Why teens are "crazy" and the need for a short leash

Kate Fillion talks with psychologist and teen expert Michael Bradley

Maclean’s Interview: Michael BradleyQ: What’s going on with teens that makes them act, as you put it in your new book, “crazy”?

A: Neurologically, their brains are going through an explosion of growth, getting ready for the great leap into adulthood. But there’s neurologic fallout from the renovation process: emotional processing speed gets slowed down, they’re less able to read adult emotional cues. Second, the world is telling them to be crazy, do things that are self-destructive. Cultural prompts, in the form of song lyrics or scenes in movies or video clips, are telling them drugs, sex and certain forms of violence are cool, adult and harmless. Thanks to the efficiency of electronics, we pound them with these suggestions to a degree we’ve never pounded on another generation of teens. A third issue is that, as parents, we don’t really respond very well. Responding to these contemporary problems with rules from past generations just doesn’t work.

Q: What kinds of parental responses are disastrous?

A: The biggie is to use fear. A lot of us were raised by parents who’d hit, yell, threaten and punish. That’s a lot of our training, but it doesn’t work today. We also can’t police a kid’s world the way our parents could. The mission statement used to be, “How do you control the kid?” We can’t afford that anymore, because of the changes in the culture. Now it’s, “How do I teach my kid to control herself?” It means talking to your kid with respect, asking good questions, helping her form a set of values, because you’re not going to be there when she needs those values to negotiate her culture.

Q: Large-scale U.S. studies show that teen pregnancy and drug use are both down by about 25 per cent over the past 10 years. Smoking and drinking have also declined. Isn’t that evidence that kids are actually less crazy?

A: In that same 10-year period, hospital records show adolescent fatalities by overdose have increased two- to threefold in America. Birthrates are down, we do know that, but levels of sexual activity are higher than they’ve ever been, as are levels of sexually transmitted diseases. So we’re highly suspicious of some of the numbers, most of which come from self-report inventories, where you give kids a form asking if they’re having sex and doing drugs. We have some research that suggests contemporary teens underestimate those behaviours by 30 to 40 per cent. The reason is that a lot of kids today understand that we live in an information age where very little, if anything, is really private. Another stunning example of under-reporting was that instead of asking kids if they had a sexually transmitted disease, researchers recently drew blood in a well-controlled sample of American female adolescents: one in four had an active STD. That study did not include testing for syphilis or gonorrhea, so the true numbers are even higher.

Q: You’ve said that parenting is most important during the teen years. Why?

A: I get a lot of angry mail from shrinks on this, because we’re all taught that the first five years of life are the most critical. I argue that the last five, from 13 to 18, are at least as critical and perhaps more so. The kid is developing an adult brain, thinking critically, making decisions, and the world is throwing a lot of challenges at them. Many parents respond by trying to be a friend to their child. But when we overindulge our kids, we make them weak. Kids are able, often, to do very well at school and at a sport, but at very little else in life. They can’t do life, because they haven’t become resilient through denial, or earning their way, or living with frustrations and being able to overcome them. A lot of parents refuse to let their kids be frustrated, we jump in and solve all their problems. In so doing, we can cripple them.

Q: How important are chores and responsibilities for teenagers?

A: Really important. People say teens should contribute, but I think it’s the flip side of that, really: teens are so important that we need them. Teens need to feel a sense of responsibility, not based on being yelled at or told they’re lazy, but hearing, “We really need you to help, we’re counting on you.” When you create that feeling in a teen, they’re much less apt to act crazy.

Q: But you have to start with chores much earlier than the teen years in order for them to be willing to do them, right?

A: I think it’s best to start early, but if you haven’t, it’s never too late. When your son turns 13, you can say, “You’re a young man now and it is time for you to make your way in the world. Instead of handing you an allowance for doing nothing, we’re going to, essentially, put you on salary for doing chores and community service, and you control the money. Whatever you want to do with it is fine. But no more welfare state. You have to earn your way.” That’s a welcome to the adult world. Kids will complain sometimes, but we also have research showing that kids who earn their beat-up, 20-year-old Toyota are much happier than kids who are handed the keys to a brand-new BMW.

Q: What are the most difficult years for parents?

A Typically, middle school: age 12 or 13 for most girls, 13 or 14 for most boys. Girls start the brain changes 18 months earlier, which explains why they seem so much smarter than boys—they actually are, for quite a while, because they have this neurologic advantage—and why girls chase older boys. It’s interesting when you look at brain scans—boys that are two grades ahead of the girls are on about the same level, neurologically.

Q: What should parents not bother reacting to?

