Is My Teen’s Behavior Too Risky?

Picture this scene:

Mom and dad are out of town for a week.  In their absence, a good friend is watching their house and their two teenagers kids. Things go smoothly Friday and Saturday night.  However, the tides turn!  While everyone nestles into bed Sunday evening, 16 year old James is on the phone with his girlfriend.  He and Amanda have been dating for almost a month and have not seen each other for days.  Yearning to see one another, they decide to meet up in the night.  The plan: James will drive over to Amanda’s house around 2:00 a.m. Amanda will sneak out and meet him on the corner of her street. The two of them will drive around or go to a park, and be home before sunrise.  The clock strikes 1:45 and James hits the road. At exactly 2:00, Amanda meets him down the street from her house.  The two drive around for a while and find themselves talking under a tree in the park. Everything is going as planned until…..they fall asleep!  Monday morning rolls around and the house sitter wakes up to find his car is missing!  Immediately, he checks both bedrooms. The youngest boy is sound asleep, but the oldest is gone. He tries to call James, but there is no answer.  Increasingly upset, he notifies his employer that he will not be at work and he waits to hear from the boy.  At around 9:30, James rolls through the front door in a major panic. Carrying a box of doughnuts he says, “I am soooo sorry! I wanted to surprise you with doughnuts for breakfast, but I fell asleep while I was waiting for the store to open.

I will leave the rest to your imagination. The point is that teens take risks. They are completely immersed in gaining a deeper understanding of themselves and how the world works. They do things they are not supposed to do. They even think through them “logically”.  However, they rely on their logic, not the logic of an adult brain.  The teenage brain is actually programmed to take risks.  Specifically, their brain has elevated levels of dopamine, a natural transmitter that creates the sensation of pleasure when stimulated.  Taking risks stimulates this pleasure center, giving them a thrilling sensation when the dopamine is released.

Most common risk-taking behaviors can be clumped into 4 categories:

  1. Drug/alcohol use/abuse,
  2. Unsafe sex, teen pregnancy, and teen parenting,
  3. School failure, underachievement, and drop-out, and
  4. Delinquency, crime, and violence.

These categories are probably not surprising to you. In fact, it is likely that they are the very things you worry about.  At the end of the day, parents are left knowing that they will not always be there in the very moment their teen is forced to make a decision.  Now, knowing what the risks are, and that it is normal for teens to take more risks than then their younger and older counterparts does not make it easier for parents. Parents are still left with the looming question, “Is my teen’s behavior too risky?”

How do you know when your teen’s behavior is too risky? Pay attention to:

Age: Engaging in risky behaviors at an early age can have both immediate and long-term consequences. Educate your teen on the risks they may face. Help them understand how risks can effect their brain, relationships, and future opportunities.  Know who is in your teen’s peer group. Spending time with older kids can introduce behaviors earlier than the “norm”.

Amount: Take it seriously, but don’t overreact. Dabbling is not the same as chronic risk-taking. Experts show that the consequence go up significantly when teens take risks in multiple areas, in part because risk begets more risk.  Pay attention to what is going on in their world. Create space for constant communication, and insist that your teen lets you know where he/she is, and with whom. Monitor and supervise whenever possible.

School: Teens who are engaged in school are less likely to get into trouble.  It is also important for parents to have high expectations for good conduct and performance. Having high expectations is not the same as pressuring your teen. Establish clear rules and give consequences when they are not met.  Avoid pressuring or attaching meaning to the teen’s character or abilities when they make mistakes.

Other activities: Weigh risky behaviors against other activities. Teens who are doing well in school, have friends that value school, and participate in some form of extracurricular activity are likely to be right on track. These factors can buffer teens from risks. If you are faced with a problem, look at how well your teen is doing in other areas of his/her life.

Environment: Environment can have a big impact on risk-taking behavior because it impacts what is available in a particular neighborhood or community.  For example, it is estimated that those living in low-income communities are up to 5 times more likely to take risks.  Parents can reduce the impact of environment by creating structure, using discipline, and monitoring their teen, while also being loving, affectionate, and available.

What Else Can You Do?

Focus on Preparing Youth:  Don’t just focus on protecting your teen from risks. While that is important, it is equally important to help your teen be fully prepared for the world. This means putting energy into providing opportunities, cultivating their potential, and surrounding them with supportive adults and healthy environments.   

Create opportunities for positive risk-taking:  Taking a risk means doing something outside of your comfort zone, the place where experts say growth occurs. For some teens, this can take the form of joining a new club, participating in a different sport, or taking on a leadership position.  Having opportunities to take “appropriate” risks can reduce a teen’s desire to take “inappropriate” risks.  Have them try wake boarding or mountain biking to get that dopamine release!

Get Help: Reach out to a school counselor, local therapist, or another trusted professional if you are concerned about your teen’s behavior. I once heard a teen say, “A therapist is just a friend when you feel like you don’t have one. You don’t need them as much once you know yourself better and can reach out when you need help.”  It can be a blessing to let other trusted adults contribute to your teen.

