Protecting Teens from Danger: Tips and Advice for Parents - Part 2
Dr. Lynn Margolies
It’s scary to think about how vulnerable teens are to danger. The teenage brain has been compared to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes when stimulated by the presence, or even anticipated witnessing, of other teens (Steinberg, 2008). Drawn to their peers, teens pull away from us - and then rev each other up into risky experimenting and sensation-seeking. It’s enough to make any parent want to put teens on house arrest until they’re old enough to exercise restraint.
Containing Teens with Limits
Monitoring teens’ activities and limiting their exposure to danger (when implemented non-punitively) does in fact reduce risk (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010) and is part of good parenting. But it’s unrealistic to watch teens 24/7. And teens who are too sheltered have as many difficulties in adulthood as those who are high risk-takers (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010). Teens must test themselves in the world, especially with peers, to potentiate brain development and acquire the skills and capacities needed for healthy autonomy and social competence during this critical window of brain growth (Costandi & Blakemore, 2014; Society for Neuroscience, 2011). Parents can become empowered to help them do this more safely using approaches informed by the teenage mindset.
Not surprisingly, many misguided approaches are fueled by parents’ feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, for example, trying (in vain) to control, scare or punish teens. Popular ineffective measures have some common themes: they overpower teens, fail to make contact with them, don’t provide teens with tools they need to stay safe, and don’t take into account the teenage mindset.
Common Ineffective Approaches:
1. Lecturing, talking too much, projecting fears and anxiety onto teens.
Negative effect: • Causes teens to tune out, • Hogs all the space in the conversation,• Obscures teens’ own concerns or inner conflict about danger - leading them to defend the opposite position.
2. Authoritarian methods of control and punishment.
Negative effect: • Sets teens up for secrecy, rebellion and defiant acting out – increasing the risk of trouble, • Deprives teens of skill-building opportunities,• Sacrifices parents’ relationship with teens - their most important resource.
3. Educating or cautioning teens about dangers and/or getting promises from them to behave.
Negative effect: • Doesn’t work,• Fails to provide tools, • Can be off-putting/insulting since teens are typically already aware of the dangers (but the problem is that they get overtaken by feelings in the moment).
Staying Connected to Teens Through a Positive Relationship
Though monitoring teens’ activities and friends - online and actual - has been found to help reduce risk (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010), this effect may only in part be attributable to restricting their exposure to danger. The other explanation is that the quality of parent-teen relationships in families where parents successfully keep track of teens has a protective effect in and of itself.
Being tuned in, emotionally present, and respectful is the most effective way for parents to know what’s going on with teens and, also, the pathway to a positive connection. In fact, the most protective measure against underage drinking, sexual activity, and violence for teens is a relationship with parents in which they feel supported, listened to and accepted - based on teens’ subjective experiences (not parents’ intentions). Conversations with teens are more successful when parents listen more than talk - showing interest in how teens feel they are doing, what they are thinking and their opinions. When teens feel safe with parents they can open up and turn to them for help.
Going With, Rather Than Against, the Tide in Talking to Teens
An informed strategy with teens is to be mindful of their limitations and intrinsic motivations/drives, using their biases to our (and their) advantage - and in the service of positive choices. Parents can help teens find structured, supervised activities with other teens - such as team sports or impactful prosocial activities for a cause that’s meaningful to them. In this way, parents can help reduce opportunities for danger as well as channel teens’ need for peers, novelty and intensity into healthy challenges (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010).
Tuning Into Positive Behaviors/Values and Using Them as Motivators
Teens who develop values and competencies are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors. To increase teens’ positive behaviors and values - notice and articulate them when they occur, shifting the balance of attention to positive rather than negative behavior. Parents can use values that matter to teens (e.g. looking out for a friend, being in control of their reputation, staying on a sports team), and lead with a positive motivation for safe decisions. Here the emphasis is on what teens want to do - rather than what they should not do - activating higher mind thought rather than reactive defensiveness. This approach focuses on doing something meaningful, which is important to teens, instead of restraint - a subject of little interest to them. For example, a teen may not be motivated to limit drinking because of fear of the dangers of alcohol. But, he or she might decide to stay sober at a party out of loyalty to a friend likely to get into trouble, and wanting to be in a position to protect them.
