What is your position on outdoor rock concerts that go on all day and into the night? How about co-ed camping? Any thoughts on cliff jumping, white water rafting, or setting off fireworks? Many teens, possibly yours, will be asked to participate in these sorts of activities this summer. If you haven’t already now might be a good time to figure out if and when you want to draw the line.
It should be said right at the start that every summer thousands of teens across the country engage in what nervous adults might call risky activities but come to no harm. The chances that your kid will be injured or will injure someone else while having fun with her friends are very, very small. These sorts of sad events make the news because they are news: they don’t happen all that often.
And while every parent worries and might want to keep her child locked in a cave until age twenty-five, we all know that teens must have opportunities to make decisions and weigh risks. The brain’s prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for planning ahead and seeing the possible consequences of an action – undergoes tremendous development in adolescence. But in order to make that development happen, a teen must have plans to make, plans that could result in serious consequences if not thought all the way through. So to keep from stunting your child’s brain development, he must make his own decisions and see what the results are. You can’t keep your child safe by doing all the thinking for him.
But there’s no need to step back and let the chips fall where they may. You can be proactive, in preparing your teen to make big decisions, in knowing what you think she can handle and in laying down the ground rules early. Here are some thoughts.
- Be prepared. Make sure you know who your child’s friends are (first and last names). Make certain your child knows that you are there for him, no matter what, and that he should call you if he gets into trouble, no matter when. Despite the costs and other issues, your teen should probably have a cell phone so he’s not dependent on using the phone of someone else. Know if your child is a good swimmer. Make sure your child – boy or girl – knows how babies are made and how to keep from accidentally making one.
- Establish some basic rules about driving. The most dangerous place for your teen and her friends is a car. Even if your child doesn’t drive and her friends are too young to drive, realize that she may find herself in a car with a teen driver and a whole lot of other kids. If your child does drive, realize that she will be pressured to give rides to her friends and that no matter how good a driver she is when you’re riding along, she will be a worse driver with other kids in the car. So establish some rules and practice some scripts – things she can say when she turns down an offer of a ride or when she declines to give a kid a ride. Let her know how many people she can have in the car if she’s driving (your state may have laws about this).
- Establish a curfew and hold your teen to it. Whether curfew is 10 pm or 2 am, be ready to check to see that it’s observed. If your child isn’t home at the appointed hour, call his cell phone. Meet him at the door when he finally shows up. Being the parent of a teen means being up at night just as much as being the parent of a newborn is. Let your kid know you’re paying attention.
- Require an itinerary. Before your teen heads out the door, know who she’s going to be with, where they all are going, how they’ll get there, what they plan to do, and when she plans to be home. Naturally, your teen will tell you that she doesn’t know. Naturally, she may tell you about plans that never happen, even about things she has no intention of doing but that she thinks will sound good. The itinerary you hear may be far from the truth. But asking her to tell it to you will make an impression. It’s a way of emphasizing that you care.
- If you think it’s unsafe, don’t permit it. Remember that teens feel a lot of pressure to go along with whatever the crowd does. It’s difficult for a teen to refuse to do something he’d rather not without looking like a baby or a coward. So help him out. Tell him no. Give your child the ability to say “My dad would kill me if I did that!” It might be just what he needs to stand up for his true feelings.
Realize, though, that what you permit and what you don’t may not matter. Your child may very well do exactly what she wants despite your prohibitions. So do what you can to prepare your child to be safe, to use her head, and to make her own (good) decisions. Summer is the time your teen is most likely to get into situations she didn’t expect and might not know how to handle. Figure out ahead of time how to help her be ready and how to still have lots of fun.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.