Adolescence, that time of awkward changes, has itself undergone a metamorphosis. Today's teen-agers face a reality far more grim and risky than the teen-age years remembered by their parents and grandparents.
In trying to help teen-agers deal more successfully with the perils they face, psychologists are undertaking a search to better understand the ways adolescents think and view their world. In the process, the research is challenging many common assumptions about teen-agers that have long guided parents, educators and policy makers.
Among the beliefs being questioned are the view that teen-agers take foolish risks because they feel invulnerable and that adolescents are so heavily influenced by their peers that they are indifferent to moral guidance from their parents.
By improving their understanding of adolescents, psychologists hope to offer parents and teachers more effective ways to deal with teen-agers and to design programs that can help young people navigate a perilous social landscape.
Programs that simply flood teen-agers with information about risks, psychologists have found, are far less successful than those that deliver their messages along with a more general training in the emotional and social skills that allow adolescents, for example, to resist the pressure of their peers, and with consideration for how teen-agers themselves think and see their world.
One common belief questioned by recent findings is that teen-agers see themselves as immune to risk.
In one study, when 199 teen-agers, 12 to 18, and their parents were asked to evaluate the riskiness of a range of activities, the youths and their parents assessed the risks similarly. Parents and teen-agers shared the same bias, tending to see themselves as being less vulnerable than others for a given risk like getting mugged, becoming an alcoholic, or having an auto accident.
"Despite parents' qualms, teens are about as good or bad at appraising risk as are their parents," said Dr. Baruch Fischoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University who has directed many of the studies on risk assessment.
The findings suggest that there are more productive ways to protect teen-agers from risk than arbitrarily restricting their freedom, a losing tactic in the long run.
If adults are to influence teen-agers' decisions, said Dr. Mira Zamansky Levitt, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, "you need to take the time to find out what a given risk looks like from the kids' perspective."
In an ongoing study of attitudes toward drinking and fighting involving more than 450 boys and girls 10 to 16, Dr. Levitt and her colleagues are discovering just why teen-agers do things that seem absurdly risky in the eyes of adults.
"What's so often missing when adults look at kids doing risky things is the emotional significance of the act for the teen-ager's self-concept and relationships," Dr. Levitt said.
These personal meanings of risky actions tend to evolve through a hierarchy of sophistication. To help a teen-ager develop more reasonable views on activities like drinking, Dr. Levitt finds it helpful first to determine at what level a teen-ager's thinking is, and then to "nudge her up the developmental ladder."
Another focus of the new research has been finding the right balance in teen-agers' lives between limits and adult authority on the one hand, and the teen-agers' yearning for independence on the other. The view emerging is that teen-agers, in general, would do better if they were given more say in making their own rules than is typically the case in schools and at home.