Simple Questions Can Predict Risky Teen Behavior
> 5/14/2007 4:09:15 PM

Even the most trusting parents worry about the safetyand maturity of their children, particularly when they reach the age atwhich they're most likely to experiment with behaviors that could havelasting repercussions, including unsafe sex, drug abuse, eatingdisorders or self-harm. Whether due to concerns about offending anadolescents' sense of privacy or an understandable discomfort with thesubjects broached, most parents and doctors do not directly ask teensabout how often they practice risky behaviors. According to researchers,that simple action, difficult as it may be, is a huge step towardpredicting the development of further emotional, chemical andbehavioral issues. 

As we've previously reported,the teenager's brain may have trouble assessing the relative safety ofthe activities in which he or she engages. The effectiveness ofrepeated warnings and educational efforts is unclear, but it would seemthat the admonitions of caregivers do little to discourage riskybehaviors. The approach observed in these studies was one more ofinquiry than judgement, and encouraging teens to report on their ownhabits is more effective than presenting them with an accusatorylaundry list of unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Related studieshave shown that, in a reversal of popular perception, teens who usedrugs or practice irresponsible sexual behaviors are more likely todevelop depressive disorders. Mental illness, then, is often theresult, rather than the the cause, of such indulgences. Researchindicates that boys who abuse tobacco and illicit drugs and/or drink toexcess are much more likely to be depressed, where  girls who use thesedrugs, particularly in combination with regular sexual activity, runthe highest risk of mental health problems. Teens, especially boys, whoonly occasionally experiment with the habits listed above do notdisplay a significantly greater incidence of depression, and those whoabstain are least likely to report symptoms on follow-up assessments.Because girls appear to be more sensitive to the negative influences ofdrug use and sexual experimentation, their problems should probably beaddressed in a slightly different manner more directly concerned withevaluating their emotional vulnerability to such variables.

Researcherspresented a brief behavioral questionnaire to 134 teens already beingtreated for various psychiatric disorders. The questions addressedeverything from party habits, body image issues, and drugs of choice toproblems with physical and emotional abuse and the regularity ofprotection against sexually transmitted diseases. Though the surveyswere not anonymous, teens seemed more comfortable recording theiranswers on paper than discussing them face-to-face. This may be themost effective way to get regular, accurate updates on their lifestylerisk factors. Doctors should not hesitate to ask specific questions,but this approach provides another means by which gague the stabillityof their patients. Teens will not always be forthcoming with suchproblems, and any method by which one can allow them to provide thatinformation should be welcome.

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