If you thought the infant years were tough, talk to the parent of a teenager. "When they were little, they had little problems," says Kim Hale, a Palmer, Pennsylvania, mother of a 16-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter. "When they're big, the problems are big."
Along with those problems come parental worries, such as drugs, alcohol, sex, driving habits. And parents think: Will she turn out all right? Will he become a good man? Did I do a good job? Chances are excellent that you have done a fine job of preparing your kids to handle life's problems, says Cynthia Northington, PhD, assistant professor of education at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.
To further put your mind at ease, here are eight signs your teenager is on the right track.
1. Your teenager is a careful driver.
"For teens, speeding is a form of high-risk behavior in many of the same ways that gambling is for adults," says Dr. Mark S. Gold, chief of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Teens gamble that they will survive and not get caught by the police."
Research Gold conducted shows that young drivers who break the speed limit are more likely to gamble, use drugs, or drink alcohol than those who don't.
2. Your teen is planning for his future.
"The act of making plans is essential for the emotional and academic growth of a teenager," Northington says. If teens can visualize themselves with a future, they're less likely to engage in risky behavior that might jeopardize that future.
3. She doesn't date older boys.
A survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York found that girls who had boyfriends more than two years older were much more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, and have sex.
For example, 50 percent of girls surveyed who were dating older boys reported using marijuana, compared to 8 percent of other girls. Sixty-five percent of them smoked cigarettes; only 14 percent who stuck to their age group smoked.
4. He has a strong relationship with a mentor.
When researchers from New York's Beth Israel Medical Center surveyed adolescents about their relationships with adults, they found that teens with a strong mentor were significantly less likely to engage in violent or risky behaviors. It didn't matter whether the mentor was a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult, just that he or she was someone the child could turn to for help and advice.
5. She doesn't have any tattoos.
Studies of more than 6,000 junior and high school students found that those with tattoos and body piercings (not earrings) were more likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana, go on drinking binges, have premarital sex, get into fights, join gangs, skip school, and get poor grades.
"If a child asks for a tattoo, the parent should recognize that as an opportunity to talk," says Dr. Timothy Roberts, an adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Rochester's Children's Hospital at Strong in New York, and the coauthor of two such studies.
6. Your teen goes to religious services.
At Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, researchers who tracked 1,182 adolescents found that religion positively influences how young people handle their problems. It also increases their sense of community.
7. Your teen eats dinner with you.
The simple act of sharing supper as a family creates well-adjusted kids who do better at school and have better relationships with their friends. Studies looking at families who ate together found American teenagers who had five or more dinners a week with their parents were also less likely to be depressed.
An added bonus: Kids who frequently ate supper with their families had overall more healthful diets than those who ate by themselves.
8. Your teenager knows what you expect.
A study of 4,200 middle schoolers found that teens whose parents were involved in their lives and had clear expectations for their behavior were less likely to use drugs or drink.
"Parental involvement protected against smoking, drinking, and other substance use, even in the presence of negative peer influences," says Bruce Simons-Morton, EdD, of the National Institute of Child Health Development in Bethesda, Maryland. It's easy to let your teen know what you expect: Tell her.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, July 2005.