These years are sure to be a wild ride, with the occasional bump in the road.  Some things can be expected, but others will be your child’s unique expression of being a teenager.  Consider that risk-taking is a necessary part of your teen’s grown and development.  After all, what would life be like if you never took risks? The goal is to steer them in such a way that they use risk-taking to expand their potential, and avoid actions that can have serious, or even lifelong consequences.  As a good friend of mine once said, “the mountain may be steep, but at the end of it all you will be better for the climb.”

Happy Parenting!

Note: Within the next month, I will no longer be blogging at parentingteensinfo.com. If you enjoy my posts and access it through this site, please consider following my blog directly to receive notifications of new posts. Thanks!

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The Practice of “Still Lake” in Parenting Your Teen

How would you complete the sentence, “Parenthood is……”?

It is pretty amazing, isn’t it? Becoming a parent immediately changes you. From that moment forward, you put your child’s needs ahead of your own. Parenting is one of the few things that can make you strive to be the best person you can be. Sometimes, it is smooth sailing. Other times, it is the perfect storm. You may find yourself challenged by the very things that make you who you are as a person.  Your personality, past experiences, expectations, and hopes can get in the way of you having the kind of interaction you want to have with your teen. Sometimes we say or do things we don’t mean. Other times, we are simply stuck. When we feel lost, we turn to friends, other parents, books, health professions, or anyone else we trust to provide us with honest and helpful advice.  We do all of this in an effort to raise happy and healthy children.

In a conversation over dinner the other night, I was reminded how fortunate I am to have people with whom I can share this journey. Our conversation made me think of a symbol from my Tae Kwon Do practice. This symbol is called “Still Lake“, which means “strong on the inside, calm and gentle on the outside”.   It represents a person’s ability to live with grace and confidence. It is a reminder that one does not have to be “tough” to be “strong” and it is symbolic of being aware of oneself and the impact that you have on those around you. It is about having poise in your interactions with others.  This symbol represents being comfortable enough in who you are to be truly present with someone else.  Still Lake can exist in all relationships, with one of the biggest being your relationship with your teen. You can practice still lake in your parenting by focusing on: (1) having an empty mind, (2) removing the meaning, and (3) cleaning things up.

Having an Empty Mind: When you have an empty mind, you remove any filter that you have about how a particular interaction is going to go. Often times, we come to conversations with an expectation of what someone is going to say or do. This pre-existing filter can impact how you respond to your teen. For example, think about a typical interaction with a teen who struggles to do homework. If you are used to your teen resisting homework, you may come to your next interaction expecting him/her to fidget or lack focus. This expectation will guide both how you talk to and respond to your teen.  You react to what you expect, not what is really going on at the time. We can only be fully present with our teen when we remove the filters of what we expect will happen based on past experience.

Removing the Meaning:  The moment something happens, we assign meaning.  It is human nature and happens almost instantaneously. For example, someone says, “I can’t believe you said that,” and you make it mean, “She must think I am stupid for saying that.”  You might tell your daughter, “Those shorts are too short,” and she makes it mean, “My mom thinks I’m being sleazy.”  Your son may get bumped in the shoulder by a friend during passing period at school, and he makes it mean that person is mad at him.  The truth is, we can drive ourselves crazy trying to guess what someone or something means, and usually we are wrong. Like having an empty mind, being aware of this is important because it can dictate how you are around a person in the future. For example, a teen would probably be different to a parent’s comment about short shorts if she believed her mom respected her. Similarly, a teen would likely be different to a teen that accidentally bumped him then one he thinks is mad at him. Whenever you see your teen assigning meaning to something, help him/her to: (1) recognize the assumed meaning up front, (2) generate other possible options, and (3) focus on what is actually true about the situation, instead of perpetuating what they “think” is true.

Cleaning It Up: You know there is something to clean up when you feel like something was left unsaid, misunderstood, or taken the wrong way. Whatever is left undone between two people exists in the space between them. Let’s say that you hollered at your daughter about her short shorts while her friend was over. Outside of being embarrassed, she may be left feeling like you don’t think she has any self-respect. That feeling will go into the bucket of “what mom or dad thinks of me”. It may even become something that she takes on as part of how she defines herself. Cleaning it up involves a few steps:

  • Affirm your relationships.

“You are so important to me and I really want you to have what you deserve in life. One of those things is to be respected by others.”

  • Recognize your part of the conversation.

“I don’t think anything bad of you. In fact, I think your shorts are cute. Right or wrong, I worry that people will not respect you as much if you wear them.” 

  • Acknowledge the impact you had on her.

“I am sorry that I embarrassed you in front of your friend.  I realize I may have even made you feel bad about yourself for wanting to wear them. I don’t think your shorts say anything about you as a person.”

  • Ask if there is anything you can do.

“Do you want me to say something to your friend? Can I take you shopping for some shorts that we both like?”

