Preventing Adolescence – Well, Sort Of

Preventing Adolescence – Well, Sort Of

“Dear Dr. Hanson,
Our oldest is just in fifth grade, but we’re already worried about middle school and the ‘terrible teens.’ Some of his friends already have earrings, and he kids us (sometimes I’m not sure he’s joking) about getting green hair. We’re scared about drugs and alcohol, who his friends will be, and whether he will stay on track with school and his life. Right now we can still talk together, but how long will that last?”


That word alone can send shivers up a parent’s spine. It makes you think of loud arguments, sullen silences, hormones amok, and risky behavior. Parents wonder: “What happened to that nice kid who used to sit in my lap?”

Some ups and downs are inevitable during the teens. But adolescence is also a time when psychological difficulties can settle in as stable aspects of the personality, behavior can be annoying at best and dangerous at worst, and poor choices can have lifetime consequences.

Being a skillful parent while your kids are teenagers is obviously important. But the best approach is preventing problems during the elementary and middle school years. That time is a special opportunity to lay a foundation — before the sap really begins to rise! — for family harmony and reasonable behavior.

The key problems of adolescence are isolation, conflict, and mediocrity. Their best solution is loving intimacy, effective problem-solving, and developing internal motivation. Adolescence today is an extraordinary challenge. Prohibiting its pitfalls is not enough. Teenagers need to be attracted to positive alternatives.

In this series of columns in the Family News, we will explore how to do just that. This first column describes the nature of adolescence and a teenager’s underlying positive wants and needs. In following columns I will describe specific ways that parents can promote intimacy, problem-solving, and meaningful interests, especially before their kids hit the “terrible teens.”

Teenagers are from Pluto

Sometimes teenagers can almost seem like a separate species, mysterious and a bit frightening. Understanding the normal process of teenage development is the first step in preventing the problems of adolescence.

Numerous important and healthy developments occur during adolescence. They include emerging: Abstract thinking, personal values, sexuality, important relationships with peers, gender identity, physical stature and abilities, sense of personal identity distinct from parents, and scrutiny of and skepticism toward familiar authority. Adolescence can combine the best of childhood and adulthood.

Adolescence also normally contains a significant amount of intense reactions, inexplicable or eccentric behavior, wild emotions, and confusion. Teenagers are supposed to go through the kinds of things that drive their parents crazy. That’s how they separate from parents, discover who they are, and learn some hard and enduring lessons in preparation for adulthood.

It’s hard to be “teen”

Unfortunately, the negative aspects of adolescence have been worsened by a variety of social developments. In two generations, we have created a discrete social class — teenagers — that is generally isolated from adults yet supposed to respect them, flooded with frightening information yet expected to remain optimistic, and tempted every day at school with captivating pleasures yet supposed to just say no.

Adolescents today rarely have much access to an enlivening and inspiring adult world of intimacy, large-heartedness, and wisdom. They are shunted off to reservations, enclaves of hired help and other teenagers, such as schools and malls. They have little access to meaningful contact with adults beside their parents or the world of work. They are generally not drawn into healthy gender culture (in contrast to more “primitive” cultures that usually put young men and women in close contact with adults of their gender).

Teenagers have a negative status in our society: If you want to insult someone, you tell them “Don’t be so adolescent about it!” Adolescents have few opportunities for productive work for pay, and chances for other kinds of contribution are scarce.

While the doors to positive experiences and relationships for teenagers are mainly closed or barely ajar, they are wide open to dangerous escapes and consolations such as drugs and alcohol, premature sexuality, and a cynical and tawdry youth culture.

Adolescence is a transition from childhood. But what is it a transition to? What can we offer our kids to compete with the very real pleasures of mall culture, punk attitude, goofing off, sex, drugs, and rock and roll??

Practicing what we preach

This is the tough part: The best way parents can help their kids prevent the common problems of adolescence is by living themselves a life that attracts their children toward intimacy, effective living, and productive self-expression.

How are you a model of intimacy for your children? How are you not? When your kids look at your marriage, what do they see?

How are you a model of good-hearted and effective approaches to conflict for your children? How are you not? When your kids watch you and your spouse trying to solve problems together, what do they see?

How are you a model of pursuing meaningful interests for your children? How are you not? We ask teens to exercise their will every day to persevere in the face of frustration, bear discomfort gracefully, and turn away from temptation — so when they reflect on your drive, determination, self-control, and willpower, what do they see?

In sum, are your child’s parents living a life that would be attractive, in broad outline, to a teenager? As a teenager, would you have been attracted to your life today?

Facing these questions openly honors our children and ourselves. Kids peer right through the fatuous rationalizations and sermons of adults to what’s actually true behind the veil. We ask them to renounce so much in immediate gratification in order to attain the “goodies” available in adulthood. Well, our kids ask, where’s the beef? And if there’s not much between the bread in the lives of the adults they know best, then it’s a tough sell.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.


Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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