Keeping Tabs on Your Teen
The teen years are often the most difficult time of life for parents and teens. Teenagers struggle with their parents, peers, and selves to establish a sense of identity, while parents try desperately to understand and keep up. During this time, kids have a tendency to check out from their adult relationships, and parents run the gamut of responses -- from clamping down like dictators to adopting a hands off, laissez-faire attitude and hoping for the best.
Despite the fact that staying involved in your teen's life may be one of the hardest tasks you'll ever face, studies show that it's also one of the most significant things you can do to ensure your child makes it to a happy adulthood.
"Studies resoundingly show that a lack of parental support and guidance is one of the primary causes for at-risk behavior such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs and having unprotected sex," says Dr. Michael Anastasi, a family counselor from La Verne, Calif. "While there is certainly a balance to be struck, it's absolutely imperative that parents go through the struggle of keeping in touch with their teens and revising their role as caregivers."
Though many parents may dismiss such concerns and believe their teens would never take part in such behavior, Anastasi recommends that they take a deeper look. "On average, kids found by their parents to be using drugs, had been doing so for two years prior to the discovery, and a majority of high school students who said they were sexually active claimed their parents had no knowledge of it."
Statistics from the Center for Disease Control's 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey support this assessment. According to the survey, 50 percent of high school students had consumed alcohol during the past 30 days, 26 percent smoked marijuana, 50 percent had engaged in sexual intercourse and 33 percent had ridden with an intoxicated driver.
Considering that automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 24, and that four in 10 young women -- nearly one million a year -- become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, keeping track of your teen isn't a matter of "if," but "how."
Tracking Teens With Technology
Twenty-first century technology can be a boon for parents trying to keep up with their teens. The decreasing cost of cell phones has made it easier for parents and teens to stay in touch. In addition to allowing parents the comfort of being able to reach their teen with the touch of a few buttons, cell phones are also invaluable in the event of an emergency.
"Cell phones...are a good way to give teens a measured amount of responsibility, starting with the device itself," Anastasi says. "If teens share in the financial responsibility of having one, it can help them become independent in positive ways."
When choosing a cell phone, parents should look for a dependable unit with a good battery (minimizing the chance that the phone won't function when it's needed most), and choose a cellular company that services all the areas where their teen regularly goes.
Big Mother's Watching, But Is She Listening?
"Knowing where your kids are and what they're up to doesn't make you a nag, it makes you a good parent," says Ingrid Sanden, spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "Cell phones...are a good way for parents to stay in touch, but they have to be used within the context of a healthy relationship. Cell phones can give parents a false sense of security that makes it easier for teens to lie about where they are and what they're doing. When it gets down to it, technology is no replacement for good communication."
Sanden says that the single most important thing a parent can do to stay in touch with their teen is to be "askable."
"Talking early and often with kids about things like relationships, sex and drugs may be hard, but children and teenagers consistently say they would rather hear about sex from their parents than from their friends or the media," Sanden says.
Government statistics strongly support this view. In fact, 70 percent of interviewed teens said they were ready to discuss things their parents thought they weren't prepared for. When asked why teenage girls become pregnant, more than 70 percent cited lack of communication between a girl and her parents.
Good Communication Starts Early
"The wrong way for a parent to be aware of what their teen is doing is to start taking an interest in their social lives after they're old enough to drive," Sanden says. "Just as it doesn't make sense to wait to talk to kids about drugs or sex until they hit high school, it doesn't make sense to only pay attention to their weekend activities after they gain some independence."
"Parents should take an active interest in their kids' lives, their friends and their friends' parents early on, so they are able to trust them as they grow into young adults," Sanden says. "While it might not always be appropriate to go through their teen's sock drawers or read their diary, parents should definitely make a point of paying attention to who their kids hang out with, and what they watch, read and listen to. Parents shouldn't be afraid to monitor their kids, set curfews and set standards for expected behavior."
Melinda Thomas of Boulder, Colo. agrees. "The best advice I ever got came from the head of my daughter's middle school," she says. "He advised us to get to know our kids' friends and talk to the other parents, check the plans, confirm the supervision at parties and outings."
The bottom line is that parents and kids need to trust each other," says 18-year-old Kellie Svengard, a high school student from Boston, Mass. "The teen years are a very hard time consumed with a lot of twisted emotions. Unfortunately, too many teens feel unloved, which causes them to do things to get attention. The important thing is that parents know who their child's best friends are, and what they like to do with their spare time. These two things will give parents a good idea of where their kids are at and what they're doing."