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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 25 · Number 1 · Fall 2007

teen on phone

Tips for Parents

Click here for tips for parents from Richard Robins, professor of psychology, on helping adolescents maintain positive self-esteem:

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It's Just a Phase . . . Isn't It?

Teenagers — argh! — what makes them so crazy and what can parents do about it?

There is a strange, mercurial parallel universe that human beings dwell in sometime between the ages of 11 and 19. Some call it adolescence. Others call it trouble. It’s a land of mystery, where nothing is quite what it seems and everything is unpredictable.

During adolescence, that precious, lovable little girl with the party dress and angelic smile has morphed into a black-clothed, angry teenager who, on her good days, will deign to speak all of five words to her parents. On her bad days — well, let’s just say some of the words she speaks might not be fit for a family magazine.

That little girl who was once full of sweetness and light is now alternately angry, laughing hysterically, crying into a cell phone, arguing with her mother, worshipping her friends, hating her friends, ignoring her little brother, yelling at her little brother, threatening — perhaps daily — to run away, hugging her dad, cursing her dad, loving school, hating school and wanting her family to “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Oh, in addition, her once near-perfect grades are slipping, and that crowd she’s hanging out with looks like something from a Boris Karloff film.

If any of this sounds at all familiar, you might be one of the millions of parents in the United States who is raising a teenager or pre-teenager right now. These days, according to a 2003 United Nations study, there are more adolescents inhabiting the planet than there has been at any other time in history — an estimated 1.2 billion. Perhaps coincidentally — perhaps not — there is also a growing body of research on teenage behavior, the teenage brain and ways to shepherd these young people through some difficult years of change.

Researchers — many right here at UC Davis — are looking at why some kids head into delinquency and others don’t. Why some siblings enjoy each other’s company even before adulthood, and others seem to loathe each other. They’re learning that there may be a method behind the seeming madness of bullying at school. And they’re finding that the adolescent brain is distinctly different from the adult brain — it has not fully developed impulse control or executive functions — but it is acquiring these abilities over time. And that means parents can embrace this ancient wisdom when grappling with most cases of lousy teenage behavior: “This too shall pass.”

In the meantime there are parenting techniques that can help teenagers and their families survive this most trying of developmental stages.

Read on about the latest research and advice.

The power of siblings and positive role modeling

Are you one of those parents who vowed never to play favorites with your kids as your parents once did with you and your siblings? Do you try to avoid speaking harshly to your kids so they won’t speak harshly to each other or others outside the home? You’ve preached about nonviolent behavior and demeaning language, so you’re baffled about why your kids are so mean to each other and other people.

UC Davis sociologists Rand and Katherine Conger might ask you to view a videotape of your family to see what message your actions, rather than just your words, are giving your kids. You might find out that argument you had with your spouse over the bills left more of an impression on your children than anything you’ve told them about problem-solving and kindness. And perhaps you think you treat your children equitably, but if you watch a videotape of your interactions, you might change your mind, seeing that you lavish much more attention on one child than another, simply by smiling more in her presence or spending more time listening.

“The parents may really feel like they are treating their kids as equitably as they can . . . but kids may perceive that they are being treated much better or worse than their parents think,” said Katherine Conger, assistant professor of human development.

“We’re very bad observers of our own behavior,” added her husband Rand Conger, professor of human development.

The Congers have been studying thousands of hours of videotaped family interactions to learn how family members communicate and interact. In a longitudinal study of Iowa rural families that examined the impact of economic hardship, the Congers and a team of other researchers gleaned some interesting insights into family dynamics. They found that siblings play a greater role in encouraging delinquency in each other than researchers once thought and that parents who are experiencing economic stress often show a sharp decline in positive parenting, even when they think they are insulating the kids from the stress.

