Field Guide for Understanding Teens

“Wildhood” Tests both Animal and Human Adolescents

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This adolescent lion has an immature mane and is still in his “wildhood.” (Unsplash)

It is easy to think of your teen as uniquely frustrating, but it turns out that all adolescents, both animals and humans, go through similar phases on their journey from childhood to adulthood. These stages are explored in the fascinating book , by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., and Kathryn Bowers. All the quotations in this article are from that book.

“Whether our bodies are covered with skin, scales, or feathers…we share common biology that builds and shapes our adult selves. This book explores the universality of the period between childhood and adulthood — what we decided to call ‘wildhood.’”

As a middle school teacher, and parent of two kids just out of their wildhood, I found this book intriguing. Behaviors that troubled me, like risk-taking and an over dependence on peer opinion, suddenly became a normal biological part of adolescence. Teachers and parents alike will benefit from reading this engaging book filled with fascinating biological examples.

Don’t Worry about Anthropomorphism, Worry about Anthropodenial

Scientists have always cautioned us against “anthropomorphism” or the projection of human traits onto animals. However, the authors of this book are both scientists. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D. @BNHorowitzMD is a visiting professor for the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and a professor of medicine at UCLA. Kathryn Bowers @KathrynSBowers is a science writer and a certified animal behaviorist. They warn,

“We realized the bigger danger might be denying humans’ real and demonstrable connections with other animals, in body and behavior. The real threat, we recognized, wasn’t anthropomorphism, but its opposite, what primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal calls ‘anthropodenial.’”

Anthropodenial means that we deny, or refuse to admit, how similar animals and humans are both biologically and behaviorally. Animals can develop eating disorders and addictions. Some suffer from insomnia and anxiety. Others engage in criminal behavior like rape. Some are outgoing and social extroverts, while others are timid and shy. We are more similar than some of us would like to admit.

The Four Core Life Skills

The authors identified four fundamental challenges of wildhood for all animals.

  1. How to stay safe and avoid predators
  2. How to navigate social hierarchies
  3. How to communicate sexually
  4. How to leave the nest and care for oneself

The book is broken up into sections focusing on each skill. Each section is woven together with stories about how the four main characters, a gray wolf, spotted hyena, humpback whale and king penguin, navigated the challenges of each stage.

“Safety. Status. Sex. Self-reliance. The four skills are also at the core of the human experience and the basis of tragedies, comedies, and epic quests.”

Safety

None of the milestones of wildhood can happen if the adolescent doesn’t survive. Therefore, the first challenge is safety. The king penguin, whom they named Ursula, grows increasingly restless and starts leaving her parents to hang out at the water’s edge with her peers.

One day, she dives into the water and swims away from South Georgia Island. Lurking in the water, waiting to ambush, are leopard seals. Elite hunters with massive jaws that could easily smash her head in their sharp teeth. Also waiting beneath the water are orcas.

“Dispersing adolescent penguins must run this gauntlet of death and come out the other side. If they don’t jump in they can’t grow up. But if they don’t make it past the leopard seals…the first day of the rest of their lives will also be their last.”

Adolescents are driven to engage in risk-taking behavior. They must leave the safety of their parents to grow up. As human parents, we want to stop these behaviors — the recklessness, the breaking of curfew, the dangerous stunts. We need to realize that the brains of adolescents are going through a radical transformation. Their brains are literally pushing them to break the rules.

“Changing adolescent brains…drive tendencies like risk-seeking, sociality, and interest in trying new things…The impulsivity of adolescents, their drive to experiment…and their immature decision-making have been linked to the…prefrontal cortex, which matures late in brain development.”

In nature, adolescents are preferentially targeted and killed by predators. They are “predator naive” and don’t recognize dangerous situations. They are more easily fooled, distracted and ambushed compared to adults. Adolescent animals crash, drown, and starve more often than adults. This is true for humans too.

“A nearly 200 percent increase in mortality is seen between childhood and adolescence in the United States. Almost half of all deaths among adolescents are the unintentional and tragic result of accidents.”

However, adolescents that survive leave their naivety behind and become predator aware. They learn which risks are safe and what they need to watch out for. None of these lessons could have been learned if the parents were nearby.

As scary as it is, we have to allow our teens freedom and risk-taking or they can’t transition out of childhood into adulthood. Lessons learned in scary situations establish “fear-conditioning.” Knowledge gained through fear will be remembered for a lifetime and guide future behavior.

“Each of us has a singular internal armor, tailor-made by our own particular experiences. And much of that internal armor is forged during wildhood, in the stage between childhood and full maturity when adolescents and young adults begin confronting danger on their own.”

