Talking to your teenager can be trying in the best of circumstances, but talking to them about risky behaviors can be even more of a challenge.
One panel of medical professionals, childcare experts and police officers and another of four exceptional Darien teenagers discussed the ways in which parents and children communicate about risky behaviors.
Moira Rizzo, licensed marriage and family therapist, and connections counselor at Darien High School, served as moderator and also shared her answers to some audience-generated questions.
The students explained what forces, whether from the school, their parents or otherwise, keep them away from “risky behavior.” Emily Caccam, president of Darien’s chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, said that her parents were very clear early on that drinking, smoking and drugs were unacceptable. At the same time, they let her know that it was all right to come to them for help if she makes a mistake, she said.
For Lily Christensen, a member of the Youth Asset Team and captain of Darien High School’s ice hockey team, her role in a community is important. As the oldest player, she feels like a role model to her younger teammates and has an influence over their actions. “I want them to be able to look up to me,” she said.
As a middle child, Brad Magnussus, co-chair of the Youth Asset team, also sees himself as a role model—guiding his younger brother as his older brother once did.
“There are always people watching,” Magnussus said as another reason not to engage in risky behaviors, “you have to try and think of that. Your reputation is at stake.”
Simply keeping a child busy might keep them away from drugs and alcohol, said Nick Howe, co-chair of the Youth Asset Team. “The best way to pull them away — is pushing them to do other things that can take up their time,” he said. “Maybe they’ll find a passion or maybe it’ll be something to do.”
Concern about the youth asset survey results are reasonable, according to Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescents. The steady rates of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco use are reflected in her private practice, she said. Fifty-four percent of high school students said they used alcohol at least once in the last 30 days. Marijuana use at the high school level was 41%, and 19% district wide. Indicators of positive behavior such as good grades and health increased in the last survey. Thriving indicators, such as getting good grades and maintaining health increased across the board.
The number of students who felt that they were valued by the community and had positive role models halved between seventh and twelfth grade. Kids learn by observation so parents who allow kids to drink at home because it is “safer,” are not setting an appropriate example, Greenberg said.
If a parent finds that their teenager is exhibiting negative behavior or experimenting with illegal substances it is best to have a judgement-free conversation, said Rebecca Gaines, therapist at the Life Solution Center of Darien. Parents must show their kids they are comfortable talking about topics like sex. This also means being honest about the consequences of their actions, she said. Gaines encouraged parents to seek professional help for their child and family if they cannot stop the behavior on their own.
Keeping children away from substances as long as possible is vital for their brain development, she said. “We’ve realized the brain continues to mature significantly through age 23, 24, 25,” Gaines said, “What happens during these years you can think of [as] solidifying neural circuits.”
Studies have shown that using drugs, like marijuana, might lower a teen’s IQ points and impact the part of their brain responsible for risk taking behavior.
The longer you extend the first experimentation, the more time the person will have to learn to socialize sober, said Moira Rizzo, the moderator.
Domestic violence can also be prevented with conversations between teens and their parents before anything occurs, according to Sargeant Allison Hudyma, the police department’s domestic violence liaison. The problem is that romantic relationships are new for teenagers, she said. Controlling behavior like intimidation and emotional abuse are red flags. “I find that we see a lot of that,” Hudyma said, “and it’s hard for the teen to understand that it can escalate.”
Parents should start their conversations before kids start dating, Greenberg said, and use media as a starting point.
Teens at Darien High School are high performing and under a lot of pressure, said Officer James Palmieri, school resource officer, and risky behaviors still occur. At the school since September, Palmieri has dealt with cases of bullying magnified by the Internet and social media. “The world has become literally this big,” he said, indicating a circle with his hands, “I’ve had to make phone calls out of state.”
Teens who knowingly share nude photos of another underage person will be listed under the sex offender registry, Greenberg noted in reference to the pressure or inclination teens might feel to send illegal photos through the Internet or text messages.
Palmieri also noted a culture of complacency among parents who allow kids to drink at home. He warned of a new law, effective Oct. 1, 2012, that charges a person who “knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence” allows a minor to drink alcohol in their home will be charged up to $500, and may be charged with a misdemeanor.
“Don’t make the assumption that kids know all the risks associated with substance abuse,” Greenberg said. “Kids often engage in risky behaviors…because a lot of things are very ambiguous to them.”
Parents should let their kids know that their main job is to “bring them home safely” at the end of the day. “When you’re talking to them about substance-related issues, talk to them in a calm manner,” she said. “The minute you start to lose emotional control or freak out, the conversation will end. Nobody wants to talk to someone who’s freaking out.”
Greenberg developed a code word for when her daughter found herself at a party that was getting out of control and needed a ride home. Her daughter would call and ask, ‘Mom, did I leave my jacket at home?’
Part of the relationship between parent and child is noticing when there is a break. It’s normal for teenagers to want time away from their parents “to some degree” because they are preparing for an independent life, said Gaines, the therapist. When teens ignore conversations about serious problems, a red flag should go up, she said. Parents should also remember to ask and respect their child’s opinion on the matter, she added.
Studies show that children of parents who make their rules and boundaries very clear about drugs and alcohol are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, said Dr. Jaime Roach Murray, a pediatrician. She mentioned that parental leniency with expired medications or proper use of prescriptions influences how a child will see the drugs—like Adderall, a relatively common methamphetamine intended for attention deficit disorder but is abused for a high. Murray also said that the conversation about sexual behavior is changing. “There’s a lot more discussion of this ‘friends with benefits’ idea,” Murray said. “That clearly comes from the media. The important thing is to talk to your children about these messages and what they mean.”
In response to a question from the audience, Caccam, president of SADD, said that domestic abuse and healthy relationships are not covered as much as other topics, like alcohol, which is “quite an issue in our town.”
The teens agreed that they feel comfortable rejecting risky behaviors and don’t receive pressure from their peers to act otherwise. It is up to the parents to discipline the kids who are engaging in illegal activity, said Hudyma, Sargeant in Darien. Parents should remember that police officers should not be the first line of discipline to their kids, she said.
Ultimately, the consequence should match the severity of the offense, Rizzo said, and parents should make sure they can enforce their punishment so as not to lose credibility.