Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Adolescents need support and challenge"

Interview by Kuldip Dhiman

An abridged list of his qualifications, achievements, and work experience might fill up an entire page of this newspaper. Professor Reed Larson, Chairperson of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois, did his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago in 1979. The Significance of Solitude in Adolescents' Lives was title of his thesis, and his advisor was the American- Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi, with whom he co-authored Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years. Larson's book Divergent Realities: Emotional Lives of Mothers, Fathers, and Adolescent was written in collaboration with Maryse H. Richards, Associate Professor of Psychology at Loyola University.Most families have problems with growing children, and Larson remembers one woman who said, "If you claim to have gotten through your child's adolescence without problems, you're lying." The Professor seems to practice what he preaches, because he is happily married, and is a sensitive father of two children. Larson is currently on Fulbright Research Fellowship "Cultural Change and Adolescents' Daily Experience in Northern Indian Families" at Government Home Science College, Chandigarh. He talked about his work in an exclusive interview with Kuldip Dhiman. Excerpts:

Adolescents may feel very happy one moment and utterly dejected in another, much to the bewilderment of others, especially their parents. Though they themselves have gone through this phase, why don't they understand the problems of their children?

First of all, the interesting thing is that it is not adults alone who have stereotypes about adolescents; adolescents themselves have stereotypes. They have an image of the period they are going through as being emotional, awkward, being moody, being somewhat wild. And perhaps there is something to it. Aristotle said that youth "are heated by nature as drunken men by wine." Confucius felt that adolescence is the time when one's humours are full.

Is it something to worry about?

Not really. Part of the issue is that every society faces the challenge about how to train their young ones to become adults. So this transition from childhood to adulthood is a universal problem. Adolescents have the bodies of adults but in someway they have the emotions, and motivations of younger people.

Teenagers complain that no one tries to understand them; especially their near and dear ones.

Part of the reason is that adults have very busy lives. They are not patient enough to slow down, or to make an effort to understand what the new generation is experiencing. As a result of the many changes in adolescents' lives, the communication between parent and child often diminishes, and conflict increases. Even at home, parents and children often have discrepant views of the family. They have different perceptions of their family's rules and values. At this age, adolescents become less willing to automatically accept their parents' ways of seeing things, and parents are often slow to adjust. A breach opens between the generations. When this breach widens it can have troubling consequences for both sides.

Do boys and girls go through the adolescence experience differently?

There is a lot of overlap. Girls are somewhat more likely to turn their anxieties inwards, so they are more often depressed. Boys, in contrast, are more likely to turn their emotions outwards — they lash out at their parents, they might use drugs or weapons.

For girls, the situation gets more complicated with the arrival of puberty. They are under pressure to do well at school and they might even have to do a lot of household chores. They also begin to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Are girls equipped to handle so many things at the same time?

Yes, adolescence is a very difficult time, especially for girls. Many children might have serious psychological problems. One theory is that it is biology. We can talk about biology in terms of two types of causes: one is the old hypothesis about hormones. Biology has a direct effect on your emotions and on your behaviour. But the research on that has not been very supportive.

Now, if you are a young girl, and if you are suddenly shapely; you have people looking at you, whistling at you. You may still be not that far from childhood, and yet might have young men kind of leering at you, and expressing sexual desire. In the United States there is a very high pressure on good looks, especially if you are a girl. Most boys are into body-building these days, and a lot of them are using steroids to make their bodies look like that of of Sylvester Stallone. I don't know India very well, but my initial impression is that there is a lot of stress associated with trying to do well in exams.

Research suggests that it is a kind of pile-up: A child can deal with puberty, a child can deal with exams, but when you have everything happening at once, and your parents are also adding on to the pressure, then you have four of five things hitting you at the same time. That is when kids begin to think about suicide, get depressed, or react in dangerous ways by using drugs or violence. I must stress, the majority of the kids handle adolescence quite well.

In a family, only one child might turn out to be the 'black sheep'. On the other hand, often a deprived child might be quite normal than the one who has got all the love and attention.

Well, that is a real hard issue in developmental psychology: Why do two siblings turn out differently? I don't know if we have answers to that, but there is a fair amount of data suggesting that part of it is genetics. Now, siblings share 50 per cent of the genes, but there is the 50 per cent that they don't share. So one child might inherit a bit more introspectiveness, or a little more extroversion, or a little more anti social personality. But parents shouldn't give up.

