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Parenting Skills with Conduct Disordered Pre-Adolescents
Parenting Skills with Conduct Disordered Pre-Adolescents

Section 25
The At-Risk Adolescent & Functional Family Behaviors

CEU Question 25 | CE Test | Table of Contents | Parenting
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At-Risk Adolescents
It is estimated that over seven million American adolescents--one in four--are extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure, while another seven million are at moderate risk (Carnegie Council, 1989; Husain & Cantwell, 1992). In today's society, adolescents are apt to become involved with damaging behaviors, particularly those associated with alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Whether this is due to cultural conditions or erosion of the family unit is debatable (Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 1991).

Unfortunately, along with these pressures, many young people lack guidance and support. The path to adulthood has been described as one of isolation. During adolescence, exploratory behavior patterns emerge. Many of these behaviors carry high risks and have resulted, for example, in an unprecedented number of alcohol-related accidents and school dropouts. The need to develop self-esteem and inquiring minds among our youth has never been more necessary. The Carnegie Council (1989) and other researchers (Thompson & Rudolph, 1998), in formulating goals for educating adolescents, note five characteristics of an effective adolescent:

  1. Effective adolescents are intellectually reflective persons who have developing thinking skills. They are able to express themselves in persuasive, coherent writing as well as verbally; they know the basic vocabulary of the arts, math, and sciences, and have learned to appreciate a variety of cultures and languages.
  2. They are en route to a lifetime of meaningful work. Work is essential to survival, as well as an integral part of one's identity. Our youth must be knowledgeable about a variety of career options and not be restricted by race or gender. Certainly high school graduation will be a prerequisite for entering the work force and it is hoped that they will understand the advantages of post-secondary education.
  3. Adolescents will be good citizens, thus taking responsibility for shaping our world. We need to develop children who are doers, not just subservers--those who can demonstrate on a daily basis their commitment to their own character, their community, and their schools. Also it is hoped that they will understand the basic values of our nation and have an appreciation for both the western and nonwestern worlds.
  4. Adolescents will be caring individuals who are able to think clearly and critically, and act ethically. Our youth must recognize that there is a difference between right and wrong, and must have the courage to act on their convictions. They will model values that have been associated with good family development--including integrity, tolerance, and appreciation of others. They will understand the importance of close relationships with family and friends, recognizing that relationships require effort and sacrifice, and that without them, life has relatively little meaning and can be filled with insecurity and loneliness.
  5. Our youth will understand the correlation between exercise, diet, and health. These provide a sense of competence and strength. We must help our youth become proficient because success is directly related to self-image. The effective adolescent will appreciate personal strengths and work to overcome weaknesses.

It is our belief that every youth in our nation, poor or rich, advantaged or disadvantaged, should have the opportunity to achieve success, not just minimum competence, in all of these areas. This is the challenge to our society as a whole--our educational, community and social-support systems. However, it also is a direct challenge to individuals to help families maximize their potential.

Unfortunately, many families are unable to cope with the problems faced by adolescents (Robin & Foster, 1989; Vernon, 1998). Many adolescents are growing into adulthood alienated from others, and with low expectations of themselves. There is greater likelihood that they will become unhealthy, addicted, violent, and chronically poor. Equally disturbing is that adolescents from the more affluent communities are displaying similar problems. Too many students are dropping out of school or participating at a minimal level. Even if they graduate, they have few marketable skills and their parents are not demanding that they acquire these skills.

Affluent parents seem to send mixed messages--that their lives are too demanding, and at the same time, because of their affluence, they do not see the needs of their troubled teenagers. When these problems do hit home, parents' reaction is often shock or dismay.

On the other hand, less advantaged families, in struggling to make a living, do not have the time to build family relationships. Further, greater mobility in quest of economic opportunities makes family cohesiveness less attainable. In a time of great change, many parents are confused about their roles and relationships and are less aware of the new temptations faced by their adolescents (Wicks-Nelson & Israel 1991).

The Carnegie Council (1989,pp. 22-25) reported that in a recent graduating high school class, 92% had consumed alcohol, and of those, 56% had begun in the sixth through ninth grades, while 36% had begun in the tenth through twelfth grades. These numbers do not include those who had dropped out of school, and who were even more likely to use alcohol. Problem behaviors are also interrelated. For example, young people who drink often experiment with illegal drugs. They may smoke and engage in unprotected sex. These same adolescents are more prone to school failure.

More teenagers are becoming sexually active before the age of 16 (Berns, 1993), and girls are becoming pregnant at a greater rate and dropping out of school early. Young mothers are usually economically disadvantaged, have limited opportunities, and their pregnancies lead disproportionately to the birth of low-weight babies who are vulnerable to many poor outcomes. It has been estimated that one-fourth of all sexually active adolescents will become infected with a sexually transmitted disease before graduating from high school, AIDS being the greatest concern (Vernon, 1998).

