Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Marvelous Species Unto Themselves

A few days ago I posted about why I write YA, and I mentioned that teens aren't just junior adults.

There's research to back up this claim!

The common adult complaints about teens is that they're overdramatic. Angsty. That everything seems like a big deal. That they take too many risks. That they don't properly think through things, that they act on impulse. That they rebel just because.

Did I miss any?

I hear a lot of adults dismiss teens--and teen concerns--and teen fiction--this way.

They're missing something kinda important.

Here are some truths:
  • Human brains don't reach full maturity until the third decade of life. What I mean by "maturity": all the connections in the brain are formed, and those connections are working at optimum speed.
  • As a result, teens have to work harder to engage the "executive functioning" regions of their brains (the ones in charge of planning and impulse control). The thing is--they CAN do it, and often as well as adults can, but it's not as automatic.
  • And here's the one that fascinates me: Teens accurately evaluate risks and are aware of their own mortality--but they value the relative rewards in risky situations more than adults do.
At first, it's easy to look at these results gleaned from brain scan research and conclude that teens are just works in progress. But researchers are thinking about these findings in a different way--what if this developmental progression is not just a matter of maturation--what if it's also necessary and adaptive?

Evolutionary theories would suggest that it doesn't make sense for humans to have this dangerous and faulty period in their development. Although it's easy to look at death rates--young people die disproportionately in non-work-related accidents--and conclude that's true, it's important to think about it more deeply than that. What do teens have to do? They have to separate from their parents. Create new relationships and find romantic partners. Forge independent identities.

How could they do that if they didn't highly value the rewards of those risky activities? How could they accomplish the things they're supposed to do if they didn't reach out? Why would they want to if they didn't feel the powerful need to seek new and stimulating experiences?

Yes, it makes it hard to keep them safe. Yes, it means being a parent of a teen can be a heart-stopping--and sometimes heart-breaking--experience. No, it does not mean we should just let teens do whatever they feel is right, because understanding where the boundaries are is an essential part of development into adulthood. But if adults understand that adolescence is not just a developmental stage to endure, but a phase that is imperative for successful transition into adulthood, we might be more respectful of our teens and value their perspectives more.

National Geographic has a brilliant article about all of this in October's issue. It is a MUST read for writers of YA, and for adults who want to really understand teens (instead of dismissing them as naive or immature young people).

Are you a teen, or are you the parent of a teen? Have you heard people dismiss or complain about teens this way? Are you one of them? What do you think of these research results, and their interpretation?

28 comments:

  1. Excellent post! I'm the mother of a teen, and I've heard about this research before, although I've never read it. I'll have to check out the article you linked. Thanks!

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  2. Oh, I love this so much. I can't count how many times I've had the discussion with parents about the "gradual letting go." What I mean by this is that shift I think all parents have to make with regards to parenting. You can't expect the same compliance from a 16 year old that you do from a 6 year old. Nor do you really want them to. They are becoming their own person and have to practice sorting through choices and making some decisions on their own. They also need to be given permission to fail at some of those decisions, work through those consequences, and then move on. And I'm not saying just chuck them into the deep end of experiences (sex, alcohol, drugs, driving, peer relations, post graduate decisions, etc, etc...) Give them as much information as you can (before they need it) and never discount how powerful your own personal narrative can be. I think sometimes parents are afraid to reveal some of their own past mistakes and the consequences they suffered as a result (as a teen or 20 something) because of the feared damage to their parental image, or fear that it somehow gives permission...but I think most teens are very receptive to a parent's admission of being a human with faults and even a non perfect past. And, the education is one they will likely never forget.

    *takes a breath* Clearly, this comment it too long. Sarah, it's too early in the morning for you to get me this riled up :-)

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  3. Because I remember being a teen vividly, I try not to be dismissive. I did so many stupid things that I wouldn't have done just a few years later. You're right about risks.

    My son recently turned 13.

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  4. This is why I cringe every time I see "XXX was tried as an adult at the age of (anything under 17)". You can't judge a kid or teen on an adult scale.

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  5. I was reading the post, thinking, "Hey, I read this in this month's National Geographic." LOL Apparently so did you, Sarah. It was a great article.

    I agree, everyone who has a teen, will have a teen, or writes for teens should read the article.

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  6. Interseting concept. I just hope I can remember it when my daughter goes through puberty.

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  7. I'm the parent of a teen and a tween, and it's actually pretty easy for me. Every time a little drama comes up, all I have to do is step back, remember what an absolute lunatic I was at that age, and thank heavens I'm not dead, in prison, or selling my ass on the corner for the next hit.

    That helps to put how wonderful (if not perfect) my kids actually are into perspective.

    I'm not saying I'm glad I was such an idiot as a teenager, but I can find reasons not to regret it either.

    Probably TMI, but whatevs.

