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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

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As Wesley was assessing the conflicts between his sister and his mother, I thought I could discern his self-appointed role within the family. He was the peacemaker and the diplomat, the kid who made a scrupulous point of not making waves.

Yet it was Wesley, sensitive Wesley, so tactful and talented in ways that would make any parent flush with pride (he plays drums and piano and guitar, all with equal dexterity), who got dragged home by the police at 4 a.m. He and his friend had been out “egging”—tossing eggs at windows of homes in the neighborhood.

At first, he’d merely wait until his parents were sleeping and the fans were running loudly. After a while, though, his methods became more sophisticated. “I started to hop off the roof,” he explains with serene matter-of-factness. “And then it was impossible for you to track me.”

“Wait.” Samantha does a classic double take. “What roof?”

The roof. I would climb out my window and hop off the roof. And then climb back up when I got home.”

Samantha stares at him, saying nothing.

Teenagers may strike us as precocious grown-ups one minute, but only one minute later we realize that they are not. Their forays into independence can tip easily into baffling excess.

This conduct has distinct neuronal underpinnings. In the last twenty years, researchers have discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs so much of our higher executive function—including the ability to reason and control our impulses—is still undergoing structural changes during adolescence. Complicating matters, dopamine, the hormone that signals pleasure, is never so explosively active in human beings as it is during puberty, which means teenagers assign a greater value to the reward they get from taking risks than adults do.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that adolescents might be more disposed toward risk. Human beings need incentives to leave the family nest. Leaving home is dangerous. But here’s a historical point to consider: Maybe adolescents would be less inclined to jump off roofs and other manners of silliness if they had more positive and interesting ways to express their risk-­taking selves. That was the argument the anthropologist Margaret Mead made in the sixties: The sheltered lives of modern adolescents were robbing them of an improvisational “as-if” period during which they could safely experiment with who they’d ultimately become. (Without romanticizing life in the past, the historian Steven Mintz notes that Eli Whitney opened his own nail factory before going to Yale at 16, and Herman Melville dropped out of school at 12 to work “in his uncle’s bank, as a clerk in a hat store, as a teacher, a farm laborer, and a cabin boy on a whaling ship—all before the age of 20.”)

Today’s middle-class teenagers have little need to face dangerous situations. So instead they create them—all while living with their parents. Unfortunately, this often means using whatever tools they can find in the family garage, a number of which aren’t always forgiving: cars, motorcycles, high-performance snowboards. Jay Giedd, who researches the teen brain at the National Institute of Mental Health, once put it very well: “These Stone Age tendencies are now interacting with modern marvels, [which] can sometimes not just be amusing anecdotes, but can really lead to more lasting effects.”

More often than not, of course, they remain anecdotes. Most parents intuit this, remembering their own reckless high jinks as teenagers (and their own parents’ worry and disapproval). Still, it is extremely difficult for parents to observe this behavior at close proximity and not try to do something about it. Steinberg likens adolescents to cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes. “And then parents are going to get into tussles with their teenagers,” says Steinberg, “because they’re going to try to be the brakes.” It’s dicey business, being someone’s prefrontal cortex by proxy. Yet modern culture tells us that that’s one of the primary responsibilities of being a parent of a teen.

“There was a recent issue where we strongly disagreed,” Kate is saying, “and I was right.”

Her husband, Lee, a man in his mid-fifties with longish gray hair, gives her a baffled look. “I don’t even know what issue you’re referring to.”

“The party at Paul’s.”

Lee sucks in his breath. “But that’s where—”

“Let me talk, okay? I feel strongly about this.”

Lee stifles his frustration and yields the floor.

It’s a tense moment. Kate and Lee have been together for 22 years, and their marriage is solid. But when their son and daughter entered adolescence, Kate noticed a certain transformation in their marital dynamics. “There’s a lot more discord between us,” she had said at Deirdre’s table, “having teenagers around.”


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