There may be things you can do to redirect those impulses, but there is only so much the parents may be able to do in terms of altering the child's basic temperament. Researchers are also pointing to how even in the same family, children may experience different environments. The family, often, decides which child is the most likely black sheep, and that magnifies what may initially have been a small difference. And if everyone in the family treats you as a black sheep, you become a black sheep. So partly it is genetics, and partly it is the family environment.

Moreover, there are children who might be from an environment that is not supportive, but they do really well. When you study such people, you will often find that there was somebody who cared about them — an aunt, an uncle, or a teacher. We call it resilience — the ability to survive harsh circumstances.

As they enter adolescence, why do most children tend to spend a lot of time behind locked rooms?

My research suggests that it could be good for the children , it is healthy for them to have time off by themselves, it makes them feel better afterwards. It is also a way of experiencing separation from their parents. When adolescence play music very loudly, it is not as if they are saying 'I hate you'; it is a way of saying 'I have different tastes'. These are mild ways of asserting oneself. But in some families kids need to try harder because their parents are so overbearing. Such children often end up doing something more extreme.

But solitude is like a potent medicine for teens that is good in limited doses, but it can be deleterious in larger ones. Solitude then, is often "down time" for teenagers, but this can be healthy. After a long day in which their emotions are played upon by peers, teachers, and family members, it is a measured period to reflect, regroup, and explore.

It is generally believed that children get spoilt because parents are too strict, but there are many children who say they got spoilt because their parents were not strict enough: 'They should have beaten me when I smoked my first cigarette. They didn't care at all'.

There are two separate things: one is firmness, and the other is closeness. Now, they are not opposites.You can be firm with your children, at the same time be close and responsive. There is a kind of middle ground between being strict authoritarian versus being libertarian and not caring about your children. As a developmental psychologist, I see there is development of sequence.

What parents need to do is to adjust their explanations according to the child's readiness. At a younger age you don't let them leave the house on their own and let them go wherever they want to. But as they get older you may relax the rule a little. You might let them go out, but tell them to come back before it gets dark, or maybe they need to call from their friends' house. You give them challenges to take responsibilities for themselves, but you don't give them total freedom. You have got to decide how firm to be. It might be different for every child. You may have one child that really needs tighter reins than another child who is responsible at an early age. What is really helpful is to explain why you have a rule.

Your mentor Dr Csikszent-mihalyi talks about 'the flow experience', that is when a person becomes one with the activity and forgets everything else. Can't we harness this 'flow experience' to channel adolescents' negative emotions into positive ones?

A large body of research indicates that children and adolescents in our society develop maturity when they receive a combination of support and challenge from their parents. Support means that parents respect and pay attention to adolescents' feelings, needs, and the organisation of their emotional lives. In the healthier families we studied, parents were more often available to their children to discuss the breaking events of the day, whether in person or by phone. Many parents spoke not of solving problems of their adolescents, but of helping them think about alternative courses of action.

Challenging an adolescent means that parents push the child to the edge of (but not beyond) his or her capabilities. This includes encouraging the adolescent to see parents' and siblings' sides of interactions. Children need to be given the language to talk about their feelings and other people's feelings at an early age. Adolescents should not be allowed to dump their feelings on their parents, nor let others take household responsibilities that should be theirs. When parents set limits, they should explain them and help teens understand their reasoning. In healthier parent-child relationships there is an ongoing dialogue about what is reasonable, healthy, and safe for all parties involved.

Families need to make a little time to listen to each other. I think time is getting in short supply in modern society. There are lots of chapattis to be cooked, there are lots of movies to be watched, and lots of other things to be done. We are becoming more and more "time-poor."

But I think we have to somehow create time to talk to each other, when the TV is turned off, and we have the time to listen to what the child has to say, and the child has the chance to hear sympathetically what your life is like. We don't do enough of that. In India, I think, Sundays are mainly for families, and we must maintain that. And TV is not all evil. We find in our data that in India and as well as in the United States, TV is a kind of family activity. A great measure of family time is TV time, and that may be better than nothing. TV is a kind of lowest common denominator. There isn't much interactions, or real understanding while watching TV, but it provides a chance for people to be together. It would be nice if there were additional ways. We wish families had more quality time together.

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