Parents can align with teens by recognizing and respecting the positive momentum of teenage brains towards excitement, action, novelty, and peers - rather than dismissing teens as rebellious or out of control - or insulting their intelligence by acting as if they’re irrational. Teens’ ability to experience life with intensity and vitality can be enviable to adults - sometimes making us want to shut it down (Siegel, 2013). Approaching teens respectfully, parents can validate the inherent predisposition of the teenage brain towards action and discovery, rather than restraint, when around peers - and the obvious positive advantages of this. But the disadvantages, as teens can be made aware as well, are that the strong impulses that can serve them well, can also lead them astray. At times, powerful feelings can sweep them away and hijack their higher mind, seducing them into betraying themselves, their values and judgment - but not if they are on to this potential vulnerability and get ahead of it.
Thinking Things Through Collaboratively in Advance
The process of thinking things through ahead of time, and coming up with options, helps integrate the two brain systems that are not yet well synchronized: feelings/impulses and higher mind thinking/control. Parents can help teens develop the skills to make better decisions by thinking things through in advance with them and finding out their concerns, utilizing a non-judgmental, collaborative approach.
Problem Solving and Skill Building
Problem solving has been found to be effective in protecting teens from danger (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 204; Windle et al., 2008). For example, parents can help teens who use alcohol learn to monitor and set limits on the amount they drink. Keeping in mind that teens care more about not being ostracized than they do about getting hurt, the focus here might be on figuring out with teens how to limit their drinking in a way that protects them from embarrassment socially. In addition, parents can help teens anticipate and avoid high risk situations - setting boundaries for them where it’s unrealistic to expect them to set limits themselves.
As adolescents make their way into the world, they need a balance of freedom and limits, acceptance and guidance, redirection and natural consequence. This undertaking requires parents to summon the courage and steadiness to engage in a dance of holding on - but not too tight, and letting go - but not too much. It is a constant test of parents’ own inner sense of security - requiring frequent self-monitoring and the higher mind resolve to refrain from acting on feelings of rejection, anxiety and helplessness. The challenge is holding teens close enough to provide a secure base from which to grow, but allowing them enough autonomy to test themselves. Doing so, parents provide the foundation for teens to acquire the tools to make safe decisions and navigate the developmental challenges of adolescence.
Tips for parents to reduce dangerous risk-taking in teens:
• Give teens autonomy and freedom in areas that are low-risk• Notice and promote teens strengths, positive interests and competencies • Anticipate risky situations and problem solve in advance• Set limits when teens cannot set their own • Manage your own anxiety, feelings of helplessness and rejection. Protect your relationship with teens• Use an approach that is warm, non-judgmental and respectful of teens autonomy • Prepare for conversations and think about timing. Approach teens when both of you are calm• Listen. Limit how much you say at one time • Ask questions in a curious, open and unimposing way (avoiding “leading the witness”)• Be aware and monitor what teens are doing, who their friends are, including online • Be there at key times as much as possible: after school, dinnertime, bedtime (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010)• Do things together - e.g. family time, rituals, and activities teens enjoy (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010)• Set a good example through moderation in your own life, for example, consider your own drinking
Costandi, M. & Blakemore, S. (2014, January). Adolescent brain development. Retrieved from https://thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/adolescent-brain-development
Kazdin, A. & Rotella, C. (2010, February). No brakes! Risk and the adolescent brain. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2010/02/no_brakes_2.2.html
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2004). Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking, Richard J. Bonnie and Mary Ellen O’Connell, Editors. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2013). Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78-106.
Windle, M., Spear, L., Fuligni, A., Angold, A., Brown, J., Pine, D., … Dahl, R. (2008). Transitions into underage and problem drinking: Developmental processes and mechanisms between 10 and 15 years of age. Pediatrics, 121, S273-S289. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-2243C