From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.
Chapter 17 – LATE ADOLESCENCE
Adolescence, as we saw earlier, is a stage rather than an age. The onset of the biological developments of adolescence can be separated by as much as several years from one boy to another. Yet there are some age-related events that are milestones in a boy’s career, none more so that passing the required tests (written and road) and earning a first driver’s license. In most states the minimum age is sixteen, and in many families the tests are taken by boys within a few days, or at most a few weeks, of their sixteenth birthdays because they have been secretly practicing as fifteen-year-olds. Having “wheels” makes such a difference in a boy’s life that it is the ritual that separates early adolescence from late adolescence.
Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review reminisced recently about cars during his adolescence:
In the 50’s and 60’s, a car was more than a ride. It was a passport to freedom (even if freedom meant nothing more than cruising back and forth on the same well-traveled stretch of blacktop), and it was the embodiment of sexual possibility. Like many American boys of my generation, I grew up believing that automotive expertise and success with girls were intrinsically linked. . . . I could never afford a car of my own. When I went on dates, I had to borrow my father’s. . . . The goal was not motion but rest: parking. My favorite spot was a reservoir not far from my house, where on any weekend night dozens of cars would be nestled, nose in, against the verge. There, with the radio playing softly and the window cracked down an inch or two to let in the summer breeze, we earnest young mechanics plied our trade, or tried to, kissing, stroking, petting-all in an effort to rev what we had been taught to think of as the notoriously balky female engine. Sometimes, in spite of our crude efforts, it did spring to life, with an ardor that startled us both, and sometimes, to tell the truth, it was we boys, scared, timid and clumsy, who needed jump starting. . . . Girls, it turned out, were not as different from us as we thought–except that most of them did not care about cars at all!
This milestone arrived for me in an unexpected fashion. As my sixteenth birthday approached, my father tossed cold water on any thoughts of independence I was harboring—and I was harboring quite a few. “A car is an instrument of death:’ he asserted with all the confidence one might expect from a chief justice of the Supreme Court. There was, on this issue, no appeal possible beyond my father’s decision, and he promised that I wouldn’t be allowed to drive until I was eighteen. Then, old enough to vote and to join the armed forces, I would in his eyes be old enough to drive.
I didn’t take the ruling too personally because I knew that my behavior in early adolescence hadn’t given my father any reason to think me less trustworthy behind the wheel than my peers. For all I knew, he was thinking of how much his car insurance premiums would jump with a licensed sixteen-year-old in the family.
There the matter rested until four months after my birthday, when my mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time for treatment of disabling depression. Suddenly the prospect of my knowing how to drive soared in value. At my father’s insistence, I took a crash course—no pun intended—at a Mount Vernon driving school, and then the two requisite tests. The written test was a piece of cake, but I was nervous about the road test. My examiner was nervous, too, as I recall. The vehicle was my mother’s blue and white 1956 Plymouth with a stick shift. My father thought automatic transmissions were an unnecessary frill. What I worried about was that I might stall out the engine when I shifted gears using the clutch, or fail to do an acceptable piece of parallel parking. I managed not to stall and I aced the parallel parking; the state policeman testing me visibly relaxed. Along with my new chores as family chauffeur, I had some memorable experiences in the old Plymouth.
By age forty, students of midlife and its now celebrated crisis have told us, most men have reached the highest plateau of their work lives or have a pretty clear idea what that highest plateau is going to be; the knowledge of career limitations itself is one of the stimulants of the midlife crisis. By age sixteen, analogously, most adolescent boys know which of three tracks they’ve chosen for the next five or more years. Many will finish high school and go on to college or some form of technical training. Many others will complete high school, find a job, and go to work, very likely living at home for a time until they acquire some experience and savings, then striking out on their own, perhaps marrying at a relatively early age. The smallest group-yet a substantial number-will drop out of school, perhaps find a job, probably at a low hourly wage, maybe drift into substance addiction or crime. The dropouts have the least promising prospects for adult life, and generally are aware of it.
About the time they get driver’s licenses, boys who stay in school begin to take on paying jobs-after school, on weekends, or during holiday and summer breaks-that give them money of their own and a taste of what full-time employment might be like.
