For more than a decade, we have been plunged into the chaos, exasperation and delights of adolescence. Professionally, we researched how wild animals around the world somersault from childhood to adulthood. During this time at home we were each raising the adolescent animals of the Homo sapiens variety. We are often asked how studying the behavior of adolescent animals shaped our own experiences as parents and the short answer is, deeply.

We have discovered that adolescence is a dangerous phase of life in the animal kingdom. And while there are many differences between the species, the teenage time-bound goal is universal. We have observed that there are four main skills that define development from adolescence to adulthood: staying safe from predators and exploiters; navigate social hierarchies; learn to communicate and understand sexual signals; and learn to leave the nest (or den or wilderness or house) without starving.

Knowing the importance of these four skills, we were able to talk to our own teens about the dangers and temptations of life. From what we have observed, we know that adolescents of all species are easy prey. Predators assess groups before deciding which individuals to target. Many prefer adolescents because they are “naive to predators”, inexperienced and more likely to fall into the trap. As they grow, prey species develop “signals of unprofitability”, which tell predators who observe them that they are strong, alert and fast – essentially in communication, “pick someone else.” ; I am a waste of time. Adolescent humans and other animals lack mature signals of non-profitability, instead inadvertently advertising the inexperience predators seek.

Instead of scolding our teens (“Are you going out of the house with that?”) “Prey. We explained that predators hide around places like waterholes where prey congregates, looking for prey. incompetent and naive animals.

Adolescent humans share much of the biology of the brain with other adolescent animals. For example, adolescent fish, birds, and other mammals exhibit greater “neophilia” (novelty interest) than older and younger individuals. The greater pleasure they derive from exploring the greater the risks they take and, unfortunately, the accidents they have.

A better understanding of adolescent brain biology across species has allowed us to see risk-taking and safety behaviors in a whole new way. It was reassuring to understand that the same impulses that make teens experiment and take risks also pushes them out into the world to make new friends, approach potential partners, and create a life for themselves. Talking with our children about the biological bases of risky behavior also allowed us to celebrate the benefits of taking a chance, trying new things, and opening up to the bigger world. There is evidence in nature to suggest that in order to be safer you must face danger, however counterintuitive that may sound.

One stormy night, as Barbara’s son was learning to drive, he asked them if they could do a car drive. Because it was raining so much, it was windy and it was dark, Barbara refused, saying, “No. It’s too dangerous to be on the road if we don’t have to. But now she wishes she had said yes, because that would have been a good experience.

Another great motivation in adolescence is to be loved and popular. Across the animal kingdom, higher status animals are more likely to survive and reproduce; lower status animals are more likely to die and have no offspring. Brain chemicals reward animals for their social status. Falls are reprimanded with chemical “punishments” – bad feelings. Humiliation and rejection work on the same channels as physical pain – they literally hurt.

Knowing this has transformed the way we think about our children’s mood swings and their social lives. We have stopped seeing teenage preoccupation with popularity as a sign of superficiality or immaturity. We have stopped seeing social agony as a mere “drama”. When our teenagers got into sadness or a bad mood, we started asking ourselves: what just happened socially? Has their status just taken a hit? Nine times out of 10 the answer was yes, which made it more controllable for us.

We watched closely to our children’s relationship with social media and its effect on their mood. Comparing yourself to others often makes you feel “less than”. Social media can trigger chemicals in the brain that make you feel good (lots of likes, followers, positive comments) and keep you coming back for more. But the opposite (not having likes, mean comments, or humiliation) can trigger painful, even dangerous, brain chemistry. We explained to them that when they are on social media, they have to keep track of how they are feeling. We told them, if their mood starts to drop, get off. It’s not them, it’s modern technology that activates ancient brain circuits.

Learning about the so-called “weirdness effect” in nature has also helped us understand our teens’ desire to fit in. The willingness, especially among younger people, to conform to the crowd can be frustrating. We were appalled when our quirky and independent 12 year old kids suddenly wanted the same boring clothes and hairstyles everyone else. The reality of nature’s bizarre effect – the tendency of fish, birds, and mammals to reject individuals who look or behave differently from the group – has given us insight into the behavior of our own adolescents. Young non-compliant members of the group are easier to spot for predators and therefore their integration makes individual young people less likely to be targeted. Strangely looking or behaving individuals not only draw attention to themselves, they draw attention to the whole group.

Another area we’ve come to understand better is diet – how young animals eat and how it compares to our teenagers’ love of junk food. For teens living in nature, having a good meal is a challenge. The lowest status means the last in the line, so they have to feed in the most dangerous areas with the most limited choice. Adolescent wolves, for example, primarily consume rats and mice, while developing the stamina and strength necessary to bring down deer.

Like lower-paid entry-level employees who earn better pay scales, young wolves’ food options improve as they gain expertise. By the time they are adults, they hardly ever have to eat rodents. There is an intriguing advantage. Adolescent animals are often more creative and persistent problem solvers than their better-fed and less motivated elders.

These comparisons are found in many other different aspects of adolescent behavior. All over the world, right now, adolescent birds, reptiles, mammals and fish are facing the same four challenges. So are our teenagers – they are inexperienced and probably lack the status and resources of older people. They are also awkward when it comes to romance and dating first time. They all prepare for tests of one sort or another – while young animals may not be preparing for math or coding, their exams are tough in their own way. The vulnerability of adolescents is universal. But so do the creativity, passion and genius of teenagers.

Another comparison that reassured us was how well pet parents help their teenage children. As parents, we can often blame ourselves for being “helicopters”, “mother tigers” or “snowplows”, to raise “greenhouse flowers”, “boomerangs” and “snowflakes”. That can’t cut it in the real world. Yet we have learned that many pet parents provide “extended parental care” to their offspring who need a little extra help before they leave the house – or who return to the nest after failing search results. food. Prolonged parental care in the wild can make a crucial difference between life and death for mature offspring – a lesson in empathy for all adults, with or without their own offspring.

Order Wildhood: the epic journey from adolescence to adulthood in humans and other animals through Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers (Scribe, £ 16.99) for £ 14.27 from guardbookshop.com

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