Ready for the shocking truth about the American teenager? Despite the TV movies about dating violence, the magazine stories about cyberbullying and the news articles on addiction and suicide, the vast majority of young people are doing just fine, thank you very much. "The real story is that most teenagers are developing in a very healthy way," says Clea McNeely, co-author of a new research-based book for the general public from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development."
"Most teenagers are normal in every way, and most teenagers are going to grow up to be productive and reasonably happy adults."
Among those who say that message is long overdue: real-life teens such as Tyler Harding, a senior at Northview High School in suburban Sylvania, Ohio.
"Most teenagers aren't what people perceive us to be," Harding says. "People need to focus more on who we are and not pick something bad about us and just flaunt that."
"By the time we turn 15, 16, we know what's right, what's wrong and what's expected of us," adds Northview senior Klaudia Konik. "My friends, we were just talking about how much depends on these years: What we do in school (and) how we approach college applications determines where we're going to get a degree from, what kind of jobs we're going to get. Everything depends on now."
We recently spoke with McNeely about teenagers: who they are, what they're really going through and how parents can best assist and guide them.
Why are we always hearing about teen worst-case scenarios?
That's the data that get collected and reported so that's what we hear about. That's one reason. The second: There's been some really interesting research showing (that people tend to disregard evidence that conflicts with their viewpoint). Telling them that actually most kids don't smoke, don't get drunk, don't have unprotected sex the first time, don't have too-early sex — those facts kind of don't get assimilated.
That's good news for parents.
For most teens — and for parents — adolescence is a very intense time, full of intense emotions and experiences, but it also can be a very enjoyable time for both teens and parents.
What's the role of the parent?
The role of the parent during the teen years is as essential as it is during young childhood — which is a pretty strong statement. It's different: You don't have to get them dressed and change their diapers, obviously, but the role is equally important. One of the challenges for parents is their children are not giving them the feedback that their role is important. They're giving their parents all kinds of cues that they don't need them, except when they need a ride, maybe. (But) if you do a focus group with any kids anywhere, they will tell you the most influential people in their lives are their parents.
What can parents do?
The core tasks of the parents are connection — establishing warmth and caring — and autonomy, giving kids appropriate independence. And the third part is regulation: basically, structure. You have consistent rules (your kid needs to) follow. There need to be curfews, rules, ways that one shows respect in the household. This is an area where parents get a lot of pushback, and sometimes they cave.
What do you gain when you don't cave?
First and foremost, you gain their safety. And second, structure is associated with lower rates of substance abuse (and) petty delinquency.
And yet you have to balance structure with autonomy, your kid's right to think for herself.
Would that include her right to hate you for having a curfew?
(Parenting) is being the grown-up. It's putting their well-being above how much they hate you. It's hard! It's really hard.
What's the teen perspective on this?
I did this really neat paper: We asked kids in 12 cultures around the world, "What is it that your parents do that makes you feel loved?" We also asked for specific things that your parents do that make you feel unloved.
Although the kids said, "I feel loved when they give me money," when asked what makes them question whether their parents love them, they didn't say, "When they don't give me money."
So kids don't mind structure when they perceive that it's reasonable. When they perceive that it is invading their autonomy, or that it's arbitrary — one day there's a curfew and one day there's not — that's when teens really get upset.
Some surprising facts
Percent of high school students who have had intercourse:
1991 Males, 57 percent; females, 51 percent
2007 Males, 50 percent; females, 46 percent