The Science of Teen Rebellion Ⅳ- Woodmam

When adults took this test, they answered virtually instantaneously. Their brain scans revealed that adults visualized the concept of biting a lightbulb, and then had an instinctive, physical aversion to that mental image. Areas of the brain that signal distress and danger lit up, automatically.

When teens took the test, they didn’t answer differently (they didn’t think swallowing a cockroach was a good idea), but it took them longer to answer. Their brain scans revealed no automatic response, nor any distress; instead, they were weighing the decision in the cognitive parts of the brain, with deliberation, as if they were momentarily agonizing over what college to attend. “They were actually thinking about it,” Baird laughed. “They weren’t feeling it.” They didn’t have painful past experiences to draw upon. Swimming with sharks simply didn’t scare them.

How many times have parents said to their teens, “Why did you have to try it? Didn’t you know it was a bad idea?!” Actually, the teen brain can think abstractly, but not feel abstractly—at least not until it’s had more life experience to draw on. And feeling like it’s a bad idea is what it would take to stop oneself from doing it.

But then Baird put some teens through another experiment. The video screen inside the MRI scanner showed a web site that was polling local teens on their opinions and tastes. The subjects created a pseudonymous user name and password to log in. They were told that they were online with other teens in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire. The poll questions were unremarkable—what style of music they liked, whether they thought Paris Hilton was cool, what local stores they shopped at. After each question, one teen’s answer (and user name) would randomly display to all.

As they worked through the poll, the teens in Baird’s lab did not have their answers displayed to others. In fact, there were no other teens taking the poll—that was just the pretense to scare them. And scare them it did. Just the mere possibility of having their preferences displayed to this imaginary audience vibrantly lit up the regions of the brain that signal distress and danger.

That’s the teen brain at fifteen in a nutshell—fearless to jumping off roofs, but terrified of having its love of Nickelback exposed. Might there be a way to harness the latter to minimize the former?

In the dictionary, the antonym of honesty is lying, and the opposite of arguing is agreement. But in the minds of teenagers, that’s not how it works. Really, to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying.

That’s cryptic, so let me unpack what I mean.

When Nancy Darling’s researchers interviewed the teenagers from State College Area High School, they also asked the teens when and why they told the truth to their parents about things they knew their parents disapproved of. Occasionally teens told the truth because they knew a lie wouldn’t fly—they’d be caught. Sometimes they told the truth because they just felt obligated, saying, “They’re my parents, I’m supposed to tell them.” But the main motivation that emerged was that teens told their parents the truth in hopes their parents might give in, and say it was okay. Usually, this meant an argument ensued, but it was worth it if their parents might budge.

For the average Pennsylvania teen, they told the truth only about four areas of conflict. Meaning (since they lied about twelve areas), they were three times more likely to lie than to attempt a protest.

In the families where there was less deception, there was a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good—arguing was honesty. The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.

Darling found this same pattern when she compared her results in the United States against companion studies replicated in the Philippines. She fully expected to see less arguing in the average Filipino home than in an American home. In the Philippines, family members are supposed to preserve harmony, not foment conflict; also, young people are not supposed to challenge their parents—because they are taught to believe that they owe parents a debt that can never be repaid. “A good child in the Philippines is supposed to be obedient, so because of that, we didn’t think they would argue. We thought they would avoid discussion. But they had the highest rates of conflict. It was completely antithetical to our predictions.”

It took further analysis for Darling to understand this counterintuitive result. The Filipino teens were fighting their parents over the rules, but not over the authority of the parents to set rules. While they might have felt the rules were too restrictive, they were far more likely to abide the rules. In American families, the teens didn’t bother to argue. Instead, they just pretended to go along with their parents’ wishes, but then they did what they wanted to do anyway.

Certain types of fighting, despite the acrimony, are ultimately a sign of respect—not of disrespect.

