Why Teenagers Aren’t Grown-Ups

(Written by Guest Blogger Mrs. Y.)

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about how parents can help their adolescent spawn establish themselves as adults, including in matters of the heart and, uh, other parts.  But today I want to talk about why I don’t think teenagers are adults.  Obviously I draw a distinction between teens living under the economic protection and supervision of a competent parent/guardian and, say, a 19-year-old soldier or a 16-year old emancipated minor or a 15-year old being raised by wolves – but that’s more in terms of their rights and needs than in terms of the havoc that nature wreaks upon them.

Psychologists don’t agree on all the factors that define adolescence, but three stand out: the increased significance of the peer group to the adolescent, the search for identity, and the development of advanced capacity for abstract thinking, which is frequently outpaced by rapid social and emotional development.  I posit (based on my medical degree from The Mommy Institute and my reading) that life events during this stage rewire more neural pathways than they do in adulthood because the brain is still developing so wildly in teens.

So no matter what happens to you or what you do when you’re an adolescent, these things don’t make you an adult; they simply shape the man or woman you will ultimately become.  Not all adults are good examples of adulthood by this definition – we all know plenty of 30 and 40-somethings in identity crisis, or people who can’t deal outside their own generational cohort, or people with no abstract thinking skills or social and emotional skills like a third grader.  We also know that those adults are lacking, and who wants their kids to be like those guys?

I could expand upon this topic endlessly, but since Karen’s blog is about adolescent sexuality I will confine myself to sexuality.  Adolescent bodies, social instincts, and emotions develop way faster than their ability to envision realistic consequences or incorporate abstractions (like value systems) into their decision-making processes.  Every physical response we take for granted in our adult selves (I will get an erection if I am in close proximity to someone I find attractive, I will want to reach out and touch the boy who looks at me with adoration and desire in his eyes) is a novel experience in adolescence.  Adults learn and can to some degree forecast the impact of these physical gestures and phenomena, but teens are just learning the power of a caress.

Parents of earth: if you confine sex ed to what the school offers or a quick discussion of adolescent effluvia, personal hygiene, and tab a meets slot b, you are just asking for your kids to develop their ideas of appropriate adult sexuality from porn, literature (heaven forfend!), your life mistakes, their friends, and/or (insert name of scary pop culture figure here).  See you tomorrow!


  1. I think it’s important to remember that teens, like adults, come in a wide range of competencies and that those competencies are largely determined by the culture. I’m reading “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, and realizing (again) the amazing competency of my parents’ generation, many of whom went to war or stepped up to other enormous challenges as teenagers. The word “teenager” wasn’t even in common usage until sometime after 1938; there were children and adults, and adulthood happened no later than 18 for most people.

    I think if school was structured such that adolescents could spend most of their time doing meaningful, important community work; if they felt their opinions mattered to society and were included in all decisions; if they had the freedom and encouragement to find compelling work; your words would be painting a different picture.

    That paintbrush is awfully wide when you say things like, “Adolescent bodies, social instincts, and emotions develop way faster than their ability to envision realistic consequences or incorporate abstractions (like value systems) into their decision-making processes.” I know plenty of teenagers with a fine ability to envision realistic consequences. And most children have great value systems, if adults would care to inquire, and leave their superior attitude at the door.

    My point is the adults control the culture and largely define what we will and will not allow adolescents to do and learn. You just have to think back to WWII to know that’s true. Sexuality education is a good example. Arming young people with comprehensive information that includes not only the physiology but the psychology of sex and relationships with concrete strategies to deal with the complexities of relationship that we all, especially teenagers, encounter on a daily basis, would go a long way toward supporting them to adulthood.

  2. I remember when the sex ed unit came up in health class my junior year in high school, they gave us permission slips for our parents to sign. The idea that I might have to talk to my mom about sex scared me so much that I left the permission slip at her place at the table before I went to bed that night. The next morning when I got up and she was still asleep, it was signed, at my place at the table. That was the end of that discussion!

  3. […] commenter on yesterday’s post makes some very good comments about adolescence as a social construct.  I couldn’t agree […]

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