Cool at 13, Adrift at 23
At 13, they were viewed by classmates with envy, admiration and not a little awe. The girls wore makeup, had boyfriends and went to parties held by older students. The boys boasted about sneaking beers on a Saturday night and swiping condoms from the local convenience store.
They were cool. They were good-looking. They were so not you.
Whatever happened to them?
“The fast-track kids didn’t turn out O.K.,” said Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He is the lead author of a new study, published this month in the journal Child Development, that followed these risk-taking, socially precocious cool kids for a decade. In high school, their social status often plummeted, the study showed, and they began struggling in many ways.
It was their early rush into what Dr. Allen calls pseudomature behavior that set them up for trouble. Now in their early 20s, many of them have had difficulties with intimate relationships, alcohol and marijuana, and even criminal activity. “They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,’ ” Dr. Allen said. “They’re still living in their middle-school world.”
As fast-moving middle-schoolers, they were driven by a heightened longing to impress friends. Indeed their brazen behavior did earn them a blaze of popularity. But by high school, their peers had begun to mature, readying themselves to experiment with romance and even mild delinquency. The cool kids’ popularity faded.
B. Bradford Brown, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who writes about adolescent peer relationships and was not involved in the study, said it offered a trove of data. The finding that most surprised him, he said, was that “pseudomature” behavior was an even stronger predictor of problems with alcohol and drugs than levels of drug use in early adolescence. Research on teenagers usually tracks them only through adolescence, Dr. Brown added. But this study, following a diverse group of 184 subjects in Charlottesville, Va., starting at age 13, continued into adulthood at 23.
Researchers took pains to document the rise and fall in social status, periodically interviewing the subjects as well as those who they felt knew them best, usually close friends. About 20 percent of the group fell into the “cool kid” category at the study’s outset.
A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.
As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.
Many attributed failed adult romantic relationships to social status: they believed that their lack of cachet was the reason their partners had broken up with them. Those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted. When their peers were asked how well these young adults got along with others, the former cool kids’ ratings were 24 percent lower than the average young adult.
The researchers grappled with why this cluster of behaviors set young teenagers on a downward spiral. Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.
“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”
Dr. Brown offered another perspective about why the cool kids lost their way. The teenagers who lead the social parade in middle school — determining everyone else’s choices in clothes, social media and even notebook colors — have a heavy burden for which they are not emotionally equipped. “So they gravitate towards older kids,” he said. And those older teenagers, themselves possibly former cool kids, were dubious role models, he said: “In adolescence, who is open to hanging out with someone three or four years younger? The more deviant kids.”
Dr. Allen offered one typical biography from the study. At 14, the boy was popular. He had numerous relationships, kissed more than six girls, flung himself into minor forms of trouble, and surrounded himself with good-looking friends.
By 22, he was a high-school dropout, had many problems associated with drinking, including work absenteeism and arrests for drunken driving. He is unemployed and still prone to minor thefts and vandalism.
But as Dr. Allen emphasized, pseudomaturity suggests a predilection; it is not a firm predictor. A teenage girl from the study initially had a similar profile, with many boyfriends at an early age, attractive friends and a fondness for shoplifting.
Yet by 23, Dr. Allen wrote in an email, “she’d earned her bachelor’s degree, had not had any more trouble with criminal behavior, used alcohol only in responsible ways and was in a good job.”
Dr. Mitchell J. Prinstein, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies adolescent social development, said that while teenagers all long to be accepted by their peers studies suggest that parents can reinforce qualities that will help them withstand the pressure to be too cool, too fast.
“Adolescents also appreciate individuality and confidence,” he said. “Adolescents who can stick to their own values can still be considered cool, even without doing what the others are doing.”
THANK GOD!! It’s just alcohol and marijuana…
The Myth this leads to Heroin really is laughable (As you will know) I worked with kids aged 6 to 21 for 15 years, it’s a bug bear with me when people roll this out. Kids NEED to experiment. I did and we all did as kids. Many, 9/10 realise it’s not for them, the other 1%, if it’s that high go on and experiment more. A fraction end up on Heroin. The populous of the USA is 319,151,000 as of today. I would suggest around 50,000 take heroin. I am being generous with my numbers here.
The average age of a US Teen pregnancy, The rate of abortions among adolescents is the lowest since abortion was legalized in 1973 and 66 percent lower than its peak in 1988. * The teen pregnancy rate is the sum all live births, abortions and miscarriages (or fetal losses) per 1,000 adolescent females ages 15-19 in a given year.
Well that is true and I know you have lots of experience with teen football players. But i am thinking how kids feel invincible and no one makes choices they anticipate as hurtful. Some decisions follow people for a lifetime. Thanks for your perspective.
I remember being 20 and thinking I was indestructible. Then I grew up and seen it other kids. Trying to find words to explain that confidence is a good thing, but it has limits was the easy bit. Getting the kid to actually listen was a hit and miss. Some listened some didn’t. Most of the kids I coached are now aged 18 to 26 now mostly. I am friends with all their parents. Some have turned out like my two sons, just decent young men. Some are on drugs and in jail. I seen this when they were 12 years old, the signs were there that young. When you tell the Parent at the time and they call you “names” and to “Mind your own business” you know that boy has no chance in life. I have many family in prison. One I am very close to. I seen it coming when he was about 12/14 years old. Sadly his Dad didn’t. He does now. Parenting is the key. I plant seeds with my two Daughters Anne. 4 and 5 years old, just small bags of emotions. So we be gentle with them and explain things and plant seeds.
I am told in the end they will judge all men on how I act. So I know I have a job to do. I only hope I can teach them what a REAL man is, what love is, how to respect themselves etc. Dawn and I will do our best. Sadly in the end, the outcome is guesswork. But it helps to give a kid a helping hand… x
Shaun , though so much I just doing the best you can , I have few doubts with your experience in football,in life and love and sensitivity you and Dawn will raise to wonderful girls just as you did with your boys. I think one of the most important aspect is the most important father figure . How wonderful If all dads were as involved and tuned in as you Shaun ! Bravo !