No time like the present to talk to your teenager about life’s pres­sures

A new six-part series on em­pow­er­ing chil­dren to make re­spon­si­ble choices around risky be­hav­iours such as smok­ing, drink­ing, sex and the dan­gers on the In­ter­net

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Pres­sure Points The next ar­ti­cle in the series will ap­pear on Oc­to­ber 10th and will look at how you can in­crease your pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on your chil­dren by main­tain­ing your con­nec­tion and build­ing a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with them. All six ar

Chil­dren and young peo­ple are un­der in­creased pres­sures to be­come in­volved in risky and harm­ful ac­tiv­i­ties such as smok­ing, drink­ing, drug tak­ing as well as new in­ter­net-re­lated prob­lems such as sex­ting, pornog­ra­phy or on­line bul­ly­ing. Par­ents are right to be con­cerned and they have a key role in keep­ing their chil­dren and teenagers safe and teach­ing them how to make re­spon­si­ble choices in the face of risk.

Over the com­ing months in Health + Fam­ily with The Irish Times, I will be writ­ing a series of ar­ti­cles de­scrib­ing ev­i­dence-based and prac­ti­cal par­ent­ing prin­ci­ples on how to pos­i­tively in­flu­ence your chil­dren and help them grow up into re­spon­si­ble adults.

The dan­gers fac­ing chil­dren/teenagers

While par­ents may be more aware of the dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with drug tak­ing, they may be less aware that by far the two most prob­lem­atic drugs for young peo­ple are tobacco and al­co­hol.

Smok­ing is the lead­ing cause of pre­ventable death in the west­ern world. Some 90 per cent of smok­ers be­gin be­fore the age 19 and about 30 per cent of teen smok­ers will con­tinue smok­ing and die early from a smok­ing-re­lated dis­ease.

Less well known is that fact that teen smok­ers are more likely to have panic at­tacks, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, and de­pres­sion. In ad­di­tion, with smok­ers eight times more likely to abuse cannabis, and 22 times more likely to use co­caine, tobacco is a gate­way to more se­ri­ous drug us­age.

Though smok­ing is a prob­lem, abuse of al­co­hol by teenagers is more preva­lent and brings more risks. Teenage use of al­co­hol is as­so­ci­ated with many se­ri­ous prob­lems in­clud­ing road traf­fic ac­ci­dents, vi­o­lence, un­planned sex as well as sig­nif­i­cant men­tal health prob­lems such as de­pres­sion. Most alarm­ingly, drink­ing al­co­hol is a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in up 50 per cent of sui­cides. For both smok­ing and drink­ing, teenagers whose brains are still de­vel­op­ing are at a par­tic­u­lar risk of harm – the ear­lier they start us­ing any of these drugs the greater the risks and the more se­ri­ous the prob­lems. Sur­vey­ing the ev­i­dence as a par­ent, the goal must be to en­cour­age teens to not smoke or drink at all if pos­si­ble, to de­lay start­ing as late as pos­si­ble and to teach mod­er­ate safe us­age if they do start. With the ar­rival of in­ter­net and smart phones, new dan­gers and pres­sures have pre­sented for chil­dren and teenagers. Alarm­ingly, chil­dren are now view­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent and pornog­ra­phy at younger ages with most teenagers re­port­ing such ma­te­rial on the in­ter­net is too easy to ac­cess and dam­ag­ing to them. In ad­di­tion, over half of teenagers re­port that they have been cy­ber­bul­lied at some stage while us­ing so­cial medi. There is a grow­ing con­cern about ex­ces­sive so­cial me­dia and in­ter­net us­age bor­der­ing on ad­dic­tion. Sadly most par­ents are out of touch with or un­der­es­ti­mate the dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with the in­ter­net and most only be­come aware of prob­lems once they have hap­pened for their chil­dren.

Be proac­tive as a par­ent

In re­spond­ing to the risks fac­ing chil­dren and teenagers, the key is to be proac­tive as par­ent. Don’t just as­sume all will be well and don’t wait un­til there is a prob­lem. Don’t avoid talk­ing about the risks with chil­dren, think­ing per­haps that you are putting ideas into your chil­dren’s head by dis­cussing sex­ting, al­co­hol or drug tak­ing.

In fact chil­dren are usu­ally aware of these is­sues at much younger ages than par­ents sus­pect but are of­ten re­ly­ing on their peers or other un­re­li­able sources for their facts. Be well versed in the is­sues and be pre­pared to talk to your chil­dren. The goal is to be there to give the “adult per­spec­tive”, to set rules around safety and to su­per­vise and guide chil­dren and teenagers. It might feel eas­ier to go with the flow and agree with what­ever is pop­u­lar – but the ev­i­dence sug­gest that par­ents who com­mu­ni­cate clear rules and pref­er­ences to their chil­dren are more ef­fec­tive.

For ex­am­ple, make sure to state to your chil­dren that you don’t want them to use al­co­hol un­til they are at least 18 and let them know that you will be su­per­vis­ing their so­cial me­dia us­age un­til they are older when you are sure they can use it re­spon­si­bly.

Em­power chil­dren

In em­pow­er­ing chil­dren we want to avoid the twin per­ils of be­ing an over-pro­tec­tive “he­li­copter” par­ent or be­ing an over per­mis­sive par­ent for whom any­thing goes. We want to find a mid­dle ground be­tween rules and su­per­vi­sion and em­pow­er­ing chil­dren to make own de­ci­sions. In the long term, the goal is to pre­pare chil­dren to make their own de­ci­sions and to equip them to deal with risks them­selves.

A sim­ple prin­ci­ple is to al­ways proac­tively pre­pare chil­dren for any new chal­lenge. For ex­am­ple, rather than sim­ply hand­ing over a new smart phone to a child, par­ents should first take time to pre­pare them to use it safely and not to al­low un­su­per­vised use un­til they feel con­vinced they know how to han­dle the risks.

For ex­am­ple, are you sure your chil­dren know how im­por­tant it is not to make neg­a­tive com­ments about peo­ple on­line? Or do they have prob­lems with shar­ing nude or in­ap­pro­pri­ate im­ages? Do they know the im­por­tance of pri­vacy or what to do if a stranger ap­proached them on­line? What would they do if they felt they were be­ing bul­lied, etc? It is best if you as a par­ent dis­cuss these safety is­sues both in ad­vance and in an on­go­ing way.

Tune into your chil­dren

In think­ing how to pro­tect chil­dren, re­mem­ber chil­dren have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and dif­fer­ent needs. One child might be nat­u­rally more re­spon­si­ble and can han­dle more free­dom at a younger age but an­other child might be more im­pul­sive and need more su­per­vi­sion un­til they are older. One child might be more as­sertive with peers and thus han­dle peer pres­sure bet­ter, whereas an­other might be more eas­ily led and need more sup­port in stand­ing up to peers and mak­ing their own de­ci­sions. One child might be very open and com­mu­ni­cate with you about what is go­ing on in their lives while an­other might be more se­cre­tive and in­tro­vert. You have to make a spe­cial ef­fort to con­nect with them and keep a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open with them about their wor­ries and con­cerns.

How can you ■ proac­tively pre­pare your chil­dren to deal with prob­lems they might be fac­ing?

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