Adolescence: whose hell is it? – includes a related article on how the concept of adolescence has changed throughout history

Virginia Rutter

I recently spent the weekend with a friend’s 13-year-old son. In contrast to the tiny tots most of my friends have, Matthew seemed much more like an adult. The time spent with him wasn’t so much like baby-sitting; it was like having company. It was impressive to see how self-sufficient he was. Simple matters struck me: he didn’t need someone to go to the bathroom with him at the movies; we could help himself to ice cream; he was actually interested in following the O.J. Simpson story, and we discussed it.

He was polite, thoughtful, and interesting. While the intensive caretaking necessary for smaller children has its own rewards (I suppose) Matthew’s contrasting autonomy was pleasant to me. And so I imagined it would be for parents of adolescents. But then, I am not a parent. And most parents report not feeling pleasant about their adolescents.

The weekend reminded me of how easy it is to think of these youngsters as adults. Compared to an eight-year-old, an adolescent is a lot like an adult. Can’t reason like an adult, but doesn’t think like a child anymore either. Some parents are tempted to cut ’em loose rather than adjust to the new status of their teenager. Others fail to observe their adolescent’s new adultlike status, and continue monitoring them as closely as a child. But it’s obvious that adolescents aren’t miniature adults. They are individuals on their way to adulthood; their brains and bodies–to say nothing of their sexuality–stretching uneasily toward maturity.

Yet the sight of kids reaching for some form of adults status commonly evokes contempt rather than curiosity. Negative feelings about teenagers have a strong grip on American culture in general, and on surprising numbers of parents in particular. It’s not uncommon for parents to anticipate their child’s adolescence with fear and trepidation–even before they’ve gotten out of diapers. They expect a war at home.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that adolescence is seen as this bizarre, otherworldly period of development, complete with a battleground set for World War III,” says Tina Wagers, Psy.D., a psychologist who treats teens and their families at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Denver.

We were all once 13, but it seems we can no longer imagine what kind of parenting a 13-year-old needs. Perhaps it’s gotten worse with all the outside opportunities for trouble kids have–gangs, guns, drugs. Families used to extend their turf into their children’s schools, friends, and athletic activities. But kids now inhabit unknown territory, and it is scary for parents. “I think this fear and lack of I understanding makes some parents more likely to back off and neglect teenagers,” reports Wagers. “There is an expectation that you can’t influence them anyhow.”

This skeptical, sometimes hostile view of teens, however, was countered by my experience with Matthew. I found him hardly a “teenager from hell.” Like most teens, Matthew prefers to be with his own friends more than with family or other grown-ups. He’s not good with time, and music, basketball, and girls are more central to him than achievement, responsibility, and family. (Despite his tastes, he: does very well in school.) At home there is more conflict than there has been in the past, though not less love and commitment to his mom, with whom he lives in eastern Washington.

The story of Matthew falls in line with new research on adolescents, and it’s causing psychologists to totally revise conventional wisdom on the subject. According to psychologist Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., of Temple University, the majority of adolescents are not contentious, unpleasant, heartless creatures. They do not hate their parents–although they do fight with them (but not as much as you might think). “In scrutinizing interviews with adolescents and their families, I reaffirmed that adolescence is a relatively peaceful time in the house.” Kids report continued high levels of respect for their parents, whether single, divorced, or together, and regardless of economic background.

When fighting does occur, it’s in families with younger teenagers, and it has to do at least in part with their burgeoning cognitive abilities. Newly able to grasp abstract ideas, they can become absorbed in pursuing hypocrisy or questioning authority. In time,they learn to deploy realistic and critical thinking more selectively.


If adolescents aren’t the incorrigibles we think–then what to make of the endless stream of news reports of teen sexism, harassment, drug abuse, depression, delinquency, gangs, guns, and suicide?

Any way you measure it, teens today are in deep trouble. They face increasing rates of depression (now at 20 percent), suicide (12 percent have considered it, 5 percent attempted), substance abuse (20 percent of high school seniors), delinquency (1.5 million juvenile arrests–about I percent of teens–in 1992), early sexual activity (29 percent have had sexual relations by age 15), and even an increased rate of health problems (20 percent have conditions that will hamper their health as adults). And kids’ problems appear to be getting worse.

