November 28th, 2021


The Rats Also Known as Teenagers

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Feb. 3, 2015

When my older sister was about 14, I watched in awe as she transformed from docile darling into an oh-so-daring jerk. For several tense months, she stopped calling my mother "Mom" and referred to her only as "Ma'am," as if she was being court-marshaled. ("Yes, ma'am." "No, ma'am." "Ma'am you are ruining my LIFE!")

I was impressed. It took a lot of will power to be so consistently obnoxious — or so I thought.

Turns out, maybe all it took was an overactive hormone receptor.

That's what a professor named Sheryl Smith is explaining to a country hanging on her every don't-worry-it's-not-your-fault-your-children-hate-you word. Her work with lab rats seems to show that in the two years (or, in the case of lab rats, four days) it takes to go through puberty, the brain reacts to stress differently than it does in childhood or again in adulthood. But maybe the same as it does during PMS. Stress usually causes the body to release a Valium-like hormone that calms a person down. During puberty, that same hormone has the opposite effect: It makes the person (or at least the rat) more anxious, more moody, more ready to slam the bathroom door, lock oneself in and bang one's head on the toilet seat because one's hair looks "too wavy." (The rat behavior equivalent is cowering in the dark part of a maze.)

So did Smith choose to study this stage of life because she raged her way through it herself? Or because she's raising little ragers of her own? Or does she just like pubescent rodents?

Well, she and her husband are raising two daughters of pretty much precisely puberty age, 11 and 13, but they're busy with violin and Japanese and singing lessons. Suffice to say, they do not spend whole weekends insisting that they "will DIE" if their mom won't let them wear sweatpants with "I'm cold. Where's my underwear?" stamped across the butt.

As for Smith's own adolescence: "I did have some fights with my mother, but mostly it was just a much darker period of my life."

If that doesn't sound familiar, I'll eat my collected works of Judy Blume.

Mostly, it seems, she studied pubescent rats because she just likes studying rats, period, even when they're going through their teenage days. Just as most of us like eating Chinese food, even when it's been in the fridge so long that the noodles no longer bend.

Obviously, her research struck a nerve because puberty is such a challenging time — for parents. One day, when my friend Carol's daughter was 12, she came into Carol's room and shut the door — "which is always scary," Carol noted, "and she said, 'Mom, we need to talk.' And then she told me everything I did annoyed her."

Carol's cool. She knew this was a teachable moment. "So I explained to her why she was finding me annoying, and I told her it was an important part of her becoming independent. And since I'm the 'alpha female' in her life, she's going to decide which parts of me she wants to keep, and which parts to throw away, and then I saw that look on her face and I just said, 'Am I annoying you right now?' and she said, 'YES!' And ran out of the room."

That's why we toast Professor Smith today. Her work suggests that teenagers, especially the ones just coming into their own, don't really hate their parents any more than their parents hate the little rats their children have become. Pubescent rats have a certain charm.

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