Teens doing teen things. Photo courtesy of the author
As someone who writes a weekly column dedicated to Americans between the ages of 13 and 19, a lot of people think I consider myself some sort of teen expert. I don't. I'm just a man who believes that our awkward youth warrant attention. After all, teens are what keep culture moving forward. Mostly, though, my feelings about them roughly echo those novelist Teju Cole expresses about American sentimentality in his unforgettable series of tweets on the White Savior Industrial Complex: I deeply respect teens, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on them, for you know they are deadly.
I had never really considered meeting a veritable teen expert, but this week I was forwarded a PR email offering the chance to speak with Dr. Melissa Deuter, "a psychiatrist in San Antonio, Texas, who specializes in working with 'emerging adults.'" Curious about what a Professional Teen Doctor thinks about the issues facing today's youth, I called Dr. Deuter for a conversation about kids these days, sexting, drugs, and how to get over our fear of teenagers.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Melissa Deuter
VICE: I write a weekly column about teenagers, but I'm really just an amateur scholar. You're billed as a teen expert. What does that entail, exactly?
Dr. Melissa Deuter: I've been a psychiatrist for ten years. I primarily treat teenagers and I write a blog. A lot of what I do is for parents, because the parents are the ones seeking information about how they can improve things in the family.
One common sentiment is that today's kids are so much worse than generations past. Have you noticed a decline in behavior among teens, both in the ten years that you've been practicing and also in comparison with your own youth?
No, I don't think kids these days are any different than kids when I was a teenager. I think parents are different, and cultural expectations are different, and the way we teach kids and supervise is different. For example, teenagers now have been supervised more heavily. When I was a kid, I'm not going to say I walked up the hill both ways in the snow, but I walked a mile to school with my siblings, unsupervised. That was common and people weren't scared about doing that. Now most kids spend most of their time directly in contact with adults who supervise them. That changes how they behave and how they relate to adults but I don't think kids themselves are inherently different. It's just that when you change the soil, the plant looks a little different.
In your mind, there are more restrictions on kids now?
There's more supervision; I don't know if it's restrictive. When I was a kid, there was a lot more time that kids played with other kids and adults weren't overseeing them. Maybe the parents now are overseeing kids and really letting them do a lot of things, but the parents are there. That wasn't the case a generation ago.
So there's less independence.
You have a lot less independence. They talk about entitlements. 20-year-olds are now going into the work place, being difficult or wanting their hand held. A lot of those differences come directly out of always being supervised.
I'd imagine the internet has played a huge part in the changes you've seen?
The internet hasn't changed too dramatically in the last ten years, though there's always new stuff. Ten years ago there was MySpace and now maybe it's Snapchat, but it's the same problem. Parents don't understand what their kid is using, so they don't really understand how to talk to their kid about it, how to supervise it, or what the real risks are or what to be concerned about. It's really just digital kids with pre-digital parents that continues to be a problem, as parents can't keep up with the technology.
What's a typical case that you'd see as a teen psychiatrist?
The main thing I see with adolescents is parents coming in saying, "My son or daughter is behaving in a way that I think is dangerous. I think they're using drugs or they're defiant and disrespectful and I think that's going to lead to danger. I can't control what they do."
Or they might come in and be worried about their adjustment. "My teenager seems sad. She doesn't seem to have friends, she's crying every day. She doesn't want to go to school and I think there's something wrong. Can you help me figure out what it is?" It does happen that an adolescent says they need to go see somebody, but most of the time parents see a change in behavior that concerns them.
Are the parents usually right about troubling behavior, or is it sometimes just a case of teens being teens?
Sometimes they're absolutely right, and sometimes they're unaware as to what is normal. I've had parents come in and say, "I've never seen another kid be this disrespectful to their mother." And I say, "Really? Because I think that's pretty average." And they'll be shocked.
Then there are other families who come in and say, "My kid's in trouble" and their kid's in trouble. Here in San Antonio for the last ten years we've had a significant problem with upper-class kids with money using heroin.
Parents sometimes have trouble determining their child's best interest. Mike, narrator of the Suicidal Tendencies track above, is "institutionalized" for anti-social behavior. All he wanted was a Pepsi.