How to reconcile the two parts of the story: adolescents aren’t so bad, but a growing number are jeopardizing their future through destructive behavior? Though we look upon teenagers as time bombs set to self-destruct at puberty, in fact the problems teens face are not encoded in their genes. Their natural development, including a surge of hormonal activity during the first few years of adolescence, may make them a little more depressed or aggressive–but how we treat them has much more to do with teenagers’ lives today. From the look of it, we aren’t treating them very well.


If what goes on in adolescence happens largely in the kids, what goes wrong with adolescence happens primarily in the parents. “It wasn’t until I turned to the parents’ interviews that I really got a sense that something unusual was going on,” reports Steinberg of his ongoing studies of over 200 adolescents and their families. As he details in his recent book, Crossing Paths: How Your Child’s Adolescence Triggers Your Own Crisis (Simon & Schuster), Steinberg finds that adolescence sets off a crisis for parents.

Parents do not have positive feelings during the time their kids go through adolescence, and it isn’t simply because they expect their kids to be bad (although that’s part of it). Scientists have studied the behavior and emotions of parents as well as their adolescent children, and found that when children reach puberty, parents experience tremendous changes in themselves. What’s more, they shift their attitudes toward their children. It isn’t just the kids who are distressed. Parents are too. Consider the following:

* Marital satisfaction, which typically declines over the course of marriage, reaches its all-time low when the oldest child reaches adolescence. Married parents of adolescents have an average of seven minutes alone with each other every day. For the marriages that don’t pass the point of no return during their kids’ teen years, there is actually an increase in satisfaction after the kids complete adolescence.

* Happily married parents have more positive interactions with their kids than unhappy parents. In single-parent families, parental happiness also influences their response to adolescence.

* In a surprising finding, the marital satisfaction of fathers is directly affected by how actively their adolescents are dating. Especially when sons are busy dating, fathers report a marked decline in interest in their wives. Dads aren’t lusting for the girls Johnny brings home, they just miss what now seem like their own goad old days.

* In family discussions, parents become increasingly negative toward their adolescents–there’s more criticism, whining, frustration, anger, and defensiveness expressed verbally or in grimaces. While the kids are always more negative than their parents (it comes with increasing cognitive ability, in part), the parents are actually increasing the amount of negativity toward their children at a higher rate.

* Working mothers don’t spend less time at home with their teenagers than nonworking moms do, but they do risk higher levels of burnout, because they continue to cover the lioness’ share of work at home. On the other hand, a mother’s employment makes her less vulnerable to the ups and downs of parenting an adolescent. Maternal employment also benefits kids, especially teen daughters, who report higher levels of self-esteem.

* Despite their fulfillment, mothers’ self-esteem is actually lower while they are with their adolescents than when they are not. After all, a mother’s authority is constantly being challenged, and she is being shunted to the margins of her child’s universe.

* Teenagers turn increasingly to their friends, a distancing maneuver that feels like an emotional divorce to parents. Since mothers are generally more emotionally engaged with their children than are fathers, the separation can feel most painful to them. In fact, mothers typically report looking forward to the departure of their kids after high school. After the kids leave, mothers’ emotional state improves.

* Fathers emotional states follow a different course. Fathers have more difficulty launching their adolescents, mostly because they feel regret about the time they didn’t spend with them. Fathers have more difficulty dealing with their kids growing into adolescence and adulthood; they can’t get used to the idea that they no longer have a little playmate who is going to do what daddy wants to do.

Add it all up and you get a bona fide midlife crisis in some parents, according to Steinberg. All along we’ve thought that a midlife crisis happens to some adults around the age of 40. But it turns out that midlife crisis has nothing to do with the age of the adult–and everything to do with the age of the oldest child in a family. It is set off by the entry of a family’s first-born into adolescence.

Once the oldest child hits adolescence, parents are catapulted into a process of life review. “Where have I been, where am I now, where am I going?” These questions gnaw at parents who observe their children at the brink of adulthood.

It hits hardest the parent who is the same sex as the adolescent. Mothers and daughters actually have more difficulty than fathers and sons. In either case, the children tend to serve as a mirror of their younger lost selves, and bear the brunt of parents’ regrets as parents distance themselves.

