Surprise! Your teen does care

September 14, 1997|By Sara Engram

FOR EVERY MOM and dad who has been sorely tempted to take a sullen teen-ager seriously when he tells them to ''butt out'' and leave him alone, the Journal of the American Medical Association brought important advice this week: Don't.

Early results of the largest survey ever done of adolescent health in the United States show that strong emotional connections with parents and teachers are a key factor in helping teen-agers avoid high-risk behavior.

That holds true whether a child comes from a traditional family or a single-parent household and regardless of how much time a parent spends at home. At school, strong bonds with a teacher outweigh any other factor in discouraging risky behavior, including class size and the amount of training a teacher has.

Does it really take a $25 million federal study to convince us of something that seems little more than common sense? Maybe so, given the number of teen-agers who fall prey to alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, who become sexually active, lose interest in school work, become depressed or even attempt suicide.

Obvious truths

Sometimes the most obvious truths prove the most elusive. Even in those awkward years when the opinions of peers seem on the surface to matter so much more than those of Mom or Dad or a teacher, kids are acutely tuned in to adult opinions.

The initial results of this study don't provide a fail-safe guide for what can adults do to make sure they have a positive influence in an adolescent's life. But some of the answers are obvious. For one thing, adults can learn not just to talk with kids, but to listen. Those patterns are established early.

In the book ''Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ,'' Daniel Goleman describes the ''low-key family tragedy'' that plays out as a couple is asked to help their 5-year-old daughter learn a new video game.

While the father anxiously coaches his child -- ''To the left! To the left!'' -- the mother contradicts him -- ''To the right! To the right!'' -- and second-guesses his instructions. Meanwhile, the bewildered child blinks away tears as her parents bark %o commands while ignoring her reactions.

For this child, Dr. Goleman notes, ''one conclusion from this painful exchange might well be that neither her parents, nor anyone else, for that matter, cares about her feelings.'' Her parents were eager to have her succeed, yet in their self-absorption they construed parental communication as a top-down process.

Dr. Goleman lists two other common ways in which parents fail to help children learn emotional competence and build strong connections between the generations. One is a laissez-faire approach in which parents consider any way of handling feelings -- even hitting -- to be acceptable. These parents are more concerned with smoothing over sad or angry feelings than in showing children appropriate ways of dealing with them.

Then there are parents who show too little regard for a child's feelings, sometimes forbidding any expression of irritation or anger. Such parents yell, ''Don't talk back to me,'' when a child is trying to tell his side of the story.

Most parents have resorted to these behaviors at one time or another. But those who manage to establish the bonds that weather the storms of adolescence have most likely taken time to teach their children not just how to master physical or intellectual skills, but also how to handle their emotions. They have taken time to listen, to establish a two-way conversation about life and its ups and downs.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, conducted by an arm of the National Institutes of Health, also found that teen-agers whose parents held high academic expectations were more likely than other teens to do well in school, and that those whose parents sent clear messages about avoiding alcohol, drugs and sex were more likely to abstain. We shouldn't really be surprised at these findings, but we ought to be chastened at how difficult family life seems to be in this regard.

Single parents, working parents -- all those busy adults who feel guilty that they may not be giving their children everything they need can take comfort that it's not just the demographic characteristics of a family or the time a parent can spend with a child that influence adolescent behavior. It's also the adults' determination to make sure teen-agers know they care -- and that adults can listen as well as talk.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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