the lost children of rockdale county
TEENAGERS IN TROUBLE: Understanding and Preventing Tragic Outcomes  Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., is Director of the Parenting Institute NYU Child Study Center, New York University Medical School
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Events that have been reported in the world of children and adolescents in the last years can make one feel numb and discouraged. We hear of students killing or attempting to kill one another, there are reports of frequent suicidal responses and suicide pacts among teens, and rampant sexual activity is found in younger and younger children. It appears that the world of children and adolescents is out of control. In fact, studies find that the incidence of unhealthy actions has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. We know: over half of adolescents have tried alcohol and drugs at least once, that 1 in 6 students feel threatened by physical harm from peers, that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in adolescence--following close behind homicide--and that over 75% of 19 year-old adolescents have had sexual intercourse at least once. Such worrisome numbers have led the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services to label child and adolescent violence, substance abuse, suicide, and early sexual activity as public health disorders that require special study and intervention.
At the end of discussions about adolescents who have made the wrong turns, we're often presented with people who imply there's nothing that can be done to stop such episodes.  In fact, there are actions that can play an important role in decreasing high-risk adolescent conduct. Research on adolescent behavior has provided great insight into the factors that contribute to poor adolescent conduct. We know that the relationships between parents and children and the childrearing practices of parents play a significant role in results. Children that do the best have parents that use both a great deal of warmth with their children and also exercise a high level of control over their children's actions. High levels of both warmth and control characterize the form of parenting referred to as authoritative. In adolescence, parents who use this successful style encourage their children to participate in discussions about decisions over curfew and teenage freedoms, but the final decision rests with the parents. Additionally, parents enforce rules when violations occur.

A contrasting style, called the authoritarian style, is present when parents are high on control, but low on warmth. Children from these homes learn to follow rules when under supervision, but often engage in reckless actions when they know they are not being observed. Some parents use a high level of warmth, but exercise very little control in a style that reflects democratic values. Adolescents from these homes often perceive themselves as equals who do not need to listen to adults. This is the pattern represented in many families with troubled kids. Although relationships between parents and children may be pleasant, the children are often out of control with few reasonable constraints on their actions. Finally, if parents show both little warmth and little control--called a laissez-faire approach--children are usually forgotten and behave accordingly. These children often search for connections in a forlorn or sometimes angry way that is reflected in many self-destructive or destructive actions.

These patterns of childrearing and their associated outcomes are important when considering the several paths of the adolescent examples in Rockdale County. First, many of the children reported a pattern of lax parental supervision that had been present from their early lives. Despite the fact that the children were often supported and often in close contact with their parents, they reported that their wishes were persistently fulfilled with no clear indication of the consequences that they had to face when they broke rules.

A second path seemed to emerge once children hit their teen years. This group of children had parents who were authoritative until the children reached their teen years. Similar to reactions of parents in several studies on the life course of delinquent adolescents conducted by the Oregon Social Research Center, parents' actions changed near puberty. Many parents of children with late conduct problems stop supervising their children upon their entrance to middle school or junior high school. Perhaps parents find that their children can care for their basic needs and note that their children can talk in mature ways which leads them to conclude that their children can supervise themselves. This conclusion fails to recognize that adolescents do not have adult judgment. Compared with adults, adolescents have a much shorter view into the future and they rarely anticipate all the possible consequences.

The third path described was laissez-faire; several students described disregard and disconnection in which parents and kids rarely crossed paths.

All of the paths described made the adolescents vulnerable to other important effects. Once out of adult supervision or influence, they used substances, primarily alcohol, which only makes poorly controlled behaviors even more likely. Second, they often acted in groups. All people are more susceptible to take more risks in the presence of a group and adolescents are especially vulnerable to group pressures. There does not need to be overt statements of pressure, simply observing others succumb to temptation is enough to set new standards for action. Then, status was achieved through some of the acts which only reinforced kids for participating. Thus, it is easy to propose that factors from the adolescents' backgrounds and factors unique to their party experiences made importan contributions to unhealthy conduct.

Questions arise about the possibility of such negative situations occurring in other communities. It is not clear if episodes are increasing in frequency in the last decade, but it can be stated that nearly every community has the potential for such problems to occur. Why? There are several situations that create the potential.

First, adolescents are involved in unsupervised activities and less contact with adults with greater and greater frequency. Children and adolescents are spending increasingly less time with adults. In our society, we have shifted from a situation in which the majority of teens had a parent at home during the day to one in which the majority has parents in the work force. Over 75% of families have parents working out of the home. This is important because most episodes of high-risk behaviors in adolescence including sexual activity, substance use, and criminal actions occur between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. During these hours, many adolescents have left the supervision of the school setting to situations where they do not report to anyone as their parents finish their workday.

Next, children and adolescents are exposed to significantly more information that either endorses or creates interest in high-risk behaviors. There are an increasing number of media outlets in the form of television programs, radio programs, newspapers, magazines, and internet sources that expose youth to glorified depictions of high-risk behaviors. Some of those resources strongly endorse high-risk sex practices, substance use, and violence.