Is something like heroin addiction about the worst thing you'd see?
It's up there. I see kids with depression, kids with suicidal behavior who have had to be hospitalized, and kids with schizophrenia. It depends on what you mean by the worst, there are different kids of bad.
What about in terms of traditional misbehavior?
In terms of behavior, the top two issues are substance abuse that can result in accidental death, and risk taking behavior that can result in accidental death. Accidental death is one of the top causes of death in teens. Car accidents and various types of risk taking behaviors are a big danger to teens as well.
One of the biggest stories in the news this week has been that a bunch of celebrities' cell phones were compromised, and their naked photos were leaked online. How do you suggest parents talk to their teens about sexting and naked photos?
That's another risk factor. Certainly it's not like heroin overdose risk, but it can have significant effects on somebody's self esteem and their relationships. My recommendation to parents is that they tell their kids that once they share something, they no longer have any guarantees of privacy. If you send something, be sure it's something that you're willing to risk someone else looking at.
Historically the two big problems for teens have been sex and drugs. Which is more dangerous?
In terms of which is the bigger risk, there are risks associated with sex. Pregnancy and STDs are very serious and life-altering. But driving down the highway at 102 MPH or using heroin probably has a greater risk of actual death. If kids get very far down into a life of drugs, they literally risk losing their life.
I'm the parent of a seventh grader, and here's the thing that I tell my kids: The brain is going through a huge development from puberty until age 25. It's period when people are more willing to take risks than they'll ever be. That's normal. But that period is also a very vulnerable time for the brain. The long-term risk of altering the course of your brain development by using substances is higher than if they do it when they're older. There's a lot of research that shows that kids who had drank a certain amount before age 14 have a much higher risk of binge drinking in their later teens. And kids who binge drink in their later teens have much higher risk of long-term alcoholism.
When you use substances you increase your risk of mood disorders and various psychiatric problems. There's a strong association with smoking marijuana and the onset of schizophrenia. I don't think that all the scare campaigns saying that if you use drugs you'll die are very helpful, but kids need to understand that their brains are vulnerable.
Do you see things like lowering the drinking age or legalizing marijuana as good ideas?
I probably couldn't get on board with lowering the drinking age. America has such an alcohol problem that it's bad enough as it is. I do think that it's bothersome that a kid can go to war at 18 but can't drink, but I'm not sure that drinking younger is good for anybody either.
In terms of marijuana, it's been established that our war on drugs has not been successful. Marijuana is not harmless. I don't want teenagers to smoke pot. It's not risk free, but I do think laws need to change. First of all the laws are not working, and there are a lot of social reasons that I think it makes sense not to criminalize the use of marijuana.
So teens shouldn't use marijuana, but turning teens who smoke it into criminals is also bad?
That's correct, turning teens into criminals hasn't done any good at all.
You're a teen expert, but what made you decide to work with teens in the first place?
I went into private practice with some people who'd been practicing for 15 years. They were treating older people, so when those people would have a kid who needed to be seen they would send them to me. It was really that simple. But I always thought I wanted to treat adolescents and young adults, I like adolescents a lot. I enjoy them, I think they're clever and fun and funny.
I also found that a lot of my colleagues did not want to see teens. A lot of mental health professionals understand that a lot of what's in the book doesn't apply to teens in the same way. They're not quite sure how to help the family, so they just don't want to deal with it. There's a big gap in care. I became the person to send that group to, because I like to do it and nobody else wanted to take them.
I think that teens play a central role in pop culture, but at the same time they're sort of demonized, and people who don't really come into contact with teens are basically scared of them. What should adults know to better get along with teens?
I agree with that. I love adolescents and I think they get a bum rap. I'm naturally comfortable talking to teenagers, but I know a lot of people aren't.
Adolescents are really all about honest emotional content. That's what works when you talk to an adolescent: being real. Being genuine. Adults don't have to tell kids every thought they have or every mistake they made as a teenager, but I think adults who aren't comfortable with teens put a guard up. Then there's no access for the teenager to know a real person and communication breaks down. What they should do is just be their genuine selves.
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