Animals that never encounter predators, like those living on the Galapagos Islands, develop “island tameness.” Natural fear reactions go dormant, which means that if a predator does show up, then the animal is extremely vulnerable.

Humans can also develop island tameness. The authors offer a fascinating hypothesis that the reason some parents in the U.S. no longer believe in vaccinating their child is because they have not seen polio, measles or diphtheria. These predators of the past are no longer present, and some adults think they have nothing to fear. However, as we saw in the Disneyland cases of 2015 and 2019, measles and other diseases still lurk in the shadows, waiting to ambush those that are no longer in the herd.

Even more interesting is the authors’ hypothesis about why children suffer higher levels of social anxiety now. We no longer have the true risks that humans faced in the past, but we still have brains that are wired to scan for danger. We then blow up minor risks, such as embarrassment in class, into true dangers. Adolescents may live in permanent fear, largely created by exaggerating risks.

“A scared, overly vigilant animal scanning its surroundings easts less, socializes less, mates less.”

The more often well-meaning parents shield their kids, like not making them give speeches in class, the more true these risks feel. Students can never face their fears and put them into perspective when they are overprotected.

“Being raised in an overly protective environment deprives young animals of learning the skills they need to feel safe as adults. Something is lost when opportunities to experience danger are taken away. Growing up will be dangerous, but both parents and children have to let it unfold. The alternative is ending up a predator-naive adult, which can be even worse.”

Humans learn a great deal about danger from watching their peers.They also learn to put social risks into perspective and not over magnify them. Children that grow up without peers can not learn the safety skills that they need to function in the real world.

“They (adolescents) move from responding individually to the call of a parent to communicating with one another. Watching bad things happen to its cohorts provides a fish, bird, or mammal with lessons it can’t get anywhere else.”

Status

“Animals will suffer pain, forgo food, give up sex, and betray others just to ensure they’re not left out or driven from a group. In nature the lower an animal slips in group rank, the worse his life becomes.”

The science nerd in me loved the anecdote about Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who first identified the “pecking order” in social groups. At the age of six, he started watching chickens. Through the years, he drew complex diagrams detailing how the individual chickens navigated in the hierarchy of the flock. He eventually published his findings in 1922, at the age of twenty-eight. He discovered that across species, adolescence means entering the time of social ranking.

“Wildhood is when much of an individual’s future status is learned and solidified. How young animals are ranked and rated during this period will shape their place in the world and their sense of belonging for the rest of their lives. Some of what they’ll be judged on they can do nothing about…(but) some of their status they can learn or cultivate, or…change.”

Even animals are born into privilege. The offspring of the alpha female in the hyena pack gets to eat first at a kill and is therefore healthier. Superior health translates into glossier fur and better grooming. The cub is also protected and bolstered socially by the alpha parents and allowed to bully those that are subordinate.

The book tracks a young hyena named Shrink. Although born to a low ranking parent, through his friendliness he makes alliances with higher status hyenas, and he is able to raise his rank in the pack. Similarly, the movie perfectly depicts teenage signaling and the drive to become part of the popular group.

“Dominant animals know how to send status signals and subordinates learn what they mean.”

Once again, the brain chemistry of the adolescent is different from an adult. It is extra sensitive to status signals. Telling your teen to not care about their peers will do no good. The added scrutiny of a life lived online, where teens never escape updates on their peers’ status and feel driven to report their own, is behind the increase in teen loneliness, depression and disconnection.

“Primed with highly sensitive neurocircuitry that registers every compliment as acceptance and clocks every slight as rejection, human adolescents pay close attention to where they fall in the hierarchy. Changes in status — whether in real life or on a screen — can induce euphoria, despair, and every feeling in between in adolescents.”

In animals, physical size, age, and grooming or physical beauty, can raise status among individuals. Grooming is used for social bonding and the higher status members are groomed more and become more attractive and healthy. This also translates into sexual attractiveness. The authors suggest that humans use words as social grooming because compliments trigger neurochemical responses similar to physical touch.

“Humans can use praise and flattery the way animals use plucking, rubbing, and nibbling to curry favor of dominants in the group. Extending this concept of ‘spoken grooming’ to social media, one can discern hierarchies from who does the posting and who does the liking.”

Lower social ranking animals are more edgy and nervous, and their body language reveals this. Downcast eyes, slumping shoulders and, a favorite of middle schoolers, hoods pulled up, are human equivalents of tails between the legs, ears backward and head near the ground.

