Do We Need To Redefine Adolescence?

By | January 24, 2018

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on January 22, 2018. 

When I was 12 or so, I became aware that some elderly people around me, relatives or not, had been married or were forced by various life circumstances to become an ‘adult’ early on, at the age of say 16 or slightly older, but under 20. There were a few stories of people whose fathers died suddenly, which meant that the eldest in the family had to work a lot harder to compensate for the loss.

I kept asking my mom about how someone just a couple of years older than me could know enough to take care of a home, or a family. Her answer was that they likely didn’t, but learned as they went along. It made sense then as it does now. Being around my parents during the times I was not at school, or doing my homework, playing, or reading, I got to learn so much just by spending time with them, watching them do things, asking questions, or being given various tasks.

It takes being there and being present, and having the awareness of time spent that way, something I often wonder about regarding our children and more so, our teenagers, nowadays. We cannot make up our minds on whether they are growing up too fast or if they need some extra time allocated to mature and leave the nest.

Throughout the last decade, there have been many books written about the teenage brain and its mysterious ways. The library of knowledge is growing, yet here we are still scratching our heads and wondering if we understand our teens as much as we thought we did.

As of last week, another stick was thrown in a parent’s rather shoddy (at times) wheel. In an op-ed piece published in the journal Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal, Professor Susan Sawyer, Director of the Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne, argues that we ought to rethink the definition of adolescence and redefine existing age brackets as to include all our young ones between 10 and 24 years of age. One of the reasons, she says, is that young people do things such as leaving home, gaining financial independence, and starting a family, a lot later than they used to.

One wonders whether calling a 24-year-old a teenager will solve all those issues. If back in the day kids often had no choice but to grow up fast and fill whatever size shoes life threw at them, nowadays most of them (on this side of the world, anyway,) have the luxury of not worrying too much about providing for their families and instead indulging a lot more in what is generally known as ‘chilling’. On the other hand, a ludicrous minimum wage coupled with education-related high debt can lock young people into living with their parents past the age of 20.

There are, indeed, many facets to having teenagers transition from living with their parents to being financially-independent, and affordable secondary education, and a decent minimum wage can make the process a lot smoother without having to expand the teenage years past the actual ‘-teen’ numbers.

Allowing one to not have any responsibilities has never been a recipe for developing resilience or a dependable character, nor has excusing one’s questionable behaviour or downright defending it. The latter has been increasing over the years, according to many teachers who have had to deal not only with their students’ challenging behaviour, but also with the parents’ resentment over their children being disciplined.

Some of the conclusions streaming out of the neuroscience labs point to the teenage years as essential for brain development (as opposed to just early childhood.) Some scientists concluded that activities involving learning (reading, being involved in various tasks that involve both brain power and hands-on projects) help increase teenagers IQ during the ages of 12 and 16.

On the other hand, a substantial body of research points to the teenage brain being easily highjacked by addictive activities such as gaming, drinking, smoking, or using recreational drugs such as pot, all of which can reduce their ability to perform at their highest potential. In other words, they are vulnerable. Not in a ‘let’s bubble-wrap them’, but in a ‘let’s provide what they need such as a listening ear, time spent together, dialogue, and not least, boundaries.’

It’s the age of digital tech connectivity and life in the fast lane; fewer and fewer families sit down for meals together, or spend enough time with each other to truly stay connected. While defining life stages and pouring over books discussing behaviour and arguing for this or that is great and a good conversation tool, truth is, what we most need, to know, understand, and connect with our growing children, is time. Also, if we want to be able to count on our teenagers to be dependable and trustworthy, we must provide them with good examples to follow, solid boundaries and enough opportunities to learn to grow.

It may not be the definition from outside bodies that counts the most, but rather empowering our teenagers to see themselves from inside as capable to raise up to challenges, instead of letting their spirit succumb to immaturity, a narrative we are collectively suggesting to them, albeit with the best of intentions.

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