As my schoolteacher brother reminded me, every teenage boy has a job. It’s called schoolwork, and it has a weighty overtime component called homework. Despite its lack of compensation, schoolwork is real work. It is demanding, it is more or less relentless, it is tiring, and it is constantly monitored and graded.
Those boys headed toward the tracks of education or stable work take advantage of the final spurts of development of the brain. One spurt occurs at age fifteen on average, and the other from age eighteen to twenty. These spurts appear to coincide with the best scores young males achieve on intelligence tests; they also appear to be associated with the refinement of abstract thinking, a prerequisite for mature and reflective thought. The only cognitive edge boys have over girls lies in spatial reasoning, not to be confused with the arithmetical part of mathematics. Boys display this edge before age ten, and it lasts right through adolescence.
Stephanie Coontz notes that two researchers in 1968 concluded that “readiness for adulthood comes about two years later than the adolescent claims and about two years before the parent will admit.” Coontz thinks it likely the degree of miscalculation has increased on both sides since the late 1960s.
Two other variables that are getting more distant from each other are the average age of physical maturation and the average age of economic independence. The age at which boys can support themselves, let alone a family, has reached a new high in the past two decades. So there is a longer and longer period when adolescents are sexually mature and physically and mentally capable of adult work, but remain economically dependent.
As recently as 1940 about 60 percent of employed boys aged sixteen and seventeen worked in traditional settings such as factories, farms, or construction sites, where they labored alongside, and often as apprentices to, older men. By 1980 the percentage of boys so employed had dropped to 14 percent. The bulk of jobs available to boys are dead-end jobs such as in the fast-food business where they get relatively little adult mentoring and have few opportunities for significant advancement.
Teenagers with jobs are more likely than their unemployed peers to express cynical attitudes toward work, and to endorse unethical business practices; they are more likely to agree with statements such as “People who work harder at their jobs than they have to are crazy” or “In my opinion, it’s all right for workers who are paid a low salary to take little things.”
Earlier generations of boys may often have worked to help support their families, and that phenomenon is not unknown today. But to judge from the adolescents I interviewed in the past year, most work in order to earn money for their own consumption-to maintain their own cars and entertainment, some of their own clothes, and the expenses of dating. Many corporations have obviously targeted them as an enticing market with plenty of disposable income. This pressure to consume can take its toll on academic work and future opportunity. Adolescent boys frequently put in so many hours each week in wage-earning that they have no waking time left for homework; some of them fall asleep in classrooms out of sheer fatigue.
Nearly all adolescent boys. if asked directly and confidentially, will admit having been guilty of offenses of one sort or another besides driving violations: for example, under-age drinking, smoking marijuana. running away from home, petty theft. disorderly conduct, vandalism. A 1998 survey of 20,000 middle- and high-school students (both boys and girls) by the Josephson Institute of Ethics showed that 47 percent admitted stealing something from a store in the previous twelve-month period, up from 39 percent in a similar survey in 1966, with a quarter of the high school students saying they had committed store theft at least twice.
The report was released during National CHARACTER COUNTS! Week in October of 1998. The data showing very high levels of admitted stealing, lying, and cheating didn’t seem to jibe with the respondents’ self image or with their perceptions of parental values. Ninety-one percent of the students said they were satisfied with their ethics and character. Almost as many believed that lying and cheating hurt character. Eighty three percent said their parents always want them to do the right thing. no matter what the cost: only 7 percent believed that their parents would prefer them to cheat if necessary to get good grades.
Arrest data and adolescents’ own testimony suggests that the incidence of minor crime rises in the early teenage years, remains high through the middle stage of adolescence, and declines toward the end of adolescence. The curve of the data reflects the waxing and waning of peer influence. As teenage boys spend more and more time with boys their own age, they succumb more frequently to peer pressure to commit illegal acts. As they become more selective about their friends in late adolescence, many of them resist activities that involve breaking laws.
