Chances are pretty good that your idea of fun is often not the same as your teen’s.
Many teenagers are drawn towards risk-taking and thrill-seeking as key ingredients to having fun. This pull is a byproduct of ongoing adolescent brain changes that enable teens to pursue challenges, preparing them for life outside of the safe “nest” we have built for them.
Most of us focus on the negative side of teen risk-taking, behaviors with potentially devastating consequences, such as fast driving, drug and alcohol use or unsafe sex. No doubt, these are unhealthy behaviors we want our kids avoid.
On the other hand, life is full of risk and trying anything new involves the possibility of falling on our face, literally or figuratively. Learning to ride a bike, for instance, involves the risk of falling over and getting hurt, yet most of us feel it is worth the price of a skinned knee. “Healthy” risk taking helps teens develop confidence and their own identities, learn from mistakes and see themselves as capable of handling the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them.
Teens navigate risk every day, pondering questions such as: “What if I raise my hand in class when the answer is really wrong?” “Do I risk auditioning for the school play even though I might embarrass myself?” “Will I lose my friends if I don’t attend the party?” Our kids need to be able to navigate these choices — not out of fear, but out of a realistic understanding of the risks and potential benefits involved, in line with their values, goals and dreams.
If we “bubble wrap” our kids during the teen years we hinder the acquisition of the skills they need to successfully launch after high school. Teens need to be able to take “healthy” risks to grow, stretch themselves and test their limitations. Unfortunately, for adolescents, the wish to impress their peers often outweighs their better judgment. The parts of the teen brain responsible for planning and impulse control are still under construction so parent “safety rails” are needed, which includes our guidance, support and clear family rules.
So what is a parent to do?
Part of raising a child is helping to establish boundaries and saying “no” to risky choices that could easily endanger themselves or others. As much as teens want freedom, they need to know that someone cares about their safety, even if they seem to “hate” you for it!
“It can be tough to find a balanced approach between being rigid and inflexible with family rules on the one hand and overly lenient, giving in to our kids and their demands on the other,” says Karolynn Flynn, program chair of Raising Resilience, a local nonprofit that supports Bainbridge Island parenting education. “The middle ground is where you exercise your parental responsibility of declaring firm, clear guidelines in a caring way. Not punitive or harsh and not striving for our kids approval, but laying out positive expectations.’’
With summer just around the corner, now is a great time to discuss what types of activities might fulfill your teen’s need for challenge and meet your need of keeping them out of harm’s way.
Tips on Keeping Your Teen Safe
Work out your family’s ground rules with your teen. Decide together what the consequences are if the rules are broken, and keep updating these rules together to keep pace with your child’s development.
Explore examples of negotiating boundaries with a teen. Adult/teen role plays are available on the “What’s the Harm?” video at www.bihealthyyouth.org/resourc es/materials.
Give your teenager a way out of risky behaviors. Teach and coach skills so that your teen is able to opt out without losing connections with peers. Consider creating a code text with your teen, such as the letter “X.” This is a text message your son or daughter can use anytime he/she feels unsafe and needs to be picked up, without worrying that you’ll be angry. If your son or daughter texts an “X,” you promise to call your child with a simple script: “Hi Honey, something has come up, I have to come and get you right now.” Your child might ask “What happened?” and your reply is that you will tell them when you pick them up. Your child can then tell his/her friends that something happened and that you are on your way to pick them up.
Talk about values, starting at an early age. Help your young adult know what is important to your family to help them develop responsibility and personal values. As a parent, back up these family values by being a good role model in things like drinking alcohol or using marijuana, and treating each other respectfully.
Try channeling the energy of thrill-seeking into relatively safe and constructive activities of your teen’s choosing, such as indoor rock climbing, kayaking, or perhaps the “rush” of being onstage, creating art or helping with a meaningful service project. What is your teen’s idea of fun?
Encourage a wide social network. You probably can’t stop your teen from being friends with a particular person or group — but you can give your teen the chance to make other friends through involvement in different activities.
Be consistent, gentle and firm with boundaries. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to take your child’s idea for fun and problem solve a way to bring the risk into an acceptable range. You aren’t alone in gently but firmly standing your ground and saying “no”, even when you get pushback.
Marina Cofer-Wildsmith is executive director of Bainbridge Youth Services, which for 55 years has supported the emotional and social health of local teens. Dr. Cezanne Allen is director of the Healthy Youth Alliance, a local nonprofit that works with community leaders, families and teens to support Island youth from cradle to career.