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10 July 2024

Inside the teenage mind

Why understanding the wild and fragile world of adolescence helps us better know ourselves.

By Sophie McBain

A workplace can be happy or dysfunctional in any number of ways, but ask someone about their secondary-school social hierarchy  and they’d describe something instantly recognisable, and closely resembling the setting for Mean Girls. There are the popular kids – the confident, athletic guys and attractive, socially adept girls – and the nerds, with several strata in between. The “popular” kids can be cruel and Machiavellian, and they are often widely envied and disliked – psychologists call this “perceived popularity”. But there are also always some people with “high sociometric popularity”: these are the kind, decent kids, the ones who might stand up to a bully, who really are liked by almost everyone.

When you’re inside, this hierarchy feels all-consuming. Your friendship group will never define you in the same way it does when you are a teenager, trying to establish your place in the world. It might be tempting to think of school cliques as warped, immature versions of adult social groups, but the University of Oxford psychologist Lucy Foulkes sees them as complex systems worth studying on their own terms. Entering or leaving a teenage friendship group can, after all, be as involved and formal a process as changing jobs, she observes.

Our teenage friendship groups can shape the kinds of people we become: being bullied can affect you for life, while teenagers with high sociometric popularity go on to have more academic and professional success, as well as better mental and physical health than their less-well-liked peers – largely because they have greater social support, a wide and useful network, and well-developed interpersonal skills. Being one of the cool kids is less of a guarantee: the risk-taking that boosts a teenager’s status can have disastrous consequences, and being bitchy or aggressive may one day backfire. If you’re viewed as a loser, this might influence your self-image and confidence years after these things are supposed to matter.

As this discussion of school cliques suggests, many of Foulkes’ observations about teenagers make intuitive sense – which doesn’t mean they are obvious, because we tend not to think too systematically or deeply about such subjects. Foulkes is an expert in the psychology of adolescence, and is the author of Losing Our Minds: What Mental Health Really Is – and What It Isn’t, which cautioned against the modern tendency to over-diagnose mental illness, to view strong and difficult emotions as necessarily pathological. In Coming of Age she argues that understanding the psychology of teenagers will not only help us better understand a group that is often underestimated and misunderstood, but will also help us better know ourselves. Reflecting on adolescence means “celebrating our former selves: the wild and fragile person that helped us become who we are today”, she writes.

Whether they are 35 or 85, when adults are asked to write down their ten most important memories to date, most of the events they choose will be from their teens and twenties. Researchers call this the “reminiscence bump”, and they have advanced various explanations. It might be that our brain is at its prime during those years, and best able to lay down long-term memories, or that this period of life contains lots of novelty and firsts. But Foulkes believes it’s also because these years are crucial to our self-identity. She argues that as teenagers we’re biologically primed to seek out identity-defining experiences; we are answering an evolutionary drive to find our tribe, and a mate. Adolescence is also when we become able to tell stories about ourselves, when we are first able to impose a narrative on to the mess and chaos of living, and articulate who we are and who we want to be. Sometimes we carry this foundational story with us for life, and sometimes our defining narrative is less like a novel than a short-story collection: you might feel like a completely different being from your “wild and fragile” pubescent self, but you cannot fully disown them.

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Coming of Age is a wise and compassionate book, and moving too. She interviews adults (most of them based in the UK) about their teenage years, and interweaves their stories with science and psychology. Adolescence is partly biologically driven but also culturally bound, she writes, and her book focuses on the experiences of teenagers growing up in the Western world. The adults reminisce about acting out and being bullied, losing a friend, or losing a parent. One woman talks about becoming a teenaged mum, and then losing her baby to a genetic disorder. Adolescence can be joy-filled but these are also difficult years, even for those who do not experience such profound trauma. “Adolescence is a continual process of loss, of repeatedly shedding the layers of innocence and naivety that protect our childhood selves,” Foulkes observes.

Some of teenagers’ most infuriating habits seem a little less so when seen from Foulkes’ perspective. The common obsession with clothing, or appearance, is an understandable result of teenagers’ necessary efforts to establish their identity and their group. Looks and clothes play a huge role in establishing social status, and fashion can be a “tool for social survival”, she writes. When parents wonder why their child has to have this particular trainer, or that expensive jacket when the Primark version is virtually identical, they fail to appreciate the social value of branding. One interesting study found that having branded clothing matters less to students in private school than in state comprehensives. When almost everyone can afford them, expensive clothes lose their social cachet.

When teenagers take risks – when they drink too much or experiment with drugs or generally do stupid teenaged things – it’s rarely because they don’t understand the dangers, Foulkes argues. Experiments suggest that many teens in fact overestimate risk. Often, teenagers do dumb things because it feels good, and teens are evolutionarily primed to explore, experiment and exert their independence. Risk-taking is also socially rewarded, but, contrary to popular belief, teens are rarely pushed by their peers into doing things they don’t also want to do. Of course we want to prevent teens from making catastrophically bad, life-changing decisions, but over-protection can also backfire, preventing them from learning about the world, thwarting their ability to develop their own judgement and isolating them from their peers. Sometimes adults simply misunderstand risky behaviour: when teenagers have unprotected sex it might not be just out of carelessness but because the negotiations around using a condom can be hard and awkward, at any age.

Although Coming of Age isn’t structured like a self-help or guide book, Foulkes smuggles in plenty of advice for parents or teachers.  She notes, for example, that most of the time, giving teenagers permission to avoid things they find anxiety-inducing – for example, allowing them to skip school – is a bad idea. Confronting our fears can be a good way of conquering them, of proving to ourselves that we can cope, while listening to anxiety often reinforces it. Foulkes lists evidence-backed interventions to combat bullying and writes in support of a pragmatic approach to teaching children about sex. It makes sense, for example, to teach children about porn early, as many encounter it well before adults start talking to them about it. Rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs are lower in the Netherlands than the US, where much sex education focuses – entirely unrealistically – on abstinence. Dutch parents have greater trust in their teens and are more likely to allow their teenager’s boyfriend or girlfriend to sleep over, on the assumption that they will not have sex until they are ready. Americans, on the other hand, are more controlling, more likely to believe that their teenagers cannot master their own sexual impulses.

I imagine I might want to reread this book when my own children become teens. But for now, I found it helped me better understand my own awkward adolescence, the anxious and debilitatingly shy person I tried so hard to outgrow. When we reflect on our adolescent growing pains and ordeals, Foulkes writes, we should try to cultivate a sense of closure, the feeling of one chapter ending and a new one beginning. We might try to write ourselves a redemption narrative and conclude that some good came out of our adversity, or be stuck with a “contamination story”, the sense that some traumatic event cast darkness over the good that preceded or followed it. We cannot change our pasts, she counsels, but we can change the kind of story we tell. She hopes that once we better understand the psychology of these awkward, in-between years we can start to be a bit kinder towards our awkward, in-between selves. And who wouldn’t want that?

Coming of Age: How Adolescence Shapes Us
Lucy Foulkes
Bodley Head, 240pp, £22

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[See also: Shakespeare’s guide to living]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change