You and Your Adolescent: A Parent's Guide for Ages 10-20 By Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine (Harper & Row, New York) $19.95; 417 pp. The "wonder years." Hah! The "thunder years" is more like it. And the amazing thing is that we parents of adolescents seem determined to dutifully muscle our way through them instead of just skipping town until they blow over.
Think about it. Out on the Great Plains, they know enough to head for the storm cellar when a cyclone darkens the horizon. And yet, when it comes to our teenage kids, we insist on spitting into the wind, on trying to establish firebreaks against blazing hormones, on actually sitting at the dinner table and talking with them. We demand that those tortured souls let us help them on their tormented journey from childhood to adulthood. Given that sort of pigheadedness, we need all the help we can get.
Well, here come Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine with a calm, measured book filled with thoughtful advice on everything from pimples to pornography, allowances to alcohol. There are no magic bullets here, no one-size-fits-all solutions. But there are pointers, perspective and reasons for hope.
Above all, the authors say, parents have to remember that " 'Do it because I say so' simply doesn't work with adolescents." First, they say, we need to talk with our kids early and often, explaining our positions, laying out the facts and reasons. And we have to know how and when to ease up.
A sampling of their low-key approach:
On puberty: "Occasional or even frequent egocentricity is not a sign of character flaws . . . These are phases; the adolescent will outgrow them." Along with that reassurance, the authors offer a detailed review of the physical and emotional changes to expect and a host of suggestions on how to cope. There's a list of more than a dozen techniques, for example, to help an overweight young teen lose weight and develop good nutritional habits. And, lest we forget the ultimate bane of those years -- the horror of zits -- there are several pages on controlling and treating acne.
On divorce: "Adolescents tend to see divorce as something you are doing to them . . . They may express their anger in indirect ways . . . Some adolescents revert to childish, immature behavior . . . and thus reassure themselves that they will be cared for . . ." The key to handling the pain is understanding that such emotions and behavior are likely, even necessary, as they struggle to cope. Being prepared to discuss their feelings and actions is critical.
On sex: "Sexual intercourse in early adolescence is not healthy. But in our view, sexual activity in middle adolescence -- in the context of love -- is normal." Many parents obviously will take issue with that assessment, and undoubtedly would not want their children, whether or not they are in love, engaging in intercourse at the age of, say, 15. But all of us can benefit from learning what our kids will be facing and hearing about sexual activity, and the authors do an excellent job of laying out what is likely to be going on.
On drugs and alcohol: On most matters, the authors appear to be endlessly tolerant and understanding, but they draw the line firmly on this issue: "All drugs, including alcohol, should be declared off-limits for the teenager, at least until after high-school graduation." They provide a guide to the danger signs of drug abuse, as well as extended information on specific drugs and their effects and risks so a parent can present hard evidence in arguing against their use. There's also a listing of places to go for information and help.
It all makes for valuable reading -- for the advice rendered, for the sources cited, for the further readings suggested and, perhaps most important, for the opportunity to think through a problem rather than just react to it instinctively and explosively.
If there is a problem with the book, it is the failure to acknowledge the supercharged volatility of parent-child relations. Yes, in a perfect world, we would always be engaged in crisis prevention, not crisis intervention. But, despite our best intentions, there will be times when cool rationality will not be the order of the moment.
In a book that tries to set parents' minds at ease about what is normal behavior for their adolescents, it would be nice to receive occasional absolution from guilt when we blow up, or at least some kind of acknowledgment that our fear and anger are normal.
Few things are more frightening than the prospect of ruining a child's life, or letting him ruin it, because you don't know what to do. When last we really looked to books for help with our kids, we were asking Dr. Spock about diaper rash and croup and the terrible twos. Those were worrisome times, but nothing like the teen years. Sure, we might fret about the long-term effect of botched toilet training. But failing in sex or drug education with your 14-year-old daughter is a whole other matter.
Even so, "You and Your Adolescent" is a helpful, thought-provoking book. And who knows: Maybe with the authors' help, we'll even come to enjoy the, er, wonder years. Nah . . . Let's just settle for surviving them.John Cotter is a senior editor of The Washington Post Magazine.