By Sid Parham, PhD, Chair of the Leadership Team at FFS
This week’s cover story in New York Magazine proclaims that “High School Is a Sadistic Institution.” It is a survey of recent social and psychological research into the life of adolescents. It is a very good summary and I recommend the entire article. Here I’d like to focus on one study that included rats and humans. This team of researches (Casey , Lee, Pattwell and others) discovered that ”adolescents—both mice and humans—were far less capable of dialing back their fear response than children or adults.”
These experimenters shocked mice after playing a neutral tone and they subjected the humans to an unpleasant noise paired with a neutral color. Very quickly both mice and people learned that the stimulus was the precursor to unpleasantness. Each showed measureable physical reaction. Over the next few days the experimenters decoupled the stimulus and the painful response. Very quickly both children and adults unlearned the physical response. Adolescents retained the fear response after more trials than it took to reteach either children or adults. In fact, they retested the mice after they reached adulthood (30 days) and discovered that the fear response was identical to the period immediately after they taught that response.
While I would not want to make too much over one experiment, this does suggest that fears developed in high school are harder to overcome and last well in to adulthood than do fears learned at other times in our lives. Many of the students we work with suffer from anxiety disorders and often we cannot see the cause of their anxiety, because to adult eyes it seems too small for the effect it has created.
I am current directing The Glass Menagerie here at the school and anyone who knows the play can see that Tennessee Williams has intuited this mechanism. Laura’s anxiety in high school is full blown agoraphobia in her early adulthood. I suspect I am not the only who has an occasionally recurring nightmare set in high school.