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Adolescence Is a Syndrome

As a high-school principal, I want to demystify teenagers. I'm an insider. I live with teenagers day in and day out, year after year. I observe them alone and in groups, and am in a somewhat unique position of being able to observe the same child over the course of many years. I have a different perspective from doctors and psychologists.

I am the one who talks with the learning-disabled student who feels as if everyone believes she is lazy. The young man who puts his finger through the wall. The young woman who puts her finger down her throat. I watch the aha experiences in class, the building of the intellect, the struggle for self. I have come to witness this phenomenon we call adolescent culture, its capriciousness, its awkwardness, its joy and its narcissism. I watch your kids from the place you drop them off (four blocks away from school). I watch them at the morning break, in the classroom and the cafeteria, at the lockers. I've listened to them in the counseling office and at the attendance desk (The excuses for lateness rate with the great Academy Award winning performances. One day, I noticed that a record number of grandmothers lost their lives, tragically.) I've read what they scratch onto their desks. I watch them right outside my office window, preening. I eavesdrop on conversations they think I can't hear, about drivers' training, the opposite sex, their "absurd" parents, peers, siblings, teachers, and clothes. My ears have adjusted to voices "marinated in whine," as one teacher put it, mixed with goofiness and pain and elation and helplessness.

Here's the insider's view: adolescence is not just a stage, the way it has traditionally been described. It is also a syndrome, the concurrence of several symptoms in a disease. Once a stage is gone, it does not return. If teenagers were only experiencing a stage, a chronological peak, we could all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Instead, teenagers "catch" something on their journey through life, and the symptoms are somewhat unpredictable.

Adolescence may be chronic (slowly starts but lasts a long time), acute (sudden starts and ends quickly), benign (has relatively few complications, and will probably turn out okay), or malignant (if left alone, in time, it may be terminal). Adolescence may go into remission for a while, but when you least expect it, a rash can spread all over the family.

Adolescence may come from within the host organism or from the outside environment. Since this is a childhood syndrome, we are all predisposed to its eventuality. Other parts come from beyond the child, from experiences over which he or she has little control. And these days, there are a number of environmental hazards out there. Just compare national concerns from the 1950s (absenteeism, fast driving) with those of the 1990s (AIDS, suicide, drug abuse).

The syndrome of adolescence, like other syndromes, can reappear. It's a childhood disease for which we cannot develop an immunity, a kind of measles which can pock our face once again. It has just lain dormant. You and your teenager may both experience adolescence in the same house at the same time. Some refer to it as middlescence, a time of comparable confusion about one's identity and direction.

Classic forms of syndrome prevention include selective breeding or the introduction of some form of inoculation in order to ensure immunity. Since no Nobel Prize winner has come forward with such a solution, we must face the fact that no family is immune; there is no inoculation or anesthesia available. Your child's adolescence is unavoidable; you can't control or avoid adolescence through the elimination of contact. In fact, attempts to do so will result in complications at a much later date. Fixing or preventing adolescence robs young people of the opportunity to be young, to experience their newfound powers of abstraction and intellectual capacity. Though the forms of adolescence change, the teen years are to be lived; they are an essential part of human life to be felt fully and respected. What parents can do is work toward coping and gaining insight and regenerating themselves for the years ahead.

It's difficult to be a caregiver for the adolescent syndrome. Teens may appear as accessible as a gas-station restroom. They can astonish you with their lack of gratitude, their rudeness, their slovenliness and hostility, their impulsivity and manipulation; it's a feature of the syndrome. Check out the theory with teens you know. They'll agree. Adolescence requires a mutual understanding of symptomatology. These days, caregivers talk about how the caregiver and the one receiving care need to work interdependently. Using a medical model, the doctor and the patient need each other as active players in the recovery process. So should this new model in medicine serve as a metaphor for parenting an adolescent.

Some advice:
  • Allow your kids to feel pain, suffer the consequences, deal with setbacks. This is a notion foreign to most modern parents. In our desire to protect our children from the harsh realities of life, we shield them from an essential coping mechanism, the ability to come to terms with failure. Bailing our kids out may rob them of the opportunity to recoup their losses. This does not mean that you abdicate your responsibilities. You still need to be there at the crucial times.
  • Be still. A great deal of adolescent angst needs simple venting. If you go crazy while they do, they'll have no bearing wall on which to lean.
  • Try to avoid adding other strata to this syndrome; a primary one to avoid is sclerosis of the attitude. You've got to stick to your guns, but teenagers react to rigidity with resistance and can undermine all your best efforts. Other strata include lockjaw, in which adolescents and parents cannot communicate, or the common cold (shoulder), in which parents abdicate their responsibility and take an emotional or physical cruise away from their responsibilities.
  • Tell the truth about your life as a teenager with the syndrome. They can smell a hypocrite a mile away. Just remember, it was safer then. And, by and large, you stopped because it got you nowhere or destroyed relationships (if not brain cells).
  • Set your non-negotiables and negotiables. An adolescent with a full blown syndrome needs clarity, s/he also needs a sense of control. You need to be clear about what you believe in the most. But allow your child to win others. If everything is a battle (or you are stuck in being right all the time), you will win the battle but lose the war. To get help with negotiables and non-negotiables, talk with your child's friend's parents. Agree on curfews. Do not let your child attend unchaperoned parties.
  • Keep the following three words in mind: balance, authenticity, respect. If you see yourself going out of balance, do what you can to correct it. Tell the truth. Listen to your child.
  • Finally, call the school. We know them when you may feel you only know about them. We teachers have insights and stories to tell.
We educators, who live with teens all day long, stay with teaching because of the clear conviction that behind much of the anguish is a soul breaking free and defining itself; behind the anger and sullenness is an individual trying to make sense of change; lurking under the surface of raw feeling is the emergence of leadership; behind the occasional confusion in school and its accompanying self-deprecation is a budding intelligence. We who teach can appreciate that wide range of "normal" behavior, year after year. We can love them when you are having a hard time liking them. We can know them when you only know about them. We also know that those values which go underground have only lain dormant, and we watch those values reemerge. We know that most turn out well - the ones that have given you a hard time, the ones that were filled with fear, the tentative and nerdy and abrasive ones. We know that this syndrome, if appreciated, can even feel good, especially during those serendipitous occasions when you find yourself engaging in a real conversation. We know that when they are believed in and when their feelings and thoughts count for something, they are capable of greatness.

Fred Mednick is the executive director/founder of Teachers Without Borders that addresses a pressing need for durable educational change and solutions, worldwide, at the secondary level.

Fred Mednick, Adolescence Is a Syndrome. New Horizons for Learning. Retrieved March 9, 2005, from the World Wide Web

CRN would like to thank Dr. Dee Dickinson for permitting reproduction of "Adolescence Is a Syndrome", an article in New Horizons for Learning.
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