When I first met Joel he was 15, embattled with his parents, failing in school, and deeply, desperately in love. Bright, sensitive, and troubled by what he saw as an older generation that simply didn’t get it (“it” being almost anything), he couldn’t be bothered with homework, after-school activities, or a job. Instead, he holed up in the library reading everything he could about microbes, a subject he found endlessly fascinating. Then he met Myra, another science whiz kid who also retreated to the library stacks as a refuge from the teen world where she was considered at best eccentric, and at worst a loser.
It was love at first encounter. To them, their accidental meeting in a remote corner of the library was nothing short of a miracle. Each found in the other someone who understood; someone who commiserated about the stupidity of high school, parental rules, and authority in general; someone else who found the order they were longing for in science. Best of all, there was a magnetic attraction. One kiss was all it took for them to decide they were destined for each other. Nature and hormones took over and soon they were doing more than reading behind the bookshelves. Their passion was intense, unrelenting, the stuff of the most steamy of adolescent fantasies.
Everything changed now that they had each other. Now they could ignore the opinions and taunts of classmates. They could tolerate their teachers and families. They motivated each other to get good grades with the promise that they could then go to a top college together. They talked endlessly. When they weren’t hanging out, they were connected on the phone or online. They just knew they’d be together forever.
Fast forward 5 years. Joel has asked to see me. He remembered that I’d been helpful back in high school when he and his parents were at war. Now he has a new problem. Myra has told him she wants some space. Myra, his Myra, wants to date other people. He was going to ask her to marry him this summer. “What happened?” he asks plaintively. “Where did the love go? What can I do to win her back? Why won’t she come to her senses?”
It’s all in their hormones and their heads.
We all know, or think we know, about the effect of the hormones released at puberty. But it’s actually more complicated than that. The hormones that determine the physical changes of puberty are in a recursive loop with the brain and involve multiple neural systems. The result is the moodiness, risk-taking, excitement seeking, and changes in sleep patterns common in teens. The kids are drawn to new and intense experiences – including intense experiences in love, romance, and sex.
Meanwhile, parts of the brain are getting older, responding to experience, and maturing on a course that it now seems is quite independent of the hormones of puberty. New developments in neuropsychology and advanced medical technology are helping us understand what happens to the brain during adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, for example, the site that manages planning, reasoning, judgment, and decision-making, isn’t completely developed until ages 19 – 24.
The hormonal changes of puberty can start quite early; in some kids, as early as 9 or 10. But the changes in the parts of the brain that exercise judgment and responsibility may not be fully developed until the early to mid-20s. This means that kids can look like adults in their mid-teens but aren’t fully capable of acting as adults until as much as a decade later. No wonder they – and their parents – are often confused.