March 14, 2013


Childhood ends with the onset of puberty. Teenagers undergo profound changes in mental tendencies and abilities as their brains change during and after puberty. Puberty raises the ante so that the relatively safe play of younger children is replaced by the more dangerous and consequential play of teenagers. Parents are often unprepared for the major transformations that occur after puberty and feel estranged from the new person emerging awkwardly and contentiously in their own home. I noticed a bumper sticker that said: "Teenager for sale cheap - take over the payments." 

Parents of teenagers will often doubt that they have any role to play except to offer custodial support and then recognize that their jurisdiction is limited.  I have attempted to help many parents change the diet of their sick adolescents and often failed. The reasons for failure are apparent to most parents. Let us review the status of adolescents hoping for some insight:

The time-honored principle of adolescent management is to fill idle time with useful work, learning and supervised play. Otherwise, teenagers use idle time to hang out in groups and engage in activities that frighten the adult community. Idle time is dangerous time. 

Teenagers are in the business of separating from their family and are drawn to the values, activities and norms of their peer group. They seek role models in the media and imitate examples of costume, values and behavior that seem attractive to them. You could argue that other teens, movies, “music” and television programs are strong influences, stronger than parental example or advice.
Old and New, The Teenager's Limbo

Teenagers have a tense mix of old primitive features in their mind and new modern ideas. They tend to manifest old primate group behavior and at the same time develop individual, modern personalities. Adolescent society is stratified, competitive and relatively unforgiving. Teenagers cluster in small groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. They manifest ancient human social patterns spontaneously and the importance of group affiliation with their peers takes precedence over family affiliation. Family values and teenager group values often conflict and the conflict is seldom resolved in favor of the family unless parents are determined and on the job 24 hours a day.

The parents’ main task is to locate their children in peer groups that have the most congruent values with their own. Teens who hang out on the street inevitably resist, oppose and challenge societal values. They get into trouble fast. Individual teenagers may have a well-developed understanding of the adult rules, but even those with a well-developed sense of local mortality will participate in behaviors that the adult community finds unacceptable.

Girls, like boys, cluster in small tribal groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. Teenagers tend to invent their own vocabulary and use jargon to identify members of their own social group. Teenage groups are not kind to outsiders and adolescent society reflects all the strengths and weaknesses of an adult society sometimes in exaggerated, dramatic ways.

Teenagers of both sexes are narcissistic and are often trapped in selftalk and case making. Girls are gossips and use language as a weapon. Some teenagers are kinder than others and develop an idealistic view of human life and may be at risk because they are too trusting and suggestible. Other teens are more cynical and aggressive and practice power politics in school hallways and cafeterias. Bullying is an ancient tendency that will not go away, but can be countered, by good examples and learning focused on win-win social interactions.
Group Membership

The greatest cause of teenage suffering is to be excluded from a desirable group. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied, ridiculed, sexually harassed, beaten, robbed and sometimes killed, even by nice children in affluent Canadian and American suburbs. Alienation pushes an unwanted teenager toward one of four destinations:

1.    Creative alienation – poetry, music, art, political activism

2.    Withdrawal, depression and sometimes suicide.

3.    Revenge, antisocial ideas, and affiliation with groups that express hatred

4.    Crime

Alienated individuals can form groups that express their disappointment and anger in destructive ways. Often these groups borrow costumes, ideology, ritual and values from old malevolent ideologies. The skinheads, for example, adopt fascist values and admire German Nazis of the 1930’s and 40’s who now epitomize, to most reasonable adults, evil intentions and despicable deeds.

 The greatest cause of suffering among teenage girls is to be excluded from a desirable female group. The next greatest cause of suffering is to be rejected by a desirable male. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied and ridiculed even by nice female children in affluent suburbs.
According to Campbell: “female adolescent disputes often center upon three issues relating to successful mate choice: management of sexual reputation, competition over access to desirable males and protecting established relationships from take-over by rival females. Interestingly, the peak age for female assault occurs at ages 15-19 compared to the male peak at 20-24 reflecting girls earlier sexual maturity… suggesting that the rise in female aggression during adolescence, like that of males, is associated with mate selection. Nanci Hellmich,  writing about mean teenage girls in the USA suggested: “Experts use the term "relational aggression" to describe the cattiness, meanness and nastiness that happens between some people, but especially among girls… Girls may gossip, spread malicious rumors, write nasty e-mails, give the silent treatment, exclude people from social events, betray secrets, snicker about someone's clothes or mannerisms behind their backs. They may tell a girl that they're not going to be friends with her unless she does what they want.”

The process of become a civilized, competent, compassionate human is arduous and some teenagers do not make it.  Teenagers tend to invent their own vocabulary and use jargon to identify members of their own social group. Teenage groups are not kind to outsiders and adolescent society reflects all the strengths and weaknesses of an adult society sometimes in an exaggerated, dramatic way. Food sharing is one the most basic tribal bonds and teens with deviant (i.e. healthy) food habits are not well-tolerated. Parents who want their teenage children to follow a rational family plan, for example, will have two choices:

1. To separate their teenager from his or her peer group

2. Involve the peer group in the rational plan

Teenagers are prone to anger and question the values of their parents. They are sensitive to cheaters and some become disillusioned with the values of their family and community when they discover discrepancies and deception in the stories they have been told. This is the Santa Claus/God problem. Some teenagers become contemptuous of adult society that appears to them to be shallow, hypocritical and futile.

A young child will be eager for reassurance and gifts from apparently benevolent characters in adult stories, but teenagers feel cheated or betrayed when they fully comprehend the deception involved. Disillusionment may push a sensitive teen into an angry withdrawal, seeking escape from the deceivers or occasionally, teens seek revenge by engaging in criminal and random, destructive activity.

JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye, published in 1951, remains a contemporary description of the sensitive, disappointed adolescent who finds himself or herself in limbo, the transition from child to adult. The book begins with Holden Caulfield stating: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Dougan, a teenager writing in a New York Times 2010 discussion had this to say:" Asking a bunch of adults whether or not Catcher in the Rye will really reach teenagers is pretty funny, if you ask me. This only helps prove Salinger’s point — adults were once young and disillusioned themselves, but they’ve grown out of it, and they assume the rest of the world has grown with them. I’m 18 years old and every bit as confused and wandering as Holden. When I read this book for the first time, I laughed so hard I cried and cried so hard I could barely breathe. Yeah, my generation has Twitter and Facebook and cellphones and what-have-you. The world is always changing in little ways like that. It’s the big things that don’t change — and even in an era of such impossible interconnectedness, there is no way to circumvent the feeling of being utterly alone and misunderstood. Plenty of teenagers still love Catcher in the Rye. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of tributes to Salinger the day he died. If that doesn’t prove that this book has got appeal that spans generational differences, I don’t know what could."

From Children and the Family. Stephen Gislason Persona Digital books

[i] Anne Campbell Staying alive: Evolution, culture and women's intra-sexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, XX (X): XXX-XXX.
[ii] Hellmich, N Girls' friendships show aggression at younger ages. , USA Today. 04/09/2002 

[iii] See Obituary by Charles Mcgrath. J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91. NYT. January 28, 2010

[iv] C. M. Dougan. Crying and Laughing With Holden. NYT Feb. 1, 2010.

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