David Walsh featured in Star Tribune with his book WHY DO THEY ACT
September 25, 2004
Psychologist takes journey to the center of teen mind
By Maria Elena Baca
What makes teenagers tick?
Minneapolis psychologist David Walsh, a former high school teacher and
guidance counselor and the father of three children not far past their
teens, wondered that very thing. Studying the most recent teenage brain
science, Walsh found that contrary to recent beliefs, teens' brains undergo
incredible growth and change, continuing the process of "blossoming and
pruning" that started in infancy. The resulting unrest, he found, goes a
long way to explaining teenagers' sometimes perplexing behavior.
Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a
nonprofit group that researches the impact of media on children and
families, reports his findings in his eighth book, "Why Do They Act That
Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen."
What sparked your interest in teenagers?
Like many parents, I found particular challenges, both as a psychologist and
teacher, during the teenage years. I think I was particularly aware of many
of the challenges that families face as kids become teenagers. ...
A journalist in New York told me, "One of the things that really struck me
reading the book is you really like teenagers." I was glad that came through
because I think we need to readjust our attitude about teenagers.
People tell kids that these are the best years of their lives. Is that
No, and I say that with some conviction. I have been doing [adult] workshops
for the past three or four months based on the book. I start with that
statement, which is "Enjoy these years; they're the best years in your
life." Then I ask these adults, "How many of you now, from this vantage
point, would agree with that?" I'd say overall certainly less than 10
percent, sometimes less than 5 percent. ... A lot of times, teenagers are as
confused by what's going on inside as the people on the outside [are] trying
to figure it out.
For example, for a 15-year-old boy to understand that there are days when
all he can think about is sex does not mean he's some kind of weirdo or
pervert. It means that's part of his normal development, and what you need
to do is find ways to manage that in a responsible way.
How did your discoveries change your perspective on teenagers?
I found it exciting because of the implications; it's not that the science
is interesting, [although] that's nice. But what I think is most important
and the reason I wrote the book is the implications. ... For example,
teenagers process communication in a different part of their brains than
adults do. As luck would have it, they involve the anger center of their
brains, so they frequently misinterpret things in the direction of anger and
Why is that helpful?
It helps me as a parent not take things so personally, to understand that
our kids are not doing those things just to get to us or just to push our
buttons, but it really has to do with their brain development.
What can parents do before their kids are teenagers to prepare for
Understanding and knowing what to expect is a big help because then we're
not as thrown by it. Then I think we're better able to keep our perspective
and we're better able to execute some of the strategies and some of the
skills we're going to need.
Having consistent, structured discipline, with clear expectations and
consequences, and consistent enforcement becomes very important. Because
even though the stakes [for younger kids] may not be as high, if you wait
until the kids become teenagers and you try to go from kind of a
laissez-faire to establish some kind of structure, it's much more difficult.
Are there any mistakes people make raising teens that can't be remedied?
I never say never. If we've made a mistake, we can always go back and try to
repair whatever damage might be done, but we need to remember the more
mistakes and the more serious the mistakes we make, the harder it is to
repair the damage.
One mistake we make is granting kids the divorce they're asking for. ...
Parenting is not an easy job, and during the teenage years we have to pay
the price of some very uncomfortable moments. The payoff will come down the
road, and that's what I talk about in the book, that parenthood is a delayed
gratification activity. You're investing for the long term.
How can teens help each other?
Teenagers can support, and support in an honest and caring way, and that
doesn't always mean saying what we think our friend's going to want to hear.
Sometimes when our friends are in trouble, they don't need someone to just
pat them on the back. They need someone to pat them on the back and say,
"You know, there's a better way to do this." But going against peer pressure
is very difficult.
What about sex?
I distinguish between talking with our kids about sex and talking with our
kids about sexuality. Sex is about biology. It's how the body works, and
it's the stuff of science. It's very, very, important that our kids know
that, but sexuality is sex within a context of values, morality,
responsibility, relationships and respect. It's a much richer conversation.
Our kids are drenched in a media culture that teaches them about sex. Our
kids need communication about sexuality and the only place they're going to
get that is from their parents and teachers and people who care about them
as total people.