Four lion cubs play together

Wild Adolescence – What Nature Can Tell Us

As parents, we worry about many things as our children head into adolescence. Are our children spending too much time on screens? Are they doing well enough at school and getting their homework done? Do they have friends and social support? Are they safe? Are they using drugs and taking unnecessary risks?

What if there was a better, biologically based way of understanding what we need to focus on, as parents of adolescents?

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz is an evolutionary biologist and a cardiologist, and has made a study, over the last 5 years, of animal adolescence.  Out of this study, she draws some powerful lessons for understanding the human experience.

Growing up – mastering competencies

“When my kids were in high school, a lot of what I was worrying about was were they learning what was in the school curriculum? And now, years later, having written this book, I realise what I really could have done is asked if they were learning what they need to know in these four competencies?”

Natterson-Horowitz suggests that reaching mature adulthood is not so much to do with chronological age, but with the the mastering of four critical competencies:

  • staying safe
  • navigating the social environment
  • sexual communication
  • self reliance.

The process of mastering these, she calls  “wildhood” – which across the animal kingdom, starts at puberty and ends in mature adulthood.

Staying Safe

White swan parent shelters signet on it's back while floating on waterThe first competency, staying safe, isn’t hard for most human parents to understand.  Once adolescents move outside of adult protection, they must know how to survive. In the animal kingdom, animals must recognise predators and find safe places to live and communities to be in.

I think every human parent feels this as their children move away – will they make the right choices, can they tell when they are in danger, will they take unnecessary risks?  I remember telling my boss, not long after I had my child, what a relief it was when she was asleep at the end of the day.  I could rest, knowing she was safe in her bed and there was nothing more I had to do.  He laughed – his children were in their late teens and early twenties.  He said “I still feel like that!  I only really relax when they are back, safe in their beds!”

Social Competence

The second competency is social:  Can they navigate their social environment? Can they manage the dynamics of social relationships?Young meercats play together.

Success here is a powerful force in overcoming the disadvantages suffered if you are low on the social hierarchy and have limited access to resources.  Natterson-horowitz tells the story of Shrink, a young male hyena born to a low status female.  He was able to use his social skills and his ability to form alliances and relationships to ascend the pretty treacherous world of hyena social hierarchy.

The take-away, says Natterson-Horowitz, is that learning to socialise and form relationships is a really crucial and important part of adolescence.  She asks “Are they really using this time to develop and enrich their social skills?”

Sexual Communication

The third competency has to do with sexuality, especially sexual communication. It turns out that many animal species have a long period after they have reached sexual maturity  where they master the  details of sexual communication.  They may already have become biologically able to have offspring, but they must learn the skills to find the right partner in life, understanding and mastering the rituals of courtship.

In some bird species, adolescents spend years practicing intricate courting rituals and dances, mastering sequences and getting the steps right. Bald Eagles have fascinating pre-copulatory flight-dances where they zoom towards each other with talons extended.  They grab each other and then they spiral down to earth and release just before they hit the ground, which takes a lot of practice!  Natterson Horowitz says “We watched a lot of wildlife documentaries, but we were looking for the fails, because the very often the fails are in fact adolescents practicing and practicing to master the art.”

Finding your own food

The fourth life skill is about self reliance – which boils down to finding food. The time when young adult animals leave the nest and disperse is a very dangerous time.  As you would expect, they are very vulnerable to predation.Tow teenage elephants together

Penguins have a long period of over a year of close parental care but when one day, the young just walk into the water, they are predator naive.  These penguins are full-sized but inexperienced, and more likely to fall for traps laid by predators.

However,  even if they did not end up on some predator’s dinner plate, the more significant challenge can often be avoiding starvation.  It takes a lot of skill and practice for animals to consistently find food if they’re hunting. Some of the training can happen before they leave their parents. In wolf society, there is a kind of finishing school where adolescents join adult hunting parties, and in other species, mothers will bring an injured prey to their young so that they can practice.  But, says Natterson-Horowitz, some of the training just has to happen when the adolescent is hungry and on their own.

So go ahead – have your teens cook along side you, send them to the supermarket with shopping lists; tell them to “get their own food” (or maybe, prepare some for you!), when you get home too late to cook.

There are many ways to raise a child

Natterson-Horowitz says one of the interesting things about this research was learning about the flexibility in parenting in the wild. In some species of penguin the baby penguins fledge and leave but in some species they come back and get fed by the parents for a season or two. So even though they’re supposed to be completely out on their own they aren’t really independent. It’s a partial launch.  In nature it turns out there’s a lot of flexibility in how dispersion (leaving home) happens.  There isn’t only one way to do it.

This is such a powerful thing for parents to hear:  there isn’t just one way to parent, or to launch from the nest, and perhaps that 20 something old who has returned home, having moved out for a while, is just one of various patterns from the animal kingdom for how it might be done.


Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Mackenzie, M. (2020, February 7). What animals can teach us about adolescence. Retrieved March 9, 2020, from

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The image above is Four Lion Cubs Playing by Tambako The Jaguar

© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.


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