By Samurai Mom
It seems like every week brings a fresh news story to stir parent anxiety about the risks teens face. If it’s not an article about rising opioid addiction, then it’s dating violence or cyberbullying or drunk driving or teen pregnancy. Yikes! The world is changing fast, and technology brings more outside influences into your teen’s life than ever before. Some of the risks we navigate with our teens are unique to this time, while others are perennial struggles of adolescence.
So what are the 5 best parenting practices most likely to raise a strong teen? The Centers for Disease Control identify five important parent behaviors that help shore up your teen’s resistance to negative influences. Some are surprising.
Research shows that strengthening these practices give your teen the best chance to grow up healthy, responsible and strong:
- Parental monitoring
- Father influence as well as a mother’s involvement
- Communication about sex and openness to sexual orientation
- One-on-one access to a healthcare provider
- Connection with school
The CDC frames these parent moves as protective factors, and defines them as “…individual or environmental characteristics, conditions, or behaviors that reduce the effects of stressful life events”. And isn’t most of adolescence stressful in one way or another? This approach is all part of a renewed focus on helping teens avoid problems in the first place.
You would have guessed it even without the mention above – keeping track of your teen’s world is the single most important parenting practice. While it’s important that your teen begins to stretch into their newfound independence, we need to remember that they’re not all grown up yet. Teens ride an emotional seesaw, teetering between child and adult. Have you ever watched your teen pitch a tantrum worthy of a 5-year-old? Then, an hour later, the same kid asks politely for a driving lesson.
It’s unnerving, right?
In our family, it’s just a tiny bit eerie that I never know if it’ll be the kid or the emerging adult who’ll greet me in the morning. And it may be someone else by lunch.
In parenting the chameleon teen, we know that the decisions they make from day to day will reflect this developmental shift into adulthood. Their ability to predict the consequences of their actions can also be vulnerable to peer pressure and changing circumstances.
All of this makes sense when you consider that the teen brain is not fully formed into age 25. That’s the age the prefrontal cortex, that critical piece for self-regulation, is complete.
So, bottom line, we still need to know who their friends are and what they’re doing. In study after study, data suggest that avoiding risky behaviors like teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use can be minimized by your engagement in your teen’s world.
At a minimum, you should know:
- Where they are
- Who they’re with
- What they’re doing
- When they’ll be back
- How much supervision is involved
Make regular check-ins a standard routine – while teens are out, ask them to let you know how they are from time to time. It’s reasonable and necessary. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.
Here’s a tip to help extract your teen from a risky peer situation: agree on a code phrase your teen can say or text to you without friends’ knowing. Let your teens lay the blame on you. It’s easier for a teen to bow out of an uncomfortable situation involving alcohol, drugs or sex if they have a ready-made excuse involving a “mean” mom or dad.
Once you’re alerted by a code phrase, you can send a response back a text to your teen that there’s an emergency and that you need to pick them up immediately. The downside to this secret plan is the limited frequency that your teen can use it before a group catches on. Still, it’s good for a couple of “rescues” at least, maybe at a time when your teen is most vulnerable to trying something unhealthy.
Clear expectations and follow-up – the protective factors of attentive parenting are strengthened with the trust and communication that you develop with your teen over time. Try to shore up the trust between you before a crisis hits. This will give you spendable currency to work through tougher stages in your teen’s development.
Consequences consistently enforced – If your teen breaks a family rule, the consequence should be fair, fit the infraction and immediately enforced.
News Flash! Dad’s Influence Complements Mom’s
It’s clear that moms take the most heat for kids’ behavior, problems and outcomes. Science has followed the lead of society in sponsoring the many studies that have been hyper-focused on a mother’s influence as a protective factor. Let me just say that mothers are awesome. In my opinion, single mothers are near-heroic.
But there’s a neglected area of family research that’s finally getting some love: fathers are getting their due in the eyes of the CDC and family psychologists, thanks to research which establishes the effects of an engaged father in the lives of their sons and daughters.
