The Biology of Teens

by Lori Dwyer on April 26, 2012 · 10 comments

Following on from Biology (part one), by special request.

Teenagers are, by all psychological laws and principles, insane.

Studying at university, my tutor for mental health subjects was a woman named Dr Meg, and she was all shades of sparkling awesome. She had bipolar disorder. Having been in and out of the mental health system for the past twenty years, she spoke with passion and objective honesty in regards to mental health. She was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. When she was manic, she had delusions that she was the Virgin Mary, and told us she actually saw herself shrouded in blue when she looked at her own image in the mirror.

One particular day, another student asked a question about small children and their tendency to create imaginary friends. The answer from Dr Meg was succinct and perfect– “Oh yes. Young children, teenagers as well… they’re quite mad.”

The teenage years are as intense in brain growth and developing synapses and neural pathways as the early childhood stage. It’s a bloodbath of hormones, impulses, and core life lessons; and it’s one of those two times in your life where you are malleable and so easily influenced, because you’re finding a sense of self. As a child, you need to develop some independence, some sense of being a separate entity from those around you– that inherent clinginess babies develop at about nine months is simply their brain beginning to realize that they are, in fact, a separate person from their mother.

From the ages of about thirteen to eighteen (depending on who you ask– the definition of ‘teenage years’ is varied and continues to start at a younger and younger age. It’s sadly logical, if you look at it– by the time a child of this modern time is ten years old, they will have absorbed more information that someone who live to eighty in the 1900’s), the brain becomes a very hectic place, biologically and psychologically. Most of your social identity is formed during these years. It’s as teens that we find out who we really are– how you like to dress, what makes you laugh, what music you enjoy. Is there any music you prefer to the songs of your teendom? Of course not… It’s part of your soul now.

While finding out who you are is fabulous, it’s also painful and difficult and fraught with the potential for heartache and insecurity. I’ve said before– being a teenage girl is torture. The push to fit in, to be a part of something, to belong… it’s overwhelming. It’s natural. Think primal again for a bit– cave man style, a sixteen year old was actually half way through their life span, fertile, and ready to start a family.

Ready to move on, move in, and assimilate with a tribe of their own.

A quick study of any random group of kids at your local shopping centre will confirm this… they dress, act, and talk alike; and that is important at that age. Remember arguing with your mum over why you desperately needed to go somewhere with your friends, or how badly you needed that particular bag or haircut or pair of shoes to be accepted? I know, looking back now, you wonder what the hell was going on in your head. It wasn’t your fault, and, if you are the parent of teens now (may God have mercy on us all…) it’s not your fault. (Another lecture, sociology this time, speaking of this very thing, and referring to own sixteen year old daughter, who had found her identity as a goth, back before emo’s existed– “She has very long, blond hair,” he smiled, resigned and sad but somehow proud of his girl, finding who she is in a big wide world, “I think she may have to dye it black soon, which will be very sad for her.” He seemed to understand that she had no choice in the matter, that the primal push to belong to a tribe was deeper even than the vanity of a sixteen year old girl.)

It’s simple biology, pushing into social interactions in a way no one really gets. Part of becoming an adult is, I guess, learning to curb and control it.

On top of all that, there’s the simple fact that, again sometime between the ages of thirteen and eighteen– right up to twenty one for the males of the species– your neurological structure is changing and reforming. Hormones are pumping through your body, your glands, your neural pathways in spiking levels that you haven’t experienced since birth. There’s a tribal instinct that calls you to feed, to dance, to mate, to strengthen those social bonds– hence that midnight escape route through the bedroom window. (My mum was so onto me… a few weeks after I snuck out for the first time, she layed a carpet of pebbles, gravel and broken tiles up the side of our house, all innocence and murmuring things about bad drainage. It took me years to click… clever woman. I underestimated my mum, as my kids will, no doubt, underestimate me.)

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I’m fairly sure that’s where the ’mad’ comes into things– that hormonal rewiring of the brain can leave massive gaps in social processes and thought patterns. They’re filled, eventually, of course– for most people, there are some that just never grow up– but it’s in those spaces that small children grow imaginary friends. It’s that lapse of logic that causes so man young men to die on our roads.

I’m not sure about countries other than Australia, but I’m imagining most western societies share the same horrifying road toll statistics when it comes to young male drivers and high speed crashes. If you really push it, you can almost make the decorated, highly plumed cars of young men as another one of those leftovers from tribal life… think peacocks, and you might be onto something.

