Why Teenagers Become ‘Allergic’ to Their Parents

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The arrival of spring is often prime time for hay fever, but adolescents seem to be able to develop an allergy to their parents, either intermittent or chronic, at any time of the year. This allergy usually has a sudden onset around age 13 and can last for months or, in some cases, years. While it’s no fun to become the parent who cannot order food or hum along to a song without irritating his or her own child, we’re better able to ride out this temporary adolescent affliction when we appreciate its causes.

Growing up involves becoming separate from our parents. This project often begins in early adolescence with an abrupt and powerful urge to distinguish oneself from the adults at home. It’s no small task for teenagers to detach from those who have superintended nearly every aspect of their lives so far.

As teenagers begin to disentangle from their folks, they inevitably sort a parent’s every behavior and predilection into one of two categories: those they reject, and those they intend to adopt. Unfortunately for the peace of the household, each of these categories creates its own problem for teenagers intent on establishing their individuality.

You may think nothing of wearing dated athletic shoes, but if your teenager doesn’t agree with your choice of footwear he may, at least for a while, find it unbearable. Why should it matter to him what’s on yourfeet? Because his identity is still interwoven with yours; until he’s had time to establish his own look, your style can cramp his.

Given this, you’d think that teenagers wouldn’t be allergic to the proclivities they share with their parents. But they are, precisely because the interests are mutual.

The son of a colleague stopped running with his dad once his membership on the cross-country team became the organizing force of his high school identity. The boy still ran, of course, but now with friends or alone. He could not, at least in the near term, feel separate from his father and still go out jogging with him.

In short, adults can find themselves in a season of parenting when nothing they do sits right with their teenagers.

While we wait for this season to pass, what should we do when our teenager can hardly stand how we operate our turn signals?

For starters, we might view it as a reassuring marker of normal development. While we know, intuitively, that our children will not always admire and enjoy us the way they often do when they are young, it’s easier to part with our pedestals when we remember that our adolescents’ new allergies herald the next chapter in our relationships with them.

From there, we can either ignore their annoyance or remind our children that they are free to be aggravated, but not rude. If necessary, we can gently point out that it won’t be long before they’ll be driving and operating the turn signals just as they please.

Finally, we can sometimes welcome teenage self-consciousness as an opportunity to connect. When I was growing up and a friend of mine’s allergy to his parents was at its absolute height, his mother would allow him to choose her outfit when they needed to attend school events together. Of course the case can be made against indulging adolescent hypersensitivities. But the case can also be made that eighth-grade orientation is already stressful enough. If wearing one sweater rather than another makes little difference to you, why not do what you can to ease your tween’s mind?

As for my colleague, he dearly missed going on runs with his son, just as many parents of adolescents long for the days when their preteen laughed at their jokes and happily came along on errands. We are rarely as ready to separate from our teenagers as they are ready to separate from us.

Even when you don’t take your child’s secession from your union personally, it still hurts. Having other interests and supportive relationships can help. Go out for coffee with friends whose teenagers also look at them askance and reassure your wife that she’s still got it, even if her dance moves do cause your ninth-grade daughter to break out in hives.

For teenagers whose allergies manifest as persistent disrespect, laying down some ground rules can help. A wise friend of mine tells her adolescent son that he can be friendly, polite, or clear about needing some time alone; insolence, however, is off the table. And though it’s painful to be treated as an irritant, holding a grudge can sour those unexpected moments when even the most reactive teenager welcomes our company.

Once teenagers have had time and space to establish their own skills, interests and tastes, their allergic response to their parents usually dies down. Plus, neurological development is on our side. As they age, adolescents’ evolving cognitive capacities allow them to think beyond seeing their parents only as being like, or unlike, how they themselves want to be.

Now they can sort what they see in us into categories that could not exist before. We can have bothersome quirks that our teenagers view as entirely our own; we can have characteristics they admire, but don’t care to cultivate. And our teenagers can embrace interests that they happen to share with us.

Teenagers’ allergies to their parents may make a brief return at moments when they want tight control of their personal brands — such as during college visits, or when highly regarded peers are nearby. But at some point you may be able to return to blowing goodbye kisses without causing your teenager anything more than mild discomfort. And your dance moves might even get a little long overdue respect, too.

Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You

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Most parents have seen their teenager start the day in a reasonably good mood, but then return from school draped in gloom and chilly silence. As hard as it can be to support our children when they tell us what’s wrong, it’s that much harder to help the obviously upset adolescent who turns down a warm invitation to talk.

These interactions usually unfold in an awkward and predictable sequence. We earnestly ask, “Is everything O.K.?” and our teenager responds with a full stop “No,” an insincere “Yeah,” or freezes us out while fielding a flurry of texts. We then tend to nurse a sense of injury that our teenager has rebuffed our loving support.

But when adolescents hold their cards close to their chests, they often have a good reason. To better ease our own minds and be more useful to our teenagers we can consider some of the ordinary, if often overlooked, explanations for their reticence.

They Worry We’ll Have the Wrong Reaction

Our children often know us better than we know ourselves, having spent their young lives learning our reflexive responses. When a teenager feels lousy about bombing a test but knows that you are likely to tell her that she should have studied more, she won’t be eager to talk.

If you suspect this might be a barrier and can listen without getting defensive, just ask, “Are you worried that I’ll have a bad reaction?” You might start a valuable conversation — even if it’s not the one you were looking for — while paving the way to better talks down the line. And we should probably think twice about the long-term implications of saying “I told you so” to our teenagers (even when we did tell them so).

They Anticipate Negative Repercussions

Parents focused on the narrow question of what went wrong can forget that our adolescents, who have more information than we do, are probably thinking about a bigger picture. Impassive silence can hide a teenager’s whirring deliberations: “Will Dad limit my driving privileges if I tell him that I put a ding in the car?” or “If I explain that Nikki had a pregnancy scare, will Mom be weird about it when I want to hang out with her next weekend?”

We can’t always keep ourselves from feeling judgmental about teenagers. And, to be sure, there are adolescents (and adults) who get stuck in worrisome ruts. But as a psychologist, there are two rules I live by: good kids do dumb things, and I never have the whole story.

Recognizing that teenagers (and, again, adults) screw up from time to time can improve communication. On the days when they do feel like sharing, we can alert adolescents to our compassionate and forgiving stance by saying, “I know you’re bummed about the car. How do you want to make this right?” or “That must have been really scary for Nikki. Is she doing O.K.?

They Know That Parents Sometimes Blab

Teenagers are often justly concerned that we might repeat what they tell us. Sometimes we only realize in retrospect that news we divulged to others felt top-secret to our teenager. And sometimes they tell us critical information — such as word of a suicidal classmate — that must be passed along.

Whether you owe your teenager an apology for past indiscretions or are trying to get ahead of the issue, I think it’s fair and kind to promise adolescents a very high degree of confidentiality at home. Our teenagers deserve to have a place where they can process, or at least dump, delicate details about themselves or the scores of other kids with whom they must find a way to coexist.

Parents, like therapists, can lay out the limits of what we can keep private. Adolescents are usually sensible; they expect adults to act on news that they or a peer might be in immediate danger. But we can help teenagers speak more freely by making it clear that, barring a crisis, we will keep their secrets and offer moral support as they and their friends weather typical adolescent storms, such as painful breakups. And when our teenagers do share critical information about their peers, we can include them in the process of deciding how to pass along what they’ve told us.

