July 13, 2024


I just emerged from my own teenage years when I first read Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook. Two sentences earned a mark in pen: “I think we are well advised to keep nodding with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come knocking on the mind’s door at 4:00 a.m. on a bad night and demand to know who let them down, who betrayed them, who is going to fix it.”

We become alienated from our younger selves at our peril. This warning sits at the center of Lucy Foulkes’ excellent and insightful new book, Coming of Age: How Adolescence Shapes Us. Making room for the pain, mistakes and even trauma from the past is essential to our self-perception as adults, even though it may seem safer to edit it out. You can also miss the pleasure and fun of it.

While Foulkes’ first book – What Mental Illness Really Is… (And What It Isn’t) – focused on how the brain can go wrong, Coming of age turns to the diversity of normal stresses and pleasures as he grows up, planning harmful as well as helpful transitions to adulthood. This is not a book aimed specifically at teenagers and rather speaks to adults who may still be coming to terms with their adolescence – years later – while possibly helping their own children through the same murky waters. As an academic psychologist at Oxford University who has studied adolescent cognition for more than a decade, Foulkes is steeped in knowledge about, as well as respect for, teenage life. She expertly interweaves clinical research, both classic texts and recent findings, with moving stories from people recruited via social media who open up about their formative years.

Getting adolescence right is worth it because it never goes away. Evidence points to a “memory bump”—with the teenage years at its center—when memories are strikingly vivid and seem particularly meaningful in retrospect. This finding applies whether a person is recalling the “landmines” of crisis or memories of intense joy, and is “due to the extensive neurological and cognitive development kicked off by puberty”. Foulkes explores how the teenage years are prominent as a period of firsts – from first love, trying drink and drugs, to dealing with grief – while also creating opportunities to test identities in the hunt to find out who we are. is real.

Despite this period of intensive transition, Foulkes is interested in how socially conservative teenagers are. Sex and gender norms are very important to them, and conforming to stereotypes about femininity and masculinity is highly valued and strictly policed ​​by a “community of peers”. Sportiness and generic attractiveness confer high status; intelligence, introversion and caution. The chapter on “The paradox of popularity”, which explores the dynamics of each school’s cool group (at mine they called themselves “the posse”, envied and disliked in equal measure), will make readers, no matter where they in the social pecking order, joint emphasis. With increasing recognition of neurodiversity, fluid sexuality, and gender identities, high school strangleholds are loosening, but only slightly and slowly. Not fitting in, whether by choice or circumstance, comes at a high price.

Foulkes wants to rehabilitate adolescence and encourage society not to mock teenage traits of self-consciousness, sensation seeking, risk-taking and laziness, which have evolutionary, physiological and pro-social purposes. They are features, not flaws, underscored by reason rather than pure hedonism. Caring intensely about how we are seen enables us to “develop independence while fitting in and being protected by a tribe,” she argues. Foulkes is also suspicious of teenagers’ supposed vulnerability to “peer pressure” and the idea that a handful of young people are a “bad influence”, convenient as these excuses can be for parents to set their own children free. In fact, most teenagers are aware of the company they keep, choose it, and agree to the activities favored by their friends. Parents would do well to normalize their teenagers’ attraction to the unknown, to test boundaries and explore their sexuality.

Coming of age concludes that teenagers “have always been completely underestimated” and focuses on characteristics of adolescence that transcend our cultural moment. But Foulkes perhaps underplays the ways in which modern teenagers have a fundamentally different experience than previous generations. Historically, the recognized social phenomenon of adolescence is less than 150 years old. Today’s social media and phone use are changing attention spans, access to extreme content and ideology is readily available and cameras in everyone’s pockets are driving self-awareness. The photographic record of today’s teenagers will also fundamentally affect how they remember.

As a millennial, I have one box of photos from my life before 20 and not a single selfie. Smartphone teenagers, meanwhile, will live under an oppressive weight of primary sources. Foulkes does not tie her analysis to current affairs, but it is impossible not to make connections with our political and social moment. How can the Covid lockdown years ever be paid back to people in their early 20s? Why isn’t there more research across disciplines on the teenage experience? If adolescence is so important – and you can’t help but agree that it is after reading this book – why is it barely visible in health care and society?

Foulkes stays in offstage Coming of age. She admits that she considered sharing stories from her own life, but chose instead to put her interviewees in the foreground. I sympathize with the clinical and researcher instinct to step back, but it feels important as a reader to know the younger person with whom Foulkes tries to remain on nodding terms (a person who has struggled with mental health problems, which she talks about more in her first book). Her example, her authority, could have shown in action the brave, rewarding process of reflecting on and recounting one’s own past.

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Thinking of what happened to us as a story for which we are a (more or less unreliable) narrator gives meaning and agency to our lives. It is also a component of lifelong mental health. However, this is not a story we tell just once. In notebooks, real books or the sketchpad of our memory, we review these stories, a process that can be supported and structured by therapy. A therapist can guide people to unseen redemptive possibilities and to finding closure. A softer, amused and curious nature about the people we used to be makes our minds healthier places to live. We would also do better to think of those young people whose adolescent notebooks are still unfinished first drafts, who could benefit from the hope that everything will (probably) be OK.

Kate Womersley is a doctor and academic specializing in psychiatry. Her work at Imperial College London focuses on sex and gender equality in biomedical research

Coming of Age: How Adolescence Shapes Us by Lucy Foulkes is published by Bodley Head (£22). Around the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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