Effective response to any act of juvenile delinquency depends on ferreting out the principal motive. Some transgressions are acts of aggression. Boys in groups may playoff each other’s aggressiveness and commit acts most of them would be incapable of—or at least far less capable of—if they were acting alone. Sometimes the aggressiveness is an expression of targeted resentment.When teenage boys disfigure the school walls with graffiti, it isn’t hard to infer the object of their resentment.
Other acts of delinquency, however, seem to be acts of deliberate risktaking more than aggression. Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol often has this motive. So, too, may petty theft-“Can I do this without being caught?” Within the dynamics of peer groups, members are often dared to commit illegal acts as proof of their masculine credentials. The less confident a boy is of his standing within the group, the more vulnerable he is to proposed tests of his daring.
Preadolescent children often display a strong sense—some of it innately temperamental, but some of it learned from protective parents and other adults—of caution about new and risky ventures. This caution dissolves in early adolescence as a boy further distances himself from his parents and other adults, sometimes deliberately flaunting his parents’ sense of caution. But another factor here is that adolescent boys simply don’t assess risks the way most adults do. Many boys have a sense of invulnerability to danger. “It can’t happen to me” is a line many boys carry in their imaginations, while “It did happen to me” is an adult confession they may decline to heed.
For most teenagers, a brush with the law doesn’t augur long-term antisocial behavior. However, boys who have many relatively minor encounters with the police are certainly at risk of becoming serious offenders. About 12 percent of violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly by boys. About 22 percent of property offenses (burglary and theft) are committed by teenagers, overwhelmingly by boys.
Some of the factors linked to adolescent delinquency are poor academic performance and low verbal ability, rejection by peers in earlier childhood, growing up in a home ridden with conflict, and close associations with other delinquent boys. Individual episodes of adolescent crime are replete with the judgment of bystanders: “I can’t believe [Rick] would do a thing like that!” Gerald Patterson and his colleagues have done substantial research into the antecedents of youthful brushes with the law. One common pattern is of a boy growing up in a family beset with much internal conflict, where lax and inconsistent discipline leads to boyish conduct problems, followed by academic failure and rejection by peers in middle childhood, culminating in the boy’s joining a deviant peer group in which he is motivated to repeated antisocial behavior.
When I try to draw a profile of the sexual development and behavior of the later teenage boy, I am more than ever aware of the tension between statistics and individual cases. By age sixteen, many boys have developed active interpersonal sexual histories—either heterosexual or homosexual—but many others of their peers haven’t had a date yet, and are relying on the media, fantasies, and masturbation for sexual pleasure; the specifics of counseling a boy’s needs are going to vary considerably depending on where he stands in the range of sexual maturity and experience.
As recently as the 1970s, the division of males who had or had not had at least one experience of sexual intercourse by age eighteen was about even, with 55 percent on the experienced side. In twenty years the percentage of boys with experience of intercourse by age eighteen has risen to 73 percent. Since the average age of first marriage for males in the United States is twenty-six, boys face on average a period of more than a decade between the onset of puberty (a process completed in about three years) and marriage.
Social and cultural factors might intervene to reverse the trend of early sexual intercourse for males, just as a rising tide of teenage pregnancies has recently been slightly reversed. But it is unlikely that a society can keep most of its males chaste through a decade during which they reach the apex of sexual drive and their attention is captured many times a day by sexual thoughts or images. It is not surprising at all that 93 percent of American males have had sexual intercourse before marriage, or that one of fifteen males fathers a child when he is still a teenager. Since 85 percent of teenage pregnancies are unintended, we can safely surmise that many of the children fathered by male teenagers are at best mixed blessings.
Who should teach adolescent males about sex, and what should they teach them? It is far easier to prescribe what kind of person should do the teaching than to know who that person might be in a given adolescent’s environment. The teacher can be either a man or a woman who is knowledgeable about the information and wisdom to be transmitted, comfortable with the subject of sex itself, and who does not bring a personal sexual agenda to the discussion.
If you ask teenagers today whom they most rely on for knowledge about sexuality, they say they look most to their parents, then to peers, then to schoolteachers, then to the media. Their parents—mothers significantly more frequently than fathers—acknowledge that they talk to their children about sex far more than their own parents talked to them about it. But they also indicate a good deal of discomfort about the responsibility and wish the schools would accept more of it.