The Family Transitions Project, begun in 1989, studied 451 Iowa families with seventh graders and siblings within four years of each other. Using self-reports on stress and behavior, as well as reports from educators and other professionals in kids’ lives, the Congers found that the economic downturn was having a devastating impact on these families in many areas of their lives. Parents were less involved with the children’s day-to-day lives, fewer positive family interactions were taking place, and parents’ arguments over money and other issues were having far-reaching negative impacts. Those spousal conflicts — with their corrosive stress and demonstrations of poor problem-solving — were often reflected in sibling conflict.

The Congers also learned that adolescents who were engaging in delinquent behavior would sometimes brag to their younger siblings about their antics — even while being videotaped — thereby increasing the likelihood that those younger siblings would also engage in delinquent behavior. This held true regardless of the sex of the siblings.

“Younger siblings are very observant and think their older siblings are cool,” said Katherine Conger. “I think it’s very useful for parents to talk to older siblings and let them know the younger siblings are watching.”

Conversely, siblings who had developed positive, competent problem-solving behaviors tended to pass them along to their younger sibs.

Katherine Conger said parents can work to create positive relations between siblings by helping them maneuver through conflicts in a positive manner. Parents also should arrange for siblings to engage in fun activities together.

“One of the worst things a parent can do is say, ‘Leave your brother or sister alone,’” she said.

And how can parents help prevent delinquent or hostile behavior? Further research from the Iowa study found that adolescents in economically disadvantaged families who were active in religious groups tended to fare better than their peers who were not in religious organizations. The kids in church groups tended to build positive peer relationships that encouraged good grades and shunned rule-breaking activities. In general, associating with peers who encouraged appropriate behavior protected against the effects of economic distress.

Rand Conger also says maintaining high standards for behavior within the family is key. Parents can do this by refraining, themselves, from hostile or angry emotional outbursts.

“If you are raised in a home with a lot of hostility, anger, inconsistency, high negative emotions — these things get carried across generations,” he said.

“Being loving to your child is necessary but not sufficient,” added Katherine Conger. “You can be loving and affectionate, doting and caring, and still have a child with a lot of problems.

“If you don’t have any expectations for that child — to behave civilly, to succeed in school, to get along within the family — and enforce those expectations, this is going to be a kid adrift.”

angry boy

It’s just a tough time

We all know that adolescence can be a particularly tough time in a person’s life. Research bears that out.

Studies have found that self-esteem decreases in adolescence, and depression increases, particularly in girls. One study co-authored by Richard Robins, UC Davis professor of psychology, found that self-esteem waxes and wanes throughout someone’s life. On average, self-esteem is relatively high in early childhood, then dips in adolescence, builds gradually through adulthood and wanes again in old age. Robins’ co-authors on the study were alumni Kali Trzesniewski ’96, Ph.D. ’03, now an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, and Brent Donnellan ’94, Ph.D. ’01, now assistant professor at Michigan State University.

“I think it is important for parents to keep in mind that although it is very common for self-esteem to drop during adolescence it is rare for self-esteem to actually plummet at this or any other stage of development,” Robins said. “So, it’s probably more accurate to say that adolescence chips away at self-esteem rather than causing it to drop dramatically” — although in some cases this does happen.

The researchers speculate that young children’s self-esteem may be unrealistically high because they do not base their self-evaluations on external feedback and valid or appropriate social comparisons. But as children move into adolescence and more competitive arenas, they increasingly look to external feedback from peers, parents and teachers to form their self-view.

Researchers also have found that while self-esteem, on average, tends to drop in both genders during adolescence, girls’ self-esteem decreases more than boys’. Moreover, girls are nearly twice as likely as boys to be depressed. This propensity toward depression carries into adulthood but was not prevalent between the sexes before adolescence, according to research by former UC Davis professor and child psychologist Xiaojia Ge, who recently moved to the University of Minnesota.

Ge theorizes that pubertal changes are more stressful on girls than boys, creating a greater propensity toward depression, especially for girls who experienced puberty earlier than their peers. In addition, interpersonal relationships are particularly important to females, generally speaking, which may make them more vulnerable to disruptions and stress from those interactions. Keeping that in mind, parents should listen carefully when an adolescent girl is talking about problems with her friends.

