By Stephen Gray Wallace
With many kids gearing up for a holiday at home, their parents may soon be wrestling with the question of the season, “naughty or nice?” In making the calculation about their teenager’s behavior, it’s a good question and a fair point. The answer lies in the fact that much of what adolescents think and do, by developmental design, walks the line between naughty and nice … or at least normal.
What does that mean?
At a time of breathtaking physical and psychosocial development, teens are charged with accomplishing three critical tasks: establishing an identity of their own; becoming more independent from their parents; and forging more adult-like relationships with peers. In the aggregate, their progress on these tasks forms a young person’s sense of self, a harbinger of decision-making, confidence and overall mental health.
According to Teens Today research conducted by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), high Sense of Self (SOS) teens are more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use, while low Sense of Self teens are more likely to use alcohol and “harder” drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine. In addition, high SOS teens are more likely than their low SOS counterparts to report feeling smart, successful, responsible and confident. On the mental health side of the ledger, low SOS teens are more likely than high SOS teens to report regular feelings of stress and depression.
Significantly, there is a parental overlay that offers guidance for moms and dads everywhere. For example, 62 percent of teens with a high SOS report that their relationships with their parents make them feel good about themselves, while only about one-third of low SOS teens report the same. In addition, teens with a high SOS report overwhelmingly that they feel respected by their parents (93 percent) and close to their parents (85 percent), while teens with a low SOS report significantly different levels of respect (8 percent) and closeness (12 percent).
In other words, parents have skin in the game!
Understanding the relationship between each developmental task and behavior likely to accompany it is important, as is supporting the progress of our teens on their developmental journey.
Identity: As young people seek to answer the question “Who am I?,” they regularly – and sometimes frequently – try on different roles, which in turn changes their behavior and may make them appear to be “strangers” on any given day.
Independence: A drive toward independence dictates that our teens push us away, or at least hold us at arm’s length. Paradoxically, they need us more now than at any other time during the lifespan besides early infancy.
Peer Relationships: The peer group is paramount, and teens often filter through it what they hear from us. Even so, we are the number one reason our teens make good choices.
Parents can help their teens achieve a high Sense of Self by:
- Supporting a wide sampling of interests, activities and age-appropriate behaviors;
- Encouraging separation from parents and age-appropriate independence in decision-making;
- Teaching peer-to-peer social skills and facilitating (positive) peer relationships;
- Focusing on productive parent-teen communication.
- Perhaps most important, we can remind each other that, in many ways – and within limits – our adolescents are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They’re not crazy (and neither are we). In the end, they’re likely a healthy mix of naughty and nice.
Stephen Wallace, senior advisor for policy, research and education at SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), is an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor.
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