While it can seem nearly as impossible as herding cats, keeping tabs on teens is a worthwhile parental responsibility. But it’s difficult at best to maintain a balance between being too lax and too intrusive. What it all boils down to is this: Can you monitor your teen’s behavior too much?
Let’s examine this issue in a little more detail.
Know the Risks
First, it’s important to know the risks of allowing teens an all-access pass on whatever behavior suits them at the moment. The reality is that most teens will push for as much freedom as they can get. Lacking family rules and oversight, the situation is ripe for all kinds of behavior that can land teens in trouble – from experimenting with alcohol and drugs, to petty crime to support a growing drug habit, accidents and injuries caused by drug and/or alcohol use, poor grades and getting suspended from school, HIV/AIDS, unwanted sexual activity, pregnancy, and addiction.
It should come as no surprise to parents that alcohol is the most frequently used substance by teenagers in the United States. About half of junior high and senior high school students drink alcohol on a monthly basis, while 14 percent have been intoxicated at least one time in the past year. And 8 percent of teens say they engage in binge drinking – consumption of five or more drinks in a row.
Not only does alcohol interfere with teens’ ability to pay attention, there are numerous other dangers associated with drinking.
· Nearly 2,000 people under the age of 21 die each year in car crashes where underage drinking is involved.
· Half of all the violent deaths of teens involves the use of alcohol.
· Suicide risks increase among heavy teen drinkers. T
· Teens that drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity, have unprotected sex, or sex with a stranger.
· Research shows that the younger a person is when they start drinking, the more likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol or other substances later.
· Anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems can be exacerbated or caused by excess alcohol use.
· Drinking alcohol in excess can also lead to use and abuse of other drugs, including cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.
What can parents do to prevent experimentation with and use of alcohol by their teens? Communication and education is key, say prevention experts. Parents should be clear about alcohol’s negative effects, as well as about their expectations regarding drug use. Talk with your teens about alcohol use that they see as well as how to handle peer pressure to drink and do drugs. Make it clear that alcohol and drugs are off-limits to teens. This proactive type of prevention has been found to significantly decrease alcohol and drug use in teens. In addition, adequate parental or other responsible adult supervision is absolutely necessary – particularly during the hours when teens are home from school and before parents working outside the home return.
Like alcohol, drug use by teens can result in numerous problems, some of which may be life-threatening or result in long-lasting negative consequences. In fact, many of the dangers associated with alcohol use are the same for drug use. There are, however, some specific teen drug use dangers that parents should be aware of.
Depending on how the teen’s body takes in and processes various drugs, substances of abuse can affect many parts of the body. For example, inhalant use can result in permanent brain damage. Stimulants can cause stroke or heart attack. Sedatives can depress breathing. Teens can die from an overdose of drug “cocktails” – mixing multiple drugs, often with alcohol, or by taking drugs that are too potent or laced with other harmful substances.
The same preventive strategies listed for alcohol can be used by parents in communicating with their teens regarding drugs.
In addition, limiting the amount of alcohol, cleaning solutions (the source of inhalants), prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications in the home to amounts that parents can closely monitor and account for has also been shown to decrease teen substance abuse.
How Parents Can Provide More Structure for Teens
There are some things that parents can do to both provide more structure for teens and monitor their behavior with an increased level of confidence.
- Know your teen’s friends – Parents should know all your teen’s friends, as well as their families, if possible.
- Know where your teen is at all times – It should be mandatory that your teen keep you informed of where he or she will be at all times. Don’t settle for a vague, “I’ll be hanging out with my friends.” That’s not specific, and won’t help you locate your teen should you need to or if there’s a panic call for help. Require your teen to give you specific details, including who they’ll be with, where they’re going, what they’ll be doing, if there’ll be responsible adults in attendance, and when they’ll be home. If they can’t or won’t provide the details, don’t allow your teen to go.
- Educate teens on distracted driving – Although the dangers of texting and cell phone use while driving are becoming more well-known, and many states have or are enacting laws prohibiting such behavior, make sure your teen knows the dangers of distracted driving. The obsession of teens to be constantly in touch with their friends by texting, especially, is something that parents need to nip in the bud. If parents see their teens repeatedly violating the law by texting and/or using cell phones while driving, either take away the cell phone or restrict driving privileges – or both.
- Limit Internet use – Establish rules that teens need to abide by for limiting Internet use when parents aren’t home. Educate teens on the dangers of unsafe use of the Internet, and know what your teens are doing when they’re online.
- Encourage an after-school job for your teen – To keep teens busy and out of trouble in the all-important hours of 3 to 6 p.m. when millions of American teens are left unsupervised, encourage your teen to get an after-school job. In the summer, a part-time job can be even more important, since there are many long hours while parents are away at work that teens can wind up doing things that can land them in trouble.
Are You Snooping or Monitoring?
Let’s face it. Parents don’t want to be seen as the enemy. They’ll often go out of their way to be a “friend” to their teens. That’s not always the best way to show leadership. As parents, you need to lead by modeling appropriate behavior. You need to exercise good judgment in any use of alcohol, tobacco or prescription drugs taken for medical purposes and prescribed for you by a doctor. Your teens look to you for example and will incorporate your values, rules and expectations if you clearly lay them out and stick to them.
Part of your role as parents is to closely monitor what your teens are doing, when they’re doing it, and with whom they associate. This isn’t snooping. It’s monitoring. And it’s the only way you’ll have a clue as to what’s going on in their lives.
If you’ve never had a conversation with your teen about the family rules and your expectations about alcohol, tobacco and drugs, now is the time to start. You might think that it’s too late, that any damage has already been done, but that’s not necessarily true. Teens need boundaries and reasonable and effective discipline, and it’s up to parents to make those boundaries known and to enforce them appropriately.
