As teens are testing the waters of independence – and at times, our patience – it’s important for parents to recognize the crucial role they still play in their child’s emotional development. When their mental and physical well-being are at their most vulnerable, it is imperative that teens are given the tools to navigate the many challenges they face, and the support they’ll need to do so in a safe and healthy manner.
What They’re Up Against
Social Media & Digital Overload
While there are several aspects of the teenage experience that change with each generation, perhaps the biggest change for teens today is the unfathomable amount of information, both good and bad, that they have 24-hour access to online.
Social media exposes teens to levels of interpersonal pressure and societal conflict that they simply may not be cognitively-equipped to handle. Having their identity defined or threatened by the unsolicited opinions of others can be detrimental to their mental health. This is especially true for teens who already struggle with low self-esteem, negative body image or social anxiety. Social media may have the potential to connect us to one another, but unhealthy levels of digital involvement can lead to feelings of rejection, self-loathing and isolation.
Peer Influence, Longing to Belong
Without the healthy coping skills necessary for navigating life’s trials, teens are highly susceptible to negative outlets like violence, substance use, and unsafe sex. The American Sexual Health Association cites that while teens make up only 25% of the sexually active population, they account for more than 50% of newly-diagnosed STIs. Recent surveys presented by the CDC show that nearly two-thirds of high school students have tried alcohol by the time they graduate, and close to half have also experimented with marijuana or stimulants.
The old adage of “just say no” simply isn’t enough. The conversations are never easy, but it is more important than ever before to communicate the serious consequences of unsafe sex and the risks of substance use to our teens. Normalizing these “taboo” topics at an early age by opening up an honest dialogue will not only encourage safer practices during the high school years, but also well into adulthood.
The adult brain does not reach true maturity until our late twenties. Emotional regulation, advanced critical thinking skills and other executive mental functions are still in development during adolescence. As a result, the teenage brain is prone to impulsivity and less averse to risk-taking or potentially harmful behaviors.
Perhaps the most critical threat to their general wellness is the level of vulnerability adolescents face in terms of mental health. Teens between the ages of 15-19 are one of the demographics at the highest risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and even suicide. Rather than reach out for help in times of struggle, many teens will instinctively isolate or become increasingly aggressive or irritable, making their mental health symptoms that much harder to recognize and address.
How Can Parents Help?
Set Healthy Boundaries
Many parents fear that giving their teens too much free time will result in them getting into trouble. The temptation to tighten the reins is difficult to overcome, but if exposure to difficult situations is eliminated entirely, teens will never learn to navigate them on their own. Granting your teen greater autonomy within set parameters, like an established curfew, provides them with the structure needed for them (and you) to feel secure, while also giving them the independence they’re fighting for.
Routine isn’t the enemy, but allowing for some unscheduled time will create opportunities for your teen to explore their interests, develop their passions, and learn to be more comfortable in their own skin.
Engage, Engage, Engage
Overscheduling, excessive amounts of screen time and the general busyness we all succumb to can make quality time difficult to come by. Even so, it is crucial to make that time for one another as often as possible, even if it happens in small increments.
Spending just a few minutes a day in genuine conversation with one another without the interruption of cell phones, TV or other distractions can make all the difference in your teen’s life. Having your full attention will serve as a reminder that you are there for them. Not every conversation can be a heart-to-heart, and in fact, most probably won’t be. But consistently engaging your teen gives them the option of opening up when they need to most. Even if they’re distant, they crave your time. Give it to them.
Walk the Talk
Most won’t admit it, but kids look to their parents and other adult caretakers to set an example for healthy living – even in their more distant teen years. Emphasizing the importance of positive lifestyle choices like a nutritious diet, regular exercise and getting enough sleep every night won’t mean nearly as much to your teens if you aren’t working towards the same goals. Encouraging these behaviors starts with being a role model. Even though it sometimes feels like your efforts are fruitless, trust that your teens are paying attention to your decisions and know that theirs will be influenced as a result.
Health is a multitude of things; ultimately, the key is to be more proactive, less reactive. If we are committed to being involved, engaged and informed about the resources available to us, we will be able to more adequately address the many aspects of our children’s wellbeing. We have to remember that our success is directly linked to theirs, and that navigating these challenging years together means we will have the privilege of seeing our teens grow and thrive as healthy adults one day.
Discover even more resources available to teens, youth and their parents through Youth Health Connection, a community benefits program dedicated to developing the positive mental health and physical well-being of young people across our region.