When it comes to parenting teenagers, it may seem like a three ring circus. Sex, drugs, and the pop music scene all threatening to undo all the hard work you’ve done until this point to help guide your children to grow up into responsible and safe young adults. During the teenage years, though, it is as if your children develop an allergy to you and most other adults. It can be scary for parents, wondering who their impressionable teens are trusting and listening to. As teens appear to reject their parents, parents can start to feel lost and without a role, and a hands off “hope for the best” attitude sometimes takes over.
It might help to keep in mind that just as infants or toddlers have very specific tasks they achieve as they grow (for example learning to walk or talk), teens are still very much developing along emotional, psychological and even physical axes.
Some of the major developmental tasks of adolescence include:
• Psychologically and emotionally separating from parents
• Creating their own identity
• Developing both independence from parents or parenting figures while forging meaningful and interdependent relationships with peers
Seeming to coincide with one another, these tasks push parents away just as many parents become aware of the new and significant dangers adolescents face. Some of these dangers, parents begin to realize, may lurk in their own homes, in terms of alcohol and prescription medicines. How can a parent keep their teens safe from legal but potentially abused substances?
The short answer is that you build the foundation for this eventuality from day one. It’s your job, parents, to lay the ground work for good decision-making by teens and young adults throughout your kids’ childhood. How can a parent do that?
A two-pronged approach works well:
• Develop a close, trusting bond with your child
• Teach, role model, and provide opportunities for them to practice age-appropriate decision-making skills
Developing a close trusting bond does take time. It is never too late, though, so don’t panic even if your child hasn’t always lived with you, or you are parenting a foster or grandchild. Balance time spent doing things with your child such as insisting on eating dinner together every night with time spent allowing your child to spend time alone and/or with peers. A nice way to bond is to share cooking chores as a way of involving your teen in the process. It not only fosters self-esteem in them, it allows you to observe their critical decision making skills. Make sure you know your children’s friends and their parents, and the adults they are living with. Demonstrate interest in your child’s extra-curricular activities and make sure you show up for games or competitions. If your child has trouble identifying hobbies or activities they enjoy, help them explore options. Teenagers shouldn’t flounder. Left to their own imaginations, they may not make the choices you want or that they should be making.
Sometimes bonding with your children seems as natural and easy as can be, but with some children, basic personalities can be so different that this is a monumental task. If you and your child have always been “oil and water,” try to stay open to the fact that a new developmental stage, and the changes that you and your teen will go through may end up making things better between you two. This new stage shouldn’t be seen as a chore, but rather a goal that both of you are putting equal amounts of nurturing to make it a success.
Role Models and Limit Setters
How can you role model healthy behaviors that will help “vaccinate” your child against substance abuse or other problems? To start with, assume that your teen is watching your behavior closely (even though they would probably deny this vigorously). What are your own limits and behaviors around alcohol and other substances? There are some “dos and don’ts” that might be helpful.
• Get drunk in front of your teen
• Joke about getting drunk or high, whether or not you actually did. Don’t banter about this with friends, on Facebook, or anywhere else. For now, it isn’t appropriate.
• Drink and drive at all, even if you “only had one” or you think you might still be ok
• Hang onto leftover medication for “just in case” situations. Dispose of any leftovers properly.
• Use illegal drugs or engage in illegal activities involving drugs
• Show teens that small amounts of alcohol can be an enjoyable aspect of a meal or celebration and do not need to lead to anything more
• Deal with stress in a proactive and self-affirming way, showing your kids that you can change your mood or deal with problems using positive coping skills
• Develop and enjoy a lifestyle that involves all kinds of activities, and share these with your family
• If you have a problem that you have not yet addressed such as an addiction, address it. Seek help and admit that you have a problem. This type of humble and honest admission of your own flawed human nature can be life changing for teens. They know you have a problem; they’ve lived with you all their lives. Admitting it won’t make you look small to them. It will make you look brave.