A: Think of three priority baskets: red is critical, orange is middle of the road, yellow is “don’t worry about it.” Messy rooms, hairstyles, weird clothes are all in the yellow basket. Parents will go to war over clothes, but they are really meaningless. I’ve dealt with kids you’d cross the street to get away from, they’re that scary-looking, but they’re wonderfully moral. And I’ve dealt with kids who wear Izods and khakis, you wish they’d date your daughter, and they turn out to be heroin dealers.

Q: But sexually provocative clothing is something to worry about, right?

A: Yes, you have to address it. As the father of an 11-year-old girl I am praying for the return of the grunge look! Sexually provocative clothes are linked to a red basket issue: the sexualization of girls. We have painted these bull’s eyes on the backs of adolescent girls and told them they are sexual creatures, primarily, and that their role in the culture is to be sexual comfort to boys. They are acting out that conditioning.

Q: So what do you do if your teen starts dressing like a hooker?

A: Parents hate this part, but you have to do heterosexual sex education. Dads, you get to take the girls out for a coffee and have a stammering conversation about what the clothes mean to a teenage boy. Dad has better credentials than mom because he is an ex-teenage boy. “Honey, a 14-year-old guy sees your outfit as an advertisement saying, ‘Hey, come have meaningless sex with me.’ ” Girls tend to be stunned by this because they dress not for the boys but for other girls. It’s a competition, they’re really just wearing a uniform and trying to outdress their friends. And moms need to take their sons and tell them that middle school girls are largely becoming the predators, sexually. Girls are approaching boys for party sex, telling them it’s fine and harmless. Moms need to say, “Son, I have to tell you, as a female, that women are not wired like that. They may think they are, for a while, and do themselves damage through party sex. Are you willing to hurt a female friend of yours? I don’t want an answer, just think about it.” Focus on priority one when you’re dealing with a teenager: the red basket, which has sex, drugs, violence in it. Most important of all is the heart, the character of the child.

Q: What if you find your kid watching porn?

A: Pull up a chair and say, “Let’s watch together.” Most kids would rather die than watch porn with their mother, which gives you an opportunity to say, “If there’s nothing wrong with porn, there should be no problem with us watching it together.” Then actually watch it. A lot of porn today has a very bizarre element, a lot of violence toward women and even animals, it’s not the soft-core stuff that was around when we grew up. It provides a great opening to talk to kids about their values, what they think about what they’re seeing. You can even have them do a little research on what porn actors’ lives are like, whether they’re actually enjoying what they’re doing, whether in real life, girls and women want to be treated that way.

Q: Are girls watching porn, too?

A: Increasingly, yes, and we are beginning to see a new phenomenon of porn addiction and sex addiction even in teen girls.

Q: What should you do if you find cigarettes?

A: Take them out to that coffee shop—the coffee shop is preferable because you’re less likely to scream and yell there than in the kitchen—and say, “Look, I know you’re smoking, I just want to know what you think about it.” Go in soft. Inquire, ask the kid, “Why do you do that?” because you might find a piece of gold you weren’t expecting. When you approach a crazy 13-year-old with respect, as though he makes sense, he is much more liable actually to make sense. Often the kid will say, “Actually, I think it’s gross, but all the guys think it’s cool.” Then you don’t have to hammer the kid, you can say, “Do you really want to be controlled by the other guys?” Asking a well-designed question is the best therapy in the world. Put the question “Why?” in the kid’s head. It’s much more effective than the threat route, which turns it into a game: how do I keep smoking without my parents finding out?

Q: What if you find drugs?

A: It’s the same drill: if you go in with respect, love and concern, use the least intrusive strategy and ask questions, sometimes you’ll have a kid who’ll break down and ask for help. You don’t drive the behaviour underground.

Q: I’m not sure that most teens would view drug use the way they view smoking. Drugs can make you feel good.

A: Absolutely. And often teenagers start out using them to self-medicate, as a way of dealing with some of these changes that emerge in early adolescence. The drugs can help a lot short-term, but long-term they become awful—even marijuana, because it is psychologically addicting. Remember that as crazy as the kid may seem at times, there’s also an emerging adult in there, who’s heard a lot of the information about drugs and may be open to a respect-based intervention. The other thing is that drugs are so prevalent, he knows kids who are potheads and pillheads and alcoholics at 15. You have to get his brain to look at that side of drug use and think about whether there’s a better way to feel good.

Q: What about drinking?

A I view alcohol as a drug—I know there will be hate mail—because it’s just as dangerous as the others and maybe more so for teens. We now have a great body of literature saying that alcohol does terrible things to adolescent brains. It seems to attack the learning centres in the brain, and it seems to wire in addiction much more quickly. Research shows that if kids start drinking at 14, they have five times the rate of addiction as someone who starts drinking at 21. Teenage brains are soft, likely pliable, open to the addictive and neurotoxic effects of alcohol and other drugs.