University of Rochester’s Dr. Judith Smetana, a leader in the study of teen disclosure, confirms that, over the long term, “moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.”

Most parents don’t make this distinction in how they perceive their arguments with their children. Dr. Tabitha Holmes studied over fifty sets of mothers and their teen daughters. Her sample was drawn from families in a program called Upward Bound, funded by the U.S. Department of Education to give high-schoolers from low income families a chance at attending college. The mothers had aspirations for their daughters and were quite protective of them—often by demanding obedience. Holmes did extensive interviews asking both mother and daughter, separately, to describe their arguments and how they felt about them. And there was a big difference.

Holmes found that 46% of the mothers rated their arguments as being destructive to the relationship. Being challenged was stressful, chaotic, and (in their perception) disrespectful. The more frequently they fought, and the more intense the fights were, the more the mom rated the fighting as harmful. But only 23% of the daughters felt that their arguments were destructive. Far more believed that fighting strengthened their relationship with their mother. “Their perception of the fighting was really sophisticated, far more than we anticipated for teenagers,” noted Holmes. “They saw fighting as a way to see their parents in a new way, as a result of hearing their mother’s point of view be articulated.”

What most surprised Holmes was learning that for the teen daughters, fighting more often, or having bigger fights, did not cause the teens to rate the fighting as harmful and destructive. Statistically, it made no difference at all. “Certainly, there is a point in families where there is too much conflict. But we didn’t have anybody in our study with an extreme amount of conflict.” Instead, the variable that seemed to matter most was how the arguments were resolved. Essentially, the daughter needed to feel heard, and when reasonable, their mother needed to budge. The daughter had to win some arguments, and get small concessions as a result of others.

Daughters who rated arguing as destructive had parents who stonewalled, rather than collaborated. The daughters heard “Don’t argue with me!” before even uttering a word. “Even the tiniest of concessions made them feel it was resolved okay,” Holmes said. “One daughter told of wanting a tattoo. Her mom forbade it, but allowed the girl to buy a pair of crazy shoes that the mom had previously denied her.”

“Parents who negotiate ultimately appear to be more informed,” according to Dr. Robert Laird, a professor at the University of New Orleans. “Parents with unbending, strict guidelines make it a tactical issue for kids to find a way around them.”

This makes sense, yet it’s a very controversial finding, because in our society today we are warned not to be pushovers; we’re advised that giving in breeds a nation of whiners and beggars. Even Nancy Darling’s Mod Squad study showed that permissive parents are not successful parents.

So the science seems to be duplicitous—on one hand, parents have to be strict enforcers of rules, but on the other hand, parents need to be flexible or the ensuing conflict will be destructive to teens’ psyche. Will the scientists please make up their minds? Or is there some finer distinction we’re missing?

Well, the narrow definition of pushover parents are those who give in to their kid because they can’t stand to see their child cry, or whine. They placate their children just to shut them up. They want to be their kid’s friend, and they’re uncomfortable being seen as the bad guy. That’s not the same as a parent who makes sure her child feels heard, and if the child has made a good argument for why a rule needs to be changed, lets that influence her decision.

Nancy Darling found the same distinction. The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected. “If a child’s normal curfew is eleven p.m., and they explain to their parent something special is happening, so the parent says, ‘Okay, for that night only, you can come home at one a.m.’—that encourages the kid to not lie, and to respect the time.” This collaboration retains a parent’s legitimacy.

It has taken the psychological establishment decades to narrow in on this understanding. Dr. Laurence Steinberg at Temple University articulates this history in his books and papers. Until the early 1970s—an era when psychology was driven more by theory than by empirical studies—“parents were told to expect oppositionalism and defiance. The absence of conflict was seen as indicative of stunted development,” Steinberg writes. In other words, if your child wasn’t fighting and rebelling, something was wrong with him. This perspective was articulated throughout the 1950s and 1960s by theorists such as Anna Freud, Peter Blos, and Erik Erikson, who coined the term “identity crisis.” But they almost exclusively studied teenagers in clinics and therapy—they were oversampling the problem teens.

