Once upon a time, people knew when a child had reached adulthood. Now, we’re not so sure. That’s why we turned to Dr. Robert Epstein, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts and author of 15 books, including Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence and the forthcoming Finding the Inner Adult in Your Teen: A Guide for Parents.
YouthWorker Journal: What was your motivation or inspiration for researching the artificial extension of childhood, and what impact did your research have on the way you interact with teenagers?
Dr. Epstein: About 15 years ago when my second son, Justin, was about 14, I noticed he was very mature—more mature than his older brother and perhaps more mature than I was in some ways.
I became curious about why he was forced to go to school, why he couldn’t start a business (which he was ready to do), why he couldn’t drive or own property. I began to read about teens in history, in the Bible, and in other cultures, eventually conducting my own research on the topic.
I learned the restrictions surrounding Justin’s life were an invention of modern culture—an invention that had gone badly awry, causing millions of young people and their families to suffer needlessly.
YWJ: Can you summarize your concept of the artificial extension of childhood and infantilization?
Epstein: Beginning in the late 1800s in the United States, the age of entry into adulthood was gradually increased from 13 or so to about 26 today. As that age increased, two things happened to young people that have caused great harm.
First, they have been increasingly infantilized—that is, treated as incompetent young children, no matter how competent or responsible they actually are as individuals. Second, they became increasingly isolated from responsible adults, trapped more and more in the world of teens, a world which came to be dominated by specialized divisions of the media and fashion industries.
Treated as children and isolated from adults, teens have become increasingly depressed and defiant, in many ways living down to the low expectations we have for them.
YWJ: In your book Teen 2.0, you have a chapter titled, “Young People Are Capable Thinkers,” that essentially refutes the popular media reports on the faulty teenage brain. What do we really need to understand about the teenage brain?
Epstein: There is no evidence to support the recent claim that irresponsible behavior by teens is caused by properties of the developing brain. This is evident for three reasons.
First, anthropological studies show the kind of turmoil we see in teens in many Western countries is entirely absent in more than 100 cultures around the world; if teen turmoil were the inevitable product of the developing brain, we would see such turmoil everywhere.
Second, the fact the teen brain differs in some respects from those of young children and older adults tells us nothing at all about the causes of teen turmoil. Difference alone reveals nothing about causation. The brain scientists who have claimed otherwise have mistakenly connected the differences they see in teen brains with cultural biases about the dysfunctional teen, thus improperly drawing conclusions about causation from a mere correlation—the kind of blatant error students typically are warned about during their first year of university training.
Third, environmental events alter brain chemistry and structure; thus, some characteristics of the teen brain actually may be the result of the bizarre lifestyle we force our teens to live rather than the cause of that lifestyle. What’s more, new research suggests teens who are prone to take risks actually may have brains that are more mature in some respects than the brains of more passive teens. This makes good sense, given the kinds of high-risk behaviors we sometimes see in teens are actually adult behaviors they are imitating.
YWJ: What problems have infantilization and the extension of adolescence created for teenagers? How is this related to culture?
Epstein: According to the 2010 National Comorbidity Survey, 49.5 percent of American teens are diagnosable with at least one behavioral, emotional or substance abuse disorder. Studies I’ve conducted in recent years strongly suggest the turmoil we see among our teens is entirely the result of two factors: first, the fact that we infantilize teens well past puberty, no matter how competent they are as individuals; second, the fact that we isolate teens from responsible adults, trapping them in the vacuous world of teen culture.
My research suggests teens are subjected to 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and to nearly twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons. My research also suggests that despite the poor opinion many adults have of teens, about 30 percent of our teens are actually more competent than half the adults in the country across a wide range of adult abilities.
YWJ: How can youth workers best help young people navigate this time period that has been labeled adolescence?
Epstein: First, treat young people as individuals, according to their individual competence and maturity levels, bearing in mind many of those young people are probably more competent than you are in many respects.
Second, never use demeaning language when referring to teens. Past puberty, no one is a kid, child, boy or girl. Teens are young adults.
Finally, nurture adult competence in the teens with whom you work; there is an inner adult in every teen, waiting to express him or herself when faced with meaningful adult challenges.
YWJ: As a youth worker, I’ve seen firsthand the damage that infantilization and the artificial extension of childhood have caused in some of the young people in my ministry. How do parenting styles impact extended adolescence?
Epstein: Parents have been bombarded with negative images of teens and faulty information about their abilities, along with the totally false myth of a teen brain that causes teens to be irresponsible and incompetent. In recent decades, parents also have become increasingly overprotective of their offspring of every age. Parents need to be told the facts about teens—repeatedly—and they need to learn to become less controlling and more facilitative, nurturing that inner adult and helping to bring their teen offspring into the adult world.
YWJ: How can youth workers best provide support to parents during this time in their young person’s life? What resources would you recommend?
Epstein: Youth workers should give parents a copy of Teen 2.0 with a big red ribbon wrapped around it, of course!
YWJ: What part have churches and youth ministries played in the infantilization of teenagers, if any? How has youth ministry positively and negatively contributed to or impacted extended adolescence?
Epstein: In the early 1800s, churches in the United States treated teens as young adults, giving them a high degree of autonomy. By the early 1900s, many churches bought into the new, faulty view of teens that became popular when industrialization ended the eons-old apprentice system that had kept teens working side-by-side with adults.
With teens increasingly forced to attend school (regardless of whether they were ready to learn) and prohibited from working (no matter how benign the work or how much their families needed their help), many churches began to adopt policies similar to those of society at large, infantilizing teens well past puberty and trapping teens with their peers. Some churches also raised the minimum age for marriage fairly dramatically, following general societal trends. The net result was to create generations of depressed and angry young people and untold turmoil for our families.
YWJ: What else do you think it is important for youth workers to know about this issue?
Epstein: Although the truth about teens eventually will rise to the top, at the moment society is moving rapidly in the wrong direction. With drug companies benefiting from the teen brain myth, it is promoted mercilessly in headlines and on magazine covers. What’s more, the rate at which teen behavior is being restricted through various laws and regulations actually is increasing. In other words, there is a lot of work to be done.