With the increase in risk-taking behaviors and substance abuse, motor vehicle deaths are also increasing. This is true particularly among those aged 10 to 14 years. This results from association with older adolescents who have been drinking. For this same age group, between 1980 and 1985 the suicide rate doubled. Seriously delinquent activities are peaking now at the age of 15, and of the 28 million boys and girls aged 10 to 17 in the U.S., 14 million are at moderate or high risk due to substance use and other deleterious behaviors (Vernon, 1998). The cost of these behaviors to society is several billion dollars.

Creating Healthy Families
Problem-solving and communication skills are of particular importance, especially when one considers that the relationship between adolescents and parents may be conflictual. If these conflicts are not resolved, it is difficult to restore an equitable pattern of family functioning. The more conflictual the dispute among family members, the greater the need for resolution skills. Robin and Foster (1989) indicate that in solution-focused families, members are able to share their feelings without offending others. They are able to decipher "hidden" messages. Conversely, verbal attacks, shouting, and other power-oriented techniques usually provoke anger in the recipients.

Reiss (1991) has been studying families that do not exhibit pathology in an effort to understand how they communicate, coming up with several hypotheses:

  1. These healthy families speak clearly. They are not rigid in their discussions, nor are they confused and chaotic.
  2. They tend to agree more often than disagree, and are able to assert themselves without offending others.
  3. They have a friendly environment and are able to disagree without upsetting other members.
  4. They show variation in affect; they can express happiness or sadness to each other.
  5. They have a good sense of humor and have the ability to laugh at themselves.
  6. They respect each other's need for privacy, and do not engage in mind reading.

Family systems need versatility, the ability to overcome conflict, and the capability to develop alternative solutions. Healthy families do not accept just any idea. They are not impulsive; they negotiate and compromise. In families that function effectively, grudges are not held very long. Arguments are short and followed by more friendly interactions.

In contrast, families that are unhealthy may find a weaker member to "scapegoat." This helps other family members to feel important. Scapegoating often occurs in families that are too rigid (authoritarian) or disorganized (laissez-faire). Both of these family structures contribute to dysfunctional behavior.

An authoritarian power structure is one in which parents impose their values upon their adolescent children. These children see the adults in the family as demanding and restrictive. Adolescents frequently have no alternative but to break the rules. Even as the adolescent grows older, authoritarian parents have difficulty renegotiating outdated rules. Further, they do not receive much input from the adolescent.

At the other end of the spectrum are the permissive or laissez-faire families in which parents either are too busy or abdicate their parenting responsibilities to social service agencies or to the adolescent. This can create enormous difficulties for adolescents who may be conflictual with their parents as they seek independence, but also need a place where they feel secure and supported and can receive guidance. The permissive family does not provide this. Adolescents in these families view their parents as disinterested, and have to make their own decisions in a very complex world. They may seek love in maladaptive ways, such as by becoming pregnant or through drug-using peer groups. Permissive parents often see themselves as close to, and understanding of, their children. Some even are able to communicate on an informal basis; however, most children in permissive families have a poor self-image and do not develop the skills required in order to compete in today's society. Permissive family structures are often confused with more democratic styles, but they are not the same (Becvar & Becvar, 1988; Robin & Foster, 1989).

The democratic style offers a decision-making method in which the parent is responsible for final decisions, but utilizes problem-solving skills that produce less conflict and greater adolescent developmental achievement. These parents encourage adolescents to participate in matters that are of importance to them. Democratic parents recognize that adaptation, particularly in a society that is rapidly changing, is important; they see their families as flexible rather than rigid. Democratic families understand that family members differ and these differences are respected and encouraged. Children do not have to exhibit maladaptive behavior in order to gain independence. Each member has a chance to contribute in family discussions. In family projects, everyone gets involved whenever possible. It is interesting that these families tend to put a positive light on negative behaviors. For example, if a child is demanding, they see it as assertive (Reiss, 1971).

Democratic families understand that labels placed on youngsters often stay with them for a long time, often into adulthood. Thus, when they disagree, they do not resort to accusations or recriminations, but tend to accentuate constructive exchanges. In contrast, an unhealthy family will accentuate the negative, rather than applying effective problem-solving techniques.
- Count, Diane; Working with ‘difficult’ children from the inside out: loss and bereavement and how the creative arts can help; Pastoral Care; June 2000.

Personal Reflection Exercise #11
The preceding section contained information about at-risk adolescents and functional family behaviors.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Diemer, M. C., Treviño, M. S., & Gerstein, E. D. (2021). Contextualizing the role of intrusive parenting in toddler behavior problems and emotion regulation: Is more always worse? Developmental Psychology, 57(8), 1242–1253.

Latham, R. M., Mark, K. M., & Oliver, B. R. (2018). Coparenting and children’s disruptive behavior: Interacting processes for parenting sense of competence. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(1), 151–156.

Van Heel, M., Van Den Noortgate, W., Bijttebier, P., Colpin, H., Goossens, L., Verschueren, K., & Van Leeuwen, K. (2019). Parenting and externalizing problem behavior in adolescence: Combining the strengths of variable-centered and person-centered approaches. Developmental Psychology, 55(3), 653–673.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 25
What is an authoritarian power structure? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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