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Teenagers Are From Earth

Pathologizing adolescence doesn't do us any favors.

Sanja Gjenero/
Source: Sanja Gjenero/

When you think of the word “teenager” or “adolescent,” what comes to mind? Is it risk taking? Mood swings? Fierce independence? Defiance? Emotional drama? Whatever it is, it’s probably not something overly positive.

Psychiatrists and neurobiologists often describe adolescence as a period of “temporary insanity,” in which regions of the brain develop at problematically disparate rates. Friedman (2014) explains the heightened anxiety and fearfulness of adolescents, which he attributes to the amygdala developing faster than the prefrontal cortex (the seat of reasoning). Others cite surges in reproductive and stress horomones as the culprit in bad behavior. And still others focus on a decrease in grey matter and increase in synaptic connectivity as responsible for such a chaotic developmental period (NIMH, 2011). Psychologists and psychotherapists tend to focus on the extreme risk-taking and reality testing behavior that characterizes adolescence, as well teens’ tendency to reject parents and overvalue peers in the service of individuation (Berger, 2008).

It's not that the research is bad or unuseful. It's good research. But when we feed it into our cultural mechanisms for understanding, when we give it disproportionate explanatory power and allow it to color our perceptions, we begin to view teenagers with some distortion.

Perhaps fueled by this focus on the pathology of adolescence, parents tend to conceive of adolescence in similarly negative terms. Writer Rachel Cusk cites the kinds of things other parents said to her once her kids hit adolescence:

Poor you, they’d say, or, Good luck, or, at best, Don’t worry, it’ll pass, you’ll get them back eventually. Stories began to emerge in my circle of acquaintances of shouting and slammed doors and verbal abuse, of academic failure, of secrecy and dishonesty; and of darker things, of eating disorders, self-harm, sexual precocity and depression. They used to be so sweet, a friend of mine said of his daughter and son, shaking his head. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a nightmare. Another friend says, It’s as if they hate me. I walk into a room and they wince; I speak and they ball up with irritation.

Cusk draws a sharp contrast to the excessively positive way people used to speak about their kids when they were younger, as if every moment of being with small children were exploding with joy.

These terms, though (young kids = good, adolescents = bad), and the cultural narrative they’re embedded in, are intensely problematic. Any parent who has raised a small child knows that joy and frustration come in equal doses. And any parent of teenagers know that all trace of the small child you loved is not lost.

Although our young children may look cuter and cheerier in Facebook photos than our adolescents ever could, the reality is that both periods of development are intense. They’re fraught with complexity and predicated on our ability to navigate the constantly shifting terrain of our relationships with our rapidly changing children.

The construction of adolescents as nightmarish, too, is a cop out. Teenagers’ challenges are similar to ours as parents: to individuate; to progress; to maintain connection; to find balance; to learn to cope with tumult, sadness, rejection, and disappointment. If we see teenagers as aliens, we’re doing ourselves, and them, a disservice.

The burden for us is on our relationships with our children as they become teens. We need to hold ourselves accountable for our own oversteps and shortfalls. “There’s a destructive cycle,” one doctor specializing in adolescents says. “The kid is pulling back, which makes the parents more intrusive because they’re worried and think the worst (Berger, 2008).” Adolescence is a terrible time for parents to become more intrusive, but it’s also an awful time to withdraw.

Parents of younger kids are laying the groundwork for adolescence right now. If we use our physical strength as a form of authority, we're employing a tactic whose days are numbered. If we speak to our children with disrespect or criticism, we're doing damage to trust and connection.

Perhaps we’re too shortsighted in how we think of parenting. That relationship we want to have with our teenager or college kid starts now. If we don’t have the kind of relationship where our kid feels safe confiding in us and trusting us with things like fear and shame, when will that relationship start and how? With any relationship, our task is to connect, to understand context, to have genuine dialogue, to feel greater empathy. Our relationships with teenagers are no different.


Berger, J. (2008). Understanding the temporary insanity of adolescence, New York Times, May 4,…

Cusk, R. (2015), Raising teenagers: The mother of all problems, New York Times Magazine, March 19,…

Friedman, R. A. (2014). Why teenagers act crazy,” New York Times, June 28,…

National Institute of Mental Health (2011). The teen brain: Still under construction, NIH Publication No. 11-4929,…

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