Getting Ready for the Teen Years
Believe it or not, there are many cultures in the world where there is no adolescence as we Americans know it. Kids don’t separate from the adult world and break into “tribal” groups. Instead, they are expected to function as adults as soon as they reach puberty. The young people experience themselves as adults and behave accordingly.
Not so in much of America. In many, perhaps even most communities, kids from as young as 10 to as old as 25 are generally expected to act like, well, kids. The larger culture has an expectation that teens and early 20s young adults will be risk takers, irresponsible at times, and self-centered. Those expectations seem to be in the very air we breathe. It’s blamed on hormones. It’s blamed on brain development. It’s blamed on peer pressure.
And yet — American adolescents have the same shifts in hormones going on as their counterparts in other parts of the world. Similarly, brain development is the same the world over. Every culture includes generational cohorts. So why do many American young people grow up much more slowly than those of the same age in other places?
The difference is that adults in other cultures provide a substitute for the brain’s prefrontal cortex in the form of external controls. The seat of such things as setting goals and priorities, planning, organization, regulation of emotions and, yes, impulse control, is the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain that is not fully developed until the early 20s.
It is impulse control that dictates how we respond to our moods. It is impulse control that contains hypersexuality, inhibits driving too fast or breaking other safety and social rules, and prevents abuse of alcohol and drugs. It is impulse control that keeps young people from acting on whatever hare-brained idea they come up with. In cultures where adulthood is assumed by age 10, tradition, cultural mores and unified adult responses provide external impulse control until the young person develops internal impulse control of their own.
This is not to blame American parents and other adults in the kids’ lives for our adolescents’ misbehaviors. It is merely a comment on what has evolved in American culture. Irrational moods and behavior are excused as hormonal. Out of control behavior on Spring break for high-schoolers and college students is both lamented and accepted. College “kids” are expected to experiment with alcohol and to have wild parties. Adults often regale each other with the “war stories” of things they got away with when they were young. It is accepted as normal for the kids to look to their peers (who are as underdeveloped as they are) for guidance about their behavior instead of to the adults. Being young and irresponsible is seen as a right and a rite.
How can American parents, then, guide their children to and through adolescence relatively unscathed despite a culture that seems to conspire against it? The answer is for adults to reclaim the responsibility and the right to provide the external “brain” the kids need until their internal brain catches up.
No single parent can change the entire culture. But family rules, routines and expectations for responsibility from the time children are small (within what is age-appropriate) helps them develop positive habits and values. These will stand them in good stead when their hormones start changing and their peer group starts challenging the need to manage their impulses. Here are five things every parent can do to help their children be ready for the teen years.