VIDEO: Dr. James Garbarino Talks About the Secret Life of Teenagers and the Lack of Parental Awareness

Watch an exerpt from PsychAlive’s exclusive interview with Dr. James Garbarino.

Dr. James Garbarino talks about a study that reveals how secretive some teenagers can be about themselves.

Dr. James Garbarino: In that Secret Life of Teenagers study, we did find that with males also, there were things that parents didn’t know about.  But, in general, as I recall, the levels of parents not knowing were generally lower than they were for girls, in the sense that for example, “Did you realize you were gay?”  60% of the males said their parents didn’t know.  90% of the girls said their parents didn’t know.  “Are you afraid of people at school?”  The boys, you know, I think it was higher among the girls not knowing.

So there were a lot of secret life of kids going on in both genders.  That’s very clear.  And one of the ones I remember was, “Were you arrested?”  And something like 15% of the boys said they were arrested and something like 65% said their parents never knew.  Which is astounding, in a way.  But there’s testimony to this.

This study began because of Dylan Kleibold, one of the school shooters in Columbine and the Columbine school shooting.  And when we interviewed his parents, it was really striking that they didn’t know a lot about Dylan, but it really wasn’t because they had their heads in the sand.  It was much more that he was so effective at creating this false persona that he represented to the parents and he was really a genius at it.

And it wasn’t just his parents.  You know, he and Eric Harris were caught stealing something from a truck and they were put in a diversion program.  So they saw a probation officer for months and at the end he gave them both A+ and wrote, “ … these are good boys who just did a stupid thing.”  During that same period was when they were buying their guns and building their bombs and planning their attack.  And they completely fooled that guy. And he’s a professional. When I’ve talked about this Secret Life of Teenagers study, often someone will come up afterwards and tell a story like this.

A guy once said to me: You know what you said about the secret life of teenagers? Two months ago, I went to the state capital and the governor handed me drug counselor of the year award.  And four weeks ago, I found out that my son’s been on heroin for six months.

Even professional training isn’t an absolute protection against this because kids are so good and because of the nature of the parent / child relationship, it’s very hard to embrace certain possibilities.  It’s easier as a professional, easier as a teacher, because you don’t have the same emotional investment.  But it can be very, very difficult to do.

And there’s certainly a lot of studies with young children.  Steve Ceci’s work for example, that makes it very clear that most adults, even professionals, cannot reliably tell which children are lying and which ones aren’t.  And he has video tapes that he shows, and you know, “OK.  Here’s two kids.  Which one is lying?”  And nobody reliably gets it right.

The only difference is that the cops are really sure that they’re getting it right.  So their confidence is way off the charts.  But their validity is no better than anybody else’s, which is one reason why there are a lot of people falsely in prison for crimes, some of them, you know, we’ve gotten to meet over the years.

About the Author

James Garbarino, Ph.D. James Garbarino is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Cornell University and at Loyola University Chicago. From 2006-2020, he held the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology and was founding Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago. From 1995-2006, he was Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development and Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Garbarino has served as consultant or advisor to a wide range of organizations, including the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, the American Medical Association, the National Black Child Development Institute, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the FBI. Among the books he has authored or edited are: Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My 20 Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases (2015), Miller’s Children: Why Giving Teenage Killers a Second Chance Matters for All of Us (2018), Children and the Dark Side of Human Experience (2008), See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (2006). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (2002); Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (2001); Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (1999. Dr. Garbarino has won many awards from his work in the fields of trauma and abuse. He serves as a consultant for media reports on children and families. Since 1994, he has served as a scientific expert witness in criminal cases involving issues of violence and children.

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One Comment


Yep, I had no clue my daughter had an entirely different life that I didn’t know about. She had always been my shining star that I would love and protect always and still will.
That blew up in my face when she turned 14.
Yes, I’m the helicopter single parent, so she hid everything she knew would never be okay. Duh.
Lying! The web was so far and deep I realized I had no clue who my kid was. Very disturbing to say the least.
She threatened emancipating herself if I didn’t let her get married. No matter what she was leaving. Was I that bad of a Mother? Imperfect? Of course but “ that bad”.
It would take a full 500 page book to tell what I’ve learned.
Two years ago, after her new husband OMG was assaulting K, she did nothing. CPS and loss of K is now my fault and I have been estranged now.
Sometimes it hurts and I miss her and my grandkids. Other times it’s a relief to be out of the drama. Yes I shove a lot down. I isolate, I do my best to just not think, period.
I tried to at least narrow the chasm.
She’s had a lot of life changes in four years, most heartbreaking.
I realized I couldn’t give unwanted help. That hurts too.
In the end, two years have passed. I keep in contact with my two oldest Grandkids and have figured the best thing to do is give her time ( May be a lifetime) to work her way through her new life, come to grips and mourn her sorrows and find who she really is. I hope she tells me when she does, if she does. She may never be in my life again 🙁 but it’s not my choice.
Christmas card or birthday not asking anything, just saying I’ll always love her, and I will.

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