Cal sociologist Carter tackles teen issues in latest book
By Lou Fancher
With more than 15 years devoted to researching positive emotions and almost 10 years after the publication of her first book, “Raising Happiness,” Dr. Christine Carter has turned her attention 180 degrees to adolescent pain, anxiety, distraction and discomfort.
The sociologist, author, senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and sought-after expert speaker and coach (Carter has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” PBS and more) in February will release her latest book, “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction.” The 280-page “parenting 2.0” guidebook published by BenBella Books Inc.— comprehensive, deeply researched and brimming with the latest scientific results, mental and physical health facts and studies on adolescent biologies and behaviors — delivers science-based tools and recommendations for parenting healthy teenagers in modern times.
Personal anecdotes and the empathetic but frank, tough-love tone found in her popular “Raising Happiness” blog and contributions to U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, PsychologyToday.com and other publications are characteristics of Carter’s three books, leaving a question: Who is coaching the coach? Answer: four teenagers whom Carter and her husband are raising in the blended family’s Marin County home.
As a mother, summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College and expert in the social psychology required to lead a joyful, creative and productive life — at any age — Carter occupies all sides of “planet teen parenting,” which makes it no easier or harder, she said in an interview. She is still a person struggling during the digital era to shepherd teenagers through anxiety; depression; hormonal changes; drinking and drug use; managing money; sexual awareness that today includes unprecedented exposure to pornography; and lifestyles dominated by mobile devices that jeopardize sleep, reduce touch, forego face-to-face interactions and fail to develop skills need to establish vital, long-lasting, human connections.
If the world of teens is transforming faster than parents are able to reshape parenting, a claim Carter makes, terrific crashes are inevitable. This means that, humbled by experience, she’s changed her parenting goals. It’s no longer simple happiness Carter seeks for her kids; it’s building skills and connections that cause them to thrive now and as adults.
“ ’Raising Happiness’ I published 10 years ago, and my kids were little. So yes, my perception of what it takes to be happy these days has changed. The context in which kids are growing up has changed, mostly because of these (mobile) devices,” Carter said.
To Carter, leading a meaningful life used to center on purpose, fulfillment, gratitude and compassion. Although still important, she’s currently focused on helping kids deal with pain and discomfort.
“If you can’t tolerate discomfort, being bored, feeling things they don’t want to feel, kids (now) have this tool for numbing. There’s not selective numbing. You can’t select boredom or anxiety for numbing without also numbing compassion and empathy, authentic positive emotions. We’ve really conflated pleasure and activation of the reward center in the brain. Kids can go after something distracting and have no sense they’re limiting their range of experiences.”
Parents hardwired to prevent pain in their children run the risk of overparenting. Or, forgetting how influential they are on teens and often intimidated by social media their children master with frightening proficiency far exceeding their own skills, parents’ resigned, hands-off approach leaves kids with too little supervision.
“It’s unfortunate because teenagers still need the structure and support,” she said.
Clear, fact-based lines drawn for teens are especially important when it comes to topics such as drugs or sex that make for tough-to-have conversations. Again, the shifting social climate requires a parent to have first-rate knowledge — and speak to their teens without judgement — about high-potency marijuana, opioids, nonbinary sexual identity, sexual harassment, pornography and more.
“What we’re seeing is that teenagers are less concerned than ever about the consequences of heavy (marijuana) usage. Fewer than one-third of high school seniors believe regular, daily marijuana use poses great risk of harm. (Carter references results of the 2015-17 Sixteenth Biennial Statewide Student Survey taken in San Francisco, noting that the number of teens said to consider daily use not harmful compared to 20 years ago has doubled.) Multiple studies of people of all ages have found that perceived risk of harm is a strong indicator of future action.
With sex, the talk is equally complex. Not only are the taboos bigger; sex is private. We might someday have a drink with our children, but with sex, she said, “We will never watch our kids do it or become a part of that arena. I like to think of myself as someone who’s extremely open, progressive, but it’s still very hard for me to talk about it with my kids. It’s harder because everything is so different: we didn’t have internet porn, gender was binary. All the categories, exposure and norms have shifted.”
Asked about curricula she’d like to add to English, math and other courses, Carter said, “The first thing I’d add is a mindfulness or meditation requirement. A stillness period. We see unbelievable research around meditation, especially at schools where kids experience a lot of violence. It gives them a capacity to comfort themselves and ability to focus.”
Sex education courses that are less biologically oriented and more about what constitutes healthy sexuality are her second choice.
“Dating has changed, and they need tools to deal with Tinder and other online sexual activity. (Lessons about) sexting and pornography are better internalized by teens when taught by someone other than their parents.”
While the amount of personal information Carter reveals in the book made her intensely uncomfortable, she said including it was important to stop people from thinking she’s a perfect parent.
“That’s why I put the painful things in it: I’m not masterful and my kids aren’t perfectly happy,” she said. Finding her way with all parents of teenagers, Carter reminds herself that a teen’s need to individuate does not mean abandoning her post. She recognizes the book is not a complete guide. “I would love for the book to have gone deeper in terms of race, immigration, the political realm and other things that are stressful for teens. For example, parents of color need to address things that aren’t fully in there.”
Delivering a rational, practical approach to guide a teen along the swift tumult of adolescent development, “The New Adolescence” even offers helpful life skills and self-awareness tips to parents. “The truth is that a lot of us aren’t getting what we need. We’re living through an era of accelerated change. In the book are the motivations we all need in order to thrive,” Carter said.