Talking Doesn’t Feel Like the Solution

A wise teenager in my practice once said to me, “You know, I’m 90 percent of the way over what happened at school by the time I get home. Rehashing it all for my mom isn’t going to help me get past it.”

Even when we don’t know the source of our child’s turmoil, we should operate from the assumption that our teenager will soon feel better. Of course there are real grounds for concern when adolescents are miserable day after day and cannot bounce back from their emotional downturns. But most of the time psychological well-being is like physical well-being: Healthy people fall ill, but they recover.

We don’t take our adolescents’ viruses personally and we probably shouldn’t take their grumpy moods personally, either. Happily, the support we offer the flu-stricken also works when teenagers come down with grouchy silence. Without delving into what’s wrong, we can ask if there’s anything we can do to help them feel better. Would they like our quiet company or prefer some time alone? Is there a comfort food we can offer or is there something they want to watch on TV?

There’s more value in providing tender, generic support than we might imagine. It is difficult for teenagers to maintain perspective all the time. The speed of adolescent development sometimes makes teenagers lose their emotional footing and worry that they will never feel right again. We send our teenagers a powerful, reassuring message when we accept and are not alarmed by their inscrutable unease: I can bear your distress, and you can, too.

Depression Strikes Today’s Teen Girls Especially Hard

NPR

A new study suggests that teen girls experience more bouts of depression than teen boys.

Nicole Xu for NPR

It’s tough to be a teenager. Hormones kick in, peer pressures escalate and academic expectations loom large. Kids become more aware of their environment in the teen years — down the block and online. The whole mix of changes can increase stress, anxiety and the risk of depression among all teens, research has long shown.

But a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests many more teenage girls in the U.S. may be experiencing major depressive episodes at this age than boys. And the numbers of teens affected took a particularly big jump after 2011, the scientists note, suggesting that the increasing dependence on social media by this age group may be exacerbating the problem.

Psychiatrist Ramin Mojtabai and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to know whether rates of depression among teens had increased over the past decade. They analyzed federal data from interviews with more than 172,000 adolescents. Between 2005 and 2014, the scientists found, rates of depression went up significantly — if extrapolated to all U.S. teens it would work out to about a half million more depressed teens. What’s more, three-fourths of those depressed teens in the study were girls.

The findings are just the latest in a steady stream of research showing that women of all ages experience higher rates of depression compared to men, says psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair. And no wonder, she says — despite gains in employment, education and salary, women and girls are still “continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are.”

Today’s constant online connections — via texting, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, — can exacerbate that harsh focus on looks and other judgments from peers, she says. The uptick in teen depression Mojtabai found after 2011 could be evidence of that.

Mojtabai says girls, in particular, “are more likely to use these new means of communication, so may be exposed to more cyberbullying or other negative effects of this latest social media.”

The effects can feel devastating, says Steiner-Adair.

“We know girls are very vulnerable to defining themselves in comparison to others,” she says. Her young female patients often tell her they get their “entire identity” from their phone, she says, constantly checking the number of “tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.”

Steiner-Adair urges schools to be proactive in trying to reduce teens’ feelings of being “left out” or judged. One tool, she says, might be a course in mindfulness — a form of meditation that has been shown to offer measurable health benefits and can help reduce anxiety and depression.

Such training can help teach kids that their brain “on tech” actually needs a rest, Steiner-Adair says. Mindfulness training teaches the value of solitude and can help practitioners calm the urge to constantly check the phone — a useful skill for people of all ages and gender.

Meanwhile, Mojtabai says, parents and family doctors, as well as teachers and school counselors, should be on the lookout for any behavioral changes in the teens they live and work with that might be signs of depression. Symptoms can include changes in sleep patterns, appetite or energy, or a growing inability to pay attention and concentrate.

Even just one counseling session to evaluate such symptoms, Mojtabai says, can help get teens back on the right track.

Underage Drinking

Helpguide.org

Understanding the Dangers and Talking to Your Child

More than half of American youths ages 12 to 20 have tried alcohol. Girls are nearly as likely as boys to experiment with drinking. Underage and binge drinking is risky and can lead to car accidents, violent behavior, alcohol poisoning, and other health problems. Drinking at a young age greatly increases the risk of developing alcohol problems later in life. Talking to kids early and openly about the risks of drinking can help reduce their chances of becoming problem drinkers.

Early age alcohol use

Today, the average age an American girl has her first drink is 13; for a boy, it’s 11. In the U.S. and many other countries, underage drinking is a widespread problem with often serious consequences. Young people who drink are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, to be involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents, and to have depression and anxiety. Other risky behaviors are also linked to early drinking. Young people who start using alcohol before age 21 are more likely to:

  • Be involved in violent behaviors
  • Attempt suicide
  • Engage in unprotected sex or have multiple sex partners
  • Develop alcohol problems in later life

Early age alcohol use

Kids are experimenting with alcohol at earlier ages than ever before. A national survey found that slightly more than half of young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 20 have consumed alcohol at least once. Some researchers speculate that teens are more vulnerable to addiction because the pleasure center of the brain matures before the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and executive decision making. In other words, teenagers’ capacity for pleasure reaches adult proportions well before their capacity for sound decision making does.

In past generations, boys were much more likely than girls to experiment with alcohol in their teens, but girls are catching up. In 2009, 58% of all males ages 12 and older were current drinkers, higher than the rate for females (47%). But in the youngest group (ages 12 to 17), the percentage of current drinkers was nearly the same (15% of boys, 14% of girls).

While many young people will independently cut down on their drinking or stop drinking altogether as they reach their mid-20s and assume the responsibilities of being an employee, spouse, or parent, the risks of early age drinking remain. People who have their first drink at age 14 or younger are six times more likely to develop alcohol problems than those who don’t try alcohol until the legal drinking age.

Factors affecting risk of developing a drinking problem

As well as the age at which they start consuming alcohol, a number of other factors influence a teen or young adult’s drinking behavior and whether it will become a problem. These include:

  • Race and ethnicity. Some racial groups, such as American Indians and Native Alaskans for example, are more at risk than others of developing alcohol addiction.
  • Genetics. A teen with an alcoholic sibling or parent is four times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than someone without such a family history.
  • The presence of mental health disorders. Alcohol problems often go hand in hand with mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
  • Personality traits. Teenagers who believe alcohol makes it easier to socialize, for example, tend to drink more than those who don’t believe that alcohol loosens their social inhibitions.
  • Influence of family and peers. Teens are at greater risk for developing alcohol-related problems when alcohol is readily available at home or among their peer group, and if drunkenness is acceptable.
  • Gender. Men are more likely to drink heavily than women, but women become addicted at lower levels and shorter duration of use. See Women and Alcohol.

Dangers of drinking while young

The years between 18 and 25 are a time of considerable change, as teenagers spread their wings and leave home, many for the first time. While these may be exciting years, widespread alcohol use means they may be risky years as well. The highest prevalence of problem drinking occurs among young adults aged 18 to 25, nearly 42% of whom admit to binge drinking at least once a month (drinking five or more drinks in rapid succession for men, four or more for women).

