Howard County Maryland Blog

Local Politics and Current Events

The Horrow Show that is Teendom

Posted by bsflag2007 on Thursday, January 4, 2007

Little kids are on a suicide mission.  They run out in front of cars, the drink colorful liquids from under the sink, they try to juggle shiny sharp objects.  Why?  Good reasons.  They’re curious.  They’re fearless.  They are living life at 100 mph, in the moment and full speed ahead.   That’s how they learn.

Teenagers also seem to be on a suicide mission.   They drive too fast.  They experiment with drugs and alcohol.  They do incredibly stupid things.  But is it the same?  And does it matter?

Conventional wisdom (at least for the last couple of generations) has been that teenagers do ridiculously dangerous things because they feel immortal – bad things only happen to other people — they won’t suffer the worst-case consequences.

According to psychologists Valerie Reyna of Cornell and Frank Farley of Temple, this is a myth.  They recently published the results of their research into teenage behaviors in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.   Basically, Reyna and Farley studied teenage brains and behaviors and came up with loads of debunking data.

Like, teenagers do know right from wrong – and stupid from smart.  They don’t just jump into stupid pranks or dangerous behaviors — they actually take time to consider the degree of stupidity, and then do a cost benefit analysis, before deliberately coming to the wrong decision.

The researchers also claim to have data to debunk the “myth” that teenagers don’t think bad things will happen to them.  They claim their research shows that teens actually believe they are more likely to have bad things happen – like get pregnant, or die in an accident, or get caught doing whatever – than the statistics would indicate.

Interesting stuff.  I believe some of it — but how much?   Is it universal?   Can we use this research to figure out how to more effectively deal with teenagers?

So I took a poll.  I asked local teenagers, parents, teachers, and  folks who work with kids in crisis.

My non-scientific poll tells me that these researchers are on to something.  But – like all generalizations – it does not apply to everyone.

First – when your kid shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know” when asked why he did something really dumb —- that is not completely true.  He actually did think about it (a little) before he did it – he knew it might not be a great idea – but decided to do it anyway.

So if he “knew it was a bad idea, why did he go ahead and do it?”

Oops, my mistake  – “I didn’t say it was a ‘bad’ idea…. I said it wasn’t a ‘great’ idea”.

Apparently there is a difference.  And that difference is huge.

The difference is the “immortality” factor.  The teenagers in my “study” say as long as there is a chance they won’t get hurt/caught – then they don’t think it will happen to them — oh, they worry about it, but they don’t really think the bad thing will actually happen.

Also – they don’t have the same definition of “certainty” that adults do.  I think you would need a fully functioning crystal ball to qualify for “certainty”.

OK, that’s a little different that what the researchers came up with.  Their data tells them teens feel doomed to the worst-case outcome.

Well, not at my house.

My kids, their friends, our neighbors… might be  “at risk” of having car accidents, unintended pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse.   They admit to having a high “it won’t happen to me” quotient.   Apparently under all that teenage angst they have an overall optimistic worldview.

But they are not representative of all teenagers.  There are others – maybe more – who do represent the teens Farley and Reyna studied.  Teens “we” have been unable to reach with our “conventional wisdom”.

We seem to have gotten the words right – “high risk” both literally and figuratively.  The  “high risk” teens  – those at high risk of dropping out of high school  – those at high risk of lives of crime and despair – death on the streets from guns or gang violence.
These kids do have the “doomed” worldview.  They believe that they are destined to fail, hurt, die – risk is not an issue, it is a given.

Farley and Reyna are not wrong – they may hold the key to part of the puzzle.

Why do some kids respond to “truancy courts” and “tough love” and structure, rules, “iron fists in velvet gloves”?   While others just “drop out”?

Part of the answer, I believe, is in these disparate worldviews.

For these kids — more punishments, more rules, more consequences are not effective.  “We” cannot impose more fear of a negative outcome than they carry with them every day – or the reality of their daily lives.

Before fear of punishment can be a deterrent – they have to have some expectation of good outcomes.   They have to have something to live for, some glimmer of hope that through their own efforts they can avoid being forever “doomed”.

Feeling immortal?   Only if that means you can’t kill the already dead.  The already dead have nothing to lose – and nothing to gain.
And some of them are really angry.

This is not the tag line of a new horror flick — it is the daily life of too many American (and local) teenagers.


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