The Post-Millennial Normal

Today in our DBT consultation team, we were discussing impulsivity in teenagers and how that plays into the enormous social pressure they feel to curate an online identity. With regard to certain adolescent behaviors that might be considered inappropriate or even illicit, Dr. Vaughn offered the following bit of wisdom:

Be careful not pathologize normal behavior. A red flag isn’t always a symptom. We don’t want to label everything as problematic when some things should just be considered normal teenage risk-taking behavior.

Of course, she wasn’t excusing problematic behavior. She was merely recognizing that it requires a certain level of savvy in order to tell the difference. After all, the post-millennial generation currently going through adolescence are digital natives who never knew a world before social media, and a huge part of their identity formation takes place online and in public. They are the first generation in history to face immediate and sometimes serious consequences for behavior that previous generations took for granted.

They have Instagram, Snapchat, and a myriad of other formats — all digital, ubiquitous, and often impossible to permanently erase. At most, previous generations had Polariods — analog, singular, and simple to destroy. An impulsive decision to document illicit behavior with a Polaroid is infinitely less precarious than the same decision on Snapchat.

The technology gap between the generations has to be acknowledged. Their normal is not our normal, and when assessing adolescents, it’s absolutely critical to contextualize their behavior by their peer’s standards and not our own. Otherwise, we run the risk of pathologizing normal teenage risk-taking behavior which can damage the therapeutic relationship and lead to inefficient treatment.

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