Q. During a recent talk show appearance, a psychologist said that runaway hormone levels often cause the rational part of the teenage brain to shut down, resulting in all manner of exaggerated emotional displays. What do you think of this theory?
A. Not much. The historical record clearly indicates that the "emotionally supercharged" teen is a relatively recent phenomenon. Alexis de Toqueville, the 19th century Frenchman who wrote "Democracy in America," was impressed with the maturity of American teens -- their willingness to shoulder responsibility, their poise, and so on.
Learning from the past vital to parents, kids
Until recently, in nearly every culture the 13-year-old was no longer regarded as a child. Nor was he/she an "adolescent," as we today refer to the teenager. There was childhood, which effectively ended at 13, and there was adulthood. Granted, the teen years were a period of apprenticeship, but teens were expected to behave responsibly, and did. What we call adolescence is actually the product of child labor and compulsory education laws.
These laws -- unarguably good, but every "good" thing has a down side -- extended the dependency of children by a good six years. In days not so long ago, the teenager may have still been living at home, but in many, if not most cases, he/she was no longer a dependent. For example, as teenagers during the Great Depression, both my father and father-in-law were helping support their families, as were many of their friends. Their sisters were accepting equivalent at-home responsibilities. There was no place for petulance and wallowing in narcissistic soap operas in that context.
Slowing development comes from today's ways
Prolonging childhood is equivalent to prolonging immaturity, and indeed, much of the behavior today regarded as "typical" of teens is looked upon by people my parents' age and older as more than simply immature. It's bizarre. I'm referring here to the tantrums, unpredictable mood swings, exaggerated emotional reactions to disappointment or frustration, and the generally dramatic "take" teens have concerning their own lives. In days not so long ago, only pampered children of the rich acted in such self-centered ways.
And there we have yet another clue. Whereas once only children of the upper classes were pampered (and not all of them, mind you), even today's lower middle-class child is pampered, at least by the standards that governed my father's young life. Extend a child's dependency indefinitely and pamper, indulge, and otherwise "spoil" the child throughout his/her extended dependency, and you're likely to wind up with a toddler in a teenager's body.
Theory that hormones are to blame debunked
I see no evidence to support the notion that biochemical upsurges periodically shut down the rational portion of the teenager's brain. If these upsurges occur, then it's obvious that by the teen years, the typical child of 60-plus years ago had developed self-control sufficient to override them.
So, in fact, have plenty of teens in our own time. For example, a teacher from South Africa recently told me that in her country, teenagers rarely need to be "disciplined" -- by which she meant punished for inappropriate behavior. By the early teen years, the South African youngster is self-disciplined -- well mannered, respectful and responsible. Are we to believe that teens in South Africa -- which, like the USA, is an ethnic melting pot -- have a different biochemistry than teens in North America?
No, the crucial difference between teens then and now, here and there, is not physiology, but parents who give a lot and expect relatively little, a media that encourages the young to view life as a never-ending soap opera, and a pop culture that enables teen irresponsibility. In the latter are included "experts" who tell us that we really have no right to expect mature behavior from teenagers.
Our children deserve more than this. Don't they?
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: http://www.rosemond.com/.