Third, for sexually activity, the potential for high-risk actions is heightened because the biological press to become involved in sexual activity occurs at an earlier age. In each of the last several decades, the age at which children reach puberty has been decreasing. This has occurred at the same time that children's needs for education has increased. Thus, adolescents face a longer period of time in which they are biologically pressed to engage in sexual activity while they are equally pressed to delay getting involved in creating families.

Finally, most communities do not offer enough constructive recreational activities for teens. There are many teens that are on the outskirts of social groups that are connected to the schools or others organizations. These have the same amount of energy and social interest as others, but they do not have readily available settings in which to exercise those qualities. They are likely to congregate with one another and find things to do. Given the internal sexual pressures present in adolescence and an increased interest in trying new experiences that is also present during adolescence, varied sexual experiences are likely to be tried. Without adult supervision, teens are likely to believe that these actions are appropriate and desired. They may not view them as dangerous or harmful to their bodies or social interactions. Important information supports this impression.

The age of initiating sexual intercourse has been decreasing rapidly in the last two decades to the point that surveys of adolescents find that the average age for initiating sexual intercourse is 14 years old. Even for those teens that describe themselves as virgins because they have not engaged in sexual intercourse, nearly 30% report that they have engaged in other forms of genital sexual contact to the point of orgasm. Many of the teens report that sexual activity is "just another thing to do." They report similar perceptions about alcohol and drug use too. For many, these high-risk behaviors have become a part of the leisure time menu.

At the end of discussions about adolescents who have made the wrong turns, we're often presented with people who imply that there's nothing that can be done to stop such episodes. In fact, there are actions that can play an important role in decreasing high-risk adolescent conduct:

  • First, values are significant in resisting high-risk behaviors and in a teen's return to a course of healthy actions after experimentation. Families and school systems that stress sexual restraint, abstinence from substance use, and high academic effort have fewer teens involved in risky actions.

  • Second, frequent and warm connections between teens and adults facilitate good adjustment and avoidance of high-risk behaviors. Children that are forgotten or who have little contact with parents or other supportive adults often become lost to a string of destructive behaviors and ineffective achievement.

  • Third, supervision and firm adult control are crucial. Most teens cannot be left to their own devices because they do not possess the necessary judgement or understanding of consequences despite their "adult-like" talk and appearance. Mistakes need to be accepted and understood, but teens need to know that there are limits that will be imposed by adults and that appropriate restrictions will be placed upon them when they violate rules. This third step seems to have been missing from the lives of many of the "lost" children we have learned about in recent events.

  • Finally, we need to be aware that mental and emotional illnesses are biological facts that emerge at very high rates during adolescence. A good number of teens are likely to encounter depression, social anxiety, and intense aggressive impulses. Without supportive connections to adults and a willingness to disclose their stresses, many teens turn to substances to alleviate distress or overcome social reluctance. In turn, substance use decreases their inhibitions to engage in risky sexual activity, violent actions, and diversions from a constructive path of development. A substantial minority of adolescents will succumb to substance dependence. Therefore, we need to be more alert to the expressions of mental disorders and we need to make more help available to teens, especially those at greatest risk because of family histories of mental disorder and substance use.

Given the seriousness of recent events and actions taken by adolescents and children, it is easy to become discouraged and conclude that we cannot take collective or individual steps to decrease or prevent the occurrence of destructive behaviors. However, the facts do not support that conclusion. We need to remember that despite increases in problematic actions by adolescents over the last two decades, the majority of teens are not engaged in regular substance use, regular risky sexual activity or sexual intercourse, and violent responses. A recent national survey based on the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that only 23% of older adolescents are involved in regular alcohol use, that 16% of older adolescents use marijuana on a regular basis, and just half of older adolescents had been involved in sexual intercourse. The numbers for younger adolescents were lower.

This information makes it clear that many adolescents are choosing to remain healthy. The survey and other data indicate that several steps by adults are useful. Taking steps to remain closely connected to adolescents, establishing scheduled family interactions that include adolescents, stressing values and reinforcing rules for teens while providing them with appropriate supervision and interesting recreational activities all help decrease the frequency of problematic behaviors. Building and maintaining communities that recognize that all adolescents, not just those that make the teams or shine in academics, need recreational outlets and encouragement in educational pursuits will create communities where fewer problems exist. Thus, adults working collectively have the capacity to change the course of adolescent development. It remains to be seen if we will expend the time, energy and resources necessary to do so.

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING:

Books

Adolescence and Puberty. Bancroft, J, Reinisch, J M. (Eds.) (1990) New York: Oxford University.

Your Adolescent. Pruitt, D. (Ed.) (1999) New York: Harper Collins.

Handbooks

Gallagher, R. & Liz Claiborne, Women's Work Foundation (1998) "A Parents' Handbook: Teaching Your Kids about Developing Healthy Relationships." Requested by calling 1-800-449-STOP

Web Sites

www.AboutOurKids.org - Home site of the NYU Child Study Center

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