Adam Price Ph.D.

The Unmotivated Teen

Why Being An Activist is Good For Your Teen

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Teen With a Cell Phone

Posted Mar 11, 2018

I am going to deviate from discussing unmotivated teens to highlight some very motivated young people- the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas shooting. It’s hard not to be moved by the impassioned speech by Emma Gonzales, as well as by teenagers all over the country who have been called to action about gun control.  Later I will share some observations about this issue, but first I would like to tell you why being an activist is good for your teen- especially if he is unmotivated.  

You may not want to foment the seeds of revolution under your roof, but helping teens become more aware of the world around them is crucial to their intellectual and social development. It is equally important to encourage them to think independently and take a stand. Here is why:

The physical changes of puberty are only part of the story. During adolescence a teen’s thinking skills do not just “unfold” or ‘blossom,” they explode. While there may have been spurts of abstract thinking when your son was younger, it really takes hold in adolescence. He can now think critically about big concepts like justice and equality. He also develops greater self-awareness and the ability to see things from another’s perspective (except yours of course). These changes allow teenagers to better understand the societal conflicts that create headlines and drive politics (gun control, abortion, LGBTQ rights, etc.) and to form his own opinions.

This cognitive awakening also allows your son to grapple with profound questions—questions that just a few years ago would have made no sense to him but that, in a few years more, must be answered if he is to make the transition from dependent child to self-reliant adult: Who am I? What do I beleive in? What should I become and do I have what it takes to get there?

Mental curiosity is one benefit the unmotivated teen can reap from all of this thinking. This curiosity will lead him to learn more both in and out of school. I was impressed by how much one “unmotivated” teen I worked with knew about current events. Though he rarely did his homework, this young man scoured the internet for background information about the day’s headlines. While his grades never reflected how much he taught himself, I knew that with a little more maturity he would put all of this curiosity and knowledge to good use.

Teens are often idealistic and think they can change the world. No matter the generation, they tend to look back at the one before them and conclude “man did they mess things up. I am not going to grow up to be like them.” Unfortunately, these are no longer just the musing of a rebellious teenager. They and future generations will inherit a world much more perilous than the one we were born into.  

Here are some ways to encourage your son to think for himself:

Take him seriously. Your son needs to know that you are hearing him. This does not mean that you have to agree with everything he says or let him do everything he asks. But he does need you to treat him with respect, not demean foolish thoughts as foolish, and understand his perspective.

Allow him to be opinionated. There is nothing more passionate than a teenager expressing a new belief or viewpoint.  However, teens are also relentless. Living with a zealot is never easy. Teens can overdo it because they need to separate and are insecure about their opinions and conclusions.   Teens are fighting the urge to still rely on you to tell them how to think.  For a time, they need to build up their own perspectives by knocking everyone else’s down (at least everyone who is over the age of 17). So forgive your son if he is a little too brash or strident.

Don’t worry if he thinks you are an idiot.  The transition from “cartwheels to car wheels” (thank you for the poetry, Joni Mitchell) is a process that, during adolescence, often feels more like the swing of a pendulum than a forward progression.  That sweet boy who once took your word on everything now has an overwhelming impulse to disagree with you. Teens apply their new critical thinking skills to criticizing everything, including you. This is because teens, unlike children, can compare themselves to others, including their friends, teachers, and parents, and these comparisons lead them to a more realistic appraisal of themselves and others.

Finally, talk about the day’s news at the dinner table. Provide context for the headlines. Read the newspaper in front of him. Ask his opinion.

Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

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Although this is a blog about teenagers and not politics, I am compelled to say that in the face of these tragic deaths, a blog post about adolescent development seems trivial. Within an instant the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas shooting became activists. This activism was forced on them not only by the senseless shooting but also because we failed to protect them. Five years after the Sandy Hook massacre of elementary aged children, it has only become easier for people to buy guns.

Here are some facts about guns, how they hurt children, and why this is not a mental health issue.

According to a recent Washington Post article, since the Columbine High School massacre in 1990 “more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus.”  Every student and adult in each of these 170 schools experienced a trauma that will affect them for years.

American children a more likely to be killed by a bullet than are children from any other wealthy nation. According to a study of World Health Organization data, 91% of children (under age 15) killed by bullets (in any circumstance) lived here in the USA. Two dozen children, on average, are shot within our borders every day!

What is going on? Are Americans more violent or mentally disturbed than people from other countries? Here is what I learned from a New York Times article titled "What Explains US Mass Shootings”:

  • we make up 4.4 percent of the global population, but own 42 percent of the world’s guns.
  •  only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings (adjusted for population) than we do, and they rank second in gun ownership worldwide.
  • we don't have a higher crime rate than other developed countries, just a more lethal one.  A New Yorker has the same odds to be robbed as a Londoner but is 54 more times to be killed in the process.
  • Americans are not more mentally ill than other wealthy countries and…
  • we spend as much on mental health treatment, per capita, as these countries do.

The article concludes: “the only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

As a psychologist who worked for many years in public mental health, I can tell you that there is very little we can do to predict violent behavior. Even when we can, the amount of protection needed to keep that person from harming others does not exist. Furthermore, people with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are not more prone to violence than is anyone else  As the Times reporter wrote: there is “no reliable cure for angry young men who harbor violent fantasies.” Furthermore, these men rarely seek help. What we do need is more funding for school-based mental health providers who can better identify troubled youths.

While the children of Sandy Hook were too young to speak out, the teens at Stoneham Douglas are telling us loud and clear that killing children is no longer tolerable. If for some reason you missed Gonzalez's impassioned speech, you can watch it here

These students, motivated by grief, outrage, and fear, have organized a march on Washington called March for our Lives. Find out more about it here. On Wednesday, March 24, students across the country will stage a walkout to call for sane gun laws. Please encourage your teens to take part.

Allow me one final thought: Our Constitution's Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms, but not to kill school children. This amendment comes with tremendous responsibility. If Americans are free to buy guns, we need sane gun laws to ensure there are no more senseless mass murders.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Beth Turetsky, Ph.D. for suggesting this blog idea. Please let me know if there are any topics you would like me to cover.

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