**DISCLAIMER: THIS POST DEALS WITH SOME MATURE ISSUES AND MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR YOUNGER READERS. PARENTAL DISCRETION IS ADVISED**
This post isn’t going to be overly light-hearted. It’s also not going to be a list of tips or recommendations. Those are helpful (I hope) and they’re fun (or at least, they can be). This is going to be more of a rant. This isn’t going to deal with symptoms of teenage problems; rather it’s going to deal with the heart of the issue itself.
When you’re trying to eliminate a cancer, you don’t simply cut out the external manifestation; you try to wipe it out at its root. And that’s what I want to attempt today.
OK, a lot of bizarre words from me. What do they mean? What teenage safety are we talking about? In this case, I’m talking about safety from themselves and their peer group. The reality that every parent of teenagers must face is this: Teenagers are experimenting with dangerous and illegal drugs at an incredible rate; they are engaging in dangerous sexual activity in unheard of numbers; they are compromising their own safety and security by imprudent participation in social media; they are potentially ruining their opportunities for future employment and happiness. And for what?
Before we start, I think it may be helpful to tell you why I’m even discussing this. What caused this rant? Recently, I saw an older article from a parenting blog titled, “Teen ‘Sexting’ Isn’t All That Dangerous.” Now, the author doesn’t approve of the practice, but she does say it’s primarily stupid, not dangerous. That was enough to set me off. How could anyone, let alone someone writing for a parenting blog believe that? So, that prompted me to begin this piece. Sadly, during my research I found another article that seemed to make it so much more poignant. That article dealt with the story of a young girl who had “sexted” an image of herself which found its way around school circles. The tragic story goes through the bullying of a teenage child, and ends with her suicide. I knew then that I wanted to write this post.
So, let’s see if we can tackle this subject. To do so, I think we need to establish three things:
- That there is a problem with the way many teenagers live their lives, and that it constitutes a real danger to them
- Why, and how this problem is occurring
- What parents can do to help minimize or fix this problem
1. There is a problem with the way many teenagers live their lives, and that it constitutes a real danger to them
Let’s begin with more “traditional” dangers facing teenagers. These would include drinking, drugs, and sex. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 20% of high schoolers have engaged in underage drinking, with a large number (29% in 12th grade alone) engaging in binge drinking. Binge drinking may be loosely defined as drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time with the purpose of becoming intoxicated. Why is this dangerous? The answer should be obvious. Drinking heavily can lead to long term damage in the liver, and brain, even causing memory loss. In some extreme cases, binge drinking leads to death. There is also the obvious factor that while drunk, your reason is hindered, or even entirely removed, which can lead to drunk driving and other risky behavior.
Moving on from booze, let’s look at drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a study of 12th graders revealed the following usage statistics for that grade:
- LSD: 1.9%
- Cocaine: 3.4%
- Non-LSD Hallucinogens: 4.2%
- Non-Medical Use of Vicodin: 10%
- Marijuana: 32.8%
These aren’t pretty statistics. Now, I know that some parents would freak out about LSD and Cocaine, but not bat an eye at Marijuana use. The reality is this: Marijuana can be a gateway drug. Additionally, studies have shown deleterious effects upon memory, resulting from marijuana use. They’re not safe. It’s as simple as that.
Now we come to the more unpleasant statistics: sexual activity. By the age of 19, 70% of never-married teens have had sex. Apart from any moral considerations, there are serious physical consequences and dangers from teenage sexual activity, and I’m going to focus on those today. Almost half of the new cases of sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed in those between the ages of 15 and 24, a group that counts only a quarter of the total sexually active population. This rate is mind-boggling. Let’s leave this delicate subject at that. Suffice it say, this constitutes a serious problem, and a serious risk for teens.
Finally, let’s discuss the question of online safety for teens. Over the past few years, crimes relating to or resulting from online activity have been increasing exponentially. And while teenagers would seem more likely to protect their personal data and privacy (being more familiar with these technologies), studies show the exact opposite. For example, to use one horrifying statistic, over 20% of teens have sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to another student in their school. And from all indications this is increasing, not decreasing. They are exposing themselves to ridicule, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and more. And that’s only in the present. Many of these images are finding their way online. The potential risk to future employment is unknown, but since many employers are now using the internet to screen potential candidates, it seems unlikely that this won’t be a major hindrance.
I know we’ve gone on here for a while, but I think it’s important to bring home to you, parents, the serious dangers that exist in the teenage world. And, I hope you noticed another thing: most of these problems are self-caused, not external, which brings us to point number two:
2. Why, and how is this problem occurring?
This is a little harder to pinpoint, since we’re dealing with subjective human beings here. Psychologists will say one thing, pediatricians another, sociologists another. And perhaps each of them have some validity and importance to the general conversation. But, their problem is precisely that they’re too often specialized. They can only see the world through the paradigms of psychology, or pediatrics, or what’s far worse, sociology. What we need is some common sense informed by facts. That’s how I intend to proceed.
On a natural level this problem stems from peer-pressure, a lack of self-esteem and confidence on the part of the child, and an ignorance as to the seriousness of these activities and the risks associated with them.
Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows the brute, unyielding strength of peer pressure. It takes someone of an almost super-human character to really resist the movements of the crowd, especially at that age.
