Part 2: Protecting Teens from Danger: Tips and Advice for Parents
Part 1 in this series “Seduced by Risk and Danger: The Teenage Mindset” can be found here.
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 expected witnessing, of other teens (Steinberg, 2008). They pull away from us, are drawn to their peers and then rev each other up into risky experimenting and sensation-seeking. It’s enough to make any parent want to put their teen on house arrest until they are old enough to exercise restraint. Parents also may want to resort to other desperate measures such as trying (in vain) to control, scare or punish teens. In fact, the most common ineffective approaches are fueled by feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, and then perpetuated by habit and lack of alternatives, as teens push for independence.
Popular ineffective approaches 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 include:
- Lecturing or talking too much, projecting fears and anxiety onto teens. Negative effect: hogs all the space in the conversation, causes teens to tune out, obscures teens’ own concerns or inner conflict about danger — leading them to defend the opposite position.
- Authoritarian methods of control and punishment. Negative effect: creates secrecy, rebellion and defiant acting out, increasing teens’ risk for danger. Sacrifices parents’ relationship with teens – their most important resource. Deprives teens of skill-building opportunities.
- Educating or cautioning teens about dangers or getting promises from them to behave. Negative effect: Doesn’t work, fails to provide tools, can be off-putting or insulting since teens are typically aware of the dangers (but get overtaken by feelings).
Containing Teens with Limits
Parents can become more empowered by using approaches informed by the teenage mindset. 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).
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 is only in part attributable to restricting their exposure to danger. The most effective way for parents to know what’s going on with teens and keep track of them is through a positive connection with them. This is built by being tuned in, emotionally present, and respectful. Parents are not as helpless as they feel.
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. When teens feel safe with parents they can turn to them for help.