Other research by Robins, Trzesniewski and Donnellan found a link between low self-esteem and aggressive, antisocial behavior. Their study, based on self-reports of antisocial behavior as well as observations by parents and teachers, found that low self-esteem may lead to aggression, bullying and delinquency. Eleven-year-olds with low self-esteem tended to increase their aggression by age 13, they found. This study also found a link between antisocial behavior and individuals with unrealistically high self-esteem in the form of narcissism — an inflated sense of self that often masks feelings of insecurity.

Bullying: Is there a method to the madness?

When aggression leads to bullying, it should not be minimized. Research has shown that bullying has a far more corrosive impact than people might realize.

Adrienne Nishina, assistant professor of human and community development at UC Davis, has spent years studying the dynamic of bullying in adolescence and beyond. It is a field of growing interest.

“Columbine really prompted a lot of researchers to take more seriously the act of bullying,” said Nishina, referring to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that investigators believe may have been triggered by the shooters’ anger over having been harassed.

Nishina said bullying can include physical abuse, name calling, spreading rumors or excluding others. Bullying peaks during the middle-school years, said Nishina, and can have far-reaching impacts on kids.

girl with attitude

Nishina and other researchers have been following a large group of adolescents in the Los Angeles area since they were in sixth grade. They are now in the 11th and 12th grades. Through interviews, self-evaluations and school reports, they found that over half of the kids were picked on during early middle school. Their research also found that kids who get harassed report higher levels of depression and anxiety, and low self-worth. They make more trips to the school nurse, stay home sick from school more often, get lower grades and develop “school aversion” at higher rates.

So why do kids bully each other, and is there a way to cut down on the harmful practice?

Nishina theorizes that bullying may stem from some evolutionary-type social stratification. Bullying may be a way to establish social hierarchies within a group. It may communicate to kids when they are deviating from the norm, and it may be a way for friends to bond — essentially by excluding others.

“It may be the case that we could never fully eliminate bullying in school,” said Nishina. But there may be ways to lessen it.

Schools need to take a “whole school approach” to reducing the problem, having more adults around to monitor children’s activities and integrating discussions about bullying in classroom lessons.

“When kids get picked on, it does not tend to happen around adults,” said Nishina, but when it does, they don’t always intervene. Adults need to step in every time, otherwise they send a tacit message that they are condoning the behavior.

Kids themselves can make a difference when it comes to bullying. “We find that when a student intervenes either during or after an event, it can minimize the negative effects on the victim,” Nishina said.

Nishina’s research also has found that kids feel safer in more diverse educational settings.

“In schools and classrooms that are more ethnically diverse, kids feel more safe and less victimized and less lonely,” she said.

Nishina added that there shouldn’t be an inconsistent standard about what kind of verbal teasing is OK and what is not. Put-downs in all forms, whether they be racist or related to intelligence, should not be tolerated.

“Kids are typically punished only if they are physically aggressive or verbally aggressive in the context of race,” she said. “But it can be just as harmful to call someone stupid or make a negative comment on their appearance.”

Nishina said that having a safe place for kids to get away from the maddening crowds also helps improve a school climate. Some schools open classrooms or libraries to kids during lunch or other breaks.

“The schools that do this have a full library,” she said.

Just wait

Adolescence is a mixed up, crazy time of raging hormones, low self-esteem, body changes, brain growth, aggression and in some cases — delinquency.

So what is the role of brain development in all of this? Researchers can’t pinpoint the cause of wacky adolescent behavior, but they know now the brain is still developing significantly during those years — more than they had thought a generation ago. The frontal lobe of the adolescent brain — the site of executive reasoning and impulse control — has a final growth spurt around the ages of 11 to 13. It takes years, however, for the teen’s brain to develop key pathways to fully utilize this frontal lobe and its adult-like reasoning functions.

So hang in there, parents. In most cases, it’s just a matter of time until that pleasant little girl returns, now a few steps closer to being all grown up.


Pamela Martineau is a Davis freelance writer with two sons, including one who is a teen.