In the mid-1970s, a variety of studies sampled adolescents drawn from schools, not clinics. “These studies found that 75% of teenagers reported having happy and pleasant relationships with their parents,” described Steinberg. Rebellion and conflict were not normal after all. In 1976, a seminal study by Sir Michael Rutter—considered by many to be the father of modern child psychiatry—found that the 25% of teens who were fighting with their parents had been doing so long before hitting puberty. Becoming a teenager wasn’t the trigger.

At that point, the narrative of adolescence bifurcated. Pop psychology, fueled by the new explosion of self-help publishing, continued to pump out the message that the teen years are a period of storm and stress—and certainly, for many, they are. This was the dominant perspective presented in movies and in music, and there were no shortage of experts who worked with teens suffering from depression or conduct disorder to testify that angst was the norm. In the self-help aisles, Steinberg pointed out, the babies are all cuddly and the teens are all spiteful.

But for the next two decades, the social scientists kept churning out data that showed traumatic adolescence was the exception, not the norm.

Only in the last decade has the field sorted out these dual competing narratives and found an explanation for them. Essentially, the pop psychology field caters to parents, who find having a teenager in the home to be really stressful. But the social scientists were polling the teens, most of whom didn’t find adolescence so traumatic. This is exactly what Tabitha Holmes learned—that parents rate all the arguing as destructive, while teens find it generally to be productive.

“The popular image of the individual sulking in the wake of a family argument may be a more accurate portrayal of the emotional state of the parent, than the teenager,” Steinberg writes. “Parents are more bothered by the bickering and squabbling that takes place during this time than are adolescents, and parents are more likely to hold on to the affect after a negative interaction with their teenagers.”

In the popular media, the dual contrasting narratives of adolescence continue. According to many news stories, teens are apathetic and unprepared. These stories mention that alcohol abuse is high, teen pregnancy is ticking back up, and huge numbers of high school seniors are failing their state exit exams even though they supposedly passed all their classes. The California State University system, for example, admits the top third of the state’s high school seniors. Yet six out of ten CSU students have to take remedial classes; half are not academically prepared to be in college.

Then, to hear other stories, today’s teens are so focused on success that it’s alarming. The rate of kids in high school taking advanced math and science courses has leapt 20%. Colleges are drowning in applications from driven teens: the majority of teens now apply to at least four schools. In the last 35 years, enrollment in the nation’s colleges has skyrocketed from 5.8 million to 10.4 million. Sure, a sizeable portion of them need remedial help—but it’s a smaller portion now than in the 1980s. Their overachieving isn’t limited just to their academics, either. Surveys of incoming college freshmen find that 70% of them volunteer weekly, and 60% hold down jobs while in school. Voting is up, for those eighteen and older, and the proportion who’ve participated in an organized demonstration is at 49%, the highest in history. The students who entered college in 2008 were engaged in more political dialogue than any class since 1968.

I suppose this split-personality is natural; both narratives exist because we need them to echo our experience at any particular time. They compete, but they both persist. We carry dual narratives whenever a phenomenon can’t be characterized by a singular explanation. We now have dual narratives not just of adolescence, but of the twenty-something years and of being unmarried at forty. In the eyes of some, these reflect an unwillingness to accept reality; to others, they reflect the courage to refuse a compromised life.

The danger is when these narratives don’t just reflect, they steer. Wrong from the start, comprising only half the story, these narratives nevertheless become the explanatory system through which adolescents see their life. I can only wonder how many teens, naturally prone to seeing conflict as productive, instead are being taught to view it as destructive, symptomatic of a poor relationship rather than a good one. How many like their parents just fine, yet are hearing that it’s uncool to do so? How many are acting disaffected and bored, because showing they care paints them as the fool? How many can’t tell their parents the truth, because honesty is just not how the story goes?

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