Teenage biology: Those raging hormones

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In the first of a four-part series focusing on the biology of the teenage body and how it affects their education, Dr Stephanie Thornton discusses adolescent turbulence and asks: is it all in the hormones?

More than 100 years ago, G. Stanley Hall described adolescence as a period of “sturm und drang” – storm and stress – a period characterised by conflict with the adult world, moodiness and risky behaviour. Not a lot seems to have changed over the past century: his description of adolescent turmoil seems as familiar today as it was in the 19th century.

What causes all this turmoil? The transition from childhood to adult sexuality obviously involves an enormous upheaval, with changing roles and expectations, changing pressures and challenges.

Psychologists in the mid-20th century focused on this, arguing that it is the adolescent search for an adult identity and for individuality, for an adult role in the world, that fuels the challenge to parents, the risky explorations of the world, and the moody response to the stress that all this entails.

If hormones were considered as a factor in all this, it was as the vector of bodily change – and the source of the new sexual drives that orient the young away from the familiar same-sex friendships that characterise childhood to the unfamiliar territory of lust – generating yet more socio-emotional change to challenge the young. But this view of adolescence began to change toward the end of the 20th century, with the rise of more biological models of what is going on at this crucial stage of development.

Hormones and adolescence

Transparently, the core biological feature of adolescence is the changing body, from the (relative) pre-sexuality of childhood to a fully functional sexual reproductive system and drive.

We have long understood that this change is triggered by the rise of sexual hormones, and that it is these hormones that shape and sustain our femininity or masculinity. 

Through the latter decades of the 20th century these hormones were discovered to be associated with a variety of mood-related phenomena beyond sexuality per se – a tendency to aggression linking to testosterone, and a tendency to depression with oestrogen, for example. And progressively, the problems of the teenage years began to be characterised as the product of “all those raging hormones”.

How do we cope with the effects of rampaging adolescent hormones in the classroom? Explaining difficult teenage behaviour in terms of hormones has some important practical implications. 

For example: Jack has become very aggressive. Poor lad! He’s just been hit by a wave of testosterone, he hasn’t yet learned how to manage his reactions. Nothing we can do about that. Better cut him some slack – and maybe enrol him in a boxing class to work off some of that steam.

We scarcely even notice anymore how very “medicalised” this view of Jack’s behaviour – and our appropriate response – is. 

Take the biological emphasis away and the difference is clear: Jack has become very aggressive. Poor lad! He must be struggling with some frustrating or frightening challenge. Maybe we can find out what, and help him to cope...

We are currently living through a period of rapid expansion in our understanding of the biological processes that underlie behaviour. With it has come a very general tendency to see those biological processes as the dominating factor in determining behaviour: it’s in the genes/the neurological circuitry/the hormones... 

And so it is – but generally, not in the way reported by the media. Things are much, much more complicated than is popularly supposed – and the practical implications of this new research are not what is generally inferred.

A complex system

Take the case of adolescent hormones: yes indeed, there are major hormonal changes in puberty, but these are neither quite what is generally supposed, nor do they impact as is generally assumed.

For example: sexual hormones don’t suddenly switch on in the early teens, there is mounting evidence that these hormones begin to rise many years earlier, in children as young as seven, even if they reach critical levels much later.

Equally, there is mounting evidence that much of the behaviour we view as typical of adolescence (the moodiness and difficultness, the impulsive risk-taking) is more the result of changes in the structure and function of the brain rather than overwhelming tsunamis of hormones per se. True, these changes in the brain seem to be intimately tied to hormones. Hormonal changes are thought to play a crucial role in triggering the increased reactivity of brain systems, regulating social and emotional responses, for example, and those governing reactions to reward.

But increasingly, researchers are arguing that it is adolescent change in these socio-emotional brain centres, rather than the direct action of hormones, that drives the moodiness and stimulus-seeking of adolescence – and that it is the fact that brain systems involved in planning and self-control develop later than these socio-emotional centres that results in impulsiveness and risk-taking.

Poor Jack! Driven by new desires, challenged by brain systems that react far more powerfully and urgently to emotional stimuli than do those of either a child or an adult, yet lacking the cognitive power to assess risks or inhibit his own behaviour – what is a teacher to do?

Practical implications in the classroom

For all the advances, research into the biological bases of adolescent behaviour is very new. In fact, far less has been firmly established by science than the media would have you believe – and much research relevant to the teacher is not reported at all. So while there are practical implications, these are not what the popular press supposes.

1, Don’t over-medicalise adolescent behaviour. Neuroscience and endocrinology are not the only disciplines studying teenage behaviour. And in fact, virtually all current studies of neurology and hormones have come from “Westernised” societies – and from relatively small samples at that. And that leaves important questions unanswered. 

For example, cross-cultural studies by psychologists find that the difficult behaviours we expect in the teenage years don’t happen in all cultures. Are “sturm und drang” somehow created by the way our culture handles teenagers, rather than by the hormonal or brain changes we have discovered – which are presumably universal features of puberty across all cultures? As interesting as the new research is, there is presently no evidence whatever to justify explaining Jack’s specific behaviour in terms of either his hormones or his brain structures.

2, Address the specifics. Even if there are challenging biological changes at puberty, behaviour does not occur in a psychological or social vacuum. There is always something that is the focus for rage or depression, for challenging authority or impulsive risk-taking. It may be that “something” actually is the real problem – and if so, addressing it directly will resolve matters. 

But even if the apparent focus of the situation has been blown out of all proportion by some physiological factor, addressing the specifics is by far the best way forward. We do not learn to control our emotions in the abstract, but in relation to specific situations. We don’t learn to think through the consequences of our actions in the abstract either. Whether we are simply helping a youth to solve problems better or (in doing so) fostering the maturing of neurological systems (and we are likely doing both), addressing specifics of the situation is the way forward

3, Cut the right slack. Dismissing difficult behaviour as a biological inevitability ignores a chance to foster development. It’s only by trying to control emotions that we can manage our feelings and reactions and also shape the relevant brain systems in order to control them more efficiently. Nothing in science supports the view that we should tolerate bad behaviour. On the other hand: if teenage brains are more immature than we have previously supposed, there is a strong case for shifting the balance from a punitive criticism toward more positive support for better behaviour. 

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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