How To Decipher Your Teen's Behaviour
By the time this year's high-school graduates toss their hats into the air, a decent proportion of the little scamps will have already had sex, gotten drunk and maybe even ingested a narcotic or two. Despite the best efforts to inform teens as to why intercourse can wait and drugs are harmful, many still seem bent on getting drunk, stoned and laid. It is the bane of caregivers and educators alike: Why do humans in this pimply, lovesick stage of development insist on doing the very things we explicitly forbid them to do?
The obvious answer: Because they're biologically programmed to do so.
In Teenagers: A Natural History, British author and veterinarian anatomist David Bainbridge argues that what seem like mindless acts of rebellion are actually the result of ancient evolutionary adaptations made redundant by modern life. "You've got all of these 20,000-year, out-of-date biological systems working in the modern world," explains Bainbridge over the phone from his office at Cambridge University. "Because most of the change and flux in the brain and the reproductive system goes on when we're teenagers, it's teenagers that get the raw deal."
In the chapter titled, "Why are teenagers meant to have sex?" Bainbridge answers that improvements in nutrition have caused puberty to occur progressively earlier, so that it now begins a full four years earlier than it did 200 years ago. At the same time, it has become socially undesirable to bear children as a teen. For our ancestors, the threat of death was constant, but today that intense pressure to breed no longer exists; it is preferable to wait until the body and mind are fully matured to become pregnant. The evolutionary purpose of the intense teenage sex drive is gone, yet it soldiers on unabated.
"There is a strange conflict going on where we have this ever-lengthening period when humans are sexually mature but not allowed to breed," explains Bainbridge. "It's a conflict between what their inner drive is telling them, and what society is saying is acceptable." Bainbridge suggests that "becoming a sexually assured adult takes practice and learning. The practice and learning do not have to take place during adolescence, but our evolutionary heritage usually ensures that they do."
Bainbridge also lets teens somewhat off the hook on the issue of drug use, placing blame primarily on the drugs themselves, rather than the desire to experiment. He says the urge in teenagers to try drugs and alcohol is due to an adolescent restructuring of the brain that creates a new appetite for novelty, risk and rebellion.
"I think [the desire for risk and novelty] are beneficial to humans as a whole," says Bainbridge. "If people don't take risks, then they don't really achieve anything, and if people aren't interested in novelty then again, they often have a very sterile life. So although drugs seem like a terrible thing, many of the reasons people do them, the drive they have built into them from
an evolutionary standpoint, make quite a lot of sense. Where the system falls down, the bit we can't cope with, is the actual potency of modern drugs."
Bainbridge tosses numerous theories back and forth as he explains growth spurts, acne and STDs, but all digressions eventually lead back to the vital role teenagers play in the supremacy of our race: "Most of the very clever and subtle things that make human life different from all other animals really take off during the teenage years," he explains. "Our use of language, the way we think, goal-directed behaviour, and our incredibly complex social world -- all this gets underway in earnest when we're teenagers."
Are teenagers as invincible as they tend to think they are? No, but Bainbridge's conclusion is almost as potent: Adolescence "is the fulcrum about which the rest of our life turns."
Written by: Lia Grainger, National Post
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