Why Teens Really Aren’t That Bad
By Morgan Baker

Where the Wild Things Are...

As children approach the teen years, parents often fear the worst: that their sweet, innocent offspring will turn into wild things – new, unrecognizable creatures that they no longer know, or even want to know.

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We’ve all heard the stories of adolescents’ risky behavior. They may drink alcohol, take drugs, drive recklessly or become sexually active. They test their parents, talk back to them and push them away. They crave independence.

TV, film, music and popular culture only intensify these fears, contributing powerful negative images of teens. They’re portrayed as out of control and moody – just plain “bad.” It’s no wonder parents anticipate the teen years with a great deal of anxiety.

But for every negative aspect of adolescence, there is a positive one. This is a time when our children learn to stand up for themselves, to discover what they believe in. They test their own limits as much as they do their parents’ limits. They are curious and courageous, willing and wanting to try new things. They’re funny. They see the world from a fresh point of view.

Most important, and contrary to popular belief, teens want and need their parents around much more than they let on.

The ‘Terrible’ Teens?

The turmoil of adolescence is exaggerated, says psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. “Most kids go through pretty smoothly,” he says, adding that teens in crisis are the distinct minority.

In fact, since media stereotypes of risky, reckless teen behavior only add to parents’ anxiety, experts advise parents to put those images out of their minds. Some moms and dads are trying to do just that.

“I never put much stock in how horrible the popular culture told me the teen years would be,” says Leslie Newman, a mother of three adolescents.

“If kids were delivered as teens, it would be terrifying,” notes Tom Buell, the father of two teenagers. “But I love seeing them growing up and seeing their personalities come out. I enjoy getting to know them as people.”

The bridge from childhood to adulthood – early adolescence, in particular – is one of the most exciting periods of human development. There’s a huge amount of brain growth in the span of a few short years, according to Laura Sessions Stepp, a writer on adolescent and family issues at the Washington Post and author of Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Though Early Adolescence. The only other time that rivals this period of growth is early childhood.

But perhaps because of all this rapid growth, parents often experience a sense of profound loss when their child becomes a teen. Where did that mischievous little boy go – the one who loved to surprise his mom with flowers? What happened to that little girl who loved to giggle secrets to her dad?

One way to weather all the changes, says educator Rae Simpson, Ph.D., is to be open to what adolescents add to your lives as parents. Simpson, the program director of parenting education and research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, authored a report, titled Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action, for the Harvard School of Public Health in 2001.

oNormal>Teens, she says, have many important developmental “tasks” to accomplish during the adolescent years. They develop coping skills and identify a meaningful value system. Recognizing teen behavior as your child’s way of working through these tasks may help you tolerate, understand and support him or her.

oNormal>In essence, you are redefining your relationship with your teen – a marvelous human being. “The relationship won’t go away,” Simpson says. “You’re gaining a relationship with a wonderful young adult, who is less dependent and more interdependent." 

oNormal>The Positives of Puberty

oNormal>So what’s so terrific about teenagers? Adolescents develop a number of wonderful qualities, including:

oNormal>Fresh Perspective – Adolescents have courage, energy and curiosity. We depend on them as a society, Simpson says. Young people affect social change. Throughout history, teens have brought a fresh perspective with which to reinvigorate political systems.

oNormal>On a more personal level, teens give their parents perspective on their own experiences. “It’s delightful to relive your own teen years by watching, without the zits, dates and making out,” says Stepp. “It makes you think about your first kiss.”

oNormal>Courage and Curiosity – Not only do parents cite their teens’ energy as one of their strong points, they say they learn from their teens, as well. Teens introduce their parents to new music and new ideas. They have a fearless quality that can even encourage adults to get out of their midlife doldrums. Stepp’s son convinced her to try parasailing, for example.

oNormal>Candor and Honesty – “They have refreshing candor and honesty,” Stepp notes. “They tell you the way they see things. They haven’t put the suits on yet. They’re frank and funny.”

oNormal>In fact, rather than dreading adolescent behavior as only loud and rude, recognize that you’ll also be able to have increasingly sophisticated conversations with your teen. Look forward to engaging your teen in debate and really listening to how he or she views things.

“They’re insightful,” Newman remarks. “You can even go to them for advice.”

Discovering Talents – Parents can help teens discover and name what they’re good at, whether it’s playing sports or an instrument or something more interpersonal, such as resolving conflicts. If your adolescent is brimming over with energy and bossiness, get her to join a soccer team or to help plan a sibling’s birthday party. Teach her leadership skills. A teen who makes up stories might be perceived as a liar – or as inventive and creative, if given the appropriate outlet for this talent.

It’s easy for adolescents who can’t find something to excel in to feel bad about themselves, Stepp says. All kids want to be respected in a group and to be good at something. Parents can help them find their niche.

Remember, too, that children of all ages need to play, Hallowell says. If they play at something they enjoy, the more they play it, the better they’ll get.

Buell’s wife, Dorey, says she’s amazed by their teens’ devotion to activities beyond academics. Both are in a marching band that sometimes requires 20 hours of practice a week.

Staying Connected

While reams of research and parenting advice books will tell you otherwise, parents still often have the misconception that they won’t be as important to their teens as they were during their children’s younger years. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies have shown that teens depend on their parents more than parents may realize. Parental involvement is critical to how successfully teens navigate these years, and adolescents want their parents to stay involved – even if they insist otherwise.

The notion that adolescents have to “let go” or “cut the apron strings” to gain independence is absurd, experts say. Those terms indicate loss at a time when families actually have a chance to redefine relationships rather than separate.

“Don’t shy away from your teens,” advises Stepp. “Engage them in debate. Teens are hungry for people to ask them their opinions. They want to be counted in. Talking to a teen can be like nailing Jell-O™ to a tree. But the more you practice, the better skilled you will be. There aren’t a lot of grown-ups who talk seriously to teens.”

Do everything you can to stay connected, Hallowell urges. Continue doing what you’ve always done – read, go to the movies, take a walk, hug and kiss them. Sometimes that connection may be in the form of verbal “skirmishes” in the house, but those too indicate a bond between parents and teens.

Buell recalls being apprehensive about parenting teens; he remembered what he was like at that age. “But,” he says, “we’ve stayed involved and fought when needed and given them their freedom when warranted.”

Staying involved and communicative can head off all kinds of that stereotypical trouble teens can get into. And, obviously, parents of teens need to be mindful of the risks adolescents might take. But parenting and child-development experts encourage parents to start with the attitude that teens aren’t inherently bad, disrespectful or out of control.

“Don’t go with the stereotype,” Hallowell urges. “Appearances can be deceiving. Look for the real person beneath the piercings and tattoos.


The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., Ballantine Books, 2002.

Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Though Early Adolescence, by Laura Sessions Stepp, Riverhead Books, 2001.

Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action, by A. Rae Simpson, Harvard School of Public Health, 2001.

Morgan Baker is a freelance writer and mother of two girls.
From United Parenting Publications, July 2004.