Listen Up: A First Step to Protecting Teens

Jan Richter
December 18, 2001

This article first appeared on in 2000 and was updated in 2008. 

Only by knowing how kids are doing in school, how they feel about their schoolwork, how they are spending their free time and with whom, can we begin to identify those teens most likely to take risky chances or follow pathways that endanger them. This is the key "take-home lesson" of the Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure report, which uses data from National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (called the "Add Health") Survey.

While the findings tell us we cannot rely on the quick answers, there is good news. What really matters -- trouble with schoolwork, unstructured free time, unwise choice of friends -- are factors we can do something about. But the findings also point to a troubling paradox. The kids who need adults the most are the very kids we are most likely to ignore�the kids hanging out at the mall, the kids skipping school and acting rowdy on the bus, the ones roughhousing on the street. These are the kids most in danger of turning to high-risk behaviors: alcohol use, tobacco use, suicidal thoughts and attempts, sexual intercourse or involvement with weapons (guns or knives).

If we are going to protect teens from serious risks and keep them safe, we adults are going to have to take the time and effort to get to know them a lot better. But it seems so few adults really like teenagers. Most of us can easily remember moments from our own adolescence that make us cringe. Maybe that explains our impulse to shy away from kids who look like trouble. But if we expect teens at most risk to change their attitudes and shift gears, our first stop should be a look in the mirror.

What 90,000 Teens Tell Us
The Add Health Survey is the nation's most comprehensive, school-based study of the health-related behaviors of adolescents in the United States. In 1995 and 1996, some 90,000 middle and high school students attending 134 schools across the country answered a brief questionnaire about their lives. Administrators from the participating schools completed separate questionnaires about school policies and procedures. Over 20,000 in-home interviews of the students were conducted and a parent of each student interviewed was asked to complete a questionnaire.

Dr. Robert W. Blum, lead investigator of "Protecting Teens," summarized the main findings of his analysis of the Add Health data:


"How young people do at school and what they do with their free time are the most important determinants for every risky behavior we studied�regardless of whether they are rich or poor; white, black or Hispanic; or come from one- or two-parent families. ... The truth is these demographic factors explain very little, with predictive power ranging from 0.5 percent (for suicidal risks) to 9.7 percent for sexual intercourse among 7th and 8th graders ... It isn't that race is irrelevant, the point is that race alone explains very little in behaviors.

"When we remove the demographic 'masks' we see other factors emerge more consistently as associated with high-risk behaviors, namely school failure or not doing well in school, unstructured free time and hanging out with friends engaging in risky behaviors. These factors explain 20 percent to 50 percent of high-risk behaviors.

"Most of the risk and protective factors identified are not unique to a single demographic group, and they are factors we can do something about."

Are Adults Listening?
These major findings should come as no surprise. A teenager who has trouble concentrating in class or who falls behind in homework is already demonstrating difficulty with a major adolescent task�learning. A kid who spends most of his time hanging out with friends is already demonstrating a disengagement from the potentially steadying influence of a larger world that includes adults.

Surely the first adults that need to pay more attention to teenagers are their parents. Parents need to respect adolescent struggles for independence but also to respond to their need for stability, connection and continuity. Indeed, a feeling of closeness or connectedness with a parent was a key protective factor identified in the survey.

But parents alone are not the answer. Those of us not raising teenagers, or those who have already weathered the storm, cannot turn our backs on parents any more than we can turn our backs on teens themselves. If we claim to be a child-centered society, as Dr. Blum pointed out, why do we allow work to overrule parenting duties and at the same time make little provision for places in the community where teens can gather in the presence of caring, attentive adults? If we know teens will "get into trouble" if left on their own, why do we allow them to flounder in communities with unsafe neighborhoods and few resources designed to nurture them?

Most Teens Play It Safe
While many teens are seriously at risk, it's important to remember that most are avoiding dangerous choices. Take a look at the overall numbers:

  • Over half (55 percent) of the 7th to 12th graders in the study said they had never smoked a full cigarette.


  • Just over half (53 percent) reported that they had not had a glass of beer, wine or liquor in the past year.


  • Overall, 26 percent of the sample, representing 5.3 million teens nationwide, reported being involved in weapon related (gun or knife) violence, and the prevalence of weapon-related violence was surprisingly stable across grades 7 through 12 (24 percent to 29 percent).


  • Overall, 12.6 percent of the teens surveyed, representing 2.5 million youth, reported suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past year.


  • Reports of ever having had sexual intercourse increased dramatically with grade, from 16 percent among 7th and 8th graders to 60 percent among 11th and 12th graders.

Not every adult can, or should, become a mentor, "Big Brother," coach or role model. But anyone can advocate for more investment in youth development workers, learning centers, or youth training, arts, and employment services. We can support faith community programs, teen centers, community schools, or neighborhood programs that bring kids and adults together. Those adults who are most comfortable in the worlds of business, politics, government or community action can push for corporate donations, political support, government funds and community chests to pay rent, salaries and supplies for after-school programs, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs.

Safe, well-maintained schools, up-to-date teaching materials and well-trained teachers should be considered bare-minimum requirements in every community, not some unattainable dream. Where is the political and community will to make sure our kids have safe places and caring adults to protect them when they are most in need? We should not rest until we can say that we have them here, in my community and in every community.

Before we say our kids have failed us, let us make sure we have not failed our kids.