I’m not sure who to blame for that, I think I might have read six YA books from 11-20, and at a guess all were for school. But anyway, I’ve been reading some published and better known YA and like any other market it has its good and good toilet paper entries. Coincidentally I ran across an essay I wrote in college asking "What are teenagers?" I’m entirely sure I don’t have all the answers, which puts me ahead of some of the second category, I don’t even remember what I got for a grade, but it was supposed to be a brief, one off of our understanding of the question.
So what are adolescents? That’s a question with dozens of answers most of which are highly subjective. Relevant to this course adolescence is a chemical, physical, emotional, and social period of life, which has highly individual and often conflicting speeds, and scales of progression. Because of the idiosyncratic progression of these partitions of development it is often hard for anyone, including the adolescent to know exactly where along the progression to the nearly equally nebulous state of adulthood someone is.
The physical state is almost certainly the easiest component to ascertain about an individual. In males, the physical changes are not as extreme as in females but can be pointed out. The voice deepens, body and facial hair appear or become more dense, and the body takes on a more typically ‘masculine’ appearance such as broadening of the shoulders and height begins to outpace females. In females, breasts become more prominent, menstrual cycles being and as in males body hair becomes more visible. The brain is still growing at this point and while not visible, it is a physical change that effects behavior, especially as the logic centers are not believed to be fully developed until late adolescence. Unfortunately, as these things take place at vastly different ages, and not necessarily in conjunction with each other they are almost entirely useless for discerning anything except the physical state of an individual.
Chemically speaking an adolescent is one armed fire fighter with little to no equipment and forest fire bearing down on them. In simpler terms they’re ill equipped to do a dangerous job (survival) in a very hostile environment (the real world). Chemical signals such as those for arousal that didn’t exist for most of their life are suddenly a near constant, unpredictable presence. The chemical process that signals the need for sleep begins coming in later and later while the need to conform to the rest of the worlds schedule remains.
Socially, an adolescent is faced with multiple, often drastically conflicting drives they can, and do feel themselves pulled in numerous directions. Two often conflicting drives are the need to make oneself unique enough to attract a mate through prowess in some area or simple physical beauty, and the need to conform to whatever group or groups standards they are or wish to be a part of and so that they are not driven from or excluded from the group. During this stage of development, they also have to deal with the conflicts between themselves and authority figures that include parents, teachers, and others as they acquire an identity.
And last is perhaps the most difficult are to quantify, the mental state. Anyone who has spent sufficient time around teens, or listened to their friends and family talk about their teens has heard, and probably numerous times expressions to the effect of “… she’s fourteen going on forty.”, to describe the mercurial switches back and forth between ‘young child’ and ‘miniature adult’ that many, or most teens go through, sometimes multiple times daily. Part of this is caused by the fluctuating chemical state, part by the range of interests of the adolescent expanding faster that it attrites, another segment can be laid at the door of struggles with changes in body shape, size, and image. An interesting paradox that many people overlook is that most people, regardless of age or developmental state, will behave exactly as they feel is expected of them as perceived through various social cues, especially those from authority figures, which when the cues for expected behavior change, or don’t match the verbal cues can lead to seemingly incongruous reactions.
So what are teenagers again? The worst possible combination of adult and child, struggling to be, be what they feel is right, and who have been handed a jumbled box of unfamiliar tools, a moth eaten, fire damaged manual written in a language they only half understand and told to go build a life with.