I understand that she must have given you a fright when she unexpectedly turned on to the path without looking, causing you to swerve. It must have seemed like she was being purposely careless, that she had a certain disdain for those around her.
You must have felt like she just needed to be taught a lesson, because clearly her parents hadn’t taught her many. So you showered her with an expletive-ridden torrent of abuse, because she simply needed to show more respect to the adults around her, and stop being so self-centred. She needed to grow up and act like an adult.
It’s just one of the many similar, sometimes more subtle encounters I have watched between adults and teenagers ever since I have been interested in adolescent health. It’s reflected in the dread with which parents approach the teenage years. Most adults’ attitudes and opinions towards teenagers put them on a par with a household fly – pesky, ubiquitous and unwelcome.
So I thought it may help to share with you what really goes on in the teenage years, in an effort to encourage a more developmental perspective in your future encounters. I do this in the hope that you will see how you can actually support young people to grow into respectful and healthy adults.
Recent research has shown us that the teenage brain navigates life without the benefit of a fully developed prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for actions such as making complex decisions, regulating emotions and understanding future consequences, and it doesn’t fully mature until the early-mid 20s. Teenagers thus have a limited (but growing) ability to recognise others’ needs and emotions, which helps to explain why they appear to be so self-centred at this age.
Listen: Dr Tim Hawkes explains the best way to talk to teens on This Glorious Mess. Post continues after audio.
It’s not that they are being purposely difficult. They are simply biologically unable to act in an adult manner.
This sits alongside the fact that the age of puberty for young women has significantly decreased in recent decades. It means that they physically look much more like adults at a younger age, often around 11 or 12, but cognitively and emotionally they are still closer to children.
At the other end of the teenage years, transitions to adult roles are happening much later. In pre-industrial societies, “adulthood” occurred around two years after puberty for girls. In today’s society, young adults delay childbirth, engage in longer periods of education and wait to get married. The gap is now more like a decade. Developmental psychologists describe this contemporary gap between puberty and adult roles as “exceptional in human history”.
We also know that in adolescence the brain moves through another period of malleability. In other words, it is still capable of being shaped by the environment and open to new experiences over this important decade. This means we should be very attuned to the influences we expose teenagers to, because adolescence is a time of great opportunity but also great risk. The teenage brain is very receptive to learning and absorbing new things, so we need to offer a rich array of positive activities and setting boundaries that limit their exposure to negative influences. We also need to be patient and forgiving when they behave erratically or unexpectedly.