• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Wildhood: Why teen angst is shared by all social animals


There are four things every adolescent needs to master. That’s every adolescent… even chickens.

“Dear, sweet, naive, 16-year-old me, You poor sap. I know you won’t believe any of this, but you should. How can I get it through your thick, acne-pocked skull? All the stupid things you are so worried about really aren’t very important at all. In fact, they are the opposite of important. What if I told you that all the ‘winners’ around you right now were actually the losers? Well, I just did tell you that, but you still won’t believe me because I’m an adult and 16-year-olds can never trust adults… all those ‘winners’ who appear at the top of their games and lives are indeed, just that: at their peaks! It’s all downhill for those idiots from here. Ha! Come on, let’s have a laugh. At their expense! It’s okay. You’ve earned it!” – Sincerely, A Fully Grown Man Called E

– Mark E. Everett, lead singer of the US rock band Eels, aged 47, in a letter to his younger self.

They take crazy risks and jump at shadows. They treat their parents like cooks and cleaners and Eftpos machines, slam doors, shout and leave wet towels everywhere. WTF, teens?

You used to be so cute.

Puberty followed by adolescence is a process shared by a humbling array of animals. Puberty strikes fruit flies at nine days, cats at six months, otters at nine months, humpback whales at four years, crocodiles at eight, elephants at 10 and Greenland sharks at 130*. 

Adolescence is the difference between a physically grown individual and a mature adult. It is the phase of development after puberty, and is a crucial period of learning for everything from chickens to gazelles.

Sufferers share a range of behaviours: being both overly bold and overly cautious; social fumbles; experimentations in courtship and sex; and what scientists refer to as “exuberant socialising”.

Adolescents are not children or, yet, adults. They are “pre-adults”, “emerging adults”, “dispersers”, “sub-adults”, “fledglings” and “elvers” (a term for adolescent eels). The loveliest name is surely Japanese “seinenki” (green ones, saplings). 

“Although it happens at any point from a few days to many years after they are born, all animals have a ‘teenage’ period,” write two researchers in their new book, Wildhood (Scribe, $40). “Boys and girls don’t become men and women overnight. And the transition from foal to stallion, joey to kangaroo or sea otter cub to sea otter elder is just as distinct, just as necessary and just as extraordinary.”

Harvard professor Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and science writer Kathryn Bowers spent five years investigating the state they call “wildhood”: the shared experience of adolescence across species. That they needed to come up with their own word says something about the freshness and originality of their central insights: human adolescence isn’t a new invention, culturally created; it is, instead, they write, a shared quest for maturity through experience. “For a species to produce mature adults, an adolescence is essential.”

Both are parents themselves, and they have written a book that is non-patronising enough to be read by a 16-year-old without being hurled across the room. Quite an achievement when you are comparing her to an otter.

This excerpt, from a chapter about learning to navigate hierarchies, captures their empathetic tone:

“Rising in status feels great. Plummeting in status, on the other hand, reduces an animal’s chances of survival. When animals fall in status, they are chemically punished. Status descent feels terrible.

“Newer research suggest this possibility: serotonin levels don’t control an animal’s mood. Serotonin, along with other neurotransmitters, signals a shift in an animal’s status.

“The status-mood connection is a powerful lens for interpreting adolescent and young adult behaviour, mood swings, anxiety and depression.”

The demands of social hierarchy explains why a savvy young hyena spends time networking – and why your 15-year-old demands identical pairs of impractically snowy-white sneakers.

The authors argue that all animals share four fundamental adolescent challenges: 1) how to stay safe, 2) how to navigate social hierarchies, 3) how to communicate sexually, and 4) how to leave the nest and care for oneself. 

In chapters titled “Dangerous Days”, “The Nature of Fear”, “Knowing your Predators”, “The Self-confident Fish” and “School for Survival”, the authors describe the first of these four tasks.

Learning how to stay safe is an adolescent mission not only for wolves and sardines, but also your 13-year-old, who doesn’t understand why she can’t go to Rhythm & Vines with her friends.

Natterson-Horowitz is a professor of human evolutionary biology and also a cardiologist and professor of medicine. Her understanding of zoology, human health and the vagaries of parenting take the book to interesting places, especially in Part II, the chapters about status and learning group rules.

“Social pain is excruciating and not something to be trivialised. It may therefore be not only insensitive, but perhaps even ignorant, to ask an adolescent why they care so much about what others think... using drugs, alcohol and tobacco may play another role in making adolescent users feel as though they’ve raised their status. Questions about popularity and friendships may be more likely to yield information about social pain than direct questioning about mood.”

The pain and anger still radiating from the letter written by a 40-something rock star to his younger self is experienced, the authors’ research shows, by other animals too. While chickens can’t write letters to express their angst at the memory of social demotion, their behaviour and even their blood chemicals reveal their anxiety and depression.

In the chapters “The Age of Assessment”, “The Rules of Groups”, “Privileged Creatures”, “The Pain of Social Descent” and “The Power of an Ally”, Wildhood explains how the agonies of status-sorting are shared by all social animals.

There is, though, one way that young humans today have a tougher time than nearly any other animal.

“After a full day of assessment from peers, teachers, parents, professors, bosses and mates, students go home. Home used to exist as a sort of status sanctuary. But now, through laptops and phones, a direct sorting pipeline digitally spews into many adolescents’ bedrooms, dinner tables and car-rides, while they’re studying, TV-watching, game-playing, reading or having downtime. What we have in the 21st century is an unmanageable and unhealthy amount of assessment. We propose a new term for the anxiety and suffering caused by adolescents saturated with near-constant evaluation: ‘assessment overload’.”

These are some of the book’s most memorable insights.

The last two tasks adolescents face, say the authors, are “How to court potential mates” (sample subhead: “How to ask out a whale”) and “How to leave the nest”. But can we really compare a human teen leaving home with the likes of Ursula, a penguin who swam away from home in December 2017 “without looking back”?

Why not? Surmounting challenges is the definition of maturity, whatever species you are. Human adolescence is the result of millions of years of evolution, not an illness.

Phrases like “pecking order” and “leaving the nest” reveal more than we realise.+

Jenny Nicholls tweets @jmnicholls 

(*Not a misprint – they can live for an estimated 500 years.)

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.