May 18, 2017
(+++) TEENAGE ANGST TAMED? NOT QUITE
Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience. By Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D. AMACOM. $17.95.
The well has pretty much run dry for books telling Baby Boomers all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead – most Boomers are now past childbearing years and becoming grandparents. This opens up a whole new opportunity, however: books telling members of Generation X all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead. The few Boomers still (or again) involved in child-rearing can come along for the ride. And so we have books such as Crazy-Stressed, in which family counselor and frequent media pundit Michael J. Bradley explores methods for GenX parents to use to talk to their teenagers in ways that will help them teach their teens the resilience they will need to cope with the inevitable setbacks in their lives. One wonders whether Bradley himself is as eminently reasonable with his two teenage children as he tells parents they need to be. If so, he may be a candidate for sainthood, or the parental equivalent – although, to be fair, Bradley is a psychologist who specializes in issues involving teenagers and their parents, so his behavior at home is presumably a continuation of his daily work rather than a completely different and differently stressful part of his life, as it inevitably will be for virtually all his readers.
Crazy-Stressed starts from the premise that today’s world is uniquely pressure-inducing for teenagers, with 24/7 connectivity requiring teens to be “on” and involved with others at all times – and with pop culture that glorifies vapid celebrities, violence and sex, plus peer pressure whose behavioral elements involve sex and drugs and those ever-present social media. In truth, except for the technological elements, there is little that is different for teens today from the stressors faced by teens in the past; and even today’s technology is a substitute for other forms of onetime peer connectivity rather than something altogether new. Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of “this time it’s different,” Bradley suggests that the world of today’s teens requires their parents to do and not do a variety of specific things in order to pave the way for teenagers to grow into responsible, self-managing adults. Carefully arranged and nurtured parenting, for which parents presumably have nearly infinite time, is what is called for. What is surprising (or not) is that Bradley’s recommendations to parents are no different from those made to Baby Boomers and, no doubt in different ways, to earlier generations that did not have the dubious benefit of widely promoted self-help books. To name a few: parents need to pick the right time to communicate with teens, avoid telling them too much or speaking to them too loudly or emphatically, ask questions instead of lecturing and giving parental answers, take their cues from teens’ love of short messaging to keep interactions minimal but very frequent, and walk away if attempted communication provokes anger instead of aiding understanding. There is nothing new here whatsoever, except that Bradley dresses up the advice neatly in the latest scientific research on teenage brain development, comprehension and sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, he does not tell parents how to find the time in their lives for, say, a dozen short face-to-face interactions that would collectively take the place of a single longer one.
But putting all that aside, what Bradley advocates here is helping teenagers develop personality traits that are identical to those advocated, in not-very-different language, for the teens of Baby Boomers. The longstanding notion of creating acronyms or using a series of identical letters to describe desirable characteristics stays true to form in Crazy-Stressed, with all seven crucial traits beginning with the letter C. The C sequence is the heart of Bradley’s book. Competence, he argues, requires parents to encourage unstructured activities – not sports, for example, but rock bands, through which teens can learn compromise, planning and management of frustration (actually, sports would seem to teach the same things, but Bradley says no). Confidence is built by having parents react positively to teens’ positive qualities, such as integrity and compassion – although Bradley has little to say about how parents should handle creating confidence-building qualities in teens who do not have them, that being different from encouraging qualities that are present already. Connection requires parents to make the family home an unfailing source of safety and security – an excellent idea whose implementation is far tougher than Bradley indicates. Character means what it always has: possessing a firm sense of right and wrong, which Bradley assumes parents can help teens develop through talks about values – an optimistic idea that some families will likely find impossible. Control has to do with feeling in charge of one’s life, a particularly tough challenge for teens, who are constantly subjected to pressure from adults and peer groups – the idea that parents can nurture this feeling by repeatedly calling attention to teens’ successes and good works is one genuinely useful element of Bradley’s book, although this is scarcely an original notion. Coping means being able to handle life’s inevitable setbacks, and this means parents must allow those setbacks to occur instead of running interference – a rather unexceptionable bit of thinking, since there is no possible way that parents will ever be able to shield teens from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (that, by the way, is from Hamlet, a play whose wisdom appears nowhere in this book). The seventh C-word here is Contribution, which Bradley takes to mean helping teens learn to improve the world without expecting anything in return – a very, very tall order indeed for a great many teens and, for that matter, a great many parents.
The subtitle of Bradley’s book contains the word “laughter,” but there is precious little of it in the book itself, and that is a shame. One thing Bradley misses is the importance of parents finding ways to teach teens not to take everything with an infinity of intensity. “Don’t take life so serious, son – it ain’t nohow permanent,” was a wonderful bit of philosophy from the comic strip Pogo, which neither today’s teens nor their parents likely know, but from which all of them could benefit. Indeed, the leavening effect of supportive humor – not the sarcasm of Dilbert or the darkness of Pearls Before Swine – can go a long way toward making the inevitable problems and troubles of the teenage years more bearable. But GenX parents will find mostly sober, well-considered advice here, with little in the way of “lighten up” thinking. Unfortunately, the result is that living with teenagers (the extent to which parents “raise” teens is itself debatable) seems even more difficult, time-consuming and complex at the end of Crazy-Stressed than at the beginning. The book is likely to make time-pressed, financially stressed, perpetually exhausted parents (of any generation) feel they are just not measuring up to Bradley’s high standards. And that is too bad, because perfectionism in dealing with teenagers is, in reality, no more possible to attain than perfectionism in most human endeavors. By providing step-by-step prescriptions that many parents will not have the time, energy or emotional wherewithal to accept and implement, Bradley sets parents up for failure in a way that is bound to boost their stress levels and carry through to become yet another of the many stressors affecting, and afflicting, the teenagers of today – as they have affected and afflicted teens since time immemorial.