Still Lake represents the balance between strength and vulnerability.  You have to be “strong” to have an open mind and remove all the meaning so that you can understand what is actually true about a situation.  And, you have to be vulnerable to say you are sorry and admit your contribution. Still Lake is a practice in self-awareness. It is not about being perfect; it is about being real. You will find that teens appreciate it when you are real with them. It makes them feel as though they too can be strong, vulnerable and real with you.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Your Teen Was Born Vulnerable & Imperfect

I have heard a lot of parents say, “Being a parent has taught me how to be a better person.” Why is it that our children are often the ones that push us to grow as individuals? What does it look like, to be a better person? Parents tell me that they became a better person because parenting inspired them to be more patient, authentic, observant, and aware of themselves. Many shared a commitment to self-improvement.

A friend of mine once said, “teens need us to protect them from themselves.” We enter the world of parenting with an huge sense of responsibility, and we learn very quickly that our children will look to us as models for what it means to be human. Teens need our guidance to stay safe, be thoughtful, live with purpose, develop work ethics, show compassion, and engage with others in a way that shows they can take responsibility for themselves and for their contributions to the world.

The following video is not just about parenting a teen, it is about what the author, Brene Brown, would call being whole hearted. She keeps it light and funny as she talks about what it is like to live life with courage and to accept that we are all vulnerable and imperfect. She reminds us that being a “good parent” is not about having perfect teens, it is about having teens who feel worthy. This video is longer than what I would usually post. However, I think the next 20 minutes will be well worth your time. You might even find yourself watching it more than once!

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts and comments after viewing this video. How did you relate to what she shared? How does all of this apply to our parenting?

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

What are the Consequences & What Happens If They Don’t Work?

As parents, we know our teens are going to make mistakes. Sometimes these are small mistakes, and other times they are pretty big mistakes….mistakes that fill our souls with fear for our teen. What comes of these mistakes can vary, but one thing is for sure…eventually there are consequences for their actions. Consequences can take many forms. They can happen naturally or they can be imposed on teens by parents, teachers, administrators, or other authorities. They can be immediate, or they can be the result of events that take place over several months or longer.

You have probably heard the term natural consequences. In their purest form, natural consequences don’t require any intervention. For example, a boy who is running through the hall at school falls and hurts himself, or a girl who is being mean to a friend is ignored during lunch time. That sounds simple enough, right? The problem lies in the fact that our teens do not always get natural consequences for their actions. In fact, sometimes they are rewarded instead! Maybe the boy who ran through the hall gets the best presentation time because he got to the sign-up sheet first, or the girl who was mean to a friend is flooded with affection by the other girls who want her attention. What if natural consequences don’t work?

When consequences don’t naturally happen, parents try to instill logical consequences. These are consequences that make sense, or match the behavior that is being discouraged. When a boy “borrows” the car without asking, he loses driving privileges for a period of time. When a girl posts something inappropriate on her Facebook wall, she loses access to her account for a period of time. Experts suggest giving logical consequences as often as possible. Again, that sounds simple enough, right? Not always! Sometimes the logical consequence does not come to us, or we simply react with whatever comes to mind first. Your daughter fails to turn in her homework and you give her extra chores, or your son misses his curfew and you take away his cell phone. The consequences don’t really match the behavior.

How can you get better at using logical consequences? One option is to allow the natural consequence to happen, even when it is difficult for you as the parent. For example, let the daughter that isn’t turning in homework get the grade she earns. As hard as it is, this can create an opportunity for discussion around how she feels and what she would do differently. She will have to own it completely. When we as parents take responsibility for their grades, they don’t have to own their choices. Another option is to ask your teen what he/she thinks the consequence should be. Often, their consequence will make sense and be harsher than the one you would have given. This allows you to talk less and listen more. Asking questions like, “What do you think we should do” or “How are we going to handle this? can get them engaged. Finally, make it clear when there isn’t a choice. Every family has their own beliefs and values that set the foundation for how the family works.

What can you do if the consequence doesn’t work?

  • Ask yourself if the consequence fit the misbehavior. The farther the consequences get from the behavior, the less likely they are to work.
  • Give yourself some time. Don’t feel pressured to give an immediate consequence; sometimes you have to think about it for a while. Tell your teen how you are feeling and set a time to talk about it in the near future.
  • Search for the natural consequence and ask yourself if you are willing to let it happen.  While these are not always immediately apparent, they can surface when you take time to think.
  • Consider timing. Making decisions in the heat of the moment can be difficult or lead to impulse reactions. Give yourself, and/or your teen the necessary time to calm down.
  • Remove the anger. Say how you feel or how you imagine this makes your teen feel.  You can empathize and be kind at the same time that you give a consequence.
  • Establish respect. Make sure your teen knows you are upset with the behavior, but still accepts him/her.
  • Encourage positive behavior. Try to catch your teen being “good” by acknowledging when they are helpful, caring, cooperative, and supportive.
  • Give yourself a break! This is hard work sometimes.