Adolescence is a scary age for parents. At no other age do kids change more rapidly, in all aspects of their lives. Some of these changes can be summarized as follows:
But over and above each of these different realms, the change that can be most difficult for parents to handle is how adolescents develop emotionally.
The emotional life of a teenager or pre-teen adolescent is often characterized by dramatic emotional highs and lows, with what can feel like a constant fluctuation. Sometimes the seeming paradoxes can be too much for parents to handle: Adolescents crave the freedom and independence to make their own decisions, and can become angry and frustrated when they feel controlled. Yet at the same time, they also crave approval and validation, and can become hurt and resentful when they feel abandoned.
Meanwhile, in most cases, the dominant desire of parents is simply to see their child safe, healthy, and (if at all possible!) happy. While most parents want to give their adolescent children the independence they crave, parents also want to ensure that they are making the right decisions.
New Research Helps Identify Teens at Risk
In essence, one of the main tensions that parents of adolescent children face is between allowing their child to experiment and discover the world independently, while constantly fearing that this experimentation could end up leading to serious dangers like unprotected sexual activity or substance abuse.
Psychology researchers have stepped into this admittedly difficult situation and identified some patterns that parents can watch out for in their adolescent children.
Research performed by Dr. Patricia Conrod, of the University of Montreal, supports the idea that the majority of adolescents who experiment with drugs and alcohol do not become addicted, and among those who do, a test on four different personality traits can identify around 90% of those who had the highest risk.
One 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry included over two thousand secondary school students in more than a dozen British schools, randomly selected to either participate in a preventative program or not.
Using the knowledge gained from the personality testing, the researchers were able to reduce binge drinking among high-risk students by 43%, which in turn had a whole suite of positive after-effects on the other students in the schools.
The work performed by Dr. Conrod in validating the personality assessment techniques and demonstrating its effectiveness in actual trial programs has since been replicated by other experimenters. It serves as a valuable contribution to our general understanding of how substance abuse, mental illness, and other issues can develop at the adolescent level.
Four Traits for Parents to Watch For
Over and above this general contribution, the practical takeaway for parents of the research above is that it identifies four character traits that can potentially serve as indicators for the future development of substance abuse or mental illness. A desire for experimentation and independence are completely normal: an abnormal presence of any of these four traits might not be. The four traits that parents should be aware of in their adolescent children are as follows:
Sensation-seeking means a constant search for feelings or experiences that elicit strong emotions, e.g. a “rush.” Individuals high on this trait are willing to take serious risks in order to feel something new and intense. While sensation-seeking is not necessarily comorbid with any given mental illness, it does increase the likelihood that individuals will seek out experiences with drugs.
Impulsiveness differs from sensation-seeking in that it is less about the end goal and more about the process. An impulsive decision need not have serious consequences, necessarily, but it is nonetheless marked by a lack of awareness for the consequences of an action. Impulsiveness has often been found to be comorbid with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Anxiety sensitivity refers to an unusual and maladaptive awareness of the physical signs of anxiety. For example, an individual with anxiety sensitivity might become hyper-aware of the experience of shortness of breath or increased heart rate associated with feelings of anxiety, which in turn worsens the experience. Anxiety sensitivity is often linked to a later diagnosis of a panic disorder.
Hopelessness is defined generally as a feeling that things are bad, that they will not improve in the future, and that the individual is to blame for this turn of events. It is often linked to helplessness, a feeling of low self-esteem or incompetence, or a more general feeling of meaninglessness. It can potentially serve as a precursor to a diagnosis of major depression.
It’s very important to keep this research in perspective. The purpose of the research was to develop a means of objectively assessing the potential risk that adolescents will develop substance abuse or mental health issues using rigorous psychological assessment techniques. Parents should not conflate this with the idea that a subjective judgment that any of these four traits is present should signal immediate danger.
To jump to this conclusion would be exactly contrary to the overall goal of the research, which is to support the idea that unless certain underlying personality traits are present, there is little risk that the experimentation that characterizes normal adolescent behavior will result in any dangerous or harmful long-term consequences.
Most parents are neither psychology researchers nor clinicians, and should make sure not to allow their own healthy fear for the safety of their children to spill over into the realm of clinical diagnoses. A myriad of other factors over and above personality are also responsible for the development of substance abuse issues or mental illness.
For many adolescents, simply having parents who love and care enough about them to worry puts them at much lower levels of risk already.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Castellanos‐Ryan, N., O'Leary‐Barrett, M., Sully, L., & Conrod, P. (2013). Sensitivity and specificity of a brief personality screening instrument in predicting future substance use, emotional, and behavioral problems: 18‐month predictive validity of the substance use risk profile scale. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(s1), E281-E290.
Conrod, P. J., O’Leary-Barrett, M., Newton, N., Topper, L., Castellanos-Ryan, N., Mackie, C., & Girard, A. (2013). Effectiveness of a selective, personality-targeted prevention program for adolescent alcohol use and misuse: a cluster randomized controlled trial. JAMA psychiatry, 70(3), 334-342.
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Woicik, P. A., Stewart, S. H., Pihl, R. O., & Conrod, P. J. (2009). The substance use risk profile scale: A scale measuring traits linked to reinforcement-specific substance use profiles. Addictive behaviors, 34(12), 1042-1055.