Kate Fillion talks with psychologist and teen expert Michael Bradley
Q: What’s going on with teens that makes them act, as you put it in your new book, “crazy”?
A: Neurologically, their brains are going through an explosion of growth, getting ready for the great leap into adulthood. But there’s neurologic fallout from the renovation process: emotional processing speed gets slowed down, they’re less able to read adult emotional cues. Second, the world is telling them to be crazy, do things that are self-destructive. Cultural prompts, in the form of song lyrics or scenes in movies or video clips, are telling them drugs, sex and certain forms of violence are cool, adult and harmless. Thanks to the efficiency of electronics, we pound them with these suggestions to a degree we’ve never pounded on another generation of teens. A third issue is that, as parents, we don’t really respond very well. Responding to these contemporary problems with rules from past generations just doesn’t work.
Q: What kinds of parental responses are disastrous?
A: The biggie is to use fear. A lot of us were raised by parents who’d hit, yell, threaten and punish. That’s a lot of our training, but it doesn’t work today. We also can’t police a kid’s world the way our parents could. The mission statement used to be, “How do you control the kid?” We can’t afford that anymore, because of the changes in the culture. Now it’s, “How do I teach my kid to control herself?” It means talking to your kid with respect, asking good questions, helping her form a set of values, because you’re not going to be there when she needs those values to negotiate her culture.
Q: Large-scale U.S. studies show that teen pregnancy and drug use are both down by about 25 per cent over the past 10 years. Smoking and drinking have also declined. Isn’t that evidence that kids are actually less crazy?
A: In that same 10-year period, hospital records show adolescent fatalities by overdose have increased two- to threefold in America. Birthrates are down, we do know that, but levels of sexual activity are higher than they’ve ever been, as are levels of sexually transmitted diseases. So we’re highly suspicious of some of the numbers, most of which come from self-report inventories, where you give kids a form asking if they’re having sex and doing drugs. We have some research that suggests contemporary teens underestimate those behaviours by 30 to 40 per cent. The reason is that a lot of kids today understand that we live in an information age where very little, if anything, is really private. Another stunning example of under-reporting was that instead of asking kids if they had a sexually transmitted disease, researchers recently drew blood in a well-controlled sample of American female adolescents: one in four had an active STD. That study did not include testing for syphilis or gonorrhea, so the true numbers are even higher.
Q: You’ve said that parenting is most important during the teen years. Why?
A: I get a lot of angry mail from shrinks on this, because we’re all taught that the first five years of life are the most critical. I argue that the last five, from 13 to 18, are at least as critical and perhaps more so. The kid is developing an adult brain, thinking critically, making decisions, and the world is throwing a lot of challenges at them. Many parents respond by trying to be a friend to their child. But when we overindulge our kids, we make them weak. Kids are able, often, to do very well at school and at a sport, but at very little else in life. They can’t do life, because they haven’t become resilient through denial, or earning their way, or living with frustrations and being able to overcome them. A lot of parents refuse to let their kids be frustrated, we jump in and solve all their problems. In so doing, we can cripple them.
Q: How important are chores and responsibilities for teenagers?
A: Really important. People say teens should contribute, but I think it’s the flip side of that, really: teens are so important that we need them. Teens need to feel a sense of responsibility, not based on being yelled at or told they’re lazy, but hearing, “We really need you to help, we’re counting on you.” When you create that feeling in a teen, they’re much less apt to act crazy.
Read the rest of the interview here.