From the National Health Institute

Helping Your Children Navigate Their Teenage Years:
A Guide for Parents


Increasing Responsibility and Freedom

Teenage Brain: A work in progress

Teen Responsibilty and FreedomYou don't trust me . . .
But they're my friends . . .
Everyone else is doing it . . .


Teens need their independence, but how do you make sure they are safe? It's tough to decide when to give your teen more freedom. Do you hang on to the kite string for as long as you possibly can, or give the kite free air? The decision isn't easy. One parent's decision for his or her teen may not be right for other parents and their teens.

Although every adolescent is different, there are many experiences common to the teenage years. The most common may be the pull and push between dependence and independence.

Teens, at younger and younger ages, are putting themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases—including AIDS—and for pregnancy. And some teens, and even younger children, smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, use other drugs, or commit acts of violence and other crimes. No wonder so many parents are concerned, even frightened; no wonder so many try to control the behavior of their teenage children.

It is important for parents to make rules for their young children. As children get older, however, they need to learn to make some of their own decisions and life choices. Teens need the chance to practice good decision-making skills, and to manage new life experiences. Parents need to give teens the freedom to do just that. But there is a catch: teens must be ready. They need to agree to behave in responsible ways and show that they can handle the freedom. They also need to keep their parents informed. That way, parents know when to lend guidance and supervision, and how to support their teen's progress.

That's where respect, responsibility and reliability come in.

Respect: Respect is a two-way street, but it starts with you. Give your teens the respect that you would like to be given. Give them credit for their knowledge and abilities; pay attention and listen to them. That means showing confidence in your teens, and being supportive.

Responsibility: Teens are learning to take care of themselves as they prepare for adulthood. That's what growing up is all about. Give them an appropriate amount of freedom and independence. Encourage and promote responsibility and good decision- making, offering support and gentle help with difficult decisions. Let your teens know they can gain more freedom as they demonstrate increasingly responsible behavior.

Reliability: Part of growing up is learning and adapting to rules—rules about driving and work, rules about drinking and dating, social rules and family rules. Teens will test the rules, but over time most will make these rules part of their lives. This kind of reliability is worthy of recognition and praise. When you can rely on your teens behaving responsibly, it may be time to give them more freedom.

Parents should believe in their teens; set high standards for them, encourage them, expect them to achieve their goals, and provide consistent love and support— including practical help—so they can achieve the promise that lies within them.

Clothes and hair... where do I draw the line?

Jason is doing well in middle school. He's great with his younger brothers and helps around the house, but I'm concerned about some of his new friends. Some have dyed their hair odd colors; they wear baggy jeans with their boxer shorts showing. A few have pierced tongues and tattoos. A while ago, Jason asked about getting those baggy jeans. I said no, because the gang kids wear them. I hoped he'd forget about them, but he has asked again. Between the drugs in our neighborhood, baggy jeans, and new friends, I'm worried. I want to steer him away from problem kids. Should I let him buy the jeans? What should I do about his friends?

Adolescents are striving for independence. As teens prepare for adulthood, parents should encourage independence, while making sure their teens don't drift too far from a positive course. How should parents react to the choices of their teenage children? In general, extend trust and give children as much freedom of choice as they can handle. Be sure to set limits, too. Your decisions about the baggy jeans and about your son's friends require careful evaluation of all the details. You need to think about your own values, look realistically at where Jason seems to be headed, understand what he is doing or wants to do, and determine how best to promote his safety and growth.

Jason is doing well in school and not getting into trouble. Success in school gives children a sense of accomplishment. They can see a positive future for themselves and are less to his friends and his preferences in clothing, you need to gather more information if you're going to make a smart decision. You need to know more about your son's friends: What are they like? Do they use alcohol or other drugs? Are they in gangs? How does your son feel about these kids? How does he feel about drug use? How does he feel about gangs?

Get to Know Your Son's Friends

Ask your son to invite his friends to your home so you can meet them. You'll show that you have an open mind. If his friends behave poorly in your presence, your son will notice.

You also need to understand what the baggy jeans mean to Jason. Are they just a style he likes? Or is wearing them a way to identify with a gang? Sometimes teens dress differently just to harmlessly show some independence from the family. Think back to your own adolescence, and remember the fashion changes. There may be some similarities.

Have a discussion with your son about his friends and about the clothing he likes to wear. Sometimes discussions can bridge differences. Maybe your son will be swayed by what you say about the jeans and gangs, or maybe he will convince you that baggy jeans have become a style that has little to do with belonging to a gang.

A conversation with your teen can help you decide whether there is a real problem or it is just a question of fashion.

Next Handling Tough Situations

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