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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:
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).
Creating Healthy Families
Reiss (1991) has been studying families that do not exhibit pathology in an effort to understand how they communicate, coming up with several hypotheses:
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.
Reflection Exercise #11