The best way to guide your teenager through the high-risk years.

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 5 2010 7:10 AM

No Brakes!

The best way to guide your teenager through the high-risk years.

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But there is more to monitoring than coplike surveillance, and quality matters as much as quantity. The members of families in which parents monitor have stronger ties, are more involved with one another, have warmer relationships, and are more cohesive and communicate better. A more askable, approachable parent with a warm relationship to a child will have more success in monitoring without turning into a warden. To that end, it helps to make monitoring normal and mutual in your household—which you can model by talking to your children about your day at the dinner table or during rides in the car—and to begin early. Monitoring will not work if all of a sudden when your child hits age 12 you develop an intense interest in her whereabouts that takes the form of verbal waterboarding. Also, making your home a place where your child can bring friends while you are there is a form of low-key monitoring that strikes a compromise with the adolescent brain's craving for contact with peers.

For those reasons, the research tends to support the mass media campaign sponsored by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, "Parents—the Anti-Drug," which encourages parental monitoring to deter teen drug abuse. That would seem more promising than "Just Say No."

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2. Build and model bonds to conventional values

Maybe they no longer sound quite so conventional, but valuing schoolwork, time with family, and extracurricular activities are still rewarded in the long run in our society. Building these habits early in life, in elementary school, has been shown to decrease later risky activities. Establishing routines and rituals within the family—special holidays, meals, weekly errands done together with a child, activities in the home that are a regular part of everyday life—can facilitate bonding to the family. Your valuing of reading and learning, teachers and their mission, doing well in school, and other aspects of education will be helpful in a preventive way later. This doesn't mean expecting perfect or high achievement, but it does mean explicitly valuing academic effort and an appreciation of school. And it also obliges you to model the behavior you want: not only respect for school but also moderation, reason, hard work, whatever you expect of your children. The research shows, for instance, that parents who talk about the riskiness of substance abuse and who do not engage in it themselves measurably reduce their children's risk.

3. Develop competencies in the child

Many parents send their children to all sorts of lessons, the familar scheduling overkill, but it's perhaps more reasonable to find one or two areas the child likes and encourage the extended development of skill in them. There's no need to insist on world-beating talent, but it is important to build some competence—in a musical instrument, sport, hobby, or other skill, anything from singing to taking care of animals—and it would be preferable to include an activity in which peers are involved and that might continue into adolescence. The peer component often includes structured activities, like practices and games, or rehearsals and concerts, which the parent can monitor and in which peers are engaging in prosocial activity most of the time and under the supervision of some adult. These typically establish protective influences for when the child is likely to go through the risky period.

4. Parent-child relationship

Of course, this relationship is always important, but it's worth underscoring in this context. For instance, when there's more parent connectedness—a child feeling close, loved, wanted, listened to, and satisfied with the relationship—a child is at much less risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors. The research also shows that parents' presence in the home at key times during the day—before and after school, at dinner, at bedtime—helps reduce the likelihood of risky behaviors.

More generally, a parent's being too loose (permissive, uninvolved) or too tight (authoritarian, controlling) is associated with more antisocial behavior by the child. So, yes, it's important to set up consistent expectations for responsibilities at home and at school, but it's also useful to go out of your way to have discussions in which you listen to your child's view and make as few decisions as possible based on "Because I say so." Compromise when you can and let some things go when you can. Consider bedtime, curfew, messy room, and weird personal appearance as areas in which you can give a little. When you give a little there, you can gain credibility, control, and reasonableness when the topics shift to tattoos, rings through unlikely orifices, and taking two years off high school to learn about the latter-day hippie network in the Southwest.

Parents are often devoted to slippery-slope logic—"If I let this one go, I lose control, and my child will become a barbarian"—but that's typically the opposite of what happens. Go to war over every minor thing and you lose both the minor and the major. And the metaphor of losing battles but winning the war is misguided because it starts out by pitting you against your child. A better metaphor: You are sailing the ship toward a goal of a well-adjusted, functioning, non-freeloading adulthood for your child. This requires tacking, which can look like one is veering away from the goal, but tacking is often the best path to the goal.

This all makes it seem as if you're hanging on while the hurricane of adolescence blows through your child's brain and your home. That's what it can feel like. But to say that much of the impulse toward risky behavior seems to be biologically driven does not mean that it's biologically determined, an ineluctable fate. We have learned from brain as well as genetic studies that environmental changes can have enormous impact on biological processes, and changes in those processes can importantly change behavior. Your choices as a parent are a major part of your child's environment. The scope of such environmental changes' effect on young people's risky behavior is not clear yet, but some influences have been studied, do have an effect, and provide useful guidelines for parents entering the home stretch of child rearing. Here are some resources for parents and some leading examples of research in the field.

Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.

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