Does your son think he's invincible? Does your daughter believe that the life-changing consequences of risky behavior could never happen to her? Do you avoid talking about at-risk trends in teen culture because you think your kid would never be tempted? It's time to think again.
Parents, teachers and friends were shocked when a popular middle-school athlete recently died while playing the "choking game," an activity that restricts blood flow to the brain to achieve the sensation of being high. In addition to the choking game, phrases such as "car surfing" (riding on top of a moving car), "robotripping" (abusing cough syrup to get high) and "hook-up culture" (sexual activity with multiple, random and sometimes anonymous partners) are familiar to teens but often unheard of by parents.
The consequences of these behaviors are far too risky for us to stay unaware and uninvolved. Let's be honest about the activities teens are engaging in and the risks associated with them.
So how do kids get involved in such dangerous behaviors? Some young people may simply be bored, especially during the summer months when school is out. Some teens may lack information about the dangers associated with the stunts they're urged to participate in. And peer pressure is a constant influence in many teens' decision-making process.
A more complex explanation is that adolescents do not have fully developed brains or reasoning abilities, leaving them easily influenced by their environment and prone to impulsive behavior. "The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it," Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Magazine. "[Adolescence] is a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they're not quite sure what to do with them."
Dr. Freda Bush, from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, links her studies in neuroscience research to the sexual health risks of teens. "The brains of people younger than 25 are less physically developed than are the brains of adults. These yet-to-mature brains translate to an adolescent inability to make mature decisions." Dr. Bush goes on to explain that young brains mold in response to input from the world around them — from their experiences. There are many ways for adolescents to satisfy their inclinations toward sensation-seeking that are not harmful or anti-social, and parents can be influential in those experiences.
Understanding and informing kids about the dangers of thrill-seeking activities can make a big difference. But discussing the behaviors is only the first step. Parents and teens need to consider practical strategies for making in-the-moment decisions.
Assess the risks
Empower your teen to make wise choices under pressure. You can do this by helping him assess possible outcomes. For example, ask what he thinks might happen if he played the choking game or tried car surfing. What could happen if he experimented with cough syrup or other over-the-counter meds? What would he do if one of his friends was seriously injured or disabled while engaging in one of these activities? How would he feel if his best friend died while playing? The goal is to help your teen hear for himself how real and devastating consequences can be.
Encourage your teen to say no without fear of rejection. Teach your daughter that she's responsible for her choices, and assure her that you trust her to choose wisely.
Find his interests
Involve your teen in something meaningful. Youth groups are great, but don't assume that's all your teen needs. Team sports can provide a sense of belonging, while music lessons can give a sense of accomplishment and worth. Constructive projects with an adult provide new skills, critical-thinking practice and opportunities to learn good work ethics. Find out what your teen is interested in, and then facilitate experiences in that area.
Be a safe person for your teen to talk with about anything. Always listen without judging harshly or reacting out of fear. Stay current with cultural trends and the risks teens are taking. Know your son's friends and his friends' parents. Create a home that's a fun place for teens, and set it up so activities are out in the open.
Clearly, you need to be aware of dangers and take practical action when it comes to risky teen behavior. But don't be robbed of the joy of parenting by being overwhelmed with fear. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
If you are especially anxious or concerned, talk with a pastor, youth pastor, counselor, teacher or wise friend. You don't have to feel powerless or alone — let your concerns motivate you to find the support you need. Paul exhorts us in Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
If you are parenting an at-risk teen, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) to find the resources you need.