It seems like the "in" thing to do these days for teenagers is to say goodbye to family, fly out to Istanbul, and embark on a long trek to Syria to join ISIS, the latest terror group drawing international headlines. From Glasgow to Minneapolis we are hearing of seemingly ordinary adolescents who one day just disappear and next thing the family hears is that their angelic child has reappeared on some video as a full-fledged member of a radical group drawn from the dark-ages. What happened to the thrill of just checking Facebook, video games, and hanging out at the mall?
Beyond the broader social, political, and cultural forces that drive such insanity, there are some unique aspects of adolescent development that can account for this cutting-edge trend.
Teens' joining violent, risky, and extreme groups is nothing new. Throughout history there have been many examples of fringe groups that attracted confused adolescents. From the Children's Crusade of 1212, to the Hitler Youth movement, to modern day cults and gangs, there is something about the teen psyche that is allured by these types of degenerate groups.
The adolescent years are a time of drastic change. In addition to the turmoil caused by alterations in an adolescent's body, cognitive and social changes create a dangerous cocktail that, under the wrong circumstances, can lead unfortunate outcomes.
The adolescent mind develops great capabilities in its capacity to think more abstractly and hypothetically about the world. With these mental advances comes a passionate idealism about the world that if left hungry can lead teens to pursue unhealthy activities to satisfy this idealistic craving. This idealism is emotion based. Coupled with an underdeveloped decision-making process, another dimension of the adolescent developing brain, this idealism can run unchecked.
On a social level, teens desire to develop a sense of identity. They seek meaningful answers to the question of "who am I?" Teens are on a quest to find their true sense of self making them feel important and relevant. They are on a search for their relationship, religious, political, occupational, gender, and cultural identities. They know that they are about to enter the adult world and they need to know what they are all about and who they really are as they embark on this daunting journey.
To develop a healthy sense of identity teens need to be exposed to meaningful options of what they can believe in and become in the future. They also need a warm and nurturing environment that allows them to explore various identity options over time. Lacking the ingredients of healthy identity development, teens may choose a quick fix to their identity quest by embracing a group that can offer them a distinct sense of being unique and important. Unfortunately, joining a local gang or a terror group on the other side of the world can seem unique and important when you lack a sense of true self and are working with an underdeveloped frontal lobe.
Unfortunately, in some cases, this combination of heightened idealism, an underdeveloped decision-making process, and a desire to be unique can coalesce in tragic ways. When teens are not given meaningful options for their future life, they may look for them in the wrong place: Syria or Iraq.
Confronting this new wave of terror will require a multidimensional approach. But understanding the inner workings of the adolescent world can provide some insight into why teens are making such drastic decisions and how to potentially offer them meaningful alternatives to satisfy their quest.