Many of us typically think of college as the setting where older teens and younger 20-somethings drink to excess. However, several studies show that heavy drinking is widespread among all young adults regardless of whether or not they attend college. College students tend to drink less often than nonstudents, but when they do imbibe—at parties, for example—they tend to drink more.

The prevalent use of alcohol among teens and young adults is alarming for a number of reasons:

  • Alcohol is a major factor in fatal automobile crashes. About one-third of drivers ages 21 to 24 who died in a car crash in 2009 had a blood alcohol level that was over the legal limit.
  • Drinking may have lasting health effects. Some researchers believe that heavy drinking at this age, when the brain is still developing, may cause lasting impairments in brain functions such as memory, coordination, and motor skills—at least among susceptible individuals.
  • Drinking can lead to sexual assaults and rape. Each year, approximately 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Teen girls who drink face special challenges

Teenage girls experiment with alcohol for many of the same reasons that boys do, but they face some challenges boys don’t:

  • Among teenage heavy drinkers (those having five or more drinks in a row at least five times in one month), girls are more likely to say that they drink to escape problems or to cope with frustration or anger.
  • Girls are more likely to drink because of family problems than because of peer pressure.
  • Drinking can delay puberty in girls, while abusing alcohol can cause endocrine disorders during puberty.
  • Teenage girls who drink are more likely to have unprotected sex than girls who don’t drink, putting them at increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Binge drinking and alcohol poisoning

Binge drinking—consuming five or more drinks at a sitting, for males, four or more for females—can cause teens to pass out, black out (lose memory of events that occurred while they were intoxicated), feel sick, miss school, or behave in ways that would otherwise be uncharacteristic of them. For example, they may drive while drunk or get into arguments. Some binge drinkers imbibe heavily every weekend and abstain or drink only in moderation during the week. Others binge less often—for example, during holidays, on special occasions, or at times of great stress. This kind of problem drinking may go unnoticed because people may excuse an occasional binge as a celebration that got carried away or as a response to unusual stress.

Although many young adults drink responsibly or abstain altogether, binge drinking is still a common problem. While teens as young as age 13 admit to this practice, it becomes more popular in mid-adolescence and peaks in the college years. College students between the ages of 18 and 22 are more likely to report binge drinking than non-students of the same age. Recent news reports of deaths from alcohol poisoning on college campuses have spotlighted the dangers of binge drinking.

Binge drinkers are eight times more likely than other college students to:

  • Miss classes
  • Fall behind in schoolwork
  • Be injured
  • Damage property

Binge drinkers also face the grim consequences of alcohol poisoning, a severe and potentially fatal reaction to an alcohol overdose.

How to recognize and treat alcohol poisoning

Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, drinking too much, too fast, slows some bodily functions (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing) to a dangerous level, causing the drinker to lose consciousness.

Possible signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Unconscious or semiconscious state
  • Slow respiration—eight or fewer breaths per minute, or lapses between breaths of more than eight seconds
  • Cold, clammy, pale, or bluish skin
  • A strong odor of alcohol on the breath and coming from the skin

What to do if someone develops alcohol poisoning

Here’s what to do in an alcohol-poisoning emergency:

  • Never leave someone who may have alcohol poisoning alone to “sleep it off.”
  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Gently turn the person on his or her left side, using a pillow placed at the small of the back to keep him or her in that position. This will help prevent choking should the individual vomit.
  • Stay with the person until medical help arrives.

How to talk to teens about responsible drinking

As a parent, grandparent, teacher, or friend, you have a major impact on the choices that the children in your life make, especially during the preteen and early teen years. One study reported that adolescents from families with alcohol problems were less likely to use alcohol themselves if they felt a sense of control over their environments, had good coping skills, and had highly organized families. Other researchers have found that preserving family rituals, such as keeping established daily routines and celebrating holidays, also can make a difference in steering kids clear of alcohol abuse.

Talking to young people openly and honestly about drinking is also vitally important. Delaying the age at which young people take their first drink lowers their risk of becoming problem drinkers. That’s reason enough to talk to the teenagers in your life about alcohol, but it’s not the only one. These are some of the other important reasons:

  • Alcohol has harmful effects on developing brains and bodies.
  • For adolescents ages 15 to 20, alcohol is implicated in more than a third of driver fatalities resulting from automobile accidents and about two-fifths of drownings.
  • Drinking interferes with good judgment, leading young people into risky behavior and making them vulnerable to sexual coercion.
  • Teenagers who use alcohol and tobacco are at greater risk of using other drugs.
  • Teenagers who drink are more likely to develop behavioral problems, including stealing, fighting, and skipping school.
  • Underage drinking is illegal.

Start the conversation early

While most people recognize the importance of discussing alcohol with kids, they aren’t always sure when to initiate this discussion. Adolescents are often nervous and confused as they face their first opportunities to try alcohol and are often interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Set the stage early by letting your teenager know that he or she can talk to you about anything, without judgment or lecturing.

Open up and listen

Ask open-ended questions, and listen to the answers without interrupting.

  • Talk openly about your family history. If your family has had problems with alcohol, your child should know about it. Be open about your own experiences, too.
  • Set clear expectations, and communicate your values. Youngsters are less likely to drink when they know that parents and other important adults in their lives have strong feelings about it.
  • Control your emotions. If you hear something that upsets you, take a few deep breaths and express your feelings in a positive way.
  • Ask about your teenager’s friends. Express an interest in getting to know them better. Getting to know these friends and their parents will help you understand your teenager’s world.

Adapted with permission from Alcohol Use and Abuse, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publications.

Amid Internet Addiction Fears, ‘Balanced’ Tech Diet for Teens Recommended

EdWeek

Dig-Girl-iPad.jpg

Although researchers have yet to reach a consensus on whether ‘Internet addiction’ is real, parents are increasingly—and justifiably—concerned about their children’s technology and media usage, according to a new report released today by Common Sense Media.

The tonic, the report suggests, is a “balanced” technology diet for children that includes tech-free times and zones.  Common Sense also recommended that parents and caregivers put down their own phones while driving, at the dinner table, and during family time.

“However the research community eventually comes to a consensus on whether and how to diagnose Internet addiction, it is clear that there has been a massive change in how we access and engage with technology,” according to the report, titled “Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance.”

The report consists of a literature review of more than 180 journal articles, press accounts, interviews, books, and industry papers on the topic, as well as a new, nationally representative phone survey of 620 mobile-phone-using parents and 620 of their mobile-phone-using children between the ages of 12-18.

Among the findings:

  • 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, but just 27 percent of teens agree. Researchers disagree on whether “Internet addiction” is a clinical condition, and it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—the American Psychiatric Association’s official classification and diagnostic tool. Regardless, Common Sense argues, research clearly shows that “problematic media use” that includes “dysfunctional ways of engaging with media” that are “characterized as compulsive, obsessive, or unhealthy” is a real concern. More research is needed on such behaviors among children and teens, the report argues.
  • 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly, compared to 69 percent of their parents. Teens were also far more likely than their parents to report feeling compelled to respond to text messages, social-media notifications, and the like. The prevalence of “media multitasking” is of particular concern, Common Sense suggested. One study included in the report’s literature review found that students from middle school through university studied for fewer than six minutes at a stretch before switching to another tech distraction. Another found that “heavy media multitaskers have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information.”
  • Device usage is a source of regular family conflict. Roughly one-third of both parents and teens said they argued about device use daily, and more than three-fourths of parents reported feeling that their teens are distracted by devices and don’t pay attention to family members at least a few times per week. And teens aren’t the only ones to blame; one study cited in the literature review found that “caregivers eating with young children in fast food restaurants who were highly absorbed in their devices tended to be more harsh when dealing with their children’s misbehavior.”

