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Despite this testimony, today’s generation of teens is no more troubled than the previous generation. Psychologists say so—and the numbers back them up. For example, national rates of teen drug use and teen births are down from the highs of previous decades. (But in a new wrinkle, violence against teens in Chicago is up from previous years, and murders of 14-to-16-year-olds went up 72 percent—from 18 to 31—from 2007 to 2008.)
Still, parents are in a bind: Hover and you risk a rocky relationship with your adolescent; allow too much independence and you quickly lose control. Experts say that today’s parents often veer toward relinquishing control. “Parents are giving [teens] too much space,” says Azam, the journalist and author. Azam says many of the girls she interviewed had nothing to do after school and no supervision during that time. “They were available and open for anyone and anything that came along.”
“We know the peak time of day for kids to experiment with sex and drugs is the hours between the end of school and when parents come home from work. That is a robust and replicated finding,” says Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist. “And the place where kids are most likely to have their first experiments with sex and alcohol and drugs is within their own home.”
Experts say one way parents can intervene is to start discussing these issues early. “You don’t start dealing with these issues at age 13. If you start at adolescence, you’ve waited a long time,” says Leventhal, the UIC psychiatrist. “You have to start having these conversations at 5, 6, and 7.”
And don’t limit the conversation to one big talk about sex and drugs; routine, perhaps even daily, interventions are more effective. “If you are at the supermarket with your daughter and Giselle is naked down to her pubic area on the cover of a magazine, you can talk to your child about why [the model] looks sexually willing and available,” says Azam. “If you don’t, your daughter might look at the image and admire it. This is ‘normal’ behavior, and the next time her boyfriend says, ‘Send me a nude photo,’ she might. Parents have to make kids critics of image-based culture.”
Parents should also get to know their children’s friends. A common thread in our discussions with teens was that they are making decisions in the presence of—and checking their decisions against—a very influential demographic: their friends. Don’t just get to know the other teens, but meet their parents, too. “Parents should also invite parents over, to see if they share the same values,” Azam says.
Finally, parents shouldn’t avoid conversations about substance use or sex out of fear of being hypocritical, says Robin Mermelstein, the director of the Institute for Health Research and Policy at UIC. “You should be able to have an open discussion about what your adolescent is doing,” she says, even if a parent smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol, or has used marijuana. Instead of saying, “I know you’re going to experiment” and avoiding the topic, she counsels, “Ask open-ended and nonjudgmental questions such as, ‘What are the pressures you’re facing? What are you feeling like?’”
Their answers will likely surprise you.
Additional reporting by Bridget Maiellaro