Teenagers fall in love, and they make love. They smoke pot and cigarettes. They drink alcohol. And most of this is behind their parents backs because they’ve been warned, “You better never…” When parents communicate with threats, the message translates to, “You better never get caught…” Let’s talk about how to guide teens through risk taking.

Teenagers experiment with relationships and substances as part of their normal development. Peer pressure plays a part, but so does curiosity. Rebellious or experimental behavior is an adolescent’s way of proving independent thinking abilities and establishing an identity that is separate from their parent(s). As part of the maturation process, all children must learn to stand on their own in preparation for eventually leaving the nest as a young adult. If facing responsibility and its consequences is how we mature, then the more risks taken, the faster we grow in confidence. Experimenting is necessary for the sake of learning and growth and therefore must be tolerated and respected.

That certainly doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t set limits and discipline. Teenagers also need structure and guidance. They need to be taught how to make good decisions. But how can you teach them if they never come to you about this important stuff?

During a counseling session, a 15 year old girl once told me, “Mom tries to guard me and protect me, but she does it by being mean and angry, hoping that I’ll be too afraid to try anything. So we argue all the time. If I told her I wanted to be on birth control, she’d cry, yell, ground me, and tell me never to see my boyfriend again. I guess whatever is going to happen will just happen and I just won’t let her know about it. But I really wish I could talk with her about it. I just know she’d never trust me again if I went to her with questions.”

Parents who try to control their teenagers by restricting relationships, limited activities, and setting unreasonable early curfews end up with the very thing they’re trying to prevent: a rebellious teenager. If you tell your 15 year old that she’s too young to go to a party, she’ll ask to spend the night at a friend’s house and go to the party anyway. So what’s a parent to do?

Mother Duck with Ducklings

1: Be a Good Role Model

Practice open communication and talk about how a person goes about making healthy choices. Remember that children watch, make note of, and learn from their parents’ behavior.

2: Start Early

One-third of 16 year olds and nearly half of 17 year olds have had sex. However, attitudes and values are shaped early in childhood, so talk to your child before they become a teenager.

3: Be Realistic

Explain to your child that while you don’t approve of teenage sex or drug use, you’d be naïve to think that they won’t experiment sooner or later. Let them know that before they do try new things, you hope they will come to you to discuss it.

Stress the importance of learning how to make wise decisions, handle themselves responsibly, and respect themselves. Be truthful that you may disagree with their choices, and you may overreact, but you want them to always feel they can come talk to you, even when it’s a tough conversation.

4: Provide Accurate Information

Provide your teenager with reliable and truthful information about the potential dangers and consequences of certain choices. If you are embarrassed or ignorant about certain subjects, then find someone your teen respects and encourage open discussion. It’s important that the information is accurate. If you give your teen false or misleading information, they will likely find contrary evidence and you will lose their trust.

Teenager's Shoes

5: Remember When You Were in Their Shoes

Think back to when you were growing up and reflect on your own experiences. Although it’s difficult because you’re now the parent: try to remember your own struggles and attempt to relate to your teenager’s.

Did you ever skip school, sneak out at night, stay out past curfew, experiment with sex or drugs, etc? Did you ever drink too much and wish you could have called home for help? Did you ever wish an adult talked honestly with you about drugs before you were offered some at a party? Did you ever wish you could talk to your parents when a relationship went sour?

Most parents will respond to this advice by saying, “Well, isn’t that like giving them a license to do whatever they want?” The simple truth is, they’re probably going to try risky things whether you talk with them or not, but providing your teenager with good information and guidance matters. They will listen to their parents, but only if their parents listen back. If you criticize, yell, punish, or start mistrusting when your child is honest with you, they’ll eventually decide, “It doesn’t do any good to tell the truth, so I might as well lie.”

This approach isn’t easy for parents. Allowing your child the freedom to grow is frightening and frustrating. By opening the channels of communication you may prevent your child from harm and destructive behavior that carries permanent consequences.

Experimenting is one thing, abusing is another. Having sex is one thing, but getting pregnant is another. What’s important is that you know what your child is involved in so you can provide loving guidance and effective intervention.

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