As children approach the teen years, many parents find their level of worry grows at an alarming pace. You may have heard the expression — little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. After all, adults know all-too-well the decisions young people face, including whether to take a puff of a cigarette, experiment with street drugs or engage in unsafe sex.
The good news is that most kids make it safely through the teen years, despite some bumps along the road. It can also help to understand a few things about the teenage brain. Adolescents are hard-wired to take more risks, seek new and intense sensations, and push parental and societal limits. (Hopefully this will provide some measure of comfort when your teen shows up with green hair and a do-it-yourself haircut!)
In fact, risk-taking is a natural and very important part of growing up. Confronting risk teaches us the consequences of our actions, how to deal with stressors, how to make quick decisions and good choices. However, parents need to remember that while teens are primed to take risks, their brains aren’t so good at judging the consequences of their actions. In fact, the part of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making and impulse control — the prefrontal cortex — isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. That means we need to tailor our parental expectations, guidance and supervision of our teens. Just as we don’t expect our 2-year-old to read, we shouldn’t think our unsupervised 14-year-old won’t eventually get into some kind of trouble.
Parents should also be aware of factors in a teen’s life that may make him or her more likely to engage in risky behaviour. Children who grow up in families where parents drink, smoke, do drugs or gamble are likely to follow the adult’s example. Children who have struggled with learning disabilities or have a history of mental illness are also at increased risk.
Parents of children with some of these risk factors need to pay more attention to their teens and offer a lot of support (including help from health professionals, if necessary).
From an early age, parents should help children develop strong coping skills so they know how to deal with their feelings when faced with some kind of stress, such as an argument with a friend or a bad mark in school. This could take many forms: writing in a journal, shooting hoops on a basketball court, playing guitar, talking with a friend or family member, etc.
Another crucial element in reducing risky behaviour is to talk with your children. Ideally, you’ve been doing this from an early age, but it’s never too late to increase the time you spend communicating with your children. And no, this isn’t about instituting a daily inquisition about your teen’s life. Rather, you want to have an open dialogue about their lives and yours. It will include chats about the mundane — what’s on TV and what you ate for lunch — to discussions about sex, drugs and smoking.
Parents often find it hard to initiate conversations with their pre-teens and teens about difficult subjects. Ideally, this should be done in a relaxed environment, free of email, cell phones and other distractions. It is also better to talk about difficult subjects when neither person is angry or feeling defensive. Try striking up a conversation during an activity (such as doing the dishes or walking the dog) or in the car, so you don’t have to be face to face. Television shows, billboards or songs on the radio can provide natural opportunities to bring up a touchy topic. Ask them for their thoughts and really listen to what they are telling you. Try and save the judgments and lectures for another time.
If you do suspect your teen is developing a problem they can’t handle (see warning signs below), get involved immediately. Studies show that early intervention is critical. If your child’s health is in immediate danger, take them to the Emergency Room at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, where they will be assessed by doctors and mental health professionals. Be aware that in Quebec a child over 14 has the right to confidentiality, but may choose to waive this so you can be present. In other cases, you can turn for help to your pediatrician, family doctor, CLSC or school guidance counsellor.
Making a commitment to truly listen to them may turn out to be the most rewarding part of parenting your teens. Despite all the fears we have about this stage of life, it is also a truly remarkable thing to watch your child grow up into young men and women worthy of our pride.
Warning signs you shouldn’t ignore
Teens are notoriously moody and given to sudden changes in attitudes and behaviour. However, when a troubling behaviour (or several) continues for more than a few weeks, it can be a sign of a more serious problem. That’s when you should consult a health professional to make sure your teen doesn’t need more specific help or support. Here are warning signs you shouldn’t ignore:
- Neglecting appearance/ hygiene
- Sudden change in peer group
- Drop in grades/problems
- at school
- Withdrawal from family
- and friends
- Sudden use of new jargon (for drugs, gambling, alcohol)
- Sudden weight loss
- Behavioural changes:
- becoming aggressive, sullen, defensive, moodiness
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Wearing long sleeves in
- warm weather
- Valuables or money missing
- Glassy or red eyes, unexplained pallor, skin abrasions
Learn about risky behaviours
The Internet can be a valuable source of information about risky behaviours and how to handle them. Here are some places to search for information:
U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) site for parents and teens
Canadians Don’t Do Drugs Society
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada
Youth Gambling Centre
NIAAA – Talk to your child about alcohol