Christine Carter is the mother of four teenagers. While she knows a thing or two about raising adolescents from personal experience, she understands teens from a professional vantage point, too. Carter is Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of several books, including Raising Happiness, a primer on helping young people become more confident, grateful, and optimistic. Her latest book, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in the Age of Anxiety and Distraction, drives the conversation forward with strategies for helping youth grow into thriving adults.
Allison Gilbert: What is new about adolescence today?
Christine Carter: What’s new are screens and the constant ability to be connected to friends and classmates outside of school. Everyone needs to step away from their devices and decrease the anxiety-inducing behavior that results. This is true for all of us, but it’s harder for teens to act on developmentally.
Teens are programmed to be preoccupied with self and status. It’s not their fault. But screens are creating disconnection. Yes, youth are connected on social media. Yes, they’re definitely wired. But they’re not connecting face-to-face as teens did in past generations. This lack of face-to-face contact affects character development. The more we think of ourselves — how many likes our photos get, how we look in videos — the less we think about others. Developing a sense of purpose is important. Turning inward can make some individuals more unkind and selfish.
[AG note: Scrolling through social media feeds endlessly can be isolating. But in some cases, technology has the capacity to build stronger family connections. Read “Screens R Us: Bond With Technology” for using tech to heighten parent-teen bonds.]
AG: Are there other factors that make today’s world different for teens?
CC: Teens today don’t just face new versions of old vices. The intensity of these vices is so much greater. A generation ago, teens smoked cigarettes. Now, there’s vaping. But it’s not an equal trade. Vaping is more addictive. Juul pods, for example, contain almost double the amount of nicotine compared to other e-cigarette cartridges, making teens who use them at a far greater risk of addiction. It doesn’t help that students can vape right in their classrooms and not necessarily get caught.
AG: Does this mean teens have a harder time resisting temptation and peer pressure?
CC: Developmentally, they don’t have the same capacity for self-control adults do. It’s harder to turn away from temptations. Parents must remember that self-control is an advanced skill and not having it (and making mistakes because of it) is not always about a lack of character.
Parents have the ability to use these years to discuss what they value most. If you catch your daughter drinking alcohol, instead of yelling, parents can use the moment as an opportunity to ask questions, to learn why she chose to drink in the first place. Understanding more about her world is a better way to influence her future behavior.
AG: What can parents do to help teens become more joyful and confident?
CC: There are several things parents can do! The most important is making sure your teen has as many face-to-face connections as possible. In-person connection is essential every day.
Parents represent the first chance teens get to practice having face-to-face relationships. We can set clear routines and habits that lend themselves to looking each other in the eyes. In my family, we shoot for no devices at mealtimes. It’s hard, but that’s the goal. I go to sleep now so much earlier than my children that they put me to sleep. They come into my bedroom, we talk, we connect, and it’s just magic.
I also recommend parents make their homes a central place for teens to gather. To make my house more of a social hub, I give my teens access to normally outlawed foods, drinks, and snacks. Over time, I’ve put aside my worries about junk food, if that’s what it will take to boost their willingness to be more social at home. If junk food gets my teen to hang out with his friends, that’s much more important to me than forbidding potato chips and chocolate chip cookies.
AG: What suggestions do you have for families to keep lines of communication open?
CC: The first thing is for parents to understand the teenage brain. Your teen’s brain is wired to seek the kind of inputs that makes him feel high status – the kinds of communication that honor his autonomy and growing independence. He considers the other part of his brain low status — the part that still needs support. He doesn’t want to feel low status. He wants to avoid those feelings. They make him feel juvenile.
What does all this mean? Parents should speak to their teens as if they’re people with the highest possible social status. Parents must respect what their teens say and how they feel. Whenever I can, I try to imagine my teen as someone I know with very high social and professional status. Doing so is sometimes challenging but it protects me from unintentionally making her feel infantilized.
Art by: Samantha Lee