Steinberg tracks the psychological unrest associated with midlife crisis in parents:

* The onset of puberty is unavoidable evidence that their child is growing up.

* Along with puberty comes a child’s burgeoning sexuality. For parents, this can raise doubts about their own attractiveness, their current sex life, as well as regrets or nostalgia for their teenage sexual experiences.

* The kids’ new independence can make parents feel powerless. For fathers in particular this can remind them of the powerlessness they feel in the office if their careers have hit a plateau.

* Teens also become less concerned with their parents’ approval. Their peer group approval becomes more important. This hits mothers of daughters quite hard, especially single mothers, whose relationship to their daughters most resembles a friendship.

* Finally, de-idealization–kids’ often blunt criticism of their parents–is a strong predictor of decline in parental mental health. Parents who used to be the ultimate expert to their kids are now reduced to debating partner for kids who have developed a new cognitive skill called relativism.

A clear picture begins to emerge: parents of a teenager feel depressed about their own life or their own marriage; feel the loss of their child; feel jealous, rejected, and confused about their child’s new sexually mature looks, bad moods, withdrawal into privacy at home, and increasing involvement with friends. The kid is tied up in her (or his) own problems and wonders what planet mom and dad are on.


The sad consequence is that parents who experience a midlife crisis begin avoiding their adolescent. Although a small proportion of parents are holding on to their teens too closely–usually they come from traditional families and have fundamentalist religious beliefs–more parents are backing off. T he catch is that these teenagers want their parents’ guidance. But more and more they just aren’t getting it.

Some parents back away not out of their own inner confusion but because they think it’s hip to do so. Either way, letting go causes confusion in the kids, not help in making their way into adulthood. Even if they are irritating or irritable, or just more withdrawn than they used to be, teens are seeking guidance.

“I have this image of a kid groping through adolescence, kind of by himself,” confides therapist Wagers, who sees a lot of parents out of touch with their kids. “The parents swarm around him, but don’t actually talk to him, only to other people about him.”

The mantra of therapists who work with adolescents and their families is “balance.” Parents have to hold on, but not too tightly. They need to stay involved, even when their kids are ignoring them. Roland Montemayor, PhD., professor of psychology at Ohio State, finds it is not so different from learning how to deal with a two-year-old. You must stay within earshot, and be available whenever they falter or get themselves into trouble.

With a two-year-old, trouble means experimenting with mud pies or bopping a playmate; with a 14-year-old, it means experimenting with your car keys or sex. The task is the same–keep track of them and let them know what the rules are. Parents unfortunately taken up with their own midlife concerns may not embrace the task. God knows, it isn’t easy. But it is vital.

Among parents who have gone through a real divorce, the emotional divorce that occurs between adolescents and their parents can heighten difficulty. It may reawaken feelings of sadness. Parents who don’t have many interests outside the family are also vulnerable. Their kids are telling them to “Get a life!”–and that is exactly whet they need to do.


As an adolescent reaches age 13, the time she is spending with parents is typically half that before age 10. “Teens come home and go into their bedrooms. They start to feel more comfortable by themselves than with siblings or parents around. They talk on the phone with friends, and their biggest worry usually has to do with a romantic interest,” explains Reed Larson, Ph.D., who studies families and adolescents at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Larson, coauthor of the recent book, Divergent Realities: The Emotional Lives of Mothers, Fathers, and Adolescents, studied 55 families who recorded their feelings and activities for one week, whenever prompted at random intervals by a beeper. He surveyed another 483 adolescents with the beeper method.

The families’ reports revealed that a mutual withdrawal occurs. “When kids withdraw, parents get the message. They even feel intimidated. As a result they don’t put in the extra effort to maintain contact with their kids,” observes I arson. The kids feel abandoned, even though they’re the ones retreating to their bedroom. The parents, in effect, cut their kids loose, just when they dip their toes in the waters of autonomy.

Separation is natural among humans as well as in the animal kingdom, Larson notes. Yet humans also need special care during this life transition–and suffer from reduced contact with parents and other adults.

They still need to be taught how to do things, how to think about things, but above all they need to know that there is a safety net, a sense that their parents are paying attention and are going to jump in when things go wrong. The kids don’t need the direct supervision they received at age two or eight, but they benefit emotionally and intellectually from positive contact with their parents.