Q: But most kids seem to drink. How much is too much?

A: This is where I lose most of the audience: any at all. The problem is one of tactics. If you tell your kid, “A couple of beers is okay,” then why not four? Why not 16? Once you cross that threshold of acceptability you’ve got a big problem. The message has to be zero tolerance. You keep saying to your kid, “I just don’t think it’s okay, I can’t approve it.” We’ve lost more kids to the effects of alcohol than all of the other drugs combined.

Q: Through drinking and driving?

A: Not just that. Most teen suicides are done in association with alcohol. I sit on a committee where we do psychological post hocs when we lose kids; we get their hard drives and talk to their parents and so forth, and try to figure out how we don’t lose the next one. In virtually every situation, alcohol figures in in some way, it’s a depressant. And we lose another whole bunch of kids who [unintentionally] drink themselves to death: they put their breathing mechanism to sleep and choke on their own vomit. It’s a deadly drug, and teens are getting it from us parents. We actually endorse it, particularly for boys, as a rite of passage, by associating it with sports and manhood. It’s crazy. The American Medical Association did a study two years ago, and one-third of the kids said their parents gave them alcohol voluntarily, and one-fourth said they drink with their parents or with the parents of a close friend.

Q: What’s going on in the heads of parents who supply it for teens’ parties?

A: We actually researched this at the post hocs, and we had parents saying, “Well, I didn’t want him doing drugs.” I’m thinking, oh, really? Another response was, “I didn’t want her drinking and driving, so we’d set up a keg in the basement and tell the kids not to tell their parents, just say it’s a sleepover. We were really safeguarding all these children.” The other one was, “I’m teaching my kid how to drink.” The fact is, the kid is going to drink, it’s so prevalent in the culture that all of our kids are going to experiment with alcohol and likely marijuana. The key is, how do you keep it at a level of experimentation? Fathers in particular hate hearing this, but zero tolerance serves as a limiter of behaviour. Consider speed limits: if you post 80, everybody does 90.

Q: And then how do you respond when the kid inevitably comes home drunk?

A: You first say, “We’ll talk tomorrow, because you’re drunk tonight.” And by the way, if your kid is staggering or can’t talk, take him to the hospital. It’s an overdose. If he overdosed on heroin would you roll him in the corner to sleep, and hope he woke up? Of course not. The next morning, take him out to the coffee shop and ask, “What did you learn?” He might say, “Dad, it was insane, we were in the park, it was freezing, a kid was puking, Johnny jumped on Susie and tried to rape her and she’s screaming, we had to pull him off.” Well, why would you punish your kid then? Just say, “I think you learned something. How can we keep this from happening the next time?” When the kid says, “Oh, I won’t drink again,” you say, “Well what happens if you do? Are you telling me you’re not ready for the level of freedom to be out in the park on Friday nights?” Put the consequence in place for the next time. But your goal is teaching. If the kid saw that alcohol makes kids crazy—and by the way, it’s associated with STDs and unintentional pregnancies—then he’s less likely to see booze as romantic. If you go crazy, yell, scream, hit the kid and ground him, he’s just going to climb out the window and get back to the booze as soon as he can.

Q: Do kids today drink differently than their parents did?

A: Yes, more binge drinking: as much as they can, as fast as they can. A lot of kids hate the taste of alcohol, so they make vodka jello cubes and find ways to ingest lethal amounts without the bad taste. The second thing is that they drink at younger and younger ages.

Q: What can parents do if their kid simply won’t talk or communicate?

A: First, understand it’s normal. Boys, in particular, often go into the cave for a year, just disappear into their rooms. Don’t take it personally. It means they’ve learned what they need to from the family and now they’re studying peer relationships, really examining issues like trust, responsibility, loyalty, the nature of friendship. They’ve gone to another school, if you will, temporarily. Continue to do outreach—not screaming and yelling, but knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, we love and miss you, and know you’re not into the family right now, but if you ever need a hug, or want to get a coffee, let me know.” The kid will roll his eyes, saying, “God Mom, ugh,” but inside he knows he’s loved. The worst thing to do is figure that parenting is over and now your kid’s on his own. Kids get sad and depressed and sometimes filled with rage when parents pull away from them in early adolescence.

Q: Are most parents aware of most of what their teens get up to?

A: Teens are great at flying under the radar. That’s a blessing, actually. Parents ask all the time whether they should spy on their kids’ email, and I say, “If you do, you may get what you deserve.”

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