Most studies of personal growth focus on the early years, zero to three. Those are the years when our sensory systems of seeing and hearing are developing and many believed that all functions developed in the same manner. But that’s not the way in which the more sophisticated functions work in executive function and emotional regulation. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist, says if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in adolescent years. (And those of you with adolescents are saying, “Tell me about it…”) Steinberg says our self-image from those years is adhesive, so too our preferences. Why at 60, he wonders, is he still listening to the Allman Brothers?
It’s all about our brains, really. Just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—gets very busy. This activity allows young adults the intellectual capacity to identify a notion of a self. However, at the same time, that prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing. It’s still working, adding myelin (a substance that speeds up and improves neural connections), and until it completes that wiring—in our mid-twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain have the greater influence. That’s when we’re all in high school. Now we know why adolescents have problems self-regulating and are so dramatic. Everything is more intense. There is more dopamine activity going on at that time than at any other time in the human cycle.
If all of this is true, and the scientists would have us believe it is, Jennifer Senior, the author of the article, claims most American high schools are sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents. Robert Faris, a sociologist, says it’s like putting people in a large box without any clear predetermined way of sorting status. And status is what it’s all about. Who am I? Where do I fit? Do I belong? Kids create the hierarchies and too often from the crudest common denominator kind of stuff like looks, clothes, and sports abilities. Brene Brown of the University of Houston says most of us opt for one of three possible strategies for the pain. One, we move away and hide. Two, we move toward it and become “people pleasers.” Three, we move against it by using shame and aggression. She believes that whichever method you chose, it becomes your modus operandi for life.
In our adolescence, we were quite sure we knew what reality was. I know I did, but the truth is I didn’t have a clue, was blind and didn’t know I was. What I really had was a story I told myself.
Maybe we can be grateful for all that adolescent angst. We did learn to cope. And perhaps some of the worst of adult America looks like a replay of high school because it’s populated by people who formed their identities in American high schools. Makes it possible to have a little compassion for those so damaged by their experience they’ve not been able to leave it behind or to write a new story and move on. And by the way, have you gone to your high school reunions?