The pains that come with exuberant brains

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Why Are They So Weird? What's really going on in a teenager's brain. By Barbara Strauch. Bloomsbury. pound;10.99

In the days when I thought I knew everything about being a parent (namely, before I had teenage children), a sage headteacher warned me to enjoy my children's successes before "they enter that vale of tears for parents known as adolescence". If I'd known then what I know nowI but unfortunately it is one of the rules of life that you cannot benefit from another's experience. Otherwise, the human race would just keep on getting wiser, and the evidence for this seems doubtful.

Parents and teachers who are tearing their hair out over teenagers - at the point when, for instance, the girl whose commitment to music practice, homework and netball has always been 100 per cent suddenly tells her mum to eff off, slams the door, flicks burning ash on the new carpet and runs off with her drug dealer boyfriend - may be tempted to buy Barbara Strauch's book in the hope that it will explain all.

Strauch, as health and medical science editor of The New York Times, has been able to combine interviewing authorities on the brain with shopping trips with her daughters. She has found out that the roots of teenagers'

strange behaviour lie not only in hormones, but also in the uneven development of the grey and white matter in the skull.

This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has struggled in vain to teach Milton to Year 12 only to find its fiercest detractors turned into ardent poetry-lovers six months later, nor to anyone who has had the mixed experience of teaching adolescents to drive; but here it is, dignified with affirmations from the likes of eminent neurologists Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio. The big payoff from this knowledge is that adults can rest assured that no, and despite what the kids in question tell you, it's not your fault. Everyone makes mistakes and deserves more chances. Don't you? Don't they?

The downside is that you still have to deal with their behaviour. If Joe takes to staying out late, is alternately moody and elated, fails to do his coursework, runs up huge phone bills and loses weight, you may know that he is probably taking drugs. You may also know that he is vulnerable to such pressures because the "exuberance" (love that term) of his brain development makes him vulnerable to risks which carry lots of social affirmation. And that the exuberance might settle down, in five years.

Dealing with delinquent or disruptive or destructive behaviour is not the simple matter of "reinforcing boundaries" that Strauch, along with many other writers on adolescence, suggests. If you chuck Joe out or turn him in, will he become one of the rising number of young male suicides? You could threaten him with consequences, but teenagers are notoriously bad at foreseeing consequences. Poor impulse control may be brain-seated or groin-seated: either way, it doesn't brook argument.

Strauch's daughters seem paragons. The worst their mum owns up to is messy rooms, long phone calls, some missed homework and slammed doors. Oh, and a bit of shopping. She skates over more extreme signs of adolescent upheaval such as running away, substance abuse, self-mutilation, vandalism, crime, road accidents, risk-taking pranks, promiscuity and suicide attempts , while the shock felt by many parents - including myself - when the beloved looks you in the eye and tells you to screw yourself, is held up as the low point.

Adolescence, it is clear, is a real set of physical events, some located in the brain, which are enacted in social contexts. It's the contexts which create the problems. For those whose social contexts are far from upscale New York suburbs, Strauch's book has limited reassurance value. Even within that cosy nexus, the news that Junior has wrapped Dad's car round a tree is not likely to be less painful because the parents know that his pre-frontal cortex is not developed, his amygdala responds erratically and his hormones are surging unpredictably. Dad's first thoughts are more likely to be: thank God he's alive, and what's going to happen to the insurance premiums? Youth is a disease from which we all recover, as the saying goes (attributed to early TV hostess Dorothy Fuldheim). Conversely, as Tom Stoppard quipped: "Age is a very high price to pay for maturity."

The only way to approach these painful transitions of life is to make the best of them. If knowing more about the brain of your teen charges rings your bell, then go for Barbara Strauch's book. It's a lot better than asking yourself where you went wrong. And hold on to your hat, it's a rocky ride.

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