Despite the tensions in family life, studies continue to confirm that the family remains one of the most effective vehicles to promote values, school success, even confidence in peer relationships. When it works, family functions as what Larson calls a “comfort zone,” a place or a relationship that serves as a home base out of which to operate. Kids feel more secure, calm, and confident than those without a comfort zone. Similarly, Steinberg finds, the one common link among the many successful adolescents in his studies is that they all have positive relationships with their parents. Without positive relationships, the kids are subject to depression and likely to do poorly in school.

Parental withdrawal is a prime characteristic of families where adolescents get into trouble. It often catapults families into therapy. Wagers tells the story of a single parent who wasn’t simply with drawn, her head was in the sand: “I was seeing a mother and her 12-year-old son, who had depression and behavior problems. The mother called me up one time to say she had found all this marijuana paraphernalia in her son’s room, in his pocket. She said she wasn’t sure what it means. When I said ‘it means that he’s smoking pot,’ she was very reluctant to agree. She didn’t want to talk to her son about why he was getting into trouble or smoking pot. She wanted me to fix him.” (Eventually, in therapy, the mother learned how to give her son a curfew and other rules, and to enforce them. He’s doing much better.)

Marital problems also enter into the distancing equation. Although the marital decline among teens’ parents is part of the normal course of marriage, the adolescent can exacerbate the problem. “Here is a new person challenging you in ways that might make you irritable or insecure,” explains Steinberg. “That can spill over into the marriage. The standard scenario involves the adolescent and the mother who have been home squabbling all afternoon. Well, the mom isn’t exactly going to be in a terrific mood to greet her husband. It resembles the marital problems that occur when a couple first has a new baby.” Trouble is, when the parents’ marriage declines, so does the quality of the parenting–at a time when more parental energy is needed.

As if there are not enough psychological forces reducing contact between parents and adolescents today, social trends add to the problem, contends Roland Montemayor. Intensified work schedules, increased divorce and single parenthood, and poverty–often a result of divorce and single parenthood–decrease parent-child contact. A fourth of all teenagers live with one parent, usually their mother. Families have fewer ties to the community, so there are fewer other adults with whom teens have nurturing ties. The negative images of teenagers as violent delinquents may even intimidate parents.


Whatever the source, parental distancing doesn’t make for happy kids. “The kids I work with at Ohio State are remarkably independent, yet they are resentful of it,” says Montemayor. “There is a sense of not being connected somehow.” Kids are angry about being left to themselves, being given independence without the kind of mentoring from their parents to learn how to use their independence.

Adult contact seems to be on teenagers’ minds more than ever before. Sociologist Dale Blythe, Ph.D., is an adolescence researcher who directs Minneapolis’ noted Search Institute, which specializes in studies of youth policy issues. He has surveyed teens in 30 communities across the country, and found that when you ask teens, they say that family is not the most important thing in their lives–peers and social activities are. Nevertheless a large proportion of them say that they want more time with adults–they want their attention and leadership. They want more respect from adults and more cues on how to make it in the adult world. What a shift from 25 years ago, when the watchword was “never trust anyone over 30”!

So it’s up to parents to seek more contact with their kids–despite the conflict they’ll encounter. “The role of parents is to socialize children, to help them become responsible adults, to teach them to do the right thing. Conflict is an inevitable part of it,” says Montemayor. He notes that one of the biggest sources of conflict between parents and teens is time management. Teens have trouble committing to plans in advance. They want to keep their options wide open all the time. The only sure-fire way to reduce conflict is to withdraw from teenagers–an equally surefire way to harm them.

“In other countries parents don’t shy away from conflict. In the United States we have this idea that things are going to be hunky- dory and that we are going to go bowling and have fun together. Most people in the world would find that a pretty fanciful idea. There is an inevitable tension between parents and adolescents, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”


Who can talk about teens without talking about sex? The topic of teenage sexuality, however. heightens parents’ sense of powerlessness. Adults hesitate to acknowledge their own sexual experience in addressing the issue. They resolve the matter by pretending sex doesn’t exist.

