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Is my teen a budding terrorist?

Alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhor Tsarnaev Credit: www.news.com.au

As a family psychologist, I hear all kinds of parent worries. This graduation season, I heard a new one.

"My son has been a little alienated and anxious about starting college," explained the mother of a high school senior, before asking me: "I wonder — could he go along with a terrorist act?"

She pointed out that compared to Dzhokhor Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old being held in the Boston Marathon bombing, her son's school record and reputation was far less impressive. “If that [Tsarnaev] kid could do such a thing, could my son?”

While this high school senior has some social adjustment problems, every teen deals with identity issues and cognitive changes as they transition through late adolescence. But since when did parents of high school graduates add terrorism to their list of worries?

Admittedly, life after high school can be tough, whether the graduate is trying to get a job, handle the academic load of college, or just plain juggle the life problems that can erupt and multiply without parental support and supervision. The risks range from difficulties with self-reliance to mental instability and substance abuse. Small wonder that parents perched on the threshold of graduation routinely question their teen’s safety and readiness for what's next.

But the recent high-profile killings in Boston and Connecticut have ratcheted up parental anxiety. Reports that Tsarnaev was well-liked and seemed “normal” to his classmates have triggered questions for parents who thought their teen was doing okay. Most parents don't wonder seriously about terrorism, but many do find themselves asking, Is my kid at risk for falling under bad influences?

For parents who have seen their kid struggling, the specter of the 20-year old Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, who apparently suffered from bullying, developmental problems and social adjustment difficulty, looms particularly large. The reality is that one in every four to five American youths will experience a serious mental disorder at some point in their lifetimes, and most mental illnesses or lethal risk-taking patterns first manifest during emerging adulthood. How worried should parents be about potential disasters during this vulnerable phase?

As shocking as those statistics are, the majority of teens still are doing well. Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University has specialized in the study of 18-25 year olds. Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adults,” has shown that most young adults are adequately adjusted and many are flourishing.

When horrible news of violence perpetrated by teens hits the news feeds, it’s natural to worry. Danger triggers alarms deep in the emotional centers of the brain. The neurons that fire up a storm any time a parent worries about their kid suffering some disaster travel the fast lane to an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala, a structure that alerts us about threats to our survival. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We need to care intensely about the welfare of our babies — even when they are 18-to-25 years old.

Since emerging adult children are usually not under our direct supervision, we may worry even more than when they were younger, especially with the 24/7 media blitz warning about the dangers out there. Our anxiety makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, but that doesn’t mean it actually makes sense.

Only when we calm our reptilian “fight or flight” impulse can we determine with any accuracy whether our kid may actually be at risk, or whether our minds have been hijacked by emotional sensations that may represent a false alarm.

Parents can and should consult professionals if their teens possess risk factors for mental illness, violence and maladjustment. But most parents of high school graduates should spend these days celebrating the milestone rather than obsessing over mass murderers.

We know what young adults need to thrive: close and reliable bonds with caretakers, self-control, academic skills, social and emotional competence, character and physical health, including fitness, sleep hygiene and media literacy. There is plenty of evidence-based research reviewed in my books and others about how parents can optimize their children’s chances for success in college, employment and relationships. Strengths tend to prevail, especially for those young adults fortunate enough to receive ongoing emotional support from their parents.

The other good news is that emerging adulthood is chock-full of opportunity.

The same unbridled appetite for risk that makes this time scary for parents is also channeled to discovery. Young people can be passionate innovators, a potent source for new ideas about saving, exploring and re-inventing the world. That alienated, anxious boy that bounced into my office after his mom finished fretting described his thriving deejay business with great enthusiasm.

Teens can inspire awe if we just take the time to appreciate their many fine qualities without interference from that panic-prone reptilian brain.

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