Surveys make a good deal of the fact that despite all of the instruction about the physiology of sex, a large proportion of adolescent males don’t understand much about fertility cycles in females. Some of the reticence of parents to be responsible for counseling their sons about sex is that they themselves have forgotten much of the relevant biology of reproduction, and don’t want to discuss the experiential side of sex. The mark of this silence about experience is that many adolescents can’t imagine their parents having sex; parental sex is either mysterious or even slightly repellent to them.
If we examine parental and school teachings, we find a predominant wish that adolescents would practice sexual abstinence, but that if they can’t hold to that goal, they should at least avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and avoid causing pregnancies. These concerns are undeniably important, given that a million teenage girls become pregnant every year (many of them to older than teenage males) and that 3 million teenagers are infected with a sexually transmitted disease each year.
What is missing in this approach is an acknowledgment or acceptance of the adolescent drive for pleasure. Adults have important interests, too, in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies; but these concerns take their place in the context of the attempt, through all of the complexities and frustrations involved, to have satisfying sex lives.
The formal and informal sexual education of boys, I believe, rarely pays sufficient attention to both the positive and the cautionary aspects of sexual engagement. There is no socially endorsed means of teaching an adolescent boy how to cope with the nervousness that typically affects a male with a first or a new sexual partner; how to control the impulsivity that accompanies sexual excitement; how and when to elicit assent by a partner to his sexual initiatives; how to communicate with a partner in order to discover—and care about—what gives her pleasure; how to reduce the manipulative and aggressive scripts in order to allow sexual activity to be more playful, more intimate, and more loving; how to heighten both the control and the pleasure of sex by making it more verbal, more articulate.
Despite what teenagers report about depending on parents and teachers for sexual information and advice, I believe they actually depend more on each other and on what they glean from a blizzard of media messages ranging from the sublime to the pornographic. Many boys are on their own, learning as they may from their peers, who often exaggerate and distort, and from erotic literature that often downplays the search for mutual pleasure in favor of mute, impulsive drives toward orgasmic relief by males pressing ever ahead to the next “base” Some males pass their entire sexual lives rarely experiencing the transformation of sexual excitement into mutual passion. Any romantic themes in the media are often vastly oversimplified. The line between reality and fantasy gets very blurred.
Adolescent discussions and media presentations (including movies, videos, talk shows, and sitcoms) need infusions of knowledge and insight that parents and teachers (and other concerned adults such as physicians, clergy, and lawyers) could effectively provide if they were willing to accept and honor, rather than to attempt to deny or proscribe or shame or riddle with fear, the adolescent’s sexual drive.
One way boys reduce anxiety about the risk of sexual engagements is to consume alcohol or drugs. Their parents use this method on a wholesale basis, so it is not surprising that adolescents borrow the method. They may also thereby either reduce their capacity for performing sexually, or provoke sexualized aggression. (Not a few rapists appear to be trying to compensate for feelings of sexual inadequacy.)
In groups, adolescent males may give each other nerve that many of them would lack if relating individually to young women. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has shown in disturbing detail how alcohol and pack behavior work together in some male college fraternity parties. In these situations, boys are free of the constraints of living with parents. (The same kind of events can happen with high school students when Mom and Dad go away for a weekend under circumstances that permit an unchaperoned teenage party in their house.)
Sanday interviewed some fraternity members and the girls they deliberately gang-assaulted. One male group described their objectives as “working a ‘yes’ out” of their dates. Their techniques included inviting dates from out of town who would not feel self-confident and protected in the unfamiliar environment, or inviting dates whose style of dress suggested they might be sexually receptive, or inviting dates of lower social class standing who might feel they were winning acceptance at a higher social level. The dates were plied with alcohol until drunk or un resistant and then drawn into a bedroom. Sometimes the room designated for such sexual scenes had peepholes through which other members of the fraternity could watch. After the fraternity brother had sex with his date, he would leave the room and other brothers would take their turn, subduing or threatening the young woman to the extent necessary to achieve sexual compliance. Some college administrations are now concerned about the social dynamics, particularly the abuse of alcohol and sex, of male students living in unchaperoned groups and are taking steps to prevent such practices as Sanday has described.