Sexuality was conspicuous by its absence in all the family interviews Steinberg, Montemayor, or Larson observed. Calling sex a hidden issue in adolescence verges on an oxymoron. Sprouting pubic hair and expanding busts aren’t particularly subtle phenomena. But adolescent sexuality is only heightened by the silence.

A postpubescent child introduces a third sexually mature person into the household, where once sex was a strictly private domain restricted to the older generation. It’s difficult for everyone to get used to.

No matter how you slice it, sex can be an awkward topic. For parents, there’s not only the feeling of powerlessness, there’s discomfort. Most parents of adolescents aren’t experiencing much sexual activity–neither the mechanics of sex nor its poetry–in this stage of the marriage (though this eventually improves).

The fact that fathers’ marital satisfaction decreases when their kids start to date suggests the power of kids’ sexuality, no matter how silenced, to distort parental behavior. Sex and marital therapist David Schnarch, Ph.D., points out that families, and the mythology of the culture, worship teen sexuality, mistakenly believing adolescence is the peak of human sexuality. Boys have more hardons than their dads, while the girls have less cellulite than their moms.

These kids may have the biological equipment, says Schnarch, but they don’t yet know how to make love. Sex isn’t just about orgasms, it is about intimacy. “All of our sex education is designed to raise kids to be healthy, normal adults. But we are confused about what we believe is sexually normal. Textbooks say that boys reach their sexual peak in late adolescence; girls, five to 10 years later. The adolescent believes it, parents believe it, schools believe it In the hierarchy dictated by this narrow biological model of sexuality, the person with the best sex is the adolescent. On the one hand we are telling kids, ‘we would like you to delay sexual involvement.’ But when we teach a biological model of sexuality, we imply to the kids ‘we know you can’t delay. We think these are the best years of your life.'”

Parents can help their children by letting them know that they understand sex and have valuable experience about decisions related to sex; that they know it isn’t just a mechanical act; that they recognize that teens are going to figure things out on their own with or without guidance from their parents; and that they are willing to talk about it. But often, the experience or meaning of sex gets lost. I asked a woman whose parents had handed her birth control pills at age 15 how she felt about it now, at age 30. “I wish sex had been a little more taboo than it was. I got into a lot more sexual acting out before I was 20, and that didn’t go very well for me. Even though my parents talked about the health consequences of sex, they did not mention ether consequences. Like what it does to your self-esteem when you get involved in a series of one-night stands. So I guess I wish they had been more holistic in their approach to sex. Not just to tell me about the pill when I was 15, but to understand the different issues I was struggling with. In every other aspect of my life, they were my best resource. But it turns out sex is a lot more complicated than I thought it was when I was 15. At 30, sex is a lot better than it was when I was a teenager.”

The distortions parents create about teen sexuality lead directly to events like the “Spur Posse,” the gang of teenage football stars in Southern California who systematically harassed and raped girls, terrorizing the community in the late 80s. The boys’ fathers actually appeared on talk shows–to brag about their sons’ conquests. “The fathers were reinforcing the boys’ behavior. It was as if it were a reflection on their own sexuality,” observes Schnarch.

By closing their eyes to teen sexual behavior, parents don’t just disengage from their kids. They leave them high and dry about understanding anything more than the cold mechanics of sex. Kids raised this way report feeling very alone when it gets down to making intimate decisions for the first time. They feel like they haven’t been given any help in what turns out to be the bigger part of sex–the relationship part of it.

Returning to the authoritarian, insular family of Ward, June, Wally, and the Beaver is not the solution for teenagers any more than it is for their parents. But teenagers do need parents and other responsible adults actively involved in their lives, just as younger children do. Only when it comes to teenagers, the grown-ups have to tolerate a lot more ambiguity–about authority, safety, responsibility, and closeness–to sustain the connection. If they can learn to do that, a lot of young people will be able to avoid a whole lot of trouble.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Invention of Adolescence

Are Romeo and Juliet the quintessential adolescents? On the yes side, they were rebelling against family traditions, in the throes of first love, prone to mulodrama, and engaged in violent and risky behavior. But the truth is that there was no such thing as adolescence in Shakespeare’s time (the 16th century). Young people the ages of Romeo and Juliet (around 13) were adults in the eyes of society — even though they were probably prepubescent.

