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
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:
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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
Adolescence and Puberty. Bancroft, J, Reinisch, J M. (Eds.) (1990) New
York: Oxford University.
Your Adolescent. Pruitt, D. (Ed.) (1999) New York: Harper Collins.
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
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