Adolescent and Gay
A very small percentage of males discover themselves to be homosexual or bisexual as they grow up. For them, sexual maturation is a particularly demanding, sometimes hazardous, process; as many as a third are physically assaulted by gay bashers inside or outside their families before they complete adolescence.
Adults often exhibit a degree of amnesia about their sexual awakenings. For both heterosexual and homosexual boys, the experience of this awakening is something shared mostly with each other. Adults say very little about the experience itself. Every boy finds it mysterious, exciting, confusing, and frustrating. Many boys who will eventually have well-established heterosexual orientations have at least one homosexual experience as an adolescent, either with another boy or with a gay adult testing their orientation. As many as half of the males who eventually establish a homosexual orientation have experienced heterosexual sex, either during the period when they were uncertain of their inclinations, or as an attempt to adopt the predominant orientation, only to have it prove unsatisfactory to them.
Both heterosexual and homosexual males like to think of their orientations as destinies foreordained at birth, but it isn’t quite that simple. Some adolescent boys, either because of the strong cultural preference for heterosexuality or because they were somehow sexually different then, establish heterosexual orientations in adolescence lasting into early or middle adulthood, and then change orientation and identify themselves as gay.
A sense of being “different” assails many homosexual males while they are still in elementary school. In some instances, this sense of differentness is mainly an internal perception, but in other instances a boy may be perceived by others to be different and singled out for teasing or taunting at school or at home, or both-as lacking masculinity.
Researchers are very much divided on the origins of homosexual orientation. Perhaps tolerance of homosexuality would become a less divisive issue in our society if indisputable evidence could be found linking sexual orientation to genetic inheritance. No such evidence, no gay gene or heterosexual gene, has yet been clearly identified. There is some evidence that male homosexual orientation is more closely related to maternal than to paternal lineage, but even that evidence settles very little. The fact that identical male twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than are fraternal twins also suggests a biological component.
For every geneticist looking for a biological link, there is a behavioral expert offering an explanation involving the childhood experiences and environment of the boy. When I was growing up, homosexual orientation was often blamed on overprotective mothers who didn’t encourage their sons to develop heterosexual relationships with their peers. More recently, cold and distant fathers have received much of the blame once heaped on too protective mothers: the homosexual boy, in this formulation, seeks the acceptance and love from other males that his father never offered him. As with the biological explanations, there is something plausible about the various behavioral explanations, but none has won acceptance as a comprehensive and solidly confirmed hypothesis.
For every biological or social scientist who has addressed the etiology of homosexuality, there are several moralists lamenting what they believe is the perversity of homosexual practice. Many of them base their intolerance of homosexuality on their reading of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, but there is no more scholarly consensus about how to interpret the few biblical references to homosexuality than there is consensus among scientists about genetic or interpersonal factors. Such attitudes, however, are influential. The Boy Scouts of America, citing the organization’s private rather than quasi-public standing, does not now permit acknowledged homosexuals to take positions of leadership or accept known homosexual boys as scouts.
A homosexual youth lives in a glass-house environment in which sexual orientation is exaggerated far out of its proper perspective in his life. A heterosexual boy is deeply affected by his sexuality, thinks about it, dreams about it, talks about it—especially with his peers—and expresses it in personal or interpersonal action. Yet his sexuality, central as it is to his identity and life, doesn’t stimulate the same constant sense of vulnerability. He isn’t teased in a hostile way about being heterosexual. Everyone makes so much of homosexuality that it’s difficult for a gay adolescent to get his sexuality in proper perspective. Difficult, too, to anticipate where rejection will lie. Sometimes adolescent classmates are relatively tolerant and parents are completely intolerant.