Depending on your current relationship with your teen, the conversation about family rules and your expectations regarding behavior – particularly with respect to alcohol, tobacco and drugs – may be viewed as a welcome discussion, reinforcement of previous conversations, coming out of the blue, no big deal, an invasion of privacy, or that you don’t trust him or her. You may be met with respect and understanding, acknowledgement and acceptance of the family rules, or you could see bewilderment, anger, defiance, mistrust and suspicion.
Dealing with Troubled Teens
If your teen has already been involved in one or more troubling incidents involving drugs, alcohol, difficulties at school, bullying, compulsive Internet or texting, or other behavioral problems, laying down the law may prove to be more difficult for you to do. Parenting experts advise that both parents agree on a course of action and then discuss family rules and expectations of behavior and any penalties for infractions with their teen as a united effort. Be loving and calm, but firm. Be ready to enforce the discipline that you say will be a consequence of your teen’s failure to abide by the family rules and expectations.
Repeated infractions will need to be dealt with, not swept under the rug or ignored as just teen willful behavior. If you need help for a troubled teen, start with your teen’s school counselor. Get a handle on what might be going on at school that may be contributing to your teen’s difficulties. Take your teen to the family doctor for a checkup, to find out if there is any medical condition that may be causing emotional problems that prompted alcohol or drug use or other behavioral problems.
Ask for a referral for teen counseling. If your teen has a problem with alcohol or drugs (or both), seek treatment as soon as possible. Detoxification – the elimination of alcohol and/or drugs from the body – is the first step before active treatment can begin. Then, typical treatment for teens and adolescents involves psychiatric counseling on an individual and group basis. Behavioral modification therapy is often part of such treatment for teens with addictions or problems with substance abuse. There is also family counseling and other activities that are aimed at creating a pattern of positive decision-making and acceptable behavior on the part of the teen.
Many times, teens also have co-occurring mental health disorder and substance abuse – so-called dual diagnosis. They may have depression, anxiety, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or another mental health disorder. If this is the case, a comprehensive and integrated treatment plan should be developed to treat both conditions simultaneously.
Treatment – Residential or Outpatient
If your troubled teen has been experiencing various behavior problems with illegal substances, drug abuse or alcohol, failure in school, suicide attempts or repeated talk of suicide, self-mutilation, for example, treatment in a residential treatment facility may be the best option. A residential treatment facility is just what it sounds like: a licensed facility where teens go while they are being treated by professionals.
Some residential treatment centers are full-time, while others offer partial in-patient treatment. Another option is outpatient counseling – but this is perhaps better suited to a teen with a problem of shorter duration or minimal use. In other words, the longer a teen has been involved with drugs and/or alcohol, the more likely residential treatment will be a better choice than outpatient counseling. If a teen has just begun to experiment with alcohol or marijuana – not heroin or cocaine or other narcotics – perhaps outpatient counseling will be effective.
How to Find Treatment for Teens
Start your search for treatment facilities for teens with drug or alcohol problems by using the Treatment Facility Locator (//dasis3.samhsa.gov/), maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). There is also a toll-free treatment referral helpline, 1-800-662-HELP, that you can call.
Here’s how to use the locator. Click on your state on the map. On the page that displays, enter your city and state (required information) and click “Continue.” The search will return listings of treatment facilities within a maximum of 100 miles of the city and state you entered. Scan through the treatment facility listings to find those that treat adolescents (special programs/groups), as well as the primary focus (such as mix of mental health and substance abuse services), and services provided (such as detoxification and substance abuse treatment).
You can also use “List Search.” Again enter city and state and click “Continue” to specify the kinds of facilities to select. On the page that displays, check the boxes for primary focus, service provided, type of care, and check “adolescents” in special programs/groups. If you need payment assistance, check the boxes for “sliding fee scale” and/or “payment assistance.”
Use the information returned in the searches to get more detail on the treatment facility that you’re interested in. Go to their website. Call and ask questions. Find out if your private health insurance covers treatment for your teen. If you’re satisfied with the answers, and it’s at all possible, go to visit the treatment facility to see it first hand and talk with the people there about getting help for your teen.
Helping Teens to Grow Responsibly and Safely is Parents’ Role
We’ve pretty much come full circle on the issue of whether you can monitor your teen’s behavior too much. A lot of how your monitoring will be perceived depends on your attitude as parents. If you come down too hard and start accusing your teen of using drugs or alcohol, for example, without the facts, you risk alienating him or her and losing your chance to help remedy the situation.
If, however, you’ve taken the opportunity to sit down with your teen and discuss how you want to ensure that he or she grows up responsibly and safely – and begin the conversations about family rules and behavior expectations regarding alcohol, tobacco and drugs – you’ll be doing the best thing you can to lay the foundation for development of your teen’s healthy behavior patterns and responsible decision-making.
One word of caution. If your teen is heavily into social networking, has a Facebook page, is on Twitter and other social networks, be sure that you aren’t a stranger to what is posted. Many younger teens, particularly those 13 and 14 years old, start to use profanity and sexually explicit language in their postings, post sexually explicit photographs – something you’d never expect and would be shocked to learn about. How do you counter this? Get your own Facebook account, become friends with your teen, and view what he or she posts on the Wall. Better you learn about this yourself so that you can take some proactive steps to ward off potential trouble down the line. While it may seem like snooping, it really isn’t. After all, you have to be accepted as a friend to see what your teen is saying on Facebook. And, just knowing that you’re monitoring your teen’s Facebook page may prompt a positive change in behavior.