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Build a Healthy Relationship with Your Teenager

September 20, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

While researching an article online, I came across a set of tips for parents from a Canadian organization, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. It has some good advice. This article is an edited version.

Be honest and open: Talk to your teen about dating and sex, including messages about your attitudes and values about sex, advice about appropriate dating behavior, and information about potentially negative consequences of teenage sexual activity, such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Be authoritative not authoritarian in your parenting style: This involves a combination of warmth and firmness. Set high standards and have high expectations for your teen regarding her behavior, and apply these standards with consistent setting of limits. However, you should provide an atmosphere of acceptance and psychological autonomy where your teen's views and individuality can develop freely. 

Think "harm reduction," not zero tolerance: When it comes to your teen’s experimentation with substance use and sex it is unrealistic to assume that he will not experiment. Parents who try to enforce absolutes are often in conflict with their teen and are likely to be kept in the dark about her activities. The alternative is to discuss choices and the pros and cons of these new-found opportunities in a non-threatening manner. Convey to your teen that you want him to be safe which implies that he must take personal responsibility for his actions, use his own judgment, and make his own choices.

Don't believe everything you read or hear: The media would have us believe that drug-use, heavy drinking, violence and underage sex, are occurring at rates far greater than they actually are. These misconceptions can lead to a sense of dread as your child approaches the teen years, and may influence how you react to your child's behavior and actions. Make sure to get the facts and examine the misconceptions you may have about your teen's behavior and actions before you jump to any conclusions.

Monitor your teen's activities with sensitivity: Parental involvement is a key factor that can moderate adolescent problem behavior. Monitoring must be balanced with sensitivity so as not to become overly intrusive and unnecessarily invade your teen's privacy. You can monitor your child's behavior simply by being present (before and after they go out, for example) and asking a few simple questions in a neutral (non accusatory) tone. 

Accentuate the Positive: Try to initiate positive communication with your child whenever the opportunity arises. If you are experiencing conflict with your teen over rules, chores, school, or peers, talk to them about it. Because there is conflict does not mean that every interaction has to be negative. Try to build in positive interactions throughout the day or week so that your teen learns that you are unhappy with her behavior and not with her as a person.

Encourage your teen to be involved in extracurricular activities: Studies have shown that extracurricular involvement at school or in the community can have a positive influence on academic achievement and teen’s attitudes toward substance abuse. Most important are involvement in pro-social activities such volunteering. 

Encourage flexibility in gender roles and behavior: Teens are under considerable pressure to conform to their peers' (and sometimes family's) expectations as to what boys and girls "should and should not" do. Speak to your teen about these pressures and their views, and help them appreciate their individuality. Discuss ways to respond to teasing in a lighthearted manner. Most important, talk to your teen about bullying and what she can do if she is being bullied or has concerns about her friends.

Overly aggressive and controlling behavior in teenage boys may be a sign of their strict adherence to society's expectations, which can sometimes be inadvertently communicated by parents ("be a man," "tough it out"). Think about your own gender stereotypes and how you communicate these ideas to your children.

Address any abusive or inappropriate language with a firm and clear message: It has become acceptable in teen culture to swear and verbally abuse others! While parents can't totally prevent abusive language from their homes (in music, television, and other media), teens appreciate knowing the limits. Language is a powerful means by which teens control the actions of others, including friends, family members, and peers. Be especially vigilant for expressions that put down others, no matter how "innocent" or "joking" they may seem, and point out what these expressions really communicate.

Be an active participant (to a point) in your teen's life: Know your children’s interests. If they like hockey, take them to a hockey game if you can. If they play hockey, watch them play - in a non-critical way.  If they like art or music, or whatever their interest is, plan a day when you can be together to do something special. Or if a movie comes on television that you both like - watch it together. Not a lot of words need to be spoken. It is being together that counts!

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