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Six tools every parent needs for raising teens

By Jennifer Meadows
Novant Health

Easy access to technology and rise of social media have further complicated being a teenager and a parent alike. Dr. Andy Shulstad, a pediatrician with Novant Health Pediatrics Symphony Park, offers his take on how parents can raise a happy and healthy teen.   

1. Encourage communication

After puberty has come and gone, parents are faced with the challenge of helping teens build self-confidence and instilling in them the knowledge necessary to set healthy boundaries. Shulstad encourages parents to be upfront and honest about the scary topics — sex, birth control, drugs and alcohol.

With messages coming from every direction telling children how they should look, act, feel and think, an open and authentic take from mom or dad is likely something your child wants. Let them know it’s OK to talk and they’re not going to get in trouble.

“Some kids may need prompting to talk about uncomfortable topics with their parents, and others may bring it up on their own,” Shulstad said. “Your teenager may ask you questions at a time that may be inconvenient for you, but put your antennas up and listen. It’s important that you create an environment where they feel comfortable coming to you, or else they won’t.”

As far as what’s appropriate behavior in and outside of your household, that’s up to you, Shulstad said. The decision of when to talk about alcohol and drugs, physical relationships and birth control should be guided by your family’s personal values.

Children are always watching and learning from their parents. If alcohol plays a significant role within the home, teens notice. “Mirror the values you want your children to have,” he added.

“Some parents have the ‘If they’re gonna do it, just let them do it’ mentality, but you can still set those boundaries and expectations,” Shulstad says. “Whatever you decide, make sure your child knows where you stand.”

2. Check in

Paying attention matters. A lot.

“If parents aren’t checking in when you’re out past curfew, if they’re not checking in on where you’re at, the general message coming across is that you just don’t care,” Shulstad said. “Checking in says, ‘I care about your well-being, I want to know where you are.’”   

3. Give them some room

We have to teach children to be self-confident, and that means giving them the freedom to do things on their own and the room to make mistakes, he said.

“If you’re always helping them, they don’t have a way to build that confidence,” Shulstad said. “You build confidence and resilience by going through a struggle and coming out on the other side.”

Let them know you’re there, but don’t rescue them from every tough situation, Shulstad added. It won’t be long before your teenager is heading off to college, and you’ll want to be confident in their decision-making abilities (and they will, too).

4. Discourage substance use

The earlier teens get involved with substances, the more likely they are to have problems later on. The longer you can delay substance use, the more resilience they’ll have in decision-making when that time comes.

Having consistent rules in place from a young age and fostering communication between the parent and child is one way to steer a child in the right direction. Shulstad explained that some parents are reluctant to fight the fight and assume the teen will act as teens act.

These conversations really start when they’re young. “The best way to control your teenager is to get control of your toddler,” Shulstad said. “If you can imprint those values at a young age and your child knows mom and dad mean business, the teenage years are going to be a lot easier to handle.”

5. Grant freedoms gradually

Teenagers are going to want to pull away and push back. A separation between parents and kids at this age is a normal part of the development process.

“One of the hardest parts of the parenting process is realizing that your teenager does have their own opinions, and they may be different than yours and you have to respect that,” Shulstad said. “You have to be able to sit down and hear them out and really listen to them.”

On the other hand, they don’t yet have the wisdom to see the full picture. They often lack the impulse control to stop themselves from making poor decisions.

“Start with the leash pretty tight, but as they make good decisions and don’t get themselves in trouble, then stretch it out,” Shulstad said. “It’s not all the freedom in the world at one time and then yanked away all at once. Graduated growth tends to get you through those teen years with much less difficulty.”

6. Limit social media access

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., demand constant attention from the user. Worse, they drive anxiety, self-esteem and body image issues.

Phones make it much easier for teens to end up in a bad place. The best solution is to leave the phone out of the bedroom altogether.

“Get the temptation out of the room. No one needs 24/7 access to your child,” Shulstad said. “The truth is, it’s just easier for most parents to not make it an issue. But you have got to put that effort in and enforce the rules.”

Alarm clocks are just a couple bucks, he noted. That smartphone can charge downstairs in the kitchen. Enforce your rules and cutoff limits; late night texts can wait.

Not only does staying connected keep your child up at night, it makes them more susceptible to conditions like anxiety and depression, Shulstad says. Teens are scrolling through Instagram in the middle of the night feeling inadequate and left out when they should be getting those valuable zzz’s.

Stephanie Forrest, MD, at Novant Health Twin City Pediatrics in Clemmons stated that “adolescence is a time of rapid physical, intellectual, social, and emotional growth. It can be very rewarding and very challenging. Parents must learn to cope with their adolescent while trying to keep the channel of communication open. Parents can follow these simple tips to encourage communication, freedom and also set limitations for your maturing child.”