Paradoxically, puberty came later in eras past while departure from parental supervision came earlier than it does today. Romeo and Juliet carried the weight of the world on their shoulders–although it was a far smaller world than today’s teens inhabit.

Another way to look at it is that in centuries past, a sexually mature person was never treated as a “growing child.” Today sexually mature folk spend perhaps six years–ages 12 to 18–living under the authority of their parents.

Since the mid-1800s, puberty–the advent of sexual maturation and the starting point of adolescence–has inched back one year for every 25 years elapsed. It now occurs on average six years earlier than it did in 1850–age 11 or 12 for girls; age 12 or 13 for boys. Today adolescents make up 17 percent of the U.S. population and about a third of them belong to racial or ethnic minorities.

It’s still not dear exactly what triggers puberty, confides Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., of Columbia University Teachers College, an expert on adolescent development. “The onset of puberty has fallen probably due to better nutrition in the prenatal period as well as throughout childhood. Pubertal age–for girls, when their first period occurs–has been lower in the affluent than the nonaffluent classes throughout recorded “history. Differences are still found in countries where starvation and malnutrition are common among the poor. In Western countries, no social-class differences are found.” Although adolescence is a new phenomenon in the history of our species, thanks to a stable and abundant food supply, we’ve already hit its limits–it’s not likely puberty onset will drop much below the age of 12.

If kids look like adults sooner than ever before, that doesn’t mean they are. The brain begins to change when the body does, but it doesn’t become a grown-up thinking organ as quickly as other systems of the body mature. The clash between physical maturity and mental immaturity not only throws parents a curve–they forget how to do their job, or even what it is–it catapults teens into some silly situations. They become intensely interested in romance, for example, only their idea of romance is absurdly simple, culminating in notes passed across the classroom: “Do you like me? Check yes or no.”

Puberty isn’t the only marker of adolescence. There’s a slowly increasing capacity for abstract reasoning and relative thinking. Their new capacity for abstraction allows teens to think about big things–Death, Destruction, Nuclear War–subjects that depress them, especially since they lack the capacity to ameliorate them.

The idea that everything is relative suddenly makes every rule subject to debate. As time passes, teens attain the ability to make finer abstract distinctions. Which is to say, they become better at choosing their fights.

Teens also move toward autonomy. They want to be alone, they say, because they have a lot on their minds. Yet much of the autonomy hinges on the growing importance of social relationships.

Whatever else turns teens into the moody creatures they are, hormones have been given far too much credit, contends Brooks-Gunn. In fact, she points out, the flow of hormones that eventually shapes their bodies actually starts around age seven or eight. “Certain emotional states and problems increase between ages 11 and 14, at the time puberty takes place. These changes are probably due to the increased social and school demands, the multiple new events that youth confront, their own responses to puberty, and to a much lesser extent hormonal changes themselves.”

The nutritional abundance that underlies a long adolescence also prompted the extension of education, which has created a problem entirely novel in the animal kingdom–physically mature creatures living with their parents, and for more years than sexually mature offspring ever have in the past. College-bound kids typically depend on their parents until at least age 21, a decade or more after hitting puberty.

Historically, children never lived at home during the teen years, points out Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg. Either they were shipped out to apprenticeships or off to other relatives.

Among lower primates, physically mature beasts simply are not welcome in the family den; sexual competition makes cohabiting untenable. But for animals, physical maturity coincides with mental acuity, so their departure is not a rejection.

The formal study of adolescence began in the 1940s, just before James Dean changed our perception of it forever. There is a long-standing tradition of professional observers looking at adolescence as a pathology-and this one really did start with Freud. It continues still.

A 1988 study reported that although the under-18 population actually declined from 1980 to 1984, adolescent admissions to private psychiatric hospitals increased–450 percent! The study suggests a staggering cultural taste for applying mental health care to any problem life presents. It also hints at the negative feelings Americans have toward adolescence–we consider it a disease.

The study of adolescence has come with a context–a culture of, by, and for youth, arising in the postwar boom of the 1950s and epitomized by James Dean. Once the original badass depressive teenager from hell, Dean seems quaintly tame by today’s standards. But the fear and loathing he set in motion among adults is a powerful legacy today’s teens are still struggling to live down.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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