The Myth of Inevitable Teen Rebellion

Dr. Robert Epstein (Ph.D., Harvard University) is a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and a former editor in chief of Psychology Today. In the April/May 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, Epstein penned an outstanding article entitled The Myth of the Teen Brain.  It goes right after the notion, regularly popularized on the covers of magazines like Time and U.S. News & World Report,  that incomplete brain development accounts for the emotional problems and general irresponsibility for which teenagers in our day have gained infamy, and that, consequently, rebellion and general incompetence among teens is inevitable.

Epstein’s perspective is the polar opposite: “any unique features that may exist in the brains of teens,” says Epstein, “–to the limited extent that such features exist–are the result of social influences rather than the cause of teen turmoil” (emphasis original).  He sites anthropological research data on teens in 186 preindustrial societies which found that “about 60 percent had no word for ‘adolescence,’ teens spent almost all their time with adults, teens showed almost no signs of psychopathology, and antisocial behavior in young males was completely absent in more than half of these cultures and extremely mild in cultures in which it did occur.”

Epstein argues that the angst we see among many teens in the U.S. today is the result of an “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty. He writes:

Over the past century, we have increasingly infantilized our young, treating older and older people as children while also isolating them from adults. Laws have restricted their behavior [see box on next page]. Surveys I have conducted show that teens in the U.S. are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons. And research I conducted with Diane Dumas as part of her dissertation research at the California School of Professional Psychology shows a positive correlation between the extent to which teens are infantilized and the extent to which they display signs of psychopathology.

The 7-page article’s conclusion reads:

Today, with teens trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture, they learn virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the people they are about to become. Isolated from adults and wrongly treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult standards, recklessly or irresponsibly. Almost without exception, the reckless and irresponsible behavior we see is the teen’s way of declaring his or her adulthood or, through pregnancy or the commission of serious crime, of instantly becoming an adult under the law. Fortunately, we also know from extensive research both in the U.S. and elsewhere that when we treat teens like adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge.

We need to replace the myth of the immature teen brain with a frank look at capable and savvy teens in history, at teens in other cultures and at the truly extraordinary potential of our own young people today.

You’ll want to check this article out. Epstein’s most recent book is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Also well worth checking out on this subject is Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris. My own title, Thriving at College, explores in detail the importance of embracing responsibility and adulthood during the college years.

HT: Ed Stetzer

6 Responses to “The Myth of Inevitable Teen Rebellion”

  1. Robin March 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    I cannot emphasize how much I agree with you. We have done our teens a huge disservice. Our jobs as parents is to raise them to become independant adults. We cannot do that if we’re trying to protect them from every little risk they might encounter. I also read an article about their use of technology. Through their phones and computers they are constantly connected to other kids. Back in the ‘old” days they had to spend more time interacting with the adults around them. How do you learn to be an adult if you never spend any time in the adult world?

    I have 2 teens, 13 and 16. I have had no rebellion, and I don’t anticipate any, since I am already treating them as adults.

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