Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Last month I promised an article about the challenges of supervising teenagers. I have worked with many teenagers, starting when my husband and I agreed to care for the 14-year-old child of a friend who lived in California. I also worked with teenagers at The Relatives, an emergency shelter for teens in crisis. Those two “jobs” were the most challenging, and most rewarding of my career.
Halley (not her real name) lived with us for four years. Boy, did we learn a lot about adolescents!
Teenage children are notorious for manipulating the rules and finding their way around authority. Shortly after moving in with us, Halley was grounded from watching TV because she refused to go to school. We had unplugged the television and cleverly, or so we thought, tripped and locked the fuse box so there was no power running to the television. I returned home from work to find she had run an extension cord from the kitchen to the living room. We had to give her credit for being creative and resourceful. Eventually, Halley enrolled in school.
Supervising and nurturing teens can be a difficult and thankless job. Teenagers are usually one step ahead of adults and seem to be able to zigzag their way around limits. But supervising teens is an incredibly important job. Research teaches us that when parents are diligent in their supervision, adolescents are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, become teen parents and drop out of school. Supervision also prevents teens from becoming victims of crime and from putting themselves into situations that are dangerous.
Obviously, supervision for teens is different from supervision of infants and younger children. Adolescents are able to take more responsibility for their behaviors and are better able to protect themselves. Basically, supervising teens means helping them set and keep boundaries.
Boundaries change as their bodies and emotions change. Teens often don’t fully understand the consequences of how they interact with the world. They need guidance, based on your family’s values, in setting limits with how they spend money, dress, spend their time and manage their bodies.
Managing their body includes eating habits, the use and abuse of alcohol/drugs, hygiene, exercise habits, sexual behavior and sleep routines. Sometimes they need guidance in how and with whom they spend their time. They need to learn to identify who is safe and emotionally healthy.
One suggestion for helping teens set limits is to sit down with them and develop a behavior contract. This contract should spell out what behavior is expected and what will happen if the child does not behave as agreed upon. The contract should be about two pages long and highlight positive behaviors. It needs to be specific, but not so detailed that it becomes overwhelming. For example, it might say: “I can go out with approved friends two nights per week. Before going out, I will have completed all my homework and household chores. If I go out on a school night, I will be home by 9:30 p.m. On non-schools nights, I will be home by 11 p.m. If I am late, leave without completing my homework/chores, or choose to spend time with an unapproved person, I am aware that I will be grounded from going out the next week.”
As if helping adolescents set limits were not challenging enough, it is even more difficult to help them keep those boundaries. Monitoring their activities, asking for information, confirming where they are and with whom, and, most importantly, encouraging open communication are all ways to help reinforce the boundaries. If your child is spending the night at a friend’s house, talk with the friend’s parents to confirm how and when the teens will get to the house, who else will be with them, who will be monitoring their behavior and what they will be doing. When talking with your child, be direct, honest, loving, firm and consistent.
Teenagers depend on adults they trust to tell them what is expected and what the consequences are if they act outside of those expectations. They depend on us to keep them safe and healthy during these last few years of childhood. Most of all, they depend on us to let them know we love them ó even when they are acting like teenagers!
Contact Carol Dunlap, director of Prevent Child Abuse Rowan, at 704-639-1700.