There is enough uncertainty about parental response, linked to the need most adolescents have for continuing financial and emotional support from them, that parents are not generally the first recipients of male homosexual disclosure. Siblings or other peers are usually the first to hear. A large proportion—half or more—of gay adolescents do not disclose their orientation to parents until they have left home for college or other pursuits. Even so, most males anticipate a higher level of acceptance of the disclosure to parents than they receive. In one recent study, half of both mothers and fathers reacted to their college-age sons’ disclosures of homosexuality with disbelief, denial, negative comments, or silence. Eighteen percent responded with acts of rejection including attempts to convert the son to heterosexuality or to cut him off financially and emotionally. Parents often feel guilty: What did I do wrong? It is indicative of the differences in relationships that mothers are usually informed face-to-face while fathers are as often informed in writing as in conversation.
Many issues young homosexual males confront are embedded in the life of Dan, a sixteen-year-old. He remembers feeling attracted to men as early as age five. When he was in fourth grade in California, he watched a gay actor on a talk show recount that getting turned on by Calvin Klein male underwear ads made him realize he was gay. “And I said, ‘That’s me, too,'” Dan recalled. “But I kept thinking, of course I’m straight. I’m going to grow up and have girlfriends and have kids. I began dating girls in fifth grade. In seventh grade, I dated a beautiful girl who kept pressuring me to have sex—she wanted to know what made me horny. What I realized was that there’s a big difference between finding someone attractive and being attracted to them sexually and emotionally. That was when I knew that I was at least bisexual.
“The summer after seventh grade I came out to most of my friends that I was bisexual, and they were cool about it. There were other guys out at the high school, and some in the middle school, too. I was afraid of what everyone would think, and I didn’t tell my parents. To deal with my anxiety I started using drugs—a lot of painkillers, some codeine.
“Just before eighth grade started, my parents moved separately to Connecticut.” That year was Dan’s worst year so far: “absolute hell”
“Immediately I was labeled a faggot, and I had never been called that before I moved. I would get punched and spat on by people passing in the hall. There were gay teachers who would get made fun of, and wouldn’t respond. So I really didn’t feel comfortable. If gay adults weren’t safe from taunting, I certainly wasn’t going to be safe.”
I asked Dan how he explained the abuse by other students. “They’re just not sure of themselves,” he said. “A lot of them have grown up with a hatred of gays. I find that many guys are threatened by how comfortable I am with my sexuality. That’s not to say they’re gay, but they’re questioning their own sexual confidence.”
In ninth grade, Dan began sexual activity with men, some in their twenties, others in their thirties or older. He meets many of them in gay clubs. He also feels confident initiating contact with strangers in public, in stores, for example. He is diligent about safe sex and careful not to make himself vulnerable to sexual exploitation by drinking too much, but he has a considerable number of sexual contacts during a year. His sexual experience and self-confidence are beyond the reach of his gay, and also many of his heterosexual, schoolmates. Dan has had only two brief relationships with schoolmates. His insistence that boyfriends be as open as he about sexual orientation is too public for their comfort. Lacking heterosexual friends, he has no schoolmates he spends time with outside of school.
His family circumstances and his homosexuality have pushed Dan into a kind of premature adulthood. “I think of my father as my roommate;’ he said.
“Isn’t that a lonely way to live?” I asked.
“I really enjoy my independence;’ he replied, “and there’s no way I could go back to having a curfew.”
The pronounced—but not as rare as one might think—detachment of Dan’s parents from his life accentuates but doesn’t define the consequences of Dan’s homosexuality. The depression, the loneliness, and, indeed, the danger attendant to his sexual relationships is in part a consequence of homophobia, but his perception of his parents’ preoccupations with their careers, his hypersexuality, and his self-destructiveness are themes in many boys’ lives, whether or not they are gay.
There aren’t many self-acknowledged male homosexuals in any high school class, and if their sexual orientation is considered socially unacceptable or even contagious by heterosexual age-mates, they will not have a very large pool of potential friends. Homophobia is exhibited by some women, but by and large it is a sentiment perpetuated by males in our society. It incites crude and cruel behavior in middle schools, and even more frequently in high schools.
Among boys aged fifteen to nineteen, suicide ranks as the third most frequent cause of death. The suicide rate has been climbing slowly but steadily since the 1960s. The most frequent cause of death in this age group is accidents, many of them vehicular and many of them associated with alcohol, which does seem to justify my father’s belief that the automobile is an instrument of death. The second most frequent cause is homicide, which reflects the distinctive access to firearms that adolescent males have in the United States.
