Helping Teens Avoid Risky Behavior

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Parenting is a sacred and honorable duty. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that parents have the sacred duty of rearing their children in love and righteousness. This includes guiding adolescents away from risky behaviors.

Risk Behaviors

Three common risk behaviors that parents worry about among their teens include sexual activity, delinquency, and substance use. Participating in these behaviors can lead to a number of poor outcomes in the later years. Unfortunately, the media have glamorized each of these behaviors so that they are now considered normal during adolescence. The good news is that parents can counteract the negative messages from the media in these areas.

Authoritative Parenting

According to research, the best way for parents to help decrease risky behaviors in their youth is to adopt an authoritative or actively involved parenting style. Authoritative parents aim for balance of the three Ls: love, limits, and latitude.

  • Love your teenager.Show your teenager son that you love him. Be affectionate. Hug your daughter, provide a shoulder to cry on, comfort her when she has had a tough day. When you need to correct your teen, do so in a loving manner. For example, if Dave brings a report card home with A's and B's and one D, express your joy in the A's and B's and patiently inquire about the D. Avoid lecturing and being coercive. Instead, discuss ways that he can bring that D to a better grade and listen to his ideas. Support him as he follows through on the commitment he made with you. Connect with your teen through acceptance. Rather than angrily rejecting Brandon's desire to form a band, support his desire and go to his performances. Enjoy shared activities like a game of basketball with Ben or going to an ice cream shop with Susan. Let your teenager know that you care for him and desire to be there anytime he needs you. Love is the foundation of authoritative parenting; allow it to guide your interactions with your teenager.
  • Set limits. Teenagers need appropriate boundaries. Use your teen's temperament to figure out how best to set limits. Hart used this analogy:

"In that way, parenting is like riding a horse. For some children, parents may need to hold the reigns tighter. Other children may require less parental steering. And with some children, holding the reigns too tightly may only lead to defiance. Knowing when to let up on the reigns and when to tighten your grip takes a lot of creativity. . ."10

Rather than set rules on the spot, agree upon rules with your teenager ahead of time and let them know clearly what you expectations are. Remember that the less rules the better. When these rules are broken, be firm.  If Johnny comes home 30 minutes after his curfew, lovingly remind him of the rule and the punishment previously agreed on. Then, take the keys for a week. Limits provide boundaries and guidelines for your teenager when they are clear and consistent. Your teenager will learn to regulate herself with your help.

  • Provide latitude. Teenagers are growing up fast. They are seeking independence and autonomy. You can foster this growth by providing choices for your teen. When you realize that something needs to change because Lucy is spending too much time with her friends and not enough time on her homework, take her out to get a soda and tell her your concerns. Listen to what she has to say and find a balance. Allow her to make the decision while sticking to the rules that have already been put in place. Teenagers do best when they are given the chance to make decisions. When Joe suddenly wants to quit playing the tuba that he has been playing since he was eight and you want him to continue to develop his talent, find a creative solution. Advise him to wait a few months and if he still feels the same then he can stop the lessons. These choices prepare your teen for when they do become adults. They also encourage them to reason through the decisions that they make on a regular basis, like whether to smoke marijuana or not. Above all else, love your teenager when they do make decisions that you do not agree with.

Along with the above guidelines, the following ideas may also discourage risky behaviors:

  • Encourage education. Explain and emphasize the importance of completing school. Encourage attendance and good grades as well as talk about college. Attend school functions and get to know the teachers, classes, and the homework assignments.
  • Share your values.This can be done formally or informally. When John wanted to go on a walk with some friends, Shannon, his mother, cautioned him against doorbell ditching, explaining to him that this can be disruptive, especially to those families with young children and older adults. Explain why you feel that substances area danger. Describe how mind-altering drugs can affect the teen's decision making. Emphasize the addictive nature and dangerous side effects of using substances. Share with your teen how you feel about early sex and what brought you to that conclusion. Emphasize the negative social aspects of engaging in teen sex and express the positives of waiting. Talk about what your own decision was and how this affected your teenage years. Discuss that the popular beliefs and the seemingly good things that arise out of teenage sex are false and explain that they do not accurately depict what truly happens to a teenager when they engage in sexual intercourse. Sharing your own values warmly will encourage your teen to internalize these values. Formal and informal sharing is important as the teen continues to mature.
  • Have regular family dinners. Teenagers need routines. Set aside a time each night for family dinner. Use the opportunity of good food to inquire into your teen's life. Find out if anything is worrying them, things they are struggling with,what things they enjoy, and how school is going. Use the time to discuss the importance of school, higher education, and your own values. Family dinners ensure that you are home with your teen at the right time. Connect with your teen. Talking with them while preparing dinner will open communication boundaries because of the informal manner. Take advantage of your teenager being home by encouraging their good behavior and expressing how proud you are of them. Be aware of your teen's activities, friends, and life in general.Your teen wants to know that you are aware of what is going on in his life. Female teens need the emotional support you can provide through routines, affection, and identifying with what is happening with their lives in terms of friends and school. Male teens also need affection and identification. Males also need to have their parents home at key times, like after school, social events, and dates. Regularly talk with your teen about sexAs a parent,you can either be demeaning or inviting in your discussions. A parent that is demeaning, when asked questions about sex, will respond with accusations and lectures. An inviting parent when asked questions, will respond with honesty, warmth, and engage their teenager in a two-way discussion about the question. Be open and share your own personal values about sexual activity. At the same time, use the discussions to monitor your teenager's activities. Ask questions and stay tuned to who your teen is hanging out with, where they are going, and what your expectations are when they leave the house. Discuss the negative social consequences of having sex. This includes a bad reputation and that people will know. Help your teen know that engaging in sexual activities will not increase her popularity. Be responsive and make your teen feel comfortable by not judging, labeling, or accusing him of participating in the very activities he has questions about. Be straight with your teen, avoid being preachy.
  • Encourage religion. Dean (2005) states that "highly religious teenagers appear to be doing much better in life than less religious teenagers". She offers four resources in fostering religious behavior. First, a creed to believe. Worship, music, bible study, and seminary are oft-stated tools that teenagers rely upon. Second, a place to belong. Belonging to a congregation and involving the family allow teenagers to connect to a group which will provide them with support for the wise decisions they desire to make. Third, a call to live out. Teenagers who have this do not see a division between Sunday and Monday; they look forward to youth leadership; or plan on serving a mission in the future. Fourth, a hope to build onto. This includes progress. Encourage your teenager in each of these areas by going to church with them. Your influence will guide them as they decide whether they want religion apart of their life or not.
  • Be aware of your teen's friends and their friends' belief systems. Aside from parents, teens glean their values from their friends. Find out who their friends are and what their friends are doing. Invite your teen's friends to your house in order for you to get to know them. Encourage extracurricular activities that will introduce your teenager to good friends. Pressure to be good is a lot easier to manage than the pressure to act out.

Additional Reading

Hart, C. H., Newell, L. D., & Frost, S. F. (2003). Parenting skills and social-communicative competence in childhood. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (Eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills (pp. 753-797). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smith, C. & Denton, M. (2005). Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Web Links

Written by Amber Turner, Research Assistant, and edited by Laura Padilla-Walker and Stephen F. Duncan, Professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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