Promoting Healthy Adolescence

University of California psychologist Alison Gopnik has written an excellent new article that summarizes our best scientific understanding of the changing nature and increasing disaffection of modern adolescence. The piece suggests why many teens and tweens today are struggling to achieve a naturally healthy, happy, and autonomous life. Importantly, she proposes what parents, community leaders, and yes, even adolescents can do to change this long-developing and seemingly pandemic trend, one now set in sharp relief by our global economic woes.

Rethinking adolescence

Gopnik’s simple but elegant distillation of developmental psychology’s current assessment of early 21st century adolescence first appeared as a submission to Edge.org and now has been re-printed by The Wall Street Journal in an expanded form, which we find the more valuable of the two.

She begins by framing the topic via three key trends of adolescent life in our time:

  • Adolescence is beginning earlier – for reasons that are not entirely clear (we would propose that fat and sugar-rich diets may be a factor – signalling to our naturally evolved bodies to reproduce sooner)
  • Adolescence is lasting longer – in the form of a new, extended period of pre-adulthood (think twenty-somethings living at home), a developmental phase that is without precedent in earlier natural and agricultural life (when adulthood would have commenced within at most a few years of puberty)
  • Adolescence is getting stranger – the critical and often under-appreciated point that adolescence is not just getting longer, but now is marked by supernormal (hyper-natural) aimlessness, impulsiveness, and dysfunction (the latter we would define as the unnatural under-development of adult goals and reliable action toward them)

Though not included in Gopnik’s discussion, we might add that her third characterization of modern adolescence appears to apply to people of many ages today, and aptly describing modern “affluenza,” with important lessons for adults and social policy.

Causes & opportunities

More importantly, Gopnik links each of these modern-day developments to specific findings from neurological and developmental science – synthesizing key nature and nurture considerations and providing a larger interdisciplinary view that is insightful, predictive, and actionable. Her central conclusions include:

  • Adolescence activates – hardly a surprise, but here activation refers more than to our sexuality and transition to adult form. It includes new brain stimulation and cognitive patterns that are not well-appreciated yet – patterns that are not found in either younger children or mature adults. This critical “adolescent only” mode of brain activation encourages not only the drive for sex, but a number of other fertility-related natural behaviors, including risk-taking, status-seeking, peer-imprinting, and parental aversion.
  • Adolescent brains require tuning – the activated adolescent brain of course has been a part of human life for as long as there have been humans, and even before, but this period of activation was far shorter, more bounded, and healthier in nature than it is today. Why? Gopnik reminds us that we are more than our genes and anatomy, and that our child and adolescent brains need the tuning of natural experience and nurturing social life if they are develop and become shaped correctly for adaptive and happy adult life. Take away these essential experiences, or substitute less than optimal ones for them, and adolescent brain development is likely become limited or delayed. Gopnik proposes that we are seeing both effects now.
  • Adolescents need healthy structure – though not mentioned specifically by Gopnik, past developmental research has suggested that child and adolescent cultivation is best achieved between the extremes of authoritarian and permissive environments – that we develop best in what some psychologists call an authoritative setting. Such settings provide norms and structure, nurturing and guidance, and encouragement of growth and the autonomous formation of adult goals and commitments. Consistent with this important model of human development, Gopnik encourages the augmentation of modern school learning, and the replacement of excessive amounts of unstructured time, with practical and vocational instruction that can help adolescents tune their brains and enter modern adulthood more reliably, naturally, and affirmatively.

With these ideas in mind, Gopnik invites us to consider several common assumptions and approaches to modern adolescence that are likely to hinder rather than help healthy natural development. She also includes new (and old) ideas to use in their place to encourage our steady movement through this developmental phase to the achievement of autonomous modern adulthood.

Learn more

Whether you are a parent, educator, adolescent, community leader, or just someone who cares about or is affected by adolescents (which is all of us), we would encourage you to read through Gopnik’s excellent and useful article at What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind.

If you would like a naturalized perspective on needed structure, for both adolescents and adults, we would encourage you to review HumanaNatura’s Four Natural Health Techniques and Ten Dimensions of Natural Living, our unique framework of health-critical life attributes adapted from the science of natural human life. Both are part of HumanaNatura’s comprehensive, lifelong, and lifewide Personal Health Program, for adults and would-be adults of all ages.

Photo courtesy of Go Team.

Tell your friends about HumanaNatura…promote modern natural life!

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