Everyone remembers the pain, the glory, the sheer intensity of their high school years. But does it ever recede into memory, or are it’s effects more permanent? In her spellbinding recent article in New York magazine called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School,” Jennifer Senior makes the case that, despite your longing to forget those angst-filled years, high school really does last forever. Ah, shit.
Last night, while hanging out with friends in the ‘burbs, more than one of us commented on the other-worldliness of our current life situations. Those mortgage payments are ours? Those cars? Those husbands? Even though some of us have burgeoning middle schoolers, the thought that we are actually responsible for other humans occasionally comes as a shock. It’s like that Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime“: And you may ask yourself… Well, how did I get here? You didn’t form these ideas, of who you would be in the world, in childhood. You formed them in adolescence. Mostly during high school. Right or wrong, it’s the barometer of your sense of self.
Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, tells us that there is a maelstrom that occurs during our teenage years. As it strikes, we form our identity and conceptualize who we are. This is when you start trying to figure things out on your own instead of relying on your parents. It’s when you begin to think abstractly and form your own opinions. It’s when you begin to learn how to control your impulses (spending, sex, staying up all night). It’s when you are developing an internal mirror: being able to reflect on your behavior. However, note the words “begin, start and develop.” The pre-frontal cortex is not fully formed until your early twenties. Which is why you, me and everyone else in high school, were complete idiots. Probably not the best time to figure out who you are.
We are also told by Dr. Steinberg and Brene Brown PhD, that a complex cocktail of dopamine (swirling around in large amounts to make feel things more intensely), sex hormones and shame combine to add further injury to an already perilous time. Vision, hearing and the other senses? Fully onboard in adolescence. Executive function and emotional regulation? Not so much. As a result, lots of us develop coping mechanisms to get us through the flurry of emotion surrounding us. These strategies often stay with us on into adulthood: gossiping, keeping secrets, people pleasing and becoming the class clown. Sound familiar?
A recent Pew Research study found that 22% of Facebook friends are from high school. Kinda makes you not want to go to your high school reunion. After all, you already know the football team’s star quarterback is bald, the prom queen’s been divorced five times and your “best friend” posts photos smoking pot with her 14 year old daughter. Why pay for a dress and bore your husband with an evening among people who are barely “friend”-worthy on Facebook? Meanwhile, the kid who got his face pushed into the locker on a daily basis made a billion with an internet start-up. Clearly, your assumptions in high school were at best inaccurate and at worst, embarrassingly wrong.
And now that you drive a car that doesn’t break down every other day, go home to a house of kids (and not a too small apartment with too many roommates) and have a significant other that doesn’t resemble a pile of neediness, now, yes now, is when your child enters high school. And that is precisely when it starts all over again. In Senior’s article, she advises that as parents, we “re-experience” the horrors, and perhaps joys, of high school all over again. When our kids go through what we went through, it’s as though it’s happening to us. Again. Shit.
So, suburbanites, let’s make a plan, okay? When those painful moments come up, the breakups, the frenemies, the turf wars, the stereotypes; let’s remind them and ourselves that their bodies are still growing and changing. Their brains have yet to form the last wrinkles and creases of a fully formed cortex. Things right now feel really bad for a reason, there is in fact a neurochemical basis for their powerful feelings. Let’s tell them we don’t expect them to make decisions like an adult yet, and that we are here to help. We will tell them stories of what we went through, but not too many, to their cringing faces but still open minds. We won’t label them at a time in their lives when they are most susceptible to becoming what they hear. When needed, we will call them out. By letting them know that being vulnerable is a universal human emotion, maybe they will feel community even as they hurt. As we tell their rolling eyes that they are worthy and lovable, we have to believe that we are getting in somehow. We have science that tells us definitively that teenagers have a highly distorted view of their social world, and we should tell them that. Carefully.
They will tell us we are full of shit, but we will do it anyway. Because we know better. We are the grown-ups.
In the meantime, I will be celebrating my friend Sharron’s 40th birthday. The theme? “Prom of Your Life.” This time, there will be no weeks of starving before putting on the dress. No crying on the tile floor of the high school bathroom. No drinking California Coolers til your vomit turns raspberry red. No waiting to be asked. This time, it’s going to be fun.
Cute photo on top courtesy of Barbara Paulsen, Mt. Hood Mama photos. Not so cute photo, yours truly.