Field Guide to Families

Nurturing strong relationships—one issue at a time

Risky Business

Teaching teens to handle peer pressure means talking about everything.

Every year teens participate in a national school-based survey conducted by CDC and state, territorial, tribal, and local governments. It's called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), and it "monitors six types of health-risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth." These include:

  • Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence
  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol and other drug use
  • Sexual risk behaviors
  • Unhealthy dietary behaviors
  • Physical inactivity

Questions on the survey range from "Do you wear your seat belt?" to "Have you ever used methamphetamine?" to "Do you carry a weapon?"

No doubt teens engage in all kinds of risk-behavior. Some teens more often than others, engaging in some behavior more risky than others. It's true that today's teen is exposed to real and virtual threats to personal safety. Then why is it that in my travels, talking to so many parents, when I ask them if they know what risk-behaviors their children engage in, most parents honestly say they don't know?

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Like the annual YRBSS, you're only going to know the answers if you ask the tough questions.

And teaching your child how to handle peer pressure effectively, means you can't have just one talk about sex, drugs, and alcohol. You must be willing to talk often and early about everything. 

As your adolescent gets older, he'll make more of his own decisions about what to do and how to behave. You need the door to communication to be open between you and your child, because some adolescents are making decisions about having sex and using alcohol and drugs. 

While every parent wants her adolescent to make the right decisions, many are not willing to talk openly about the issues and consequences of such decisions. Talking with your adolescent about tough subjects needs to be constant in order for you to bring your child safely through adolescence to adulthood. 

The mistake some make is to only talk about rules and potential consequences to poor choices. While you do need to talk about those things, first you must establish routine, non-threatening communication about other things so that your adolescent will want to talk to you. 

For communication to be effective with your adolescent, now that she is capable of abstract thinking, it must have a back-and-forth quality to it. This means you need to engage in true dialogue not a lecture. 

Start talking about things you have in common, or issues that don't tend to be difficult for the two of you. Once those are productive fun conversations, it will be easier to have some of the tougher ones.

Honesty is another two-way street that's critical when talking about tough subjects. If you want your child to be honest with you, she'll most certainly expect you to be honest with her. This doesn't mean you should disclose every detail of your past. What it does mean is that virtually every subject should be discussible

Today's adolescent is savvier than you think; he already knows more about sex, drugs, and violence than you ever knew at his age. Why not talk to him and let him hear your positive messages, those that are stronger than any messages he can get from the popular culture? Let him know through honest, open, two-way communication that there's nothing off limits for the two of you to discuss. 

Here are some important tips for talking to your child about tough subjects.

  • Clarify your own cultural and religious values. You won't be able to set clear limits or talk about what you expect of your adolescent if you aren't sure how you feel about certain issues.
  • Ask your adolescent about the situations that make resisting peer pressure more difficult, and then listen to her opinions and feelings. You can have a conversation with her without letting go of the limits. If you lecture, she'll be less likely to hear your important messages.
  • Tell your adolescent that some topics are hard for you to talk about with him. Since a topic might not be the easiest thing for either of you to talk about, start with conversations you do feel comfortable with.
  • Be aware of what your adolescent is watching and listening to. Television, movies, music, and the Internet expose your child to material that is sometimes explicit and extreme. Be your child's filter.
  • Know what your "house rules" are for your adolescent spending time with friends. Let him know what you expect him to do and say when he has friends over.
  • Offer your adolescent options for hanging out that you can both be comfortable with; like having friends to your house or taking friends to a movie. Talk about these options before she makes plans.
  • Get your adolescent connected to someone else he can talk to. If you're unable to share important information with your adolescent, perhaps someone like his doctor or school counselor can.
  • Explain to your adolescent that when she says, "everybody is doing it," this may not always be true. The research suggests that more adolescents are holding off on having sexual relationships or drinking and taking drugs than your child may think. Even if your adolescent's friends are making these decisions, talk to your child about how this shouldn't change the decision she needs to make for herself.
  • Talk with your adolescent about the consequences of making bad decisions. Give him information in writing or on the web, especially about taking risks with sex, drugs, and alcohol.
  • Let your adolescent practice realistic ways of saying no like, "I don't want a cigarette; I'm getting a cold." Or, "I have a game in the morning and if I get caught drinking, I'm off the team."  Offer to let her use you as an excuse for not making certain decisions.
  • Know where your adolescent is and who he's spending time with. Remember, supervision shouldn't disappear during adolescence, but it will need to change.
  • Give your adolescent positive feedback for making good decisions in stressful situations. Say things like, "I think you were smart to choose getting your project done over going out tonight."  
  • Encourage your adolescent to look at his decisions and try to learn from his experiences.

It's important to take into consideration how your child handles sensitive information, but it's never the wrong choice to be honest. Factor in your child's temperament and share information in small doses, but share information nonetheless. If you don't discuss the tough subjects, I assure you someone else will. And you can't do the proactive teaching and coaching that's necessary, to give your child the skills to handle the tough pressures in adolescence, if you don't take this critical aspect of parenting on.

Lynne Griffin teaches family studies at the graduate level in Boston and internationally. She's the author of the parenting guide Negotiation Generation, and the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer. You can find her online at www.LynneGriffin.com, at www.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.

Lynne Griffin, R.N., M.Ed.researches family life and is a novelist.

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