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Book Review: The Adolescent Owner’s Manual by David Laing Dawson, MD

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In The Adolescent Owner’s Manual, author David Laing Dawson does not just explain what adolescents’ caregivers can expect behaviorally and emotionally from their tweens and teens, but also explains — in extremely easy to understand language — the biological and developmental reasons behind many of the problems facing parents and others dealing with adolescents. Dawson draws on scientific knowledge as well as his experiences both as an adolescent and the parent of adolescents.

The Adolescent Owner’s Manual is a guide to understanding, coping with, and controlling (when necessary) the alien behaviors that so many adolescents exhibit. While many of us puzzle over why they are so fearless or why they can’t “just tell the truth,” others have more serious worries.  A chapter titled “Is Something Wrong with My Teenager?,” tackles bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), ADD (attention-deficit disorder), anxiety disorder, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and schizophrenia. In explaining how each of these disorders and mental illnesses present and the criteria for diagnosis, Dawson provides a basis for determining if “bad behavior” requires professional medical or psychiatric intervention.

Dawson also provides answers to frequently asked questions about cars (and other motor vehicles — boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles), shoplifting and other stealing, cutting and self-mutilation, preoccupations with the morbid, anorexia and bulimia, sex and pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity, and drugs and alcohol. Volumes have been written on each of these topics, and — undoubtedly — volumes more will be written. The brief introductions to them are designed to provide information about the behaviors and attitudes involved, direction, and possible intervention.

Most adults seeking enlightenment on an adolescent child’s behavior are not faced with the extremes of mental illness, eating disorders, or criminal acts. Their questions tend to be more oriented to “why does my child…” and “what can I do about it?” The Adolescent Owner’s Manual thoroughly explains factors that contribute to the “whys” and suggests a number of “whats,” but more importantly it reminds adults that context is important. When we can’t understand why a kid does something that we’d never do, we are comparing apples to oranges — kids and adults don’t think the same way, are not even wired the same way. We are also reminded that our children are not us; there are a myriad of differences from temperament to societal, including the times in which we went through adolescence and now. Kids growing up in a different world than we did are going to experience life — and react to it — differently than we did.

Sometimes timing is the most important element in a situation. I am thrilled that I came across The Adolescent Owner’s Manual exactly when I did because, as a Guardian Ad Litem, I am involved in a case where lying was a major factor in preventing us from moving forward. Adults were having a difficult time with this, because it was in the client’s best interest to tell the truth¸ but that seemed impossible. Having read Dawson’s explanations of why kids lie, and how natural it is for them, gave me a better understanding of the situation and removed a stumbling block.

The Adolescent Owner’s Manual is a thin volume that is crammed with useful information for anyone (parents, teachers, guardians, counselors, etc.) who lives or deals with adolescents. It is practical information that is not easily found in Child Psych or Abnormal Psych texts, but is a superb introduction to problems with kids and kids with problems. It does exactly what a guide should do — points the reader in the right direction.

Bottom Line: Would I buy The Adolescent Owner’s Manual? Yes. It has earned a permanent place in my library.

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