Adolescence is a time when children test their footing to convince themselves they can stand on their own. As teens move toward independence, they can often be particularly challenging to parents as they test boundaries and question adult authority. However, despite sometimes feeling like the enemy and often being the source of extreme embarrassment, parents remain the most important force that influences teen behavior.
Parents exercise their influence by setting high expectations at home and shielding their teens from the toxic and offensive portrayal of youth that mislead our young people into thinking that "normal" teens engage in multiple risky behaviors.
An important concept to bear in mind as we consider how to influence teen behavior is that teens really do live up or down to our expectations. When we think of adolescence as primarily a time of storm and stress to be dreaded, young people will exhibit the impulsive, irrational, and occasionally antisocial behaviors we inadvertently communicate we expect. If we can reframe adolescence into being a time of tremendous growth, idealism, creativity, and passion, our children will behave as though we expect them to lead us into the future.
To begin to understand how expectations translate into behavior, one must first consider the fundamental question every adolescent struggles to answer - "Am I normal?" In order to be able to answer that question with at least a tentative "yes," teens tend to do what they think "normal" kids do. Much of adolescence is about searching for what "normal" means, which is why so many other things seem "awkward." Tweens are particularly receptive to any information that clues them into how exactly they are supposed to behave as teens. They are an open book absorbing parents' expectations and societal messages about teen behavior.
Why Do Things Change at Home?
We went out of our way to catch our children being good when they were two-years-old. They delighted in our pride and kept doing what it took to earn our praise. Teenagers would be no different, but we are often too busy to notice the continued miracles of normal development (including the sometimes painful process that leads to independence) and have just enough time to focus on the problems that arise. If your teen notices that your attention focuses primarily on his problem behaviors, he will do whatever it takes to gain it. He wants your attention as badly now as when he was three or four years old.
Parents increased focus on what is going wrong can be partly explained by the very high stakes of adolescents' worrisome behaviors. Children who misbehave might skin a knee, teens who misbehave might crash a car or use drugs. But another explanation for this shift toward being problem focused is the fear parents of 9 to 11 year olds have as they contemplate the loss of the innocence of childhood. This fear is fanned by a culture that views teenagers in a negative light.
Seasoned parents enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience with younger parents. Unfortunately, these conversations on the sidelines or after PTA meetings often focus on the horror stories. It is hard to filter these stories and remember that parents focus on the battles rather than the joys of parenting adolescents because they're just a bit more "newsworthy." Pity.
Books that portray how crazy teens are, and popular media that reinforce their self-indulgence, reinforce the sense of dread, urgency, and foreboding that parents feel about the arrival of adolescence. Even exciting new medical knowledge about the teen brain is sometimes presented in ways that suggest teens are all impulse and no control.
If parents aren't frightened yet, they can pay attention to the media and even some public health messages that hype teen sexuality, drug use, and violence: Crisis in America, Kids on the loose!!! This hyperbole may make for good ratings, but this "teens at risk!" mentality harms our youth. Beyond increasing parental anxiety, this inaccurate portrayal of youth in media creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by redefining "normal."
News outlets hype the story of teen crises to draw parents in. Because dog bites boy isn't news, they rarely tell stories of kids thriving and contributing to society. Instead, the lead-ins assure parents will tune into the news: "Is your child having sex in your house at 3 in the afternoon? Parents you'll want to hear the startling finding of a new study on teen sexuality, right after these messages..." Then the story airs: "Crisis in our community, 38% of teens __________." Do kids hear "38%" and understand that most young people are not participating in the behavior. No. They learn that adults pay attention when they act out and think they now have a clue about how to behave as a teen.
Social marketing experts understand the power of the media in shaping perceptions and behaviors. Dr Jeff Linkenbach, a researcher who directs the Center for Health & Safety Culture at Montana State University has created a vigorous response to popular (often negative) messages about adolescents. With his MOST of Us campaigns (mostofus.org) he strives to teach communities and policy makers that drive the self-perception of youth to transform how youth are portrayed. At the core of his work is a process for challenging misperceptions of what is normal teen behavior. The goal is to shift conversations about adolescents and therefore ultimately affect their behavior.
What if the binge drinking story said, "Although binge drinking with college freshmen is a very risky behavior and far too many students are drinking to dangerous levels on the weekends, the good news is that MOST college students are making healthy choices like not engaging in this risk behavior and don't want their friends to either." What if a story on school dropouts sounded like this: "Clearly schools in X city are not performing well because some kids are not able to be successful and X% are leaving. The good news is that most teens are working hard to keep their stake in the future." Imagine how much better youth who wanted to delay sexual activity would feel if stories on teen sexuality ran like this: "Despite the fact that popular shows focus on teens having sex, in a recent study by X Foundation, less than half of teens were choosing to have sex by age X." Kids want to be normal.
I have counseled students going to college whose biggest anxiety had nothing to do with academics. Instead, they worried they wouldn't be able to keep up with the drinking. I know countless teens who feel badly about their virginity because at 16 they know with certainty they are abnormal. I watch painfully as youth in underperforming schools have incorporated a toxic message about their potential to become educated; they have grown to accept that academics are not for them. It is our obligation as adults to make sure they understand it is normal to make responsible, future-oriented, and safety-minded choices.
Parents are an Essential Part of the Solution
When teens notice that they get more attention from their parents when they are challenging, they learn to misbehave to maximize the attention all children (including adolescents!) need and crave. When teens learn that the community expects kids to be trouble, they act out. When negative stereotypes of teens are delivered in the media often enough, they learn to accept that is how they are "supposed to" behave. The more all of these harmful expectations circulate, the more youth will strive to match them; the more uncomfortable they will feel with themselves when they don't; and the greater difficulty they will have choosing to do the right thing.
So what can a parent do? First, ignore the hype that gives you anxiety about your child's arriving adolescence. That anxiety will be subtly transmitted to your child and may cause even more harm by lowering your expectations for your adolescent. In fact, feel free to become excited about the wonderful developmental milestones you will witness as your child grows into adolescence. Get ready to know your child on a new and deeper level as she can gain insights that enrich her thoughts and feelings. Prepare to laugh as your child's sense of humor evolves and will now include irony and subtle innuendo. Second, never stop catching your teen being good. Third, set clear positive expectations. Finally, as best as you can, insulate your children from the undermining messages swirling around them by reframing the negative hype. If the news will not point out that 22% is not a crisis, then you do it. Listen to the story and note, "Too bad for those kids, but the good news is that most kids -normal kids - more than 3 out of 4 actually, are making wise choices."
A few months ago I met a father of a 13 year old boy who had recently approached him. "Dad," he said, "I heard that teens are supposed to be really moody and angry all the time. I heard that they cause a lot of trouble. I don't feel angry, and I really don't want to get into trouble. Am I ok?" We can all learn a lesson from this young man.
The next time a friend tells you, "Oh oh, she's 12, put on your safety belt," smile and say, "I'm ready for the ride. I am really looking forward to watching her grow into herself. They'll be some bumps, but I expect her to come through just fine. She's already shown me what a fine person she is."