I have something to say about adolescence: man, that was a sucky time, huh? Surely you recall it, yes? If not, let me take you back.
A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, a criminal walk into a bar. If they do this at their 20th high school reunion, they’re former members of the Breakfast Club. Somehow, we can all relate to that and somehow, for those of us who attend reunions, we see a little more clearly what adolescence and high school must have been like when we meet our future selves. Many of us have good experiences with our high school reunions, but many people are so distraught over what happened to us during those formative years that we shun them with ferocity.
Jennifer Senior wrote a truly wonderful piece in New York Magazine entitled Why You Never Truly Leave High School that explains why adolescence is so hard (extra dopamine in the brain), why we recall memories so intensely from that time as opposed to any other time in our lives (hormones, anyone?), and what the lack of societal structure taught us to do (create them on our own).
I’m something of a connoisseur on the subject of adolescence. I blame it on two things: (1) keeping a very detailed diary of my own adolescence and (2) my choice of career in education. In the last 20 years I have made it my business to understand adolescents in both the middle and high school years and let me tell you something: they are fascinating creatures. Some things are quite predictable and others are downright spooky occurrences as I’ve observed them. For instance, every year I notice the “types” of students who sit in the lunchroom and where they sit. Even though it’s a new group of kids, they manage to put themselves in really interesting spots and they’re the same ones from the years before. The table by the door is full of the boys who can’t wait until they get to go out for recess (easy access), the overconfident athletes sit in the center of the cafeteria (lots of attention), and the Queen Bees sit toward the back in a place where they can see the whole cafeteria (surveying the landscape). It’s captivating to watch, but after reading Senior’s piece, there’s a lot more to their behavior.
High School Is Just Like Downton Abbey
At my own high school, I saw these things as clearly then as I do now. For instance, at all of our high school assemblies the upperclassmen made it a point to be superior in every way. We pushed our way into the domed gym, took our rightful places at the center bleachers, and threw pennies at the freshmen as they entered. The socialization and mini-societies we formed could be likened to Downton Abbey. Seniors are, by their nature, the Granthams, complete with their own Dowager Countess/Popular Senior Girl or Boy who Rules Everything. Juniors are the lower of the echelon who don’t have the currency to rule yet and are most like the Crawley sisters. Sophomores are the downstairs maids and butlers, but since they’re not the lowest of the food chain, they get to be the valets and the butlers like Mr. Carson and the housemaids like Mrs. Hughes who rule over the lowliest of the low freshmen, the assistant cooks and scullery maids.
This superiority, Senior notes, is actually due to having no social structure in place in a group of strangers that forces them to create one. Whereas parents commonly believe that sending their children to school will socialize their children, it’s actually a rather horrific social structure that emerges. Since no structures are in place, adolescents put them there and try diligently to define themselves in a space where it’s really difficult to do.
The Ages of 15-25 Are Crucial
Think about this: she mentions the “reminiscence bump” that we all experience. This is the phenomenon of being given a series of prompts and recalling a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence as opposed to the rest of our lives. Many of our most vividly retained memories, the article states, are from ages 15 to 25. When you think about your strongest memories (either from disappointment to rage to elation) are they from those ages? Mine are, but I blame it on having an embarrassing pregnancy during that time. Sure, everyone was having sex, but I was getting caught at it. When I said that I thought my parents would kill me, I wasn’t engaging in hyperbole. I really couldn’t see any other way they would react.
It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identify, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject.
Adolescence is Why We Remember Silly Things
Think about how many songs you can remember from adolescence. The sheer number of lyrics that come to mind when I listen to them now as an adult past 40 is truly astounding. How do I remember all that? I wonder. It turns out that my brain, in my teens and early 20s, was still being formed so when I listened to “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five I had no idea how solidly I was forming the neural pathways to my brain nor did I realize that I would recall the lyrics with perfection decades later.
Another interesting notion from the article actually helps me as a parent to teens as well as an administrator in a middle school. Adolescents, it seems, feel more intensely because of the dopamine in their brains. This could explain why many adults refer to them as “dramatic” in schools, because they have such strong and intense feelings over what adults would consider “little things”. The things that we know are really going to be okay (school crushes, relationship break-ups, failing a big test) don’t seem that way to them because of how zealously they feel them. Human brains don’t finish developing until a person is in their mid-twenties because it’s continuing to add myelin, the white substance that helps form neural connections in the brain.
That brings me back to something that I cannot forget from those formative years from my high school and something that summed it up for me:
It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.
Remember that as you’re raising teenagers, especially if you’ve tried to block out those years. It’s a pretty rough time out there for them.
For fun, be sure to check out Irina Werning’s photo project called ‘Back to the Future’ that Jennifer Senior uses in her article.
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