The Trinidad Guardian / We all know what they are like. One minute you have a loving, happy, playful child who shares everything with you. Suddenly, within the space of months, they are transformed into sullen, unhappy creatures who resent anything you tell them, come home and eat everything in sight and then retire to their bedroom and want to sleep until midday.

As usual, Shakespeare said it best in 1611 (The Winter’s Tale): “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” A century after that, differentiating adolescents from children, Rosseau described adolescences thus: “A change in humour, frequent anger, a mind in constant agitation makes the child almost unmanageable. His feverishness turns him into a lion. He disregards his guide; he no longer wishes to be governed.” One of the earliest descriptions comes from Socrates (468-399BC): “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

So modern!

Adolescence is the interval between the onset of puberty and the point at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society. The start is defined by biological timing, which in the case of a female is easy to determine but in the male difficult to say with precision and our local definition of “the balls drop” is as good as any. To compound the confusion, the end of adolescence is described socially and in some cultures, ours, for example, seems to persist well into middle-age.

The traditional age of adolescence was 12 to 19, corresponding to the teenage years. WHO still sticks to that but as in so many things neurolopsychological, including their policy on disability, that is quite wrong. The age range is very different. That insight is based on the continued development of the brain. Some people might joke: “Adolescents have brains?”

The original psychological definition defined adolescence as starting at around 12 or 13 years and ending between 22 and 25. This is now the accepted age range. However, there is good evidence from MRI studies that certain parts of the brain continue to develop up to age 40, although it does begin to level off at 25.

Adolescence is not an aberration as many old people, especially religious ones, believe. It’s the period of life in which we develop a deep sense of who we are and how we are seen by others. Just as babies develop into children so children develop into adolescents and, if everything goes all right, adolescents develop into adults.

Adolescence is a unique biological period characterised by risk-taking, self-consciousness and peer influence. Sensation-seeking behaviour increases between age 10 and the late teens and peaks at 19 and then falls off. In contrast, self-regulation increases steadily between 10 and the mid-twenties and levels off.

These changes are associated with demonstrably anatomical changes in brain structures like the amygdala, the part of the brain which controls emotion and which matures earlier than the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain just behind your forehead, and which is involved with decision-making. It’s also where self-evaluation arises.

There is good evidence of adolescent-like behaviour in non-human animals. Laboratory mice have an “adolescent” period of about one month. If given access to alcohol during this period, adolescent mice drink more of it if they are with other adolescent mice. This isn’t the case for adult mice. Trinis should be aware of this finding during the World Cup.

Adolescence is a normal period of human life when the brain is changing. We should understand it, nurture it and stop complaining about it. We should especially stop the nonsense about how “chirren different today.” If you think they are different, it’s your fault. I believe adolescents behave the same way they have always behaved.


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