June 2019

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Parenting Teens

Guiding Kids Through Turbulent Years

The teenage years are filled with change. Body, mind, and feelings are maturing quickly. Teens are also learning about who they are and who they want to become. To do that, they need to try new things. But that means taking risks.

“Parenting during the teen years can be a very exciting but also a really risky time,” explains Dr. Kevin Haggerty, an NIH-funded prevention researcher at the University of Washington.

That’s because a teen’s brain is still developing and is extra sensitive to emotion and to things that feel good. The parts of the brain that control impulses and rational decision-making are still being formed.

“That creates a perfect storm for quick addiction,” Haggerty explains. It puts teens at higher risk for alcohol, drug, and tobacco use, high-risk sexual behavior, and risky driving choices. They’re also more likely to experience mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.

Teens can make unhealthy food choices and neglect physical activity. Most don’t get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need each night. But certain parenting strategies can help guide kids toward healthier and less risky choices.

“Keeping lines of communication open, monitoring and knowing your children’s peers, and staying engaged and connected as a parent are the key ways to reduce risk,” explains Dr. Beth Stormshak, an NIH-funded psychologist at the University of Oregon.

Stormshak and Haggerty have studied different parenting programs designed to reduce risky teen behavior. Their research and other studies have shown that some strategies can help.

Build a Positive Relationship

Creating a positive, trusting relationship with your kids is key. It makes them more likely to listen to your advice and follow your rules.

“Positive parenting really means forming a positive relationship with your child that’s focused more on praise, support, and incentives and less on negative things like yelling, criticizing, or nagging,” explains Stormshak. “If you could choose one thing to do differently with your teenager, that would be it.”

You can create a more positive relationship by spending quality time with your teen. Listen to what they’re thinking and feeling. Show interest and concern over their problems. That helps them feel more connected with you.

It’s important to stay calm when they share, and respect differences of opinion. That helps build trust. It also gives you the chance to teach them how to problem solve. Sharing your experiences rather than lecturing helps build better communication.

You can build stronger bonds with your teen by recognizing and rewarding their positive behaviors. Give them opportunities to learn new things. Tell them when they’re doing well.

It’s also a good idea to have your kids be a part of the discussion about expectations for the family. That helps create positive, open communication and keeps everyone clear on the rules.

Making sure you have good communication with your teen will help you catch problems early, support positive behavior, and better monitor their life.

Keep in Touch

As your kids age, you’re with them less often. That makes building trust and good communication important. Your ability to know what’s going on in their lives largely depends on what they’ll share with you.

“Monitor what’s going on with your adolescent in ways that don’t destroy bonding or connecting, but in ways that promote it,” Haggerty says. “Have conversations, ask questions, know who your kids’ friends are, have conversations with your kids’ friends. So much of these things take place, not in a face-to-face conversation, but in a casual conversation when you’re walking or talking or in a car or listening when you’re driving kids around, and being aware of what’s going on in your kid’s life.”

Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton, a public health expert at NIH, has found that kids who have more friends who drink alcohol are more likely to do so themselves. In fact, peer influence is one of the highest predictors of teen drinking.

“As teens get older, they spend more time with peers. The parent influence wanes while the peer influence increases,” he says.

Talk with your teen about what qualities to look for in a friend, like being honest, respectful, and involved in school, and not acting in dangerous or unhealthy ways.

Studies have found that parents’ expectations and support can affect their kid’s choices into early adulthood. Teens with parents who are more involved in their lives have less alcohol and drug use and safer sexual behaviors.

Set Limits and Consequences

Parents can also help teens avoid risky behavior by setting clear limits and expectations ahead of time and consistently following through with consequences.

“We find that parenting matters even the year after high school,” explains Simons-Morton. His studies have found that young adults whose parents had high expectations for them to not abuse alcohol were less likely to increase how much they drank after high school.

Start telling your child early on what your expectations are about drinking, drugs, driving, and sexual behavior. Encourage them to eat healthy and get enough exercise. And keep talking about your expectations and values throughout their teen years. Be consistent with praise and rewards when they follow the rules.

Setting consequences your teen will care about is another important part of parenting. That can mean different things depending on the teen. Privileges like cell phones, video games, spending time doing their favorite hobby or sport, or driving may work to encourage good behavior.

“In adolescence, you’re trying to figure out who you are,” Stormshak explains. There’s no guarantee you can help your teen avoid risky choices. But sharing your values and expectations and talking about how their choices can affect their life can help guide them toward better options. See the Wise Choices box for some tips on parenting teens.

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