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Why, Despite The Statistics, I Still Worry About My Kids

Let's do the time warp again...or not.
Let's do the time warp again...or not.

It shouldn't be this way. My daughters are happy, healthy, smart, active girls. They have loving parents, extended family, close friends and a great school.

They even have new, comforting statistics on their side that should quell my anxiety. Studies show that today's adolescents are more conservative and less likely to engage in risky behavior. Compared to our generation, they're having less sex, smoking pot less often and consuming less alcohol and illegal drugs, Tara Parker-Pope reports in Sunday's New York Times.

But another piece in the Sunday Times — an essay by Nancy Rommelman about growing up in Brooklyn in the 70s — illustrates why I continue to worry.

Nancy was a few years older than me and a little more wild (I was never "asked to leave" the progressive private school we both attended). But her accounts of nonchalant drug use, loitering on Montague St. and hanging out with "bad" boys from other neighborhoods ring all too familiar.

She writes:

The city is a fantastic playground in 1976, ’77. My best friend and I crash gay discos. We wear our hair up because it is said that Son of Sam targets girls with long brown hair. We wear short shorts and halters and smoke Newports and eat Hostess cherry pies when we get the munchies. There is no need for school, no need to go home. I want to stay out forever.

My friends and I didn't crash gay discos for our transgressions — we went to the midnight show of Rocky Horror or crowded onto the roof of my father's apartment. Still, it's essentially the same flashback.

So while the statistics about overall declines in risky behavior are clear, my memories of all the trouble we brushed up against as kids are even clearer.

I asked Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University who studies anxiety why, for me at least, personal experience trumps statistics pretty much every time.

"Statistics," Otto said, "tend not to be salient. What's salient are the personal stories, and those can distort the probability of bad outcomes and negative events."

That makes sense. When it comes to intrigue, my own adolescent near-disasters definitely prevail over the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey. But this fact doesn't allay my anxiety.

Of course it doesn't. Otto says people who suffer from anxiety and related disorders tend to fixate more on the qualitative possibility of a bad thing happening rather than the quantitative probability of it happening.

Also, he said, we naturally tend to have allegiances to one way of framing things over another. Some, like my engineer husband focus on statistical evidence, while others (like me, a person who tells stories for a living) give more credence to stories.

Either way, there are strategies to overcome our innate tendencies.

In my case, Otto says, I can "step around a particular narrative" by restating it. So I can say things like: "My daughters aren't me," or "Times are changing," or "This isn't Brooklyn and there's no drug dealer lurking around the corner."

All of those things are true. And maybe if I say them again and again, in small moments and over years, by the time my girls rebel, I'll worry a tiny bit less.

This program aired on February 7, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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