That was the question posed, just a few months ago, by writer Jennifer Senior in her exhaustive cover story on the possibly “corrosive” effects of high school for New York magazine. And to be completely honest, it’s still got us scratching our heads!
In the article, the author summarizes the current science on adolescent development and high school socialization to try to tease out the true impact of the teenage years—and to understand why such a short span of our personal history has such lasting psychological importance. And while no true conclusions are reached, what we found most interesting (and we think you will too!) was that the article seems to suggest that adolescence—the moodiness, the search for identity, the inability to judge character—isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that we dump teens into a tank of equally unstable and judgmental strangers (aka high school) at a time when their brain chemistry makes them feel every act of aggression or judgment with unrivaled intensity.
So what does that mean for us, as educators and parents? Here are three key takeaways to think about:
1. Their Personal Relationships: Senior cites one study that found that only 37% of friendships were reciprocal, which confirms that teens can be pretty terrible at reading character and interpreting social cues. So try to help them understand what it truly means to be respected—whether that’s by a friend or a significant other.
2. Their Sense of Self: Some of the drama and deeply felt emotions of the teenage years will, in fact, breed resilience. But at a time when young people are being socialized to value what others think of them above all else, any sort of bottled-up shame can have lasting effects. Encouraging teens to open up to you might not always be met with a warm reception—but it’s worth the tireless effort, as it’s crucial to helping them develop a clear and healthy identity.
3. Our Own Compassion: Sometimes, when a teen experiences rejection or bullying, it triggers our own painful memories of high school, and that causes us to react in a confusing way. (Sometimes we blame them; other times, we encourage them to change or “try harder” to fit in.) Instead, focus on being a supportive ally, and share stories that show you’ve been there … and survived.
The truth is, mean girls, bullies, and social hierarchies don’t go away after graduation. That’s an unfortunate fact. But it’s also a reality that begs a bigger question: Does experiencing the isolation and shame of high school prepare us to cope with life later on? Or does life end up resembling high school because we’re forced to develop our sense of self in such a challenging environment?
Sound off below!