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The Happy Teen

A primer on the positives in youth development

In our rush to keep young people safe and alive, we sometimes too easily buy into the idea that this critical stage of human development is marked by conflict, moodiness, detachment, and acting out—or “storm and stress” as articulated by G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association. Are we selling young people short? Probably.

In fact, there exists compelling research, not to mention anecdotal evidence, that there is a brighter side to adolescence than perhaps previously thought.

Data collected from more than 2,700 middle and high school students by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reveal that most young people feel good about their progress on the key developmental tasks of establishing an identity, achieving independence, and building meaningful relationships with peers. In addition, the majority of teens say they are happy almost every day and perceive themselves as friendly (77 percent), honest (72 percent), and smart (72 percent).

Tufts University Professor Richard M. Lerner also offers rebuttal to definitions of this developmental stage that routinely link it to disruptive and risky behavior, finding through his research ample existence among young people of competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. These may coalesce, says Lerner, in contribution.

In short, adolescents seem to be less self-absorbed and more other-oriented than they are given credit for.

The fact that teens are ready, willing, and able to “give something back”—or “pay something forward”—is self-evident in reports from Youth Service America noting that millions of young people are engaging in community outreach.

Another fallacy leaves us to believe that many, if not most, teens no longer value but simply endure their relationships with the adults in their lives, maybe especially their parents. Yet more good news can be found in the fact that, according to SADD, most teens say their relationships with their parents make them feel good about themselves, their parents respect them, and they feel close to their parents. A separate study conducted by ORC International showed that a majority of teens say they want to spend more, not less, time with their parents.

And that’s a really good thing!

Why? Because young people who spend time with their parents, talk with them, and feel close to them are overwhelmingly less likely to drink (62 percent vs. 43 percent) or to use other drugs (87 percent vs. 77 percent) than are those who don’t.

So, while there remain clear and present dangers to young people (think underage drinking, other drug use, early intimate sexual behavior, bullying, violence, and suicide), we are wise to balance the bad news with the good. As a Waterman, Illinois, teen once put it in a special edition of Newsweek, “Against all odds, I’m just fine.”

Stephen Wallace, associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. For more information about CARE visit

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