Raising happy, healthy teens: prevention tips for parents

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Parents matter! Don’t just take our word for it. Our kids say so, too. When asked, the number one reason given by teens for not using drugs or alcohol is because they do not want to disappoint their parents.

Parents play an enormous role in developing a child’s habits, behaviors and attitudes. When looking specifically at substance use, parents can cultivate the skills necessary for dealing with the challenging choices teens face on a daily basis.

But don’t worry, you are not alone! Family, friends, neighbors and parent resources can help provide support and encouragement. The Greater Falls Prevention Coalition is but one of the many resources for parents in the northeastern part of Windham County. (If you live in southern Vermont or New Hampshire, be sure to connect with your local prevention coalition.)

The developing brain functions quite differently than a fully developed adult brain. In fact, the brain is still developing well into our 20s. During adolescence, your child is still learning how to plan, problem solve and control impulses.

Research continues to show the teenage brain is hard-wired to take risks. Understanding these developmental realities will help us best approach parenting.

When applying this research to prevention, it is no surprise that the consumption of alcohol and other drugs can lead to unhealthy behaviors as adults. In fact, a teen that begins drinking at the age of 15 is five times more likely to develop an addiction than someone who waits.

As we move into the graduation and school vacation season, the time is ripe for dialogue with your kids about parties, expectations and consequences. It’s never too early to begin this, in fact, you may want to avoid “the talk” and instead approach it as an ongoing conversation.

As is often said, “A parent can’t be everywhere.” So taking steps to build trust and empower our kids to make safe, healthy choices is the best approach.

What follows is a set of tips for parents to incorporate into the daily routine. As you read each, ask, “Am I incorporating this into my parenting approach? What steps can I take to make a change?”

Remember, it is never too early to begin these approaches. Stay positive. Connect with other parents and take care of yourself. Parent on!

• Make family meals a priority. Teens who have dinner with their parents on a regular basis are 33 percent less likely to smoke and drink. Use this time to listen, build trust and deepen your relationship.

• Engage your teen in problem solving. During adolescence, teens are still developing problem-solving skills. Avoid lecturing, judging or rejecting. Instead, listen, ask questions and help your child reach the solution on his or her own. See your child as being resourceful; they have the solution!

• Make sure your teen is eating healthy and getting enough sleep and exercise. Often times, conflicts and stress can come from not following a healthy lifestyle. Take steps to encourage healthy sleep, eating and exercise habits.

• Utilize teachable moments. While watching a movie, at a family gathering or on a stroll, use what you see or hear as an opportunity to give examples of what you expect as a parent. Don’t be afraid to address the “tough issues” using these moments as the catalyst.

• Start the conversation early and avoid “The Talk.” Be honest with your kids and don’t hesitate to repeat themes or issues. By talking about choices, risks and consequences early, you can build an understanding and avoid the need for a potentially tense “talk.”

• Practice active listening. Active listening skills are crucial and take practice. Use positive, non-verbal communication such as making eye contact and nodding.

Be patient. When listening, give full attention and stop other tasks. Don’t interrupt and don’t spend time preparing your response while your child is talking.

• Don’t react to their reactions. It is easy to react when your child is upset. Instead, take some time for both you and your child. Keep it simple and be honest, but explain your reasoning. Be clear and provide choices.

• Move from conflict to cooperation. Focus on describing the problem and how you feel, offering a choice and stating expectations rather than reacting, nagging or lecturing.

Reduce conflict by empowering your teens to handle consequences. Children need limits, boundaries and monitoring. Be creative.

• Don’t hesitate to say “I’m sorry.” or acknowledge that sometimes you can fall short. Parents are not perfect. We make mistakes and it’s okay to say so. This helps teach our kids self-acceptance.

• Demonstrate appreciation, pride and love. When your kid does something positive, let them know. Show appreciation and thanks.

Don’t be afraid to say “I love you.” One of the most powerful things we can do as parents is to communicate love.

Chad Simmons is the media coordinator for the Greater Falls Prevention Coalition, promoting fun, productive, safe and healthy lifestyles for youth and adults while working to reduce alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse in Windham Northeast. Portions of this article were adapted from Active Parenting and “How To Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk.”

For additional parenting support, contact Deb Witkus, parent outreach coordinator, at 802-463-9927, extension 212. For more details, visit www.gfpcandtheline.org.