Self-esteem seems harder and harder to come by these days, and in many respects it fits with the first problem of peer-pressure. Too many teenagers can only define themselves by means of the crowd. They are not an “I” but a member of a sub-group within the teenage world. They don’t value themselves, but see their worth only in maintaining the bonds of that group. This means that a natural resistance to certain actions is broken down, especially as the teenager identifies with the group over their religion, family, and values. Again, this isn’t coming from any specialized focus; but from common sense looking objectively at the world around us, and using the facts listed above.
Next we come to ignorance. This is the easiest, perhaps, to excuse among teenagers. They’ve all heard that drugs are bad, but come on, they’ve seen all sorts of people doing them, and those same drug users don’t seem to have any problems. So, really drugs must not be that bad, right? Or, perhaps, they know that “everyone else” in their class is sexually active with seemingly no repercussions. It really can’t do much, right? These perceptions need to be fixed. Unfortunately, we have an entire world from magazines to TV to movies telling teens that drinking too much is fun, sexual activity is to be pursued at all costs, and drugs can be enriching in the “right circumstances.” This needs to be combated. Teens need to know that these activities are not OK, that they are dangerous and that there are serious consequences. All of which brings us to our last part of the problem: That would be us.
What Parents Can Do to Help Minimize or Fix This Problem:
I knew too many parents when I was in high school who looked the other way when their children had drunken parties at their house. I knew too many parents who were aware that teenagers were using illicit drugs, but didn’t want to say anything because they, themselves, had used drugs years before and didn’t want to appear to be a hypocrite. And I knew too many parents who looked the other way at all sorts of indecent and inappropriate behavior because, after all, kids will be kids. It’s time to say enough.
Being a parent is more than simply putting food on the table, buying Johnny a new car and footing his bill for college. It’s time to act like an adult and take some responsibility. Yes, “kids will be kids” if we’ll let them, and help them to do so. Instead, we’re forcing or allowing incomprehensibly difficult situations upon kids in which they’re attempting to act like, or being forced to make choices as if they were already adults. And that isn’t fair for a moment.
Now, what can we do, as parents to fix some of this. Well, some is easy. First of all, we need to start talking to our children. I know it’s considered cliché, but the kids in school I knew who talked to their parents about everything were precisely the kids who didn’t engage in the behavior we discussed above. So, first things first, let’s start talking.
Second, while we’re re-learning how to speak to our kids, we need to learn how to say the word “No.” It’ll come in handy, and it’ll save kids tons of ache later. Feel uncomfortable about the party your daughter just asked you to go to? Say No! Think Billy may not be telling you the whole truth about where he’s planning on going? Say No! Don’t trust your 12 year old to have a cell phone (and you shouldn’t*), Say No! It’s honestly that easy. Sometimes I think parents are the ones suffering from peer pressure. ”Well, the parents of all the other kids said yes, I guess I should as well.” No, we shouldn’t. As my parents used to say, “I don’t care what So-and-So does. I’m not their parent.” It was a good line then and it’s a good line now. Don’t worry about the other kids; worry about your kid. Let’s grow a backbone and say “No” when we need to.
Finally, stay educated on this stuff. Too many times one hears parents say, “Wow, I never knew that kids were doing X, Y, or Z.” Well, open a newspaper, or look at some news sites online. Stay in touch with your kids’ world, and take an interest in what they’re doing. Trust me, it’ll be much better that way.
Look, I know how things are. Life can throw curveballs, the economy is bad, and we’re all being pulled in many directions. Most parents do want what’s best for their children. Perhaps we’re trying as hard as we can, or perhaps we’ve meant to make some change for a long time, and we just can’t quite seem time to get around to it. Like, I said, I know how it is.
Teenagers want autonomy; they’d like to exist in their own world. And, that’s totally normal. Just like a bird that eventually has to learn how to fly so it can leave the nest, so teenagers have to learn how to act like adults in preparation for the fact that in a couple of years (or less) they’ll be leaving the home to go to college, or get a job. Either way, in the usual course of things, they’ll be leaving to do their own thing. At that point, they’ll really need to know how to function, or else it will be a disaster. That’s why they want to be on their own, so to speak; and in some sense, that’s ok.
Now, that may seem like a contradiction: Earlier I said we need to let kids be kids. Now, I’m saying that they need to learn to act like adults. Still, there’s no contradiction here. Or rather, there would be a contradiction if it weren’t for parents. They’re the missing piece of this puzzle. Just like a mother bird teaching her young how to eat and fly, we need to help our children become adults, while at the same time making sure that they don’t do so before they’re ready. That’s why it is so important to make sure we’re there for them, training them to make the right decisions on their own. It’s also why we prevent them from making bad decisions. We know what’s best for them. To a large extent they’re still learning, and the worst lesson we could give them now is that we don’t care what they do anymore.
So, let’s give them the guidance they need so that they’ll be ready. It’s only fair to them.
I think that ends my rant. Just remember, this stuff matters. In some cases you’re talking about life and death; in others you’re talking about the quality of that life. Either way, it’s not small stuff. But, it’s our job as parents to stand up and take responsibility. If you’re already doing this, I applaud you. If you’re not, it’s never too late to start. And even your kids will appreciate it in the long run.
As always, leave your thoughts, disagreements, or whatever in the combox below. Until next time.
Helpful Links for Parents**:
*Obviously, this statement is not intended to include children who legitimately need a cell phone to reach their parents, or for other serious or emergency situations.
** Listing resources does not constitute an endorsement of those sites nor of their respective owners or affiliates.