Check in before you check out

Adolescence is a time when young people are pressured from inside and outside to try new things -- this makes sense since they are emerging from the protective world of the family to the larger world of opportunities, risks, mastery, excitement and dangers. Teenagers seek out novelty and heightened sources of stimulation, some as benign as roller coasters and scary horror movies, some as dangerous as substance abuse, reckless driving, unsafe sex, or delinquency.

Teenagers need the courage to try new things, but the wisdom to keep themselves safe. Significant changes in brain structure and functioning mean they may do things with less judgment, caution or rational thinking even than when they were a bit younger. So the action side is legislated for by neurological and biological shifts. But what about safety?

How can we help teenagers be brave but not stupid, take chances but include safeguards, be adventurous, creative and innovative but still retain a connection with past and current reality, plus future consequences?

Anglo-American attitudes have always stressed the need for adolescents to physically separate and reject parents and other adults. This leaves a vacuum that is quickly filled by peers, advertising, and social media, which all can emphasize immediate gratification without reflection of judgment. Studies show, however, that bad things are more likely to happen when teenagers use only peers for reference when they do risky things. There are more accidents when cars are driven with other kids there; parties with only teenagers present are more likely to include alcohol, drugs and unprotected or forced sex, and so on. American parents and other significant adults are often reluctant to help young people balance their biological push toward action and novelty with the wisdom, judgment and forethought that comes from adult experience.

The remedy is pretty simple - staying involved with your teenager's life will protect her, teach her needed skills, and will offer you unexpected benefits in learning and growth for yourself. Behind every successful teenager there is usually a wise adult, a parent, coach, teacher, big brother, or mentor. But this reality is seldom mentioned when the tale of success is told, which perpetuates the American myth of solitary and singular achievement.

When we talk about building emotional muscle in parents and children, we describe a lifelong process of transforming the parent-child relationship rather than separating from your child. It is never too late to start developing the parental emotional muscles needed to start and maintain a rich conversation with your teenager. Teenagers, too, can learn how much they gain by "checking in before you check out."

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