There are some gender-based differences in adolescent suicide. Girls attempt suicide more frequently than boys, but boys complete the act more frequently than girls. Girls tend to employ passive methods such as drug overdoses that are less disfiguring and less certain to be lethal, while boys are apt to use more violent and certain methods such as hanging or shooting themselves. Boys don’t typically commit suicide as an extreme reaction to a single precipitating event, even a great disappointment. Careful examination of individual cases shows that what appear to be immediate precipitating events are better seen as the culmination of a set of difficulties the boy has experienced over a substantially longer period of time. In a study of 154 adolescents who killed themselves, the researchers concluded that a sense of hopelessness was the most critical factor.
Suicide sets off such an intense and prolonged reaction among immediate family and friends that the question of whether they should have been able to prevent it is inevitably raised. Warning signals have been defined, including unusually stressful events in a boy’s life, mood changes, disturbed sleep and eating patterns, statements suggesting despair, and even verbal mention of suicide. Only the last of these symptoms, however, is specifically predictive of suicide plans, and it may be a way of expressing despair rather than a forewarning. Parents of adolescents shouldn’t generally regard themselves as on a chronic suicide watch.
What does matter is whether parents, teachers and other concerned adults consistently try to maintain close relations with adolescent boys. There are many reasons to do this besides suicide prevention. Adults who are close to kids and not disposed to deny the evidence before their eyes and ears will sense major mood shifts and can raise concerned inquiries or guide boys to professional help if the mood shifts seem beyond parental remedy. Sometimes a change of school or a new activity or expressions of interest and concern from other people will effectively counter a major downward mood swing. Adults who are relatively detached from their children may not notice signals of despair.
Some suicide attempts are social in nature—dramatic ways of showing how desperate and unhappy a person feels. Others reflect a person’s ambivalence, a wish both to end it all and not to end it-but to have relief from the pain of despair.
Lives on Hold
There is a curve to adolescence that gives rise to optimism. At the beginning of puberty, most boys are reasonably obedient sons and schoolboys. As sexual maturation occurs, boys draw away from family intimacy. They experiment with sex, alcohol, tobacco, and perhaps other drugs. They excel in risk-taking. When they get their driver’s licenses, their independence takes another quantum leap. They get jobs. They stay out late and sleep late every chance they get. They buy and wear clothes that irritate their parents. They adorn themselves with fancy haircuts and tattoos. The adults in their lives watch this process with a mixture of anxiety, fascination, and horror. The wisest of them repress some of their impulses to object, complain, worry aloud, or counsel without invitation.
Most of the sons, toward the end of high school, turn back toward more closeness with their families. As they begin to look ahead to college or full-time jobs, they see that family support is indispensable to their futures. Also, they see that they have already won considerable independence; the battle doesn’t have to be rewaged every day. They have won space of their own that no one wants to take away from them.
And so all should be well, right? Family relations patched up again, high school graduation on the horizon, early adulthood in reasonable proximity. Yet it doesn’t all feel right. I circle back to Stephanie Coontz and an observation she made almost in passing in The Way We Really Are: “It’s not that we have more bad parents or more bad kids today than we used to. It’s not that families have lost interest in their kids. And there is no evidence that the majority of today’s teenagers are more destructive or irresponsible than in the past. [Perhaps the data cited in this chapter shows them to be a little more destructive and irresponsible.] However, relations between adults and teens are especially strained today, not because youths have lost their childhood, as is usually suggested, but because they are not being adequately prepared for the new requirements of adulthood. In some ways, childhood has actually been prolonged, if it is measured by dependence on parents and segregation from adult activities.”
We have, to use Coontz’s term, made adolescence too “roleless”. We have designed educational structures for teenagers that many find boring, unlinked to any path to the adult world. We have neglected to give them any significant public space of their own. We have kept extending the amount of education needed to impress hiring institutions almost as a way of keeping late adolescents/young adults from competing in job markets before older adults want them to.
