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When Good Kids Do Bad Things

The hard facts and concrete advice about kids and dangerous behavior.

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Is your teen destined to engage in high-risk behavior?

Although parents have the most influence on whether or not teens decide to engage in high-risk behaviors in the first place, it turns out that peers have a greater influence on whether or not the teen will continue to engage in high-risk behavior.

Lest you think that only parents and peers influence a teen's decision to engage in high risk-behaviors, there is one more factor: the teenager himself or herself, and especially the teen's temperament. Research has shown that a number of things contribute to high-risk behaviors in adolescents:

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  • Depression
  • Poor impulse control
  • An inability to assess risk accurately
  • Low self-esteem

In addition, teens with highly active and sensation-seeking temperaments have difficulty following rules when no one is watching, use alcohol and drugs earlier and more frequently, express less empathy, and provide selfish and antisocial solutions to moral dilemmas.

In summary, three things contribute to your teen's decision to engage in or not to engage in high-risk behaviors: you, your teen's peers, and your teen himself or herself.

It doesn't take a PhD to figure out that only one of these things is under your control -- you. You can serve either as a protective factor for your teen or as an additional stressor that can disrupt your teen's adjustment. Most of the time, if you play your cards right, you can be the deciding influence for good.

1. Be a part of your teen's life. Before and after school, at dinner, and before bed are key times.

2. Be approachable. Let your teen know you two can talk openly anytime.

3. Be crystal clear. Send clear messages about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

4. Keep harmful substances out of the house. These include cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. Teens with access to these are more likely to use them.

5. Have high expectations. Teens who sense their parents' expectations report less emotional distress.

6. Help your teen become involved in school activities. Higher attachment to school activities also lowers risk behaviors. Source: The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health/Add Health

Teens get into the most trouble between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Contrary to what many parents think, the most likely time for teens to get into trouble is not the evening or weekends. Rather, the most high-risk time is between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. -- after school lets out and before parents get home from work.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, this is the most likely time for teens to engage in sex. It is also a peak time for juvenile crime. Another high-risk time is summer vacation. If there is not a parent at home when school lets out or during summer vacations, parents should take care to ensure their teens are adequately supervised. Some ways to do this are:

  • Find appropriate activities. Enroll them in supervised activities when a parent is not home.
  • Expect a call. Require that they call in when they get home from school.
  • Think about employment and enjoyment. During summer vacations, either require that your teen work in a supervised setting (provided he or she is of sufficient age), or enroll him or her in a summer camp or activity for teens.
  • Set firm rules. Let your teens know exactly what is acceptable and not acceptable in your absence. Hint: having opposite-sex friends over to the house in your absence should never be acceptable.
  • Check it out. Occasionally, go home early from work for a surprise "inspection." Do this to verify that your teen is following the rules you've agreed upon. Let your teen know you will do this from time to time, but don't tell your teen when or how frequently you might do this.
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