differs wildly from the perspective of the parent or other adults. These conflicting perspectives highlight the difficulties between those who are ‘mentally ill’ and ‘normal’ society. The two groups are looking at different sides of the same coin. Parents view adolescence as almost a loss of control. Not only are their children more physically mobile but also they have skills that allow them to take advantage of certain unpalatable social situations. As far as parents are concerned teenagers want to experience life to the fullest extent possible, with little understanding of the consequences. For teenagers, life becomes a series of vibrant polar opposites. There are extreme highs (chemically or naturally induced) and lows that really scrape the bottom of the barrel. It feels like you are driving a speeding car, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. A state of conflict marks the period of adolescence, conflict between peers, adults and the self, all allowing the teenager to develop an identity. Whether or not the outcome is positive remains the decision of society as a whole but either way a process exists. Despite the latent conflict during the time of adolescence, these differing perspectives do not provide a roadblock. Rather, they are accepted as norms by society. Syreeta Bennett highlights the extent to which adults are willing to go in order to understand teenagers,
“What I learned today is that they are not me and we don't think alike. I can't expect them to draw the same conclusions because their cognitive ability is still developing. So even though I can't codone [sic] "Mike's" temper tantrum because he didn't get the book from the library he wanted maybe I can better understand where the behavior is coming from.”[iv]
Yet, when it comes to the differing perspectives on mental health, society accepts no such conflict. This suggests that because adolescence is universal it is universally accepted, whereas mental illness only affects small sections of the population and therefore can be misunderstood. However, despite the fact that mental illnesses only appear to affect small members of the population, every single adult on the planet has gone through the kinds of tumultuous changes integral to the experience of a mental illness. Adolescence and the dialogue that exists between adults and teenagers should be a benchmark for dialogue between those of varying degrees of mental health.
Psychologists, scientists and society at large unanimously agree that the end result of adolescence for teenagers reflects the creation of a sense of self, an identity. This identity comes from many years of emotional and physical turmoil culminating in a greater understanding of ‘who I am’. Despite the fundamental nature of the end goal, in reality the process is far more important. Adolescence creates a narrative for each individual person and it disrupts old narratives formed during childhood. This time reflects transition, change and creation. Yet for some reason, these changes are only truly universally accepted during this period of growth. Surely this notion ignores the transitory nature of the entire human experience. In order to fully understand mental health and its impact on individuals it is necessary to understand that change does not occur at one time in a persons life. It occurs all the time. Every day, every second, new stories are being told and old ones re-evaluated, by every living person. Adolescence in particular highlights the tumultuous experience of change but it certainly is not the only time when people grow. All life is transitory; no period of human existence is stagnant. If mental health reflects the ability of a person to change, experience and re evaluate their personal life narrative then we should not isolate these rights to teenagers alone. Instead we should look at the ways in which adults and young people alike deal with this transitory period and apply those notions of tolerance and understanding to the rest of the human experience. If parents will go out of their way to better understand their offspring, if society will go out of its way to accommodate teenagers and their difficulties and if teenagers themselves take this time to search for new questions then we must do our best to take these open minded attitudes and apply them to the rest of mankind.
[i] "Stages of Social-Emotional Development." Child Development Institute. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/development/erickson.shtml>.
[ii] Spinks, Sarah. "Adolescent Brains are Works in Progress." Inside the Teenage Brain. 9 Mar. 2000. Frontline. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/adolescent.html>.
[iii] Powell, Elizabeth. "Studying Functional Differences in the Adolescent Brain may Provide Evidence that the Nervous System is Responsible for Behavior." Biology 202. 25 Feb. 2004. Serendip Exchange. 20 Oct. 2008 <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro04/web1/epowell.html>.