When prospective mothers and fathers imagine the joys of parenthood, they seldom envision the adolescent years. Adolescence is the stretch of childhood that Nora Ephron opined can be survived only by acquiring a dog (“so that someone in the house is happy to see you”).
Gone are the first smiles, warm nuzzles, and cheerful games of catch. They’ve been replaced by 5 a.m. hockey practices, renewed adventures in trigonometry, and middle-of-the-night requests for rides home. And these are the hardships generated by the good adolescents. Yet their parents are still going half mad. Which raises an important question: Is it possible that adults experience adolescence differently from children? That the classification, in fact, might be more useful for parents than for the children it attempts to describe?
Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist and quite possibly the country’s foremost authority on adolescence, believes there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “Adolescence does not seem to be a difficult time for the kids,” he tells me. “Most of them go through life in a very pleasant haze. It’s when I talk to the parents that I hear, ‘My teenager [is] driving me crazy.’”
In the 2014 edition of his best-known textbook, Adolescence, Steinberg debunks the myth of the querulous teen with even more vigor. “The hormonal changes of puberty,” he writes, “have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal; few adolescents experience a tumultuous identity crisis.”
Not so for parents, however. In 1994, Steinberg published Crossing Paths, one of the few book-length accounts of how parents weather the transition of their firstborns into puberty, based on a study he conducted of more than 200 families. Forty percent of his sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence—nearly one half of the mothers and one third of the fathers. Parents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; that their sex lives had declined; and that they had experienced increases in headaches, insomnia, and upset stomachs.
It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of midlife rather than the presence of teenagers in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest this notion. “We were much better able to predict what an adult was going through psychologically,” he writes, “by looking at his or her child’s development than by knowing the adult’s age.”
Which is to say that a mother of 43 and a mother of 53 have far more in common, psychologically speaking, if they both have 14-year-olds than two moms of the same age with kids who are seven and 14. And the mothers of the adolescents, according to Steinberg’s research, are much more likely to be experiencing distress.
Steinberg has a theory about why this is. Adolescents, in his view, exacerbate conflicts already in progress, especially those at work or between the parents, sometimes unmasking problems parents hadn’t recognized or consciously acknowledged for years. You might say that adolescents are the human equivalent of salt, intensifying whatever mix they’re in.
Steinberg might even go so far as to say that the so-called crises of midlife would be a good deal less troublesome if adolescents weren’t around. But teenagers have an uncanny way of throwing problems, whatever they are, into high relief.