Simple Questions Can Predict Risky Teen Behavior
> 5/14/2007 12:07:00 PM

Even the most trusting parents worry about the safety and maturity of their children, particularly when they reach the age at which they're most likely to experiment with behaviors that could have lasting repercussions, including unsafe sex, drug abuse, eating disorders or self-harm. Whether due to concerns about offending an adolescents' sense of privacy or an understandable discomfort with the subjects broached, most parents and doctors do not directly ask teens about how often they practice risky behaviors. According to researchers, that simple action, difficult as it may be, is a huge step toward predicting the development of further emotional, chemical and behavioral issues. 

As we've previously reported, the teenager's brain may have trouble assessing the relative safety of the activities in which he or she engages. The effectiveness of repeated warnings and educational efforts is unclear, but it would seem that the admonitions of caregivers do little to discourage risky behaviors. The approach observed in these studies was one more of inquiry than judgement, and encouraging teens to report on their own habits is more effective than presenting them with an accusatory laundry list of unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Related studies have shown that, in a reversal of popular perception, teens who use drugs or practice irresponsible sexual behaviors are more likely to develop depressive disorders. Mental illness, then, is often the result, rather than the the cause, of such indulgences. Research indicates that boys who abuse tobacco and illicit drugs and/or drink to excess are much more likely to be depressed, where  girls who use these drugs, particularly in combination with regular sexual activity, run the highest risk of mental health problems. Teens, especially boys, who only occasionally experiment with the habits listed above do not display a significantly greater incidence of depression, and those who abstain are least likely to report symptoms on follow-up assessments. Because girls appear to be more sensitive to the negative influences of drug use and sexual experimentation, their problems should probably be addressed in a slightly different manner more directly concerned with evaluating their emotional vulnerability to such variables.

Researchers presented a brief behavioral questionnaire to 134 teens already being treated for various psychiatric disorders. The questions addressed everything from party habits, body image issues, and drugs of choice to problems with physical and emotional abuse and the regularity of protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Though the surveys were not anonymous, teens seemed more comfortable recording their answers on paper than discussing them face-to-face. This may be the most effective way to get regular, accurate updates on their lifestyle risk factors. Doctors should not hesitate to ask specific questions, but this approach provides another means by which gague the stabillity of their patients. Teens will not always be forthcoming with such problems, and any method by which one can allow them to provide that information should be welcome.

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