Contrary to media portrayals, the kids are all right

CHICAGO — Ready for the shocking truth about the American teenager?

Despite TV movies about dating violence, magazine stories about cyberbullying and news articles on addiction and suicide, the vast majority of young people is 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 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," McNeely says. "And most teenagers are going to grow up to be productive and reasonably happy adults."

We recently spoke with McNeely about teenagers.

Question: Why are we always hearing about teen worst-case scenarios?

Answer: 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 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.

Q: That's good news.

A: 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.

Q: What's the role of parents?

A: One of the challenges for parents is their children are not giving them the feedback that their role is important. (Teens are) giving their parents all kinds of cues that they don't need them. ... (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.

Q: What can parents do?

A: 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. ... There need to be curfews, rules, ways that one shows respect in the household. This is an area where parents get a lot of push-back, and sometimes they cave.

Q: What do parents gain when they don't cave?

A: First and foremost, you gain their safety. And second, structure is associated with lower rates of substance abuse (and) petty delinquency.

Q: 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?

A: (Parenting) is being the grown-up. It's putting their well-being above how much they hate you. It's hard.

Q: What's the teen perspective on this?

A: 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.