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  8. This post validates so much for me. It's easy to dismiss teenage concerns as rinky-dink ("Wait till you have to pay a mortgage and REALLY work") as if they can help their age and range of experience. I still acutely remember people dismissing my concerns at this age, as if I was a deranged lunatic bothering them on a public bus. Teenagers are very capable of introspection - they might misspell a lot of it and much of it can seem paltry compared to so-called adult concerns - but they aren't the mindless hormonal idiots that our culture often makes them out to be.

    Thanks for the article link - I'm going to check it out now.

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  9. Even though I'm 22 now, I still feel like the dismissed young whippersnapper. My family and I took a vacation down to a place called The Villages in Florida, and me and the boyfriend went out to breakfast. The waitress completely ignored us, literally sat us in a corner when every other table was open, and when we paid, she looked at the fifty dollar bill and said "What's this, your allowance?" I'm NOT KIDDING. It was one of those situations where you just sit there and can't decide whether to laugh or be offended.

    Either way, yes, give teens more credit, I say! :-) Good post, Sarah!

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  10. Great link! Lots of good information in there.

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  11. makes perfect sense. How else would people learn and mature enough to be on their own if they didn't take risks, right? And I remember some of the risks I took and being fully aware of the consequences but going ahead anyway, taking that chance, doing things I would NEVER do now. Like Matt, I'm lucky to be alive. I can think of a few incidents that could've ended badly.

    great post!

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  12. "value the rewards" That got my attention. Risk isn't just about danger, it's about opportunity, too. Thanks for something to think about when writing from a teen perspective.

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  13. Wow. "Teens accurately evaluate risks and are aware of their own mortality--but they value the relative rewards in risky situations more than adults do." I too find this really fascinating. I have to think on that. Great post!

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  14. Lots of great things to think about here. All of it adds to why teens are so dang fascinating to write about. (g)

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  15. I've always loved your blog, but this post is just fantastic. I have a cousin who's a teenager at the moment and another on the verge, and I keep thinking of all the stupid things I did, and praying they stay safe... though we always were, just I try and keep my mouth shut and stay back.

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  16. I swear I woke up one day when I was around 19 or 20 and thought, "What/Who the heck was I during my teen years?" It felt like I had a certain self awareness that simply didn't exist before. I think some neural connections had sprouted overnight.

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  17. Thanks for the great read. I love anything with science attached to it and the science of the human brain is a fascinating topic.

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  18. I've been aware of this research now for a few years. Lucky for me: I have a 15-yr-old who is bent on driving me to insanity. (See, it's not just teens who can be overly dramatic!!!) I wonder if I was like that at his age. Thankfully, I appear to have complete amnesia about my teen years!!

    Great post, Sarah. You're blog is a must-read for me, and I'll be linking to it tomorrow on Alex and Matt's bloghop.

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  19. FANTASTIC POST! I love how you explain the "teen mind." Two thumbs up!

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  20. wow, Sarah, what a fantastic interpretation of why teenagers drive everyone completely NUTS--LOL! :D

    Actually, I really like the perspective of "this is something they must do" rather than this is something we all must endure. Although both are right. And it's good to know they CAN evaluate risk and are aware of their own mortality.

    Thanks, girl! <3

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  21. Interesting read! I am glad to have discovered your blog..I do not have kids yet but i have lots of cousins who are teens and i will pass the link to my aunts and uncles! I am a new follower and on Twitter too. :)

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  22. Awesome Sauce, as usual, Sarah! I took a couple workshops on brain development when I was a therapist. Add a MH disorder to the mix and you have lots of misfiring synopses too, which is a big bummer. Very eye-opening! Off to click on that article--THX!

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  23. And hey, is that a pic of Ellen Paige (LOVE her)!

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  24. Great blog. I'm the mother of teenagers and years ago I was given the best advice by a friend.
    She said that teenagers have to pull away from their parents in order to find and develop who they really are as a person. Once they've done this they will come back, but as a more rounded, and hopefully more adult, human being. If you let them go, they will always come back.
    I often think of this when my stroppy teenage daughter refuses to spend any time with me :)
    New follower from the Pay it Forward blog.

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  25. Oh, hooray! I teach high school and write and this is great!

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  26. Good info here. Dropped by from Michael G-G's blog.

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  27. I have the Nat Geo issue here at home, but haven't read it yet. I remember my teen years well, the way the up times are waaay up, and the down times are waaay down. Emotions are amplified. It isn't a conscious choice to FEEL so much, but teens just do. At least I did. I remember. And you know what? It was exhausting! I'm empathetic with my 17-year-old when those angsty days roll around. Many adults think kids "have it easy." They don't. They have tons of stress every day---socially, at home, academically, etc. In many ways, I think my generation had it much easier than today's kids. The miracle, I think, is that most of them step up to the plate when it counts.

    Another thing that strikes me: Why do most adults forget what it was like? My friend's husband remembers himself as being the perfect teen. "I was never moody," he said, "and I always did what I was told." His own mother laughed herself silly over that one. "He's delusional," was her response. LOL

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