I once heard a story about what the Inuit people do to teach their children how to react if they run across a polar bear to prevent an attack. Their approach is surprising useful, even to those who live far from the Arctic or any threat from polar bears. Inuit parents practice with their children. They prepare them for possibilities that could be threatening. The parents have rules and they enforce them. Not to do so could be fatal.
We have our own “polar bears” in the form of those many risks we hear about nearly every day – alcohol, cyber predators, accidents, communicable diseases…You know them well. We want to keep our teens as safe as possible – wrap them in protective gear and wait it out until they are 18, or 21 or maybe forever! But our teens need to learn to make their way in the world, even one that includes every imaginable risk. So how can we help our teens avoid dangerous risks? The secret is how we parent them.
It’s fairly simple to describe what to do to help your teen avoid dangerous risks; it’s harder to actually do it. And some teens (not most) are hard-wired to take big risks – their brains simple require more drama in order to feel rewards, and they are more sensitive to the opinions of their peers. Nevertheless, the suggestions outlined below provide a good start at the kinds of things parents can do to limit the risk-taking behavior of teens:
- Learn what the interests, skills, talents and dreams of your teen are. Find what sparks their enthusiasm and seek ways to support their pursuits. Boredom might sound like an excuse but it is a real reason why some teens turn to drinking and drugs. As a teen, being engaged in things you find fascinating helps prevent and relieve boredom. Being engaged in things your parents find fascinating doesn’t.
- Have a few key rules; explain and enforce them with consequences. This might include rules about home and school responsibilities such as chores, homework, and checking in/out with you when coming and going. It might also include behavior when not under your direct supervision, such as use of electronic devices, harmful substances, and sexual activity. These examples help to give structure and guidance to your teen. Yet too many rules can undermine their need for autonomy and freedom. Things such as hair style, room décor, sports, clubs or other activities, and choice of friends should be negotiated as needed but aren’t rules.
- Encourage problem-solving by regularly asking teens questions to prompt them to come up with good solutions, instead of simply telling them what to do. For example, “What will you need or want at the beach? That sunburn you got last time was painful” rather than “Don’t forget your towel and sunscreen.” Or “How will you feel if Mr. Connors is drinking before he drives you home? What could you do instead?” rather than “If Mr. Connors is drinking, you better call me for a ride…or else!” Teens might know something is a bad idea but they need to feel it and practice it in order to make good decisions.
- Disagree, argue, or quarrel with your teen. Didn’t expect this one, did you? Research shows that teens want and need to share their emotions with you ….all of them. Give them air! Teens want you to recognize their emerging abilities to think, sort, and imagine. They just don’t want you rubbing it in their face. In other words, have that disagreement, sort it out together, and move on. Even if you don’t work it out, you can see an argument as an opportunity to learn more about your teen rather than an opportunity to prove yourself right. If you don’t know how to argue without getting heated or nasty, learn the skills to resolve conflict and help your teen learn them too. You could even read a book or take a class together on the process.
- Accept that a teen is probably not going to tell you everything. Teens’ psychological need to become their own unique person may mean that some things are too personal, too embarrassing, or just “not your business.” Also, most teens don’t want to disappoint their parents and may withhold information to avoid threatening parents’ positive image of them.
- Monitor your teen (Learn more about monitoring here): This is just a fancy was of saying know who your child is with, what they are doing, when and how long the are doing it and where they are or will be. Make the effort to talk with the parents of your teen’s friends, so that you know what they allow and do not allow. With more information you are better able to negotiate with your teen about where he’ll spend time and with whom.
Although most parents don’t need to teach their teens how to prevent a polar bear attack, there are many things that parents can do to prepare them from the risks of the world in which they do live. Parents remain critically important during the teen years and they can make a real difference. But it’s not always easy and requires patience, the right skills and a willingness to stay actively involved in their child’s life.
Article by Sue Allen
Sue is a Family Living Educator with Marquette County UW-Extension. Sue is also a Wisconsin Certified Prevention Professional. In her work with Extension and elsewhere, Sue has specialized in youth development and the prevention of teen substance abuse.