Though a positive dad influence impacts a teen in many areas, the 2012 study found that a father’s communication with teens about sexual risk behaviors tends to delay the age of a teen’s first sexual encounter and results in more responsible sexual behavior overall in preventing HIV, STDs, and pregnancy.
Ongoing Communication about Sexual Health
Considering how many risks are involved when teens become sexually active at a young age, this is powerful stuff for dads [and moms], but…how to have those conversations? If you dread having discussions with your teen about sex, you’re not alone.
In our family, It’s been one of the most difficult topics to explore, especially when one of us plugs our ears and runs from the room, singing, “ la-la-la-la”. Oh, wait. That was me.
Luckily, the Centers for Disease Control have us covered in showing how impactful these ongoing conversations can be on teen health. If you’re like me and need a bit more hand-holding, you can find some actual instruction here to get these discussions rolling. Jokes aside, open communication about sex and the human body, in general, tend to get easier over time. Really.
Acceptance is Key
Researchers have also pointed out that a father’s influence is at least as important as the mother’s in overall acceptance of a child – the more acceptance on the part of the mom and dad, the more well-adjusted a teen becomes. And well-adjusted teens are more resistant to the stressors of adolescence that may push them in negative directions.
Parents’ acceptance of their teens’ emerging self includes an openness about sexual orientation. The teens with the healthiest self-image are raised in families with unconditional love, and this goes for those teens who identify as straight, lesbian, gay and bisexual. It may reduce the need for your teen to look for validation outside your family and decrease the likelihood that they will explore their sexuality in high-risk situations.
Regular One-on-One Time With a Healthcare Provider
Try as you might to keep those conversations flowing, there may be topics that teens may want to raise with a doctor, nurse or a physician’s assistant. It can be helpful to get factual information from a neutral professional who won’t know that she slept with a blankie until she was ten. Try to make these expert consultations a regular habit and be ready to excuse yourself to give your teen the space to advocate for her own health.
Connection with School
I know, this one seems a given. The tried and true home-school connection has huge implications for getting – and keeping – teens on a productive track. Yet, parent involvement commonly drops off during middle and high school. Staying connected to your teen’s teachers can bring benefits in ways that you may not predict.
I don’t mean that you should smooth out any conflict your child has with teachers or do any other helicopter-parenting things. We’re also teaching self-advocacy skills here.
Just be connected – post club/athletic meeting schedules on the fridge; show up at games; talk to your teen about school; work on a committee in the PTO; attend special events and parent-teacher conferences that help you get to know the staff and keep an eye on your teen’s grades.
Your teen probably won’t admit this, but this stuff still matters.
The school connection as a protective influence against risky behaviors is also determined by the degree that your teen perceives that school staff cares about him. I know many teachers who work hard to build a warm school climate. Social-emotional learning programs are gaining momentum in many schools to support the power of positive relationships between staff and students. A test of caring that we hear often in our professional development is this: does the student feel a positive connection with at least one adult in the building? We can do better than one adult. How about five? Or ten? And what would happen if kids felt a positive connection to most of the teachers in the school? Ask the staff at your teen’s school how they build advisory relationships with students.
We may think that we have little control in the direction of our kids’ lives as they become older. Society, the rise of technology and teens themselves may encourage us to pull back and let them take the reins completely. Yet, brain research and these trends confirm that teens still need parenting. The studies highlighted by the CDC and others shows we have more influence than we realize.
Notice how many of these protective factors hinge on things you can improve as a parent.
Try this: Look back over these practices and make a list of the ones you can work on in the next week:
- Improve communication with your teen?
- Increase the trust between you?
- Accept them for who they are?
- Get involved in your teen’s school to strengthen a home-school partnership?
- If you’re a single mom without a dad in the picture, you may be concerned about your teen missing some of that protective father influence. Here are some ideas about providing a positive male role model for your teen.