In addition, the facility of certain older teenagers for grasping the complexities of fast evolving technologies such as information science and “ecommerce” terrifies older adults who cannot absorb social and technological change as quickly. This may result in a kind of unconscious conspiracy to keep teenagers in limbo for quite a few years. They do not feel needed. Why should we be surprised if, in their separate subculture, they treat their boredom and comparative irrelevance with behavior adults don’t admire?
The predominant approach to adolescence today is to balkanize the issues. Safer sex. Reduce crime. Just say no to alcohol and drugs. Indeed. these issues do develop lives of their own. But they must be seen in the context of what we believe adolescence to be. A redefinition of adolescence to give it serious and honored purpose would not fail to affect each of these issues.
Chapter Seventeen: Late Adolescence
C. McGrath, “Autoerotic,” New York Times Magazine (July 5,1998), 50.
Coontz, The Way We Really Are, 14.
adolescent attitudes L. J. Stone and J. Church, Childhood and Adolescence: A Psychology of the Growing Person (New York: Random House, 1968), 30.
Josephson Institute of Ethics, “1998 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth,” posted on the Internet October 19, 1998 (Josephson Institute of Ethics, Publications Department, 4640 Admiralty Way, #1001, Marina del Rey, CA 90292-6610).
arrest data United State Department of Justice, Crime in the U.S.: Uniform Crime Reports (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).
risk-taking Dryfoos, Safe Passages.
G. R. Patterson, B. D. DeBaryshe, E. Ramsey, “A Developmental Perspective on Antisocial Behavior,” American Psychologist 44 (1989), 329-335.361-366adolescent sexual experienceSteinberg, Adolescence, 408-420.
Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America’s Teenagers (New York: Planned Parenthood Federation, 1994).
S. B. Kinsman, D. Romer, F. F. Furstenberg, and D. F. Schwarz, “Early Sexual Initiation: The Role of Peer Norms,” Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1185-1192.
R. Kaufmann, A. Spitz, and L. Strauss, “The Decline in United States Teen Pregnancy Rates, 1990-1995,” Pediatrics, 102 (1998), 1141-1147.
C. Stevens-Simon and D. Kaplan, “Teen Childbearing Trends: Which Tide Turned When and Why?” Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1205-1206.
M. D. Resnick, P. S. Bearman, R. W. Blum, K. E. Bauman, K. M. Harris, J. Jones, J. Tabor, T. Beuhring, R. E. Sieving, M. Shew, M. Ireland, L. H. Bearinger, and R. Udry, “Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health,” Journal of the American Medical Association 278 (1997), 823-832.
R. Garofalo, R. C. Wolf, S. Kessel, J. Palfrey, R. H. DuRant, “The Association Between Health Risk Behaviors and Sexual Orientation Among a School-Based Sample of Adolescents,” Pediatrics 101 (1998), 895-902.
P. R. Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (New York: New York University Press, 1990).
homosexual adolescence R. C. Savin-Williams and K. M. Cohen, The Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Children to Adults (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1996).
R. C. Savin-Williams and L. M. Diamond, “Sexual Orientation As a Developmental Context for .Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Biological Perspectives,” in N. L. Segal, G. E. Weisfeld, and C. C. Weisfeld, eds., Uniting Psychology and Biology: Integrative Perspectives on Human Development (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997), 217-238.
disclosure of sexual orientation R. C. Savin-Williams, E. M. Dube, “Parental Reactions to Their Child’s Disclosure of a Gay/Lesbian Identity,” Family Relations 47 (1998): 7-13.
R. C. Savin-Williams, “The Disclosure to Families of Same-Sex Attractions By Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youths,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 8 (1998), 49-68.371-372adolescent suicideB. Guyer, M. F. MacDorman, J. A. Martin, K. D. Peters, and D. M. Strobino, “Annual Summary of Vital Statistics—1997,” Pediatrics 102 (1998), 1333-1349.
D. K. Curran, Adolescent Suicidal Behavior (Washington,D.C.: Hemisphere, 1987).
R. Wetzel, “Hopelessness, Depression, and Suicide Intent,” Archives of General Psychiatry 33 (1976), 1069-1073.
Coontz, The Way We Really Are, 14.