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Three Surprising Truths about Teens

February 18, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

A scientific expert on adolescence answers our burning questions.

If you could ask any question of a wise and experienced neuroscientist and pediatrician, one who specializes in the secret emotional life and bizarre brain activity of your adolescent child, what would you ask?

I recently had the great opportunity to ask some of my burning questions—and many that you have sent to me. Answers came from Ron Dahl, a highly acclaimed researcher and a member of the Greater Good Science Center’s faculty board. Here are three surprising things I learned from our interview. (More posts to follow!)

#1: Your adolescent isn’t a teenager.

Dahl avoids the term “teenager” because it implies that all the action is happening between the ages of 13 to 18. In truth, most girls are at the end of puberty by the age of 13.

The hormones that cause puberty—and the behavior we typically think of as teenager-y—start changing the brain before they start changing the body. In his research on puberty, Dahl’s lab focuses on adolescents ages nine to 13 because puberty typically lasts only two to four years.

“In hunter-gatherer societies,” Dahl explained to me, “the average age of menarche [the onset of menstruation] was 17 or 18 [years old],” because hunter-gathers typically didn’t get as many calories as we do now. When you go through puberty at 18, you’re an adult, and you’re ready to take on adult roles. But because puberty is starting so much earlier for our kids, we have a developmental dilemma: “If you’re eight, nine, or 10 years old and you’re starting to develop,” Dahl said, “when do you take on adult roles?”

Kids today are facing a very prolonged adolescence. What used to be a two-to-four-year period biologically is now a 15-year period culturally. The brain changes and the biological aspects of puberty start before the teenage years, but the cultural and societal aspects of adolescence don’t kick in until much later.

Today kids have a longer period of time to figure out who they are, to develop skills, to go to school. “There are huge advantages to this from a learning perspective,” Dahl told me, “but there are also liabilities” when the brain is developing out of sync with a kid’s role in society.

#2: Kids don’t necessarily want to feel happy.

“You have this idea that people just want to be happy,” Dahl pointed out, “which just is not true. There are tremendous differences in what people want and like to feel.” Indulge me in the following thought experiment:

You go into a machine where you can feel anything you want to feel by playing with a set of knobs. Turn one dial a little bit and feel a little calm. Turn it a lot and feel really calm. Turn another dial and feel disgust. Another to feel joy. Every emotion imaginable is there for you to feel at any intensity, just by turning a knob.

What individuals want to feel differs dramatically, and in a way, this thought experiment is running all the time in our real lives. We are continually “turning knobs” in our attempt to influence our emotional lives. Teenage boys typically want to turn every knob up as high as it goes, to feel a range of emotions intensely. Many people like to experience righteous anger (which is why so many people listen to Rush Limbaugh). Other people would do anything to avoid feeling their own anger.

Similarly, we all know people who are “adrenaline junkies”—they like to turn the knobs on excitement. My pre-teen girls love to feel frantic excitement—or “hyper,” as they put it. Brain imaging studies show that pre-adolescent boys love disgust (which explains why they can be so gross).

Though the data show that most people do prefer happiness and positive emotions to unhappiness and negative feelings, it is naïve to think that we all want to feel happy all the time.

#3: Puberty makes many kids seek conflict—and this is a good thing. 

When my own pre-teen children are feeling mope-y and weepy, I try to help them feel better. “What do you feel grateful for?” I’ll often ask. “Let’s have a dance party!” I’ll exclaim as I put on their favorite dance tunes. “Let’s go for a walk to shake this thing off!”

Uh, back off, mom.

Talking to Dahl made me realize just how unhelpful I am being. When pubescent kids are sad, for example, it’s sometimes better to see them as experimenting with sadness. Instead of trying to cajole them out of it, let them learn that they can cope with even very intense negative emotions. Let them listen to sad music, call their most sad friend, and watch a movie that makes them cry. Let them deepen their sadness so that they can practice recovering from it.

Most pubescent kids like turning up the volume on their own feelings, even if their feelings aren’t positive. I never really thought about this before talking with Dahl, but even intense sadness can be novel and exciting for kids.

“This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective,” Dahl explained. Part of the developmental task of teenagers is to learn how to control their intense emotions. “Think about someone in a hunter-gatherer society who has to kill their first animal with a spear in order to become an adult. That is an incredibly dangerous, frightening thing. If you can’t control your fear and stay on task, if you can’t navigate intense feelings when the stakes are high, you might be killed yourself.”

So experimenting with intense feelings is adaptive—it’s a way to learn how to cope with them. Here’s the kicker: When kids hit puberty, many start creating conflict to experiment with high-intensity behaviors and the high-intensity emotions they create.

Understanding all of this—that my pre-teen girls, despite being only 10 and 12, are better thought of as adolescents than children, that they don’t necessarily want to feel happy, that they are innately driven to do things that will make them feel bad—makes me feel profound compassion for them.

It also makes me feel profound hope, even as they are creating conflict all around me. When I step back, I can see that they’re on a path toward leading the most colorful lives they can imagine—because they know which knobs to turn, and how far to turn them.

© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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