by: David Dobbs
Published in: National Geographic October 2011 (cover story)
(picture gallery here)
The article discusses teenage behavior and brain science including newer technology's brain scans and what they reveal. It starts off discussing inconsistency in behavior including mood swings.
"These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they're still learning to use their brain's new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire. Abigail Baird, a Vassar psychologist who studies teens, calls this neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.
The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren't done! You can see it right there in the scans!"
The next section and the major focus of the story is about thrill-seeking behaviors, why teens put themselves in physical danger and seem to lack logical thinking when choosing to do such things.
"Let's start with the teen's love of the thrill. We all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence. Here we hit a high in what behavioral scientists call sensation seeking: the hunt for the neural buzz, the jolt of the unusual or unexpected."
The article addresses why teens seem so peer-obsessed instead of adults-in-their-world-obsessed.
"Yet teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers."
I found this interesting, and it makes sense, about why teens would choose to behave in risky ways.
"The move outward from home is the most difficult thing that humans do, as well as the most critical—not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments. In scientific terms, teenagers can be a pain in the ass. But they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around. Without them, humanity might not have so readily spread across the globe."
Why hadn't I ever thought of that before? Teens must be willing to charge boldly out into the world to make their own place in it. If they were more careful and timid they would just be adult versions of the toddler peeking out from behind their mother's leg.
I appreciated that at the end the article discusses how parents should react to all of this.
I myself, fear that in the experimentation times, my children may pay too high a price.
"This adaptive-adolescence view, however accurate, can be tricky to come to terms with—the more so for parents dealing with teens in their most trying, contrary, or flat-out scary moments. It's reassuring to recast worrisome aspects as signs of an organism learning how to negotiate its surroundings. But natural selection swings a sharp edge, and the teen's sloppier moments can bring unbearable consequences. We may not run the risk of being killed in ritualistic battles or being eaten by leopards, but drugs, drinking, driving, and crime take a mighty toll. My son lives, and thrives, sans car, at college. Some of his high school friends, however, died during their driving experiments. Our children wield their adaptive plasticity amid small but horrific risks."
So what are we parents to do? All parents want their kids to survive the teenage years!
"We parents, of course, often stumble too, as we try to walk the blurry line between helping and hindering our kids as they adapt to adulthood. The United States spends about a billion dollars a year on programs to counsel adolescents on violence, gangs, suicide, sex, substance abuse, and other potential pitfalls. Few of them work."
"Yet we can and do help. We can ward off some of the world's worst hazards and nudge adolescents toward appropriate responses to the rest. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life. Adolescents want to learn primarily, but not entirely, from their friends. At some level and at some times (and it's the parent's job to spot when), the teen recognizes that the parent can offer certain kernels of wisdom—knowledge valued not because it comes from parental authority but because it comes from the parent's own struggles to learn how the world turns. The teen rightly perceives that she must understand not just her parents' world but also the one she is entering. Yet if allowed to, she can appreciate that her parents once faced the same problems and may remember a few things worth knowing."
After reading this article I was reassured that the parenting style that my husband and I have forged is a good one. Well, we thought so before this but it is nice to see what we've been doing seems in line with what someone else is recommending.
In our family, we have rules and limits, reasonable ones. We offer guidance and advice but don't shove it down our kids throats. We let them have their freedom within certain limits and it kills us to watch them make mistakes, but they do.
We let them use their free will, and we let them learn from natural consequences, although sometimes it takes making the same mistake over and over. We are raising kids who are independent with their thinking and with their actions, so, making mistakes is inevitable.
We have provided our kids with an opportunity for a peer network, we don't isolate our kids, despite the stereotype that homeschoolers are isolated, ours are not. Yet we do not have our kids living lives of peer-dominance either. Our kids time ratio is more time with one or both parents than time with peers, and very little time totally alone with peers (which is when they get into the most trouble).
My husband and I are here to listen and to counsel our kids, not to be dictators or controllers of their body and minds. We are always here for our kids even when they screw up.
Most importantly we love them unconditionally.
Active parenting is hard work. Attachment parenting has been hard work. I think it is worth it!