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Normal Teens Not 'Ticking Time Bombs'

September 21, 2004
Regular Guys bookjacket

Contrary to the psychoanalytic theory that children who appear to be well adjusted as adolescents are actually “ticking time bombs,” most normal teenagers adapt to and benefit from life experiences, a Northwestern University study has found.

“As adults, these people do not struggle with raging impulses. Without much turmoil, they find a balance early in life between personal desires and drives and the expectations of their family and society,” said Daniel Offer, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Offer is one of the authors of “Regular Guys,” a new book that describes a long-term study of psychological development from adolescence to middle age in a group of normal males.

In their book, Offer and co-authors Marjorie Kaiz Offer and Eric Ostrov show that the balance described above is achieved naturally and without storm and strife, is robust and stable and probably characterizes the vast majority of persons.

The Northwestern study evaluated 67 normal, mentally healthy, suburban males initially in 1962, when the boys were 14, and in 1997, when the men were 48. 

At follow-up, in which an unprecedented 94 percent of the original group participated, the study demonstrated that normal teenagers had no hidden pathology and continued to show good adjustment after 34 years. At age 48, they had good relationships with their parents, spouses and children. They felt good about their work and had good self-esteem.

The passage of time seemed to obviate differences in types of functioning during adolescence, the researchers found.

Those who were less stable or in greater turmoil as adolescents turned out to be as stable as those who, as teenagers, were more stable or in less turmoil.

“This does not mean, however, that these men had sailed through life without experiencing significant adversity and painful emotional challenges. Each faced difficulties, such as divorce, death of a spouse or parents, illness or loss of a job,” Daniel Offer said.

Furthermore, the men were not consistently positive in all aspects of functioning, the researchers noted. A significant percentage were obese, used marijuana or drank too much alcohol. On the other hand, the percentage of participants who showed these behaviors was not appreciably different from their middle-class male contemporaries, according to U.S. national data.

Another aspect of normality was the authors’ discovery that significant differences were found between adult memories of adolescence and what was actually reported during adolescence.

“Our data show that there is essentially no correlation between what our subjects thought and felt about their adolescence and what they actually thought and felt as adolescents. They tended to remember themselves in a stereotypical way rather than how they actually were,” the authors said.

For example, 44 percent of the men “remembered” that when they were teenagers, they believed that it was O.K. to have sex during high school. However, only 15 percent of the participants felt this way when they were questioned as teenagers.

The authors emphasized that no ostensible psychopathology was found at any point in any of the study participants. Rather, one of the book’s major findings is that the normality of these men, shown over 34 years earlier, persisted, refuting the “insistent theorists of adolescent turmoil and disarray.”

Marjorie Kaiz Offer is a research assistant in the department of psychiatry and behavorial sciences at the Feinberg School. Eric Ostrov is a forensic psychologist in private practice in Chicago.

Topics: Research