Given previous research from Common Sense that American tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (13-18) spend between six and nine hours per day outside of school and homework using media (including TV, video games, social media, the Internet, and digital music), such concerns are probably no surprise.

The new report also points out, however, that researchers have not established any formal link between social media usage and decreasing empathy among teens. And research on the impact of extensive Internet and mobile device usage on tweens’ and teens’ social, emotional, and cognitive development is surprisingly limited, Common Sense maintains.

Common Sense also notes that teens still report preferring face-to-face conversation to other forms of communication. Researchers such as Danah Boyd of Data Society have suggested that in a society in which opportunities for such interactions are increasingly limited, teens are turning to technology to express typical developmental needs around social connections with peers.

For parents and caregivers, just limiting access to technology and digital media is unlikely to be the solution, Common Sense suggests.

Some research has found that “children of technology limiters…are most likely to engage in problematic behaviors such as posting hostile comments or impersonating others online, whereas children of media mentors are much less likely to engage in problematic online behaviors,” according to the report.

Most important— and challenging, for the 27 percent of parents in the Common Sense survey who reported feeling addicted to their own mobile devices— is serving as a good “media mentor,” the group concludes.

“Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home,” the report says. “Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.”

App Makers Reach Out to the Teenager on Mobile

Here’s an interesting article on the social media habits of teenagers.  It is important for us to remember that middle school students have a strong desire to stay connected to their friends and classmates, and that social media is one of the prime vehicles for connections and affirmation.  The 24/7 nature of social media certainly makes it extra challenging to be a teenager – there’s no vacation from the pressure on the girls to present themselves positively online.  Dave

The New York Times
By CONOR DOUGHERTY JAN. 1, 2016

 

Over the past decade, advertisers have spent untold millions trying to turn Talia Kocar and her peers in the millennial generation into loyal customers. But on a recent afternoon in Santa Monica, Calif., in a kind of consumer torch-passing, Ms. Kocar, 25, watched a focus group of teenagers drink free Snapple and suck Doritos powder off their thumbs while answering questions about their smartphones.

Ms. Kocar works on Wishbone, a social networking application full of breezy polls about pop culture, prom dresses and other fixtures of teenage life. Users — most of them girls — post side-by-side pictures that compare rappers (Lil Wayne or Tyga?), celebrities (Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé?) and the like.

Like most social media apps, Wishbone users achieve status by amassing friends who vote with a thumb tap. There is a bonus, however, which is that twice a day, Ms. Kocar and her team send a “Daily Dozen” of the best and most popular polls to every Wishbone user. This is somewhat like being named “funniest” or “most clever” in a yearbook: Featured polls are guaranteed a lot of votes, and votes, similar to likes on Facebook, are the coin of Wishbone’s realm.
Ms. Kocar said her first attempts at market research began with trips to Starbucks stores and nail salons, where she would find Wishbone users and ask them what they did and did not like about the app. She got lots of information, but wanted more. Hence, the focus group.

Teenagers being teenagers, the room was full of angst and contradictions. They love Instagram, the photo-sharing app, but are terrified their posts will be ignored or mocked. They feel less pressure on Snapchat, the disappearing-message service, but say Snapchat can be annoying because disappearing messages make it hard to follow a continuing conversation. They do not like advertisements but also do not like to pay for things.

At one point a questioner asked the group when they were least likely to be online. “When I’m in the shower,” a girl responded.

Nobody laughed, because it was barely an exaggeration. About three-quarters of United States teenagers have access to a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Most go online daily and about a quarter of them use the Internet “almost constantly.”

Those numbers have created a growing advertising market and fortunes for apps like Snapchat and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. This year companies are projected to spend $30 billion on in-app advertising in the United States, roughly double what they spent in 2014, according to eMarketer, a research company.

But even though these services all have the same core functions — find friends, post pictures, send messages — teenagers juggle them constantly, developing arcane customs for what to post where and ditching one app for another the moment it becomes uncool.

That churn leaves an opening for upstarts like Wishbone, which is about a year old and already has about three million monthly users. Since July it has ranked among the top 30 most-downloaded social media apps in Apple’s App Store, according to App Annie, a data and analytics company. But staying there will be tough. Mobile apps are a hit or miss business in which a handful of top players get most of the users and money.

 

Hoping to get their app in that elite few, people like Ms. Kocar pore through data and turn to focus groups for insight on how to get new users to sign up and old users to stay. Their efforts are a window into how teenage lives are documented on mobile screens.

“They have immediate social validation or lack of validation at the touch of a button,” said Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc., which owns Wishbone. “So if you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven’t even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with, like, a teen on a phone.”

A Daily Rotation of Apps

One hot afternoon last summer, Leila Khan and Lucy Nemerov, two eighth graders from Palo Alto, Calif., cruised their local mall, scoring free samples at See’s Candies and dropping into Brandy Melville to look at clothes, but not buy. Lucy is an avid Wishbone user, but the app is just one among several that she and her friends rotate through each day.

To manage their identities in and obligations to this world in their pockets, they adhere to rules that have somehow been absorbed and adopted by their peers. For instance, that afternoon, since nothing particularly special happened, Lucy posted a few videos to Snapchat — including a clip of me interviewing her — but nothing on Instagram.

Why the distinction? Because Instagram is special, Leila explained. On Snapchat, where messages disappear, you can be less selective because there is a lower bar for quality. On Instagram, you have to be careful not to clog your friends’ feeds with a barrage of low-quality pictures that might annoy them.

They also regularly delete their Instagram photos so that their profiles never have more than a handful at a time. For comparison, I’m a medium-level Instagram user and have several hundred. They reacted to this information as if it were the smell of warm garbage.

“I have zero right now,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, ’cause I’m like, ‘Oh wait, I look stupid in this one,’ ” Leila said.

Some of Leila’s rules for Instagram include never posting more than one photo a week, avoiding photo filters (too fake) and hashtags (too desperate). She tries to find a timely occasion to post — such as National Watermelon Day — and is so concerned about having the right caption that she keeps a running list of ideas on her iPhone. Neither girl had any such rules for Facebook, because they hardly use it.

App makers fear this kind of juggling the way TV networks fear DVRs. Each time someone leaves one app for another, there is a chance that user will never come back. And since apps make money only when users are plugged in and absorbing ads, the number of monthly users is less important than how many users they get each day — and how long they stay.
Social media apps and messaging services — Wishbone included — tend to get an outsize portion of their ad revenue from a handful of mobile game makers and other app download ads. But Wishbone is making the not-terribly-crazy bet that as people spend more time with their phones and advertisers become comfortable with the medium, more brands and money will follow.

 

For now big advertisers remain focused on the millennial generation, who, at about 18 to 35 years old, are old enough to buy cars, homes and other big-ticket items. But an early wave is starting to think about the next group, said Erna Alfred Liousas, an analyst at Forrester Research, who said the firm had a number of financial services and media companies ask for studies on the under-17 group.

