Don’t Blame it on the Hormones

As I’ve been touring the country, whenever I discuss the science of adolescent behavior, audiences have often asked why I never mention the role of hormones.

Ahh … hormones. In a typically-developing child, it starts with the adrenal glands, which begin increasing the secretion of androgens. These become the source material from which other steroids are constructed. The hypothalamus then takes charge, triggering a hormonal game of dominos. Pulsing shots of gonadrophin-releasing  hormone from the hypothalamus signal the pituitary to release its many hormones, which in turn activate the testes and ovaries to release the sex hormones, testosterone and estradiol. The level of testosterone in a boy’s body shoots up 5,000 percent. Children’s body odor becomes noticeable, as is their growth spurt; their bones get harder, muscles get bigger, pubic hair begins to grow, and skin gets greasier. Then, actual puberty begins.

Back in 1904, G. Stanley Hall couldn’t be that specific. But the existence of hormones, and their role in triggering puberty, had been discovered. Hall published one of the first books about child psychology, Adolescence. Some 600 pages, it was broken into two volumes, and it became a wild bestseller, largely because of its salacious and graphic descriptions of adolescent sexuality and desires. Hall gave adolescence its classical characterization as a time of “storm and stress.” Rebellion from parents, a desire to break rules and take stupid risks, aggression, bouts of irrationality – it was all explainable by teens’ raging hormones.

For the next 80 years, the raging hormone explanation for teen behavior remained unquestioned. It seemed obvious: teens bodies and their behavior change together – hormones must trigger both.

But about twenty years ago, cracks in that logic started appearing. For instance, endocrinologists were certainly able to see the correlation between levels of sex hormones and physical changes. But levels of sex hormones have only an infinitesimal correlation with when kids go on their first date or engage in their first sexual acts. Nor do levels of gonadal hormones correlate with any change in brain function. They barely correlate at all with negative affect.

“When I got my first job as a scholar, in 1989, the hormone explanation dominated,” recalled Joe Allen. “People liked the hormone explanation. But the only correlations of hormones (that aren’t physical in nature) are some modest relationships between testosterone and aggression, and between testosterone and sexual interest – but not sexual activity. The problem with the raging hormone excuse is that teens don’t have higher hormone levels than twenty-five year olds. Most have lower levels. And hormones should, in theory, make teens more mature – but adolescence is characterized by a spike in immature behavior, not mature behavior.” Hormone levels, he added, seem to correlate with an urge for autonomy, but the desire to separate and individuate from one’s parents is healthy behavior, not irrational at all. Hormone levels don’t correlate with behavior, such as delinquency, or with psychological states, such as boredom.

Nevertheless, the raging hormone explanation still perpetuates in the popular mind. But the truth is, the physical changes and the behavioral changes associated with adolescence are only weakly linked.

The reason to point this out is that, as Joe Allen aptly called it, hormones are used as an excuse. Blaming it on their raging hormones means not having to look into their lives for legitimate causes. So when a child is acting out, or becomes disinterested, or goes from first date to first sex in a single year – these should be recognized by parents and teachers as a sign of something going on – some stress or problem to help them with – and not written off as the normal side effects of a surge in hormones.

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