“Higher ranking humans tend to show their status in verbal language that is quicker, more confident and more enunciated. They interrupt more too…it is always the lower status person that does the adjusting.”

Bullying is related to status and is closely linked to victims developing depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. Bullying can be physical aggression, name calling and rumor spreading, or refusing to talk to someone to make them feel left out.

Animals bully to gain and retain status. In dominance displays, the bully selects a lower-status individual to pick on. This type of bullying always needs an audience. In both humans and animals, bully parents train their offspring from a young age to grab power and threaten, bluster, or overreact if anyone fights back.

Sex

Adolescents must learn how to read signals from the opposite sex correctly and adapt their behaviors to earn attention. They need to risk rejection and learn from it.

“We aren’t talking about the physical mechanics of sex itself. We mean practicing courtship — the thousands of special fine-tuned glances and nods and tilts and shading that unchain corresponding behaviors in potential mates. In short, sex is easy. Romance is hard.”

Birds and their elaborate courtship displays are a perfect example. Adolescent birds watch adult males and practice with their peers. Sometimes they are allowed to perform with an adult for the practice since they are clearly not competition. Television shows rarely show the adolescent’s incompetent efforts and instead show only the polished adult. But, just like a trembling teen asking a girl out for his first date, animals have to learn courtship behaviors too.

The authors point out that older cultures had rituals and ways of training adolescents how to engage in courtship. However, parents do not teach their teens how to woo a girl or how to subtly attract the eye of their favorite boy. We give them sex ed and birth control, but not lessons in romance and communication.

“It does feel as if we’re in a special period of sexual behavioral upheaval that has left adolescents uniquely ill-equipped to understand their own sexuality. It’s that modern adults no longer…teach their young the complex and honest communication that contributes to bringing animals together…Simply talking more about healthy relationships could go a long way.”

The fact that so few kids read contributes to this ignorance. They are no longer experiencing romance and heart-break vicariously through literature. Youtube videos and short “how to” articles comprise the majority of the media they consume on this topic. Movies give a glimpse, but in a novel, the reader is inside the protagonists head.

“Great love stories are generally not about sex. Great love stories are about excitement, the motivation, the missed signals, and the pulling in and sometimes pulling away embedded in the moments leading up to actual coupling. The problems recounted in love stories are problems of communication.”

Even for readers, our society doesn’t want adolescents to have access to the stories that could help them navigate this difficult time. A report by the American Library Association (ALA) found that adolescent sexual content is by far the most common complaint they receive, outstripping violence, gambling, suicide and Satanism as why a book should be banned.

Self-Reliance

Adolescents feel a drive to leave their families. They are fully grown, but still inexperienced and filled with restlessness.

“…an overwhelmingly dangerous, ancient, and planet wide phenomenon…consumes young adults on the verge of independence. It’s both a moment and a behavior called ‘dispersal.’”

In animals, sometimes the adolescent just leaves. Australian possums leave their parents nest one night and walk away. Humans have dispersals in the form of going off to college, getting married or joining the military. The adolescent is leaving home voluntarily.

Other animals, just like some humans, need to be driven away. The mountain lion mother takes her cub to the edge of her territory. When he tries to follow her home, she snarls and swats at her cub until he leaves. Some songbirds stay in the nest so long that parents stop feeding them. This is called “parental meanness” and it bewilders the offspring. Despite this, many human parents have to practice their own version to get the overly comfortable child to leave the nest.

Dispersal is a time of danger because most adolescents are still predator naive and they don’t know how to hunt. Starvation is the most common form of death for dispersing animals. They are hungry and desperate, territory-less and filled with hormones. Most animals that have encounters with humans, or urban dangers like traffic, are adolescents.

It will comfort a parent to know that adolescents have a superior immune system. Despite their hunger and stress, dispersing youngsters have a fat-grabbing metabolism and a superior immune system. These biological facts might be behind the low incidents of COVID19 sickness among adolescents. It is certainly behind the way teenagers are always hungry and foraging for snacks.

Conclusion

is a delight. I loved it on so many levels: as a science teacher, a middle school teacher and, most importantly, as a parent.

My article didn’t do justice to the incredible animal vignettes. Each chapter melded science, psychology and animal stories together. The book features a book club section in the back so it would be appropriate for literature circles.

You will never look at teenagers with the same perspective after you have read this book. You will have a newfound sympathy for them and an understanding of what drives them to do the behaviors that drive you crazy.

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Written by

Kimberly is a writer, teacher, speaker. She writes about mythology, nature, and bold women who drove social change in midcentury America https://kimberlyus.com/

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