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Making a Difference in the Lives of Teenagers

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By Jessica Williams for KidsintheHouse.com

According to the NIDA, 37% students have consumed alcohol by the eighth grade and 72% have done so by the end of high school. The CDC reports that of the 19 million new STD infections that occur each year, 50% occur in youth ages 15-24 and in 2009, of the 46% of high school students who had sexual intercourse, 61.1% didn't use a condom (CDC.) In 2007, 19% of fatalities in motor vehicle crashes were related to young-drivers.

We know that teenagers are prone to engaging in risky behaviors, but what are the solutions? In addition to intervention and professional support, parents can play a key role in their adolescents' well-being and their ability to make good decisions.

Dan Siegel, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute and author of numerous publications including the newly-released Brainstorm, explains why teens will choose thrills despite being cognitively aware of the risks associated with the tempting behavior. He argues that risk is escalated in adolescence due to an increase in impulsive behavior coupled with an escalation of hyper-rational thinking. Fortunately, Dr. Siegel stresses that there are "physiological processes where [teens] can come up with positive values like, 'I want to live,' 'I want to support my friends,' or 'I want to do something constructive.'" This video explains the path to improving self-awareness and self-control in teenagers.

When it comes to mitigating the influences of peer pressure to engage in poor group decisions, Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., Associate Research Professor and Director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, Senior Advisor for SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and the author of Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex -- What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, suggests that parents make a plan with their adolescent in advance. He told me:

it's important that we equip children with the skills that they need to step away from the group when the group is engaging in behavior that they know is wrong... and give them the confidence, and even the escape mechanisms, to choose to do otherwise. For example, I talked to one family who had a code [for when] their son was in a situation he knew he shouldn't be in. He would say, 'Hey, wait a minute, I'm supposed to call my parents to find out how my Grandma is because she's in the hospital today and had surgery.' He would call up on his cell phone and say, "How is Grandma doing?' And that is their cue to pick him up around the corner.

Parents can make a concrete difference in the outcome of a high-risk situation by collaborating with their teenager in advance and creating a plan that both avoids trouble and allows the teen to maintain status in his peer group.

Another obstacle parents with teenagers commonly face is the issue of communication. Michael Riera, Ph.D., Head of School at Brentwood School and the author several books including Uncommon Sense For Parents With Teenagers and Staying Connected To Your Teenager, suggests the two best times to talk to your teenager are when you are driving in the car and when they are falling asleep. The lack of eye contact can help to put a teen at ease, and when they are tired, their defenses will be down, making them more willing to open up. Once you get your teen talking, Dr. Riera explains,

Our job is really to listen -- it's not to give advice, it's to really listen to them, as the consultant. The great consultants really do a good job of listening and then asking questions. And letting the questions direct people to the next level of what they're going to do. So if the child is having trouble with friendship, you know, it can be, 'I wonder what it would take to improve the friendship?' 'I wonder what they would say about you, if there's anything you do they particularly like or gets in the way of the friendship?'

A process of inquiry that includes room for child-generated solutions will render your teen empowered and looking forward to more conversations with you.

Regarding your daughter's emerging sexuality, boosting self-esteem can build a reservoir of confidence that will make her less vulnerable to fleeting praise. Michael Bradley, Ed.D., psychologist and the author of Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, points out that parents can help their daughter make prudent decisions about their sexuality by finding alternative ways for her to feel good about herself.

As weird as it sounds, 13-year-old girls sometimes compete to see who can have the most sex. If it is, as it usually is, affirmation and status, find other ways of going for affirmation and status. Sports are terrific. Find some sport that she's willing to do where they're playing with other girls. Build this sisterhood.

When your adolescent feels good from the inside out, they are less likely to be dependent on approval from the outside in.

In sum, it is important that as parents, we do not disengage in the face of frightening and overwhelming statistics. When we commit to staying involved with our children and remaining connected in the face of their seeming disinterest, we stand a chance at imparting our values and teaching skills that may make the difference between a learning moment and a life-long consequence.