As with coffee and newspapers, the key to a successful app is to make it a daily habit. Which is why in early September, Mr. Jones of Science sat in a cinder block room staring at a computer screen full of data. He was with Benoit Vatere, head of Science’s mobile group, and Peter Pham, the company’s chief business officer, discussing the best time to send push notifications alerting Wishbone users to new polls.

Push notifications — those incessant reminders that make your phone light up and ding — are the infantry of app warfare, cracking the attention span to remind users that someone on the Internet might be talking about them. All summer Wishbone had been sending out alerts four times a day, but the three men were thinking about adding more and, now that students were back in class, trying to recalibrate around the school day.

“Can we have a friends feed at noon?” Mr. Jones asked Mr. Vatere. “It would be great to do ‘Your friends have updated.’ ”

“And you talk about it while you’re at school,” Mr. Pham added.

Every generation has its thing, and the last two have been marked by digital technology. One of the big dividing lines between Generation X and millennials was that millennials grew up with the Internet. A big difference between millennials and the next group — the postmillennials — has been smartphones.

Economic and cultural changes have an even larger influence, argues Neil Howe, an author and historian who is credited with coining the term “millennial generation.” The Great Recession and its aftermath are likely to make the postmillennial generation more risk-averse, he said. At the same time, today’s kids have absorbed lots of parental advice about online safety and bullying.

“There’s a whole new curriculum being pushed by Gen X parents and one thing it emphasizes above all is emotional intelligence and being very sensitive to the needs of others,” Mr. Howe said.

In surveys, his consulting company, LifeCourse Associates, has found that teenagers are extremely anxious about being criticized on social media and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad — or at least aren’t bashful about saying so.

During the recent focus group at Science, one girl said she showed Instagram ideas to at least three people before posting. Another said she deleted any post that did not garner enough likes. “I post and I just delete, because I don’t want to have, like, never mind,” she said, too ashamed to announce the precise number of likes out loud.

Wishbone sees those anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to take pictures in which they look “sooo beautiful!!!!,” nor does it require having parents who vacation in Instagram-perfect locales. Users just make funny polls to talk about celebrities, makeup and bands. It is about your tastes, not your identity.

 

Rajada Victor, a 14-year-old ninth grader who lives in Los Angeles, was seated near the girl who was ashamed of her paltry likes. In a follow-up interview, she said she had grown exhausted by the frenzy for online status but was a regular on Wishbone, which she checks all the time: in class, while walking to school, on weekends.

“I like the fact that you don’t have to look a certain type of way to post,” she said. “People don’t comment rudely or anything — you’re just comparing stuff.”

Mr. Vatere can see this in the data: Wishbone users frequently describe themselves by their interests — they might like Taylor Swift, for instance — but rarely post personal photos. The app also employs an “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy by having Ms. Kocar and her editorial team choose many different polls, not just the most popular ones, for the coveted Daily Dozen of posts that all Wishbone users vote on.

“You want to create an environment where it doesn’t feel like only 1 percent of the people win,” said Eric Kuhn, Science’s head of product. “And we’ve heard that with other platforms, like as soon as you’re clearly not in that top 1 percent, you don’t want to use the app anymore.”

Some Facts and a Hunch

 

Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc. Science owns Wishbone, a social networking app centered on polls. “If you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven’t even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with, like, a teen on a phone.”
He spent the next two decades tracking the migration of media to the web, to social platforms to mobile phones. Elixir became a website and, as Mr. Jones got more interested in the web than publishing, he started a software company called Userplane that was bought by AOL.

Later Mr. Jones was the chief executive of MySpace, where his job was to try to blunt the ascendance of a new competitor called Facebook. This did not go well.

He founded Science four years ago with Mr. Pham. He calls it a “start-up studio” that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses. Wishbone is part of Science’s mobile group — which includes several other apps — but Mr. Jones is so enamored with social media that he decided to run the group and Wishbone himself. The Science offices are just a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica and have requisite start-up touches like exposed ceilings, copious whiteboards and employees who toil quietly while wearing Beats headphones.

Science has raised about $40 million in venture capital, most of it from Hearst Ventures. After the MySpace debacle, Mr. Jones said he initially steered clear of social media and focused on building online commerce businesses such as Dollar Shave Club, a razor subscription service, and DogVacay, a dog-boarding version of Airbnb, the online home-rental service.

“Coming out of MySpace I was like, ahhh, this is so hard — social ads is tough,” he said. “Let’s just take a pause.”

As social media moved to mobile phones, Mr. Jones figured there would be a chance to get back in. Wishbone came out of a few facts and a hunch. The facts are that people spend several hours a day on their phones, and that teenagers favor apps in which everyone gets to create content and be part of the show.

 

The hunch was that a polling app would do well. Mr. Jones knew from his AOL days that polling was among the most addictive of online features. And since successful mobile apps reward repetitive behavior, he figured polling would translate well to smartphones.

If Wishbone were almost anything besides an app, three million users would be a huge success. But apps are a brutal business, where a few gigantic hits like Facebook and YouTube make most of the money. American smartphone owners use about 27 apps per month, but spend about 80 percent of their time in five, according to a recent study by Activate, a consulting firm.

And even the winners can’t rest for long. Facebook, the biggest social network, has tried to defend its top position by buying or trying to buy rival apps as they break through. Facebook tried to buy Snapchat, but was spurned.

Four years ago the company spent $1 billion to buy Instagram, which at the time had a dozen employees and about 30 million monthly users. Today Instagram has more than 400 million, about a quarter of Facebook’s users.

Wishbone is a long way from that top tier, which is why employees show up to meetings with laptops full of statistics about what teenagers are doing. And it is why they spend time running focus groups.

Right around Thanksgiving, Mr. Jones, Mr. Pham and Mr. Vatere started rethinking their strategy for sending out push notifications. All through the summer and fall they had been limiting the number of daily alerts on the assumption that, like them, Wishbone users would be annoyed if they were interrupted by too many pings and dings. And, as one might expect when three fathers make an assumption about teenage girls, they could not have been more wrong.

“We talked to them and they’d be like, ‘Why am I not getting notified when people vote on my stuff?’ ” Mr. Jones said. “And we’d be like, ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to do that ’cause we might send you, like, 50 notifications that you got 50 of your friends to vote on your card.’ They’re like, ‘But that’s what I want.’ ”

“In fact,” Mr. Jones said, “they would even kind of subtly infer that if they didn’t get at least 50, it was kind of like a bad day.”

The same way Gen X measured its worth in answering machine messages, the mobile-minded teenager sees each like and mention as reassurance of an active social life. And when your phone is the default security blanket for enduring the awkwardness of walking a high school hallway, it feels nice to have a bunch of digital hellos ready with a swipe.

So just before Thanksgiving weekend, Wishbone opened the fire hose, sending out notifications for everything — every vote, every mention, everything that has to do with a user on the app. A week later they found several key metrics, like voting, had almost doubled.

One might ask if teenagers need another distraction. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research group, half of teenagers said they watched TV while doing their homework, while 60 percent said they texted and three-quarters said they listened to music.

Those in the Wishbone focus group said they loved getting notifications but acknowledged getting lost in their phones. One girl said that it had come to the point that the only way she could finish her homework was to put her phone in another room.