Even without stretching things that far, it’s psychologically accepted that one of the main chunks missing from the brain of young adults is the ability to link actions to consequences. While most reasonably intelligent kids know that driving at 140 kms on a windy road in the dark is a very bad idea, on principle, the actual consequences of their actions don’t mesh with what they’re doing. They’re aware of what could happen… but it will not happen to them. That’s not so much willful ignorance or arrogance speaking, it is the simple fact that the wiring between those two parts of the brain– consequence to action– is either MIA, off at the pub or still growing and developing, cell by cell.

I’m not giving excuses here– I’m continually distressed by the road toll amongst young people, especially in semi–rural areas such as the one I’m living in now. And I’m certainly not saying “That’s the way it is, boys will be boys, la dee da, no hum”. It’s our job, as the relative elders of this modern society, to find ways to teach kids about rights and responsibilities, to show th
em the potential consequences of their actions in a way that will enable those pathways in the brain to develop at a younger age, in a stronger fashion. Or raise the legal driving age to twenty one.

Let’s not even start on the bitchiness of teenage girls and bullying… the psychology behind that is another post, for another day.

We’re all crazy, maybe. It just teens and really little kids, they’re slightly more so.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Alma May 1, 2012 at 1:20 am

Before someone is diagnosed with any sort of disorder there are signs that are well observed depending on what kind of disorder it is. I have here 5 warning signs that your teen might be suffering from dipolar disorder.


Easy Peasy Kids April 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Lori, spot on fab post, we seem toforget as adults the highly strung emotions a teenagers faces. I'm off to share this now Nx


Kim April 27, 2012 at 9:07 am

Lori, Thank You! I've been having a horrible couple of days with my independent, indestructible, know-it-all 18 year old son. I was seriously considering trying to find him a new home. :) JUST KIDDING….maybe.

Your post reminded me that he can't help that he's crazy and has no logical thought in his mind. It's not that he WILL not consider consequences, it's that he CAN not. I knew this, I just needed to be reminded.

The teenage years are horrible. I would never want to go back and repeat them, however, some days living with him and my 16-year old daughter is like reliving those God awful years.

I'm holding on for dear life and will see them through this. (From my lips to God's ears!)


Melissa April 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Sometimes being a parent is terrifying. Teenagers! Gah!


Miss Pink April 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Hmm, I don't know. Sometimes I wonder if not for my children I would be more insane than I was in my teen years. Which is pretty scary.
I was talking to Bluey just yesterday telling him how afriad I am of the teen years. It sends me into a panic even now, and I've got at LEAST five more years until it hits. I am petrified of being a mum to teenage boys. I don't have any brothers, only mates I grew up with, and, well, stories from Mr Black. If my kids turn out like him I think I may shoot us all!


Anonymous April 26, 2012 at 11:07 am

Well said! As the mother of two teen boys (god help me!) and a 21 year old daughter who thankfully has come out the other side of those horrid attitude filled teen years, I am able to say thank god they do settle down & it does end!! It's a nightmare to live through & it's such a shame our gorgeous happy children have to morph into these angry hostile nasty teens but sadly they do and all we can do is be there & love them & wait it out! Oh the joys of being a parent! ;)


Debyl1 April 26, 2012 at 10:47 am

Im sitting here crying my eyes out.I have been going through hell with my teenage daughter and yes have all those feelings of where did I go wrong.
We have always been there for her and had a very special bond.Would sit and talk for hours after school and share her life with me.She has gone from a loving mature sensible nice girl to a selfish mean spirited nasty girl from hell.
I understand its the hormones and the new stress of working and uni etc but it doesnt stop the hurt of my heart breaking with every mean word she says.
Thankyou for making me more aware and maybe a bit stronger with me being reminded its a natural process I just have to ride out.


Maxabella April 26, 2012 at 9:13 am

Terrific post, Lori. x


Something Gorgeous April 26, 2012 at 8:44 am

Wow, that was a very interesting post. Everything you say seems to make sense. My teenager also has bipolar which makes everything doubly complicated. Boys really do think they are indestructible which makes us fear even more for their safety and some of the decisions they make.
Once again, thank you xT


Anne April 26, 2012 at 8:42 am

That really resonates with me, having lived through the teenage years with 3 kids (the youngest is about to hit 21). The eldest (boy) was our wild child and to be honest, there were stages when I seriously doubted that he would live to see 21. For my own sanity and the mental health of the whole family, I decided that I would only worry when the police arrived to tell me that he was in hospital, in jail or dead. Having said that, he has now completed a trade, is working in WA and reaches 26 in a couple of weeks, whew!
I've followed your blog for quite a while now and appreciate your insights. Thank you.


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