Demystifying the Teenage Mind
PROFESSOR’S RESEARCH SHEDS LIGHT ON THE NUANCES OF ADOLESCENT BEHAVIOR
Associate Professor of Psychology Sara Villanueva has a well-rounded appreciation for the challenges of parenting teens. As a psychology researcher, she specializes in adolescent development; as a mom of four, she has plenty of hands-on experience. She recently released a book, The Angst of Adolescence, which pulls from both areas of expertise. We asked her to tell us more about her teaching and her research.
Initially, I wanted to teach high school psychology, but I found my true home teaching at the undergraduate level. St. Edward’s is a “teaching school” — teaching is at least as much of a focus as research — and that’s very important to me. I love that I can get students involved in my lab, too, and I do my best to treat them as colleagues, not just student workers.
In graduate school, I studied teens’ behaviors around conflict with parents and, specifically, respect for parental authority as it varied by ethnic group and cultural belief systems. This research was the basis for my doctoral dissertation. It was an observational study that involved over 350 mother-daughter dyads. These days, by necessity, much of my research is focused on older adolescents simply because I have access to college-age students.
My interest in adolescent psychology started during my undergrad studies and was reinforced when I worked first at a psychiatric hospital at the adolescent unit and then as an at-risk counselor at a junior high school. The teenage years are such a transitional period, so lanky and awkward — kids at this age are reaching monumental milestones. And studying adolescence lets me make a very real difference in people’s lives.
I talk to parent groups and groups on the other side of the spectrum, probation officers and judges, and the most gratifying thing for me is when I can inform them about the latest research in the academic world. For example, one of the reasons why teenagers can’t wake up in the mornings is because their internal sleep schedules are shifting. That’s normal and it’s just part of adolescence. It’s not that these kids are doing anything wrong.
As scientists, we’re good at talking to each other — but often our research doesn’t get to the people who really need it. That’s what motivated me to write my book. Existing books on parenting teens mostly fall into two categories: “mommy bloggers” commiserating about the experience or heavy academic research that the average parent isn’t going to get through. I wanted to draw on my studies as a psychologist so I could give parents information that will really help them.
Between teaching, my lab work, overseeing all my teaching assistants and research assistants, and taking care of my four kids — I have very long days. It’s hard work, and I love it. Every single second is worth it.
Looking for insights on parenting teens? Villanueva offers some helpful advice on 4 Ways to Influence Your Teen’s Choices.
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