“Sometimes it’s fun ’cause it’s like people are thinking about you and are like, ‘I want to show this to Jada,’ ” said Rajada Victor, the ninth grader in Los Angeles, who goes by Jada. But, she also said, she tries not to become caught up in worrying about social media.

“I’m focusing on my grades and all that stuff,” she said.

And that’s the thing about teenagers: They grow up.

Gossip: The Best Gift Your Teenager Can Give You

NY Times Motherlode Blog

Photo

CreditIllustration by Allison Steen

“Hey Mom, you know Josh, the junior I played basketball with last summer? He’s selling Adderall to ninth graders.”

The sudden appearance of controversial “news” mid-conversation is standard teenage behavior. You can substitute the revelation of any number of transgressions, from dangerous drinking to precocious sexual behavior, for the drug sales, but the result is the same: one speechless parent, one teenager waiting for a reaction. Get it right, and what started off as a dropped bombshell becomes an opportunity.

Option one: Hit the ceiling.

This would be the knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Understandably, because the news and its delivery signal at least two problems. First, we’ve learned that a local teenager is trafficking in a controlled substance. Second, we’re getting the impression that our own teenager thinks this is no big deal. A forceful response – launching into a lecture, threatening to call the cops or at least Josh’s parents – might serve to hammer home the message that the sale of drugs, prescription or otherwise, actually is a huge deal.

But here’s the problem. Most healthy teens have knee-jerk reactions of their own when a parent voices a strong opinion: they feel compelled to take up the opposing side. In fact, I’ve had teens in my practice explain to me that they will refuse to do something they were about to do, such as put away a backpack or take the dog for a walk, if a parent tells them to do it. Blowing a gasket all but invites a teen to retort that “lots of kids take Adderall, why are you freaking out?” even when the teen has his own doubts about Josh’s behavior.

Option two: Let it slide.

Your teen is actually talking to you and telling you about what’s going on at school. A tirade will certainly ruin the moment and might shut down the possibility of valuable future communiqués. Perhaps it’s best to follow your teen’s lead; be cool and leave the line open should other concerns arise, especially ones closer to home.

This isn’t good, either. In my experience, adolescents run other teenager’s behavior past their parents when they’re bothered by it. They usually know that their peer is out of bounds, and they’re confused by his or her apparent comfort with the misconduct, and maybe the fact that other teenagers seem to be too. So adolescents take a flat, even supportive, tone and float these scenarios by adults to gauge their reaction. When parents don’t respond appropriately — when grown-ups don’t act like grown-ups — adolescents feel uneasy.

Option three: Unwrap your present.

Your teen just gave you an opening to have a valuable conversation. Go ahead and accept that gift. Imagine that you’re a journalist who has just been handed a scoop, and begin your evenhanded investigation.

Consider starting with a head tilt and a, “Huh, really?” or gently inquire, “What do you think about that?” (Your child will feel less uneasy already.) Or invite your teenager to join you on a fact-finding mission. Hop online together and research the dangers of taking un-prescribed stimulants, and the legal implications of selling them. If it becomes clear that someone needs to do something, engage your teenager in helping to decide who should do it, and how.

What if it’s too late? You’ve already gone through the roof or taken the alarming news in stride, and the moment has passed. This is still an opening. My favorite parent-teenager interaction is one where the adult finds an opportunity to apologize to the adolescent. It makes the parent more real and imbues the adolescent with dignity, two essential components of any effective parental relationship with a teenager.

Find the moment to say: “It wasn’t helpful when I freaked out. We got distracted from the serious risks that those ninth graders, or Josh, might face if he’s selling his Adderall.” Or “I wasn’t tuned in when you told me about Josh. I understand that you’re not involved in this situation, but there’s some stuff I want you to know.”

Even when they aren’t in the mood for a discussion, there’s value in treating teenagers as the thoughtful young people we want them to be. One longitudinal study asked parents of seventh graders to share their opinions on teenagers in general, then examined how the parents’ views linked to their children’s late-adolescent behavior. Parents who believed teenagers to be difficult, and immune to adult influence, went on to have twelfth graders who were involved in more troubling behavior than those whose parents held a generally positive view of adolescence. In short, teenagers live both up, and down, to expectations.

When we engage earnestly with adolescents around provocative hearsay we are allowed to have critical conversations, communicate high standards and make it clear that we’re available to offer help when needed. Sometimes with teenagers, the best moments start off in the worst way.

The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager

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According to the social scientists, the last of the millennials are now gracing our high school campuses. The Pew Research Center report on this cohort describes them as “confident, connected, and open to change.” I agree. Technology is their metier. They embrace diversity like no generation before them. They seek to serve the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. They work to find green solutions to the environmental mess we have bequeathed them. In this regard, they are focussed and unrelenting: a good thing for all of us.

Beneath their energy and commitment to building a better world, though, is stretched, for too many, a fragile membrane that is easily punctured. We have raised a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair.

Former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, in his fascinating and controversial bookExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life writes this of the millennials:

A large-scale survey found self-reports of emotional well being have fallen to the lowest levels in 25 year study… fifty percent of college students report feelings of hopelessness; one-third reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function in the last twelve months … They are stressed-out, over-pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation. (p. 8)

His is not a lone voice. Deresiewicz quotes adolescent expert Madeline Levine from her book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids:

Preteens from affluent, well-educated families… experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country. As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. (pp. 45-46)

College deans from elite schools join the chorus. The Stanford Provost writes, for example, (and remember that Stanford is now the most selective university in the country):

Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behavior, schizophrenia, and suicidal behavior. (p. 8)

What gives?

Deresiewicz claims that this generation of highly accomplished, college-bound students have been robbed of their independence because they have been raised in a petri dish for one purpose only: to attend an elite college that ensures their and their families’ economic and social status. Instead of being nurtured towards real curiosity and a genuine sense of citizenship, these millennials are conditioned to think that everything they do is for the purpose of looking good in the eyes of admissions officers and employers: you earn good grades not because they mean you are learning something, but rather because they will help you stand out from your peers when applying to the Ivies. You engage in community service not because you wish genuinely to make a positive difference in the lives of others but rather because that is how you burnish your resume — service as check-off box. You play sports not because they build character and teamwork and are a whole lot of fun, but because you want to try to get recruited for a college team. You study art or music not because you wish to refine your understanding of human nature, creativity and culture but because it will help you look smarter.

There is little intrinsic value in what you do. The result: Many college students who fall apart under pressure because they cannot conceive of the fact that hard work and learning are positive outcomes in and of themselves. They have no sense of who they are or what is important in their lives. They have spent so much time trying to look good that they do not know what “The Good” (consider Plato here) really is. They are walking ghosts of seeming, not of being.

