by Nancy Means Wright
As a youngish mother with four lively children teaching high school and trying to write between classes, I was losing weight and, all too frequently, patience. My oldest son had been expelled from his pre-school for breaking the toys, and was too fidgety to concentrate in first grade, so I had to teach him to read–with the help of Dr. Seuss. I hadn’t yet heard of ADHD or the drug Ritalin. My daughter, two years his junior, was a teacher’s darling in school but a mother’s nightmare at home with her negativity and a closet full of rabbits, guinea pigs, and white rats. When her clothes got too smelly she would raid my closet/bureau for school apparel–usually just what I was planning to wear. How many rainy days I’d come home, exhausted from teaching, to find the living room window glass shattered by flying pucks from an indoor hockey game organized by my eldest!
If they were wild as pre-teens, they were beyond control as young adults. My daughter graduated high school with ease, then took a gap year before college to wander, alone, through Europe, then into the explosive Middle East. My oldest son poured all his energy into hockey–his college coach phoned with abject apologies when the lad crashed into a goal post and knocked out half his teeth (another “gap” year and don’t ask about the cost.)
I got my revenge by writing them into stories and books. Teens appear in almost all my twenty books–mysteries, mainstream novels, poems. My daughter howled when I wrote up her risky gap year adventures in a local newspaper column. “How could you?” she’d cry, “that was my story!”
Well, we’re all familiar with the “my story” syndrome, yes?
They’re grown up now with wilding kids of their own. This year I’ve four grandchildren doing their thing in the developing countries of Central America, Africa, and the Near East. And I worry about them as they wander. Because adolescence, I recently read in a piece by a professor of clinical psychiatry “is synonymous with risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior.”
Apparently, the professor says, we afflicted elders have never understood the dark side of adolescence, the “surge in anxiety and fearfulness.” For the brain circuit, he claims, develops far ahead of the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reasoning and control). In other words, teens are overwired for anxiety but underwired for calm reasoning.
I could have told him that years ago! But if my daughter was so afraid and anxious, why did she keep traveling through Iran, Afghanistan and India, where they threw pebbles at her, a young woman daring to explore the world–alone? And why did my eldest hurtle his body into contact sports that might injure his brain and eliminate his teeth? (Even as a college hockey coach, he was recently hit by an errant puck and bled all over the ice.)
The three top killers of youth, I’ve heard, are homicide, accidents, and suicide. My offspring, and now my grandkids, have all had accidents. One granddaughter was a passenger in a rented car en route to Duke University when the car was rear-ended and a heavy suitcase fell and killed a girl in the back seat. Even though it wasn’t my granddaughter driving, she still suffers PSTD from the death of her close friend.
I’m not surprised to see the increasing popularity of young adult novels these days, as we authors write about this risk-taking circuit in the adolescent brain. One might add a world filled with guns, bombs, drugs, civil wars and children fleeing violence to travel on their own to a U.S. that is trying to keep them out. And the young brain has gone crazy with it all–wanting to escape–not like me as an aging writer into books–but physically: to another part of the untamed world, not knowing what the welcome might be.
All I can do now with my tired brain is to stand out on the village green in my Vermont home town and wave a petition for universal background checks for guns. And then go home and work on a story about–well, yes, a runaway teen.