If you have a teenager, you’ve probably heard, as I did, both well wishes and sympathetic eye rolls from friends, saying things like “Good luck with the teen years!” The stereotype of the rebellious, moody, risk-taking teen runs deep in American culture, reinforced by movies and television which frequently show teens at their worst.
But in the article,Don’t Think the Worst About Your Teenager, published in the February 2, 2019 Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Breheny Wallace challenges that notion and says that an increasing number of psychologists are pushing back against the negative stereotype, seeing it not only as inaccurate but also harmful to teens.
Though they can be turbulent, the teen years aren’t necessarily a time of rebellion, conflict and risky behavior, and this is borne out by recent decades’ research, says Richard Lerner, director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, “It’s not that adolescence doesn’t have its problems and challenges,” he notes, “but so does every period of life, like the toddler years or aging.” In fact, I can remember saying to my newly adolescent daughter just as I entered menopause, “We need to be patient with each other because we’re both on the hormonal roller coaster at the same time.”
In fact, the trends in adolescent risk-taking have been positive in recent years, with substance abuse, unprotected sex, hazardous driving and alcohol use have all declined since the nineties. “While on average, adolescents do engage in more risk-taking, experience more negative moods and are more likely to fight with parents than younger children, parents need to know that the absolute levels of those things still remain quite low during the teenage years,” says psychology professor Christy Buchanan of Wake Forest University. Dr. Buchanan says that adolescents who do display high levels of negative moods and behavior often have underlying conditions that may have been present since childhood. The danger in the stereotype, she says, is that parents may dismiss troubling behavior as simply “teens being teens” when it really is a symptom of something more serious that could benefit from early intervention.
Similarly, parents who believe the stereotype of adolescence is realistic may even unknowingly be contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research indicates that teens who are expected by their parents to be rude, grumpy, argumentative, selfish and impulsive are more likely to be so. Research also indicates that adolescents tend to start or continue using illicit substances when their parents believe they are using them, even when they weren’t. The same is true for smoking. Teens may interpret parents’ assumptions as expectations and conform to them.
Buchanan cites research showing that parents, particularly mothers, who believe they can positively shape their teen’s behavior are more likely to use positive parenting strategies, such as greater involvement and communication, which in turn foster positive behavior.
One way Buchanan says parents can lessen the hold of negative stereotypes on their teens is to counter them directly. Parents can talk with their teens about the validity of these assumptions and encourage activities like volunteering that contradict negative stereotypes in a concrete way. As Dr. Lerner says “Too often we describe the ‘good’ teens because of what they don’t do” They’re good kids because they don’t smoke or do drugs or hang out with the wrong crowd—what a dispiriting message for a teen to hear.” We owe it to our teens to write a more positive script for these years,” he says, going on to say that parents who turn their focus to the admirable things their teens do, who help to foster their child’s strengths and talents, will find that their teen has a much easier time getting through adolescence. And by extension, the parents will have an easier time of it, too.
So, forget the stereotypes and pay attention to the positive realities of adolescence. Celebrate the good things about your teen and the ages from twelve to twenty don’t necessarily need to be filled with stress and anger. Get to know the complicated and unique person your teen is becoming and enjoy the relationship. While our three children could be challenging as teens, we always expected the best and, by-and-large, we got it. We relished our relationships with them and do to this day.
A graduate of Stanford University, Mary Waldmann and her husband Raymond raised three children who are now independent, well-adjusted and happy young adults. Before becoming a mother, she was a successful real estate broker, political consultant and public relations executive, and worked as a part-time communications consultant when her children were young. Mary is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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