Deresiewicz writes:

All the values that once informed the way we raise our children – the cultivation of character, the development of the capacity for democratic citizenship, let alone any emphasis on the pleasure of freedom of play, the part of childhood where you actually get to be a child – all of these are gone. (p. 50)

He laments:

Beyond the junior careerism, the directionless ambition, the risk aversion, and the Hobbesian competitiveness, the system cultivates some monumental cynicism. Whatever the motives of which they were established, the old WASP admissions criteria actually meant something. Athletics were thought to build character – courage and selflessness and team spirit. The arts embodied an ideal of culture. Service was designed to foster a public-minded ethos in our future leaders. Leadership itself was understood to be a form of duty. (p. 56)

The underlying sentiment, and he is correct about this, is that when we teach our children that outcomes are more important than process they lose the ability to enjoy learning for its own sake. Everything becomes about the end-game. The problem is that the end game – whether it turns out as they anticipated or not – is often not intrinsically rewarding. Each effort, each moment, rather than being full as a part of a rich life is simply degraded into being a mere step in a process that leads to…an existential abyss.

The statistics, as related by college deans, adolescent expert Madeline Levine, Professor Deresiewicz, and others, unfortunately bear this out. We have raised a generation of kids who are taught that appearance is more important than substance and that outcomes are more important than character. As a result, they inhabit empty vessels that lead them to a series of negative behaviors that results in, yes, unhappiness, which they try erase with empty sex, drugs, alcohol, and what Professor Deresiewicz calls “junior careerism and Hobbesian competitiveness.” The hookups, drugs, and alcohol, of course, just make this abyss deeper and wider.

We can do better.

Truth is, we know full well that lasting happiness springs from good health, solid values, meaningful work, multiple positive relationships, and selfless service. So how about we cease and desist on the pressure front – and get our eye back on the ball that matters – stop asking What (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and begin asking Who, Where, and How?

  1. Who tells us who we are?
  2. Where do we want to go with our lives?
  3. How do we want to get there?

Question one is important because forces are lined up (internet, television, movies, advertising, just for starters) that tell us who we are is not about how hard we work, how curious we are, or how much we are willing to make a positive difference to others and to our world in distress. No, these forces say: You are what you wear, what you buy, how thin or buff you are, how many like you (on Facebook or anything else) – or for the elite college bound crowd – where you go to college. When we focus on the wrong things, we create these conditions for monumental cynicism in our kids. Our children need to learn that they are important not for reasons of appearance but for reasons of substance.

Question two is important because if we believe that the only thing that matters is college and job status then how can we not end up frustrated, angry, and lonely? Where we want to go with our lives is intrinsically linked to the question of what leads us to fulfillment and happiness? For most of us the answer is passion. We all know we are in the right jobs when how long we work at something is driven by interest and not only about earning a paycheck. The truth is that we are all going to have to work hard to succeed in life, and if that is the case, let’s us at least try to work hard on things that matter and that we care about.

Question three may be the most important because how we get anywhere is as critical as where we end up. Kids cheat in school because they think grades are more important than what they learn. They take short-cuts because they believe the longer, harder path has no value or because they are afraid of stumbling or of being seen as someone who stumbles. They are mean or cruel or uncaring often because they do not like themselves; they feel they cannot make the grade that will earn them a spot at That College. They begin to see others as competitors for those spots – not as fellow-journeyers. Diminished self-respect skulks alongside little respect for others. No one wins.

To return to where we started: The millennials are accomplishing great things, caring about important things. But too many of them look inside only to peer into a void that we, at least in part, have helped to create. In our efforts to push our kids ahead, we have forgotten to ask why pushing ahead is important in the first place. What future, what adulthood are they pushing to?

So generation Z is on its way. Let’s go back to the basics. Let’s help them understand that learning is valuable in and of itself; that hard work, genuine curiosity, and heartfelt passion pave the way to a life well lived; and that real success comes when you can look at your life and say, “I have done my best to make a positive difference in the lives of others and the world we live in.”

Michael K. Mulligan is the Head of The Thacher School in Ojai, California. A graduate of Middlebury College, The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has taught, coached, and counseled teens for 38 years.

 

Why Teenagers Act Crazy

THE NEW YORK TIMES

SUNDAYREVIEW | OPINION

Why Teenagers Act Crazy

By RICHARD A. FRIEDMAN JUNE 28, 2014

Photo

CreditGary Panter

ADOLESCENCE is practically synonymous in our culture with risk taking, emotional drama and all forms of outlandish behavior. Until very recently, the widely accepted explanation for adolescent angst has been psychological. Developmentally, teenagers face a number of social and emotional challenges, like starting to separate from their parents, getting accepted into a peer group and figuring out who they really are. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to realize that these are anxiety-provoking transitions.

But there is a darker side to adolescence that, until now, was poorly understood: a surge during teenage years in anxiety and fearfulness. Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.

Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.

Photo

CreditGary Panter

You may wonder why, if adolescents have such enhanced capacity for anxiety, they are such novelty seekers and risk takers. It would seem that the two traits are at odds. The answer, in part, is that the brain’s reward center, just like its fear circuit, matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex. That reward center drives much of teenagers’ risky behavior. This behavioral paradox also helps explain why adolescents are particularly prone to injury and trauma. The top three killers of teenagers are accidents, homicide and suicide.

The brain-development lag has huge implications for how we think about anxiety and how we treat it. It suggests that anxious adolescents may not be very responsive to psychotherapy that attempts to teach them to be unafraid, like cognitive behavior therapy, which is zealously prescribed for teenagers.

What we have learned should also make us think twice — and then some — about the ever rising use of stimulants in young people, because these drugs may worsen anxiety and make it harder for teenagers to do what they are developmentally supposed to do: learn to be unafraid when it is appropriate to do so.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve treated many adults with various anxiety disorders, nearly all of whom trace the origin of the problem to their teenage years. They typically report an uneventful childhood rudely interrupted by adolescent anxiety. For many, the anxiety was inexplicable and came out of nowhere.

OF course, most adolescents do not develop anxiety disorders, but acquire the skill to modulate their fear as their prefrontal cortex matures in young adulthood, at around age 25. But up to 20 percent of adolescents in the United States experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder, like generalized anxiety or panic attacks, probably resulting from a mix of genetic factors and environmental influences. The prevalence of anxiety disorders and risky behavior (both of which reflect this developmental disjunction in the brain) have been relatively steady, which suggests to me that the biological contribution is very significant.

One of my patients, a 32-year-old man, recalled feeling anxious in social gatherings as a teenager. “It was viscerally unpleasant and I felt as if I couldn’t even speak the same language as other people in the room,” he said. It wasn’t that he disliked human company; rather, socializing in groups felt dangerous, even though intellectually he knew that wasn’t the case. He developed a strategy early on to deal with his discomfort: alcohol. When he drank, he felt relaxed and able to engage. Now treated and sober for several years, he still has a trace of social anxiety and still wishes for a drink in anticipation of socializing.

Of course, we all experience anxiety. Among other things, it’s a normal emotional response to threatening situations. The hallmark of an anxiety disorder is the persistence of anxiety that causes intense distress and interferes with functioning even in safe settings, long after any threat has receded.

We’ve recently learned that adolescents show heightened fear responses and have difficulty learning how not to be afraid. In one study using brain M.R.I., researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and Stanford University found that when adolescents were shown fearful faces, they had exaggerated responses in the amygdala compared with children and adults.

The amygdala is a region buried deep beneath the cortex that is critical in evaluating and responding to fear. It sends and receives connections to our prefrontal cortex alerting us to danger even before we have had time to really think about it. Think of that split-second adrenaline surge when you see what appears to be a snake out on a hike in the woods. That instantaneous fear is your amygdala in action. Then you circle back, take another look and this time your prefrontal cortex tells you it was just a harmless stick.

