Northwest Health Fall 2012

Kids' Health

Risky Business

These strategies can help your teen make better choices.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Several months ago, I discovered that my 14-year-old son gave himself a new middle name on Facebook. The name was silly at best, and potentially damaging to his reputation at worst.

Generally, my son is a level-headed kid but there are times when he doesn't think about the long-term impact of his actions. While this is a tame example, teens are known for engaging in risky behavior without thinking through the consequences. What is it that makes teens so willing to engage in risky behavior? And how can parents help them learn to spread their wings without falling to the ground?

"Some of this behavior is biological — teens lack development in the area of their brains that can help them weigh consequences," says Jeff Lindenbaum, MD, director of the Adolescent Center at the Group Health Medical Centers Factoria clinic. "But also, teens take risks as a way of emancipating themselves from their parents, showing off to their peers, and learning about limits."

There are different levels of risk, of course. Kids who skateboard — especially without protective gear — risk physical injury while those who take drugs or text while driving risk both physical and legal consequences.

How can parents steer their kids away from truly harmful behavior? Here are some actions Dr. Lindenbaum suggests.

Build decision-making skills. Kids who have been empowered to make some choices throughout their childhoods are more confident and less susceptible to acting out as teens. For example, let your preschooler choose their outfit for school. Let an elementary school-age child select the day's family activity. Let a pre-teen help choose a family vacation.

Model good behavior. Wear your seatbelt and drink responsibly, if you drink at all. "'Do as I say, not as I do' doesn't work with kids," says Dr. Lindenbaum.

Talk rather than lecture. Watch a movie together and ask your teen what they think about the choices the characters make. "This gives you a chance to share values through conversation rather than by lecturing, which your teen might resist," says Dr. Lindenbaum. "Plus, you may even be pleasantly surprised by their answers."

Offer tools for prevention. Having your teen sign a driving contract outlining limits can encourage safe driving. Teach kids refusal skills by helping them role play what they'd say or do if a peer asked them to participate in something they're not comfortable with.

Create a safety net. Despite your best intentions, kids sometimes slip and a safety net can save lives. Consider making a pact with your teen: Anytime they feel unsafe, they can call you and you will come get them, no questions asked. In this case, you may have lost the battle but you've won the war, which is to keep your child from hurting himself or others. Birth control education is also part of this approach.

Says Dr. Lindenbaum, "Your teen will probably take some risks, but on the positive side, most kids do come out on the other side OK, even those who have screwed up mightily."

Other sites: Providers | Producers | Employers