Thus, the fear circuit is a two-way street. While we have limited control over the fear alarm from our amygdala, our prefrontal cortex can effectively exert top-down control, giving us the ability to more accurately assess the risk in our environment. Because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to mature, adolescents have far less ability to modulate emotions.

Fear learning lies at the heart of anxiety and anxiety disorders. This primitive form of learning allows us to form associations between events and specific cues and environments that may predict danger. Way back on the savanna, for example, we would have learned that the rustle in the grass or the sudden flight of birds might signal a predator — and taken the cue and run to safety. Without the ability to identify such danger signals, we would have been lunch long ago.

But once previously threatening cues or situations become safe, we have to be able to re-evaluate them and suppress our learned fear associations. People with anxiety disorders have trouble doing this and experience persistent fear in the absence of threat — better known as anxiety.

Another patient I saw in consultation recently, a 23-year-old woman, described how she became anxious when she was younger after seeing a commercial about asthma. “It made me incredibly worried for no reason, and I had a panic attack soon after seeing it,” she said. As an older teenager, she became worried about getting too close to homeless people and would hold her breath when near them, knowing that “this was crazy and made no sense.”

B. J. Casey, a professor of psychology and the director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College, has studied fear learning in a group of children, adolescents and adults. Subjects were shown a colored square at the same time that they were exposed to an aversive noise. The colored square, previously a neutral stimulus, became associated with an unpleasant sound and elicited a fear response similar to that elicited by the sound. What Dr. Casey and her colleagues found was that there were no differences between the subjects in the acquisition of fear conditioning.

But when Dr. Casey trained the subjects to essentially unlearn the association between the colored square and the noise — a process called fear extinction — something very different happened. With fear extinction, subjects are repeatedly shown the colored square in the absence of the noise. Now the square, also known as the conditioned stimulus, loses its ability to elicit a fear response. Dr. Casey discovered that adolescents had a much harder time “unlearning” the link between the colored square and the noise than children or adults did.

IN effect, adolescents had trouble learning that a cue that was previously linked to something aversive was now neutral and “safe.” If you consider that adolescence is a time of exploration when young people develop greater autonomy, an enhanced capacity for fear and a more tenacious memory for threatening situations are adaptive and would confer survival advantage. In fact, the developmental gap between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex that is described in humans has been found across mammalian species, suggesting that this is an evolutionary advantage. This new understanding about the neurodevelopmental basis of adolescent anxiety has important implications, too, in how we should treat anxiety disorders. One of the most widely used and empirically supported treatments for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavior therapy, a form of extinction learning in which a stimulus that is experienced as frightening is repeatedly presented in a nonthreatening environment. If, for example, you had a fear of spiders, you would be gradually exposed to them in a setting where there were no dire consequences and you would slowly lose your arachnophobia. The paradox is that adolescents are at increased risk of anxiety disorders in part because of their impaired ability to successfully extinguish fear associations, yet they may be the least responsive to desensitization treatments like cognitive behavior therapy precisely because of this impairment.

This presents a huge clinical challenge since young people are generally risk takers who are more prone to exposure to trauma as a direct result of their behavior, to say nothing of those who were exposed to the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mass shootings like those in Newtown and Aurora. Many of them will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is essentially a form of fear learning. Now we have good reason to think that exposure therapy alone may not be the best treatment for them. A recent study of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders found that only 55 to 60 percent of subjects responded to either cognitive behavior therapy or an antidepressant alone, but 81 percent responded to a combination of these treatments. And in another study, there was preliminary evidence that adolescents responded less well to cognitive behavior therapy than children or adults.

This isn’t to say that cognitive therapy is ineffective for teenagers, but that because of their relative difficulty in learning to be unafraid, it may not be the most effective treatment when used on its own.

And there is potentially something else to worry about with our anxious adolescents: the meteoric rise in their use of psychostimulants like Ritalinand Adderall. In theory, stimulants could have a negative impact on the normal developmental trajectory of anxious teenagers.

According to the health care data company IMS Health, prescription sales for stimulants increased more than fivefold between 2002 and 2012. This is of potential concern because it is well known from both human and animal studies that stimulants enhance learning and, in particular, fear conditioning. Stimulants, just like emotionally charged experiences, cause the release ofnorepinephrine — a close relative of adrenaline — in the brain and facilitate memory formation. That’s the reason we can easily forget where we put our keys but will never forget the details of being assaulted.

Might our promiscuous use of stimulants impair the ability of adolescents to suppress learned fear — something that is a normal part of development — and make them more fearful adults? And could stimulants unwittingly increase the risk of PTSD in adolescents exposed to trauma? In truth, we haven’t a clue.

But we do know this: Adolescents are not just carefree novelty seekers and risk takers; they are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety and have a hard time learning to be unafraid of passing dangers. Parents have to realize that adolescent anxiety is to be expected, and to comfort their teenagers — and themselves — by reminding them that they will grow up and out of it soon enough.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College

Helping Your Child Adjust to Daylight Savings

From Yourteenmag

By Diana Simeon

It’s that time of year again: daylight savings, when we turn the clocks forward and, ugh, lose an hour of sleep.

Already wondering how it’s going to go on Monday morning when your teenager’s alarm goes off? Probably not so great, says Sasha Carr, Ph.D., a certified sleep consultant with the Family Sleep Institute and founder of Off to Dreamland.

“If you have a teenager, you should be concerned,” explains Carr. “It’s going to be rough on them on Monday morning to get up for school.”

Carr has some suggestions for making the transition easier. These include:

  • Turn your clocks forward early on Friday evening, not late Saturday when you’re headed to bed. Yep, you read that correctly. By changing your household routine two days early, your teenager will have time to adjust to daylight savings over the weekend, making Monday morning all the easier. “Start daylight savings as of dinner on Friday. That gives that cushion of the weekend. It also helps that on Saturday and Sunday morning, your teenager doesn’t have to get up for school.”

Or, if you’d rather ease into it, you can move your clocks forward a half hour on Friday and then another half hour on Saturday, adds Carr.

  • Don’t let your teenager sleep in. Teenagers are biologically designed to want to go to bed later at night and sleep later in the morning than children and adults. But this weekend in particular, says Carr, parents should get their teenagers up at a reasonable hour. “When a teenager sleeps super late on Saturday or Sunday morning and then has trouble getting up on Monday morning, that’s called weekend jetlag,” explains Carr. “I would suggest, especially this weekend, trying to get them up around 8 a.m.”
  • Turn off computers, phones and any other devices, even the television, for 30 minutes before bedtime. “Staring at a screen does a number on melatonin, which is the most important sleep hormone we have,” explains Carr. “It’s been shown that just looking at a screen for even 10 seconds in the half hour before you’re trying to go to sleep will affect the secretion of melatonin in the brain … it’s like turning all the lights on in your house.”

The good news, says Carr, is that within a few days, your teenager should have made up for whatever sleep deficit daylight savings causes.

But in the meantime, anticipate some grumpiness.

“Unfortunately, I would put teenagers in the group that has the hardest time with daylight savings,” says Carr. “But they eventually make up for it because they’ll start to go to bed earlier once they make the adjustment.”

Daylight savings starts at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 10.