A while ago, I had a teen living in my home for a few months who engaged in self-harm behavior…in this case, scratching her arms with her fingernails until she bled. She revealed it the first time it happened, and got help from a counselor. But most parents don’t find out as quickly as I did, and most teens hide their behavior.
Who self-harms? The behavior is more common among girls than boys, and among adolescents (17% say they’ve self-harmed at least once) than adults (only 5%). The American Psychological Association says it is “characterized by deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives…. The most frequent sites of self-injury are the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs.” Teens are not seeking attention, but relief from emotional pain, and will hide their injuries…by wearing long sleeves, even in hot weather, for instance. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) has more information about self-harming HERE, and a Psychology Today article discusses it as well, with 10 tips for reducing self injury.
I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.
These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way. Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.
You may remember learning about 4 STDs when you were in high school health class. But did you know that teens today learn about 10-12? There are more than 30 STDs, with new ones being discovered every year. Some cause lifelong pain and/or embarrassment. Some cause death, blindness or death in babies, and other grave consequences. Chlamydia and other STDs that cause pelvic inflammatory disease are the leading preventable cause of infertility, and the biggest preventable reason for cesarean sections is the mother having an STD. So what do we tell our teens? How can we protect them?
One 8th grade boy showed me the condom in his wallet that his mom had given him. But that’s not a solution, since STDs (especially those spread by skin-to-skin contact) can be spread even when wearing condoms. In fact, the CDC says: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infection can occur in male or female genital areas that are covered (protected by the condom) as well as those areas that are not.” HPV is the #1 STD, with 100+ strains leading to genital warts and cervical and oral cancers. It’s incurable.
We at Teen Decision help teens discover that the safest, healthiest choice is to be sexually abstinent. Of course, being abstinent has benefits beyond avoiding STDs and pregnancy…it also helps teens have healthier dating relationships, and even (fuel for another blog) more stable marriages in the future. One girl wrote, after the conclusion of our program: “This program was an amazing experience! I’ve now learned to be more open with my mom about sex, abstinence, and everything else. Before this program, I thought sex was inevitable. Now, I am realizing that saving it…is the best option. I am currently dating a boy that I really like. He is so good to me and always puts me first. I have only been dating him over a month now but last night I talked to him about abstinence and he said that he is willing to wait until marriage (that is if I marry him). It’s really nice to know that I won’t have to worry about STDs, pregnancy, or just not being ready☺”
A single poor choice…often motivated by a desire to keep or gain a relationship, can lead to the dark, ugly world of “sextortion.” An article on the site HealthDay, recounts the tragic case of a 12-year-old girl who’d lifted her shirt online at the request of someone she’d never met in person (and who turned out to be an adult man). She did not give in to the threat of the exposure of that picture, and the extortionist followed through, with the sexual picture spreading around her school. She was then hounded by that man and others for years, finally committing suicide at 16. The difference between that high-profile story and the reality for most, is that perpetrators usually know the victims.
The health site “HealthDay” defines sextortion as “threatening to share sexually explicit photos without consent if a person doesn’t agree to certain demands, such as sexual favors or money,” and reports that 5 percent of teens have been victims, and another 3 percent have been perpetrators. That may seem like a small number, but that means that in every classroom of teens, across America, 2-3 people have been involved in sextortion. Certain groups are more at risk, according to the article: “Teens who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion…. Fifteen appears to be the most common age to be involved in sextortion, the new study found. One finding parents may find particularly alarming is that teens being victimized by sextortion attempts usually know the person trying to take advantage of them. They may have been a romantic partner or a friend. It’s unusual for someone to be targeted by a stranger, the researchers said.”
Talking to our teens about setting boundaries in relationships and in online interactions is critical to their safety, and specifically addressing sextortion might help our children stay safe when, in a single moment, they might be lured into a lapse of judgment that has years-long consequences. Even if it doesn’t happen to your teen, equipping teens to be wise and watchful can help them know how to help their friends stay safe as well.
I’m in middle schools and high schools almost every week. Just walking the halls, I’m reminded of the jockeying for position that is so much a part of teen social life. But popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, according to research reported on by Mitch Prinstein, PhD., in Psychology Today. Whereas being “popular” in earlier grades is linked to likability, in the teen years, it’s more a measure of status. Prinstein (who studies popularity and wrote a book about it), “adolescent brains start to become really tuned in to who is getting the most attention, who seems most powerful, influential, and who everyone else wants to look at the most.” Those popular kids actually are not very well liked! And years later they even have less positive life outcomes. The message, for those of use who were/are not in the “popular” group, is to be aware of the influence of popular kids…and the possibility of being manipulated by them. Having a few good friends who appreciate us is good enough! For the popular teen, it’s a good idea to do a “check” and see if likability is what’s driving popularity…or some of the darker things mentioned in the article.
Dr. Prinstein wrote “A Letter to Teens about the Science of Popularity” that would be great to pass on to your teen. Even better, read it to your teens out loud, and ask them what they think. It could lead to some great conversation, bonding, and increased understanding of your teen’s heart and the social world he or she inhabits every day.
Are you worried about your child’s grades? Is that the only issue? Perhaps not…
Research shows teen risk behaviors go together, such as drinking and sex, or drugs and poor grades. Parents want their kids to do well in school, so they can go to college or learn a valuable workplace skill. And something tells us more is wrong than meets the eye when our kids turn in poor grades, especially when that hasn’t always been true.
It might be time to turn our attention to that new boyfriend, or girlfriend in your teen’s life.Data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a connection between teen sexual activity and poor grades, according to a fact sheet from the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). According to the sheet findings:
“23% of US high school students with mostly A’s were currently sexually active (had sexual
intercourse with at least one person during the 3 months before the survey), compared to
46% of students with mostly D/F’s.”
Instead of berating your child about slipping grades, maybe have a sit-down with an open ear, and a caring tone, to find out what’s happening with a dating partner. A simple question: “How’s it going lately with Casey?” could open the door to helping your teen think about how a dating relationship (and perhaps physical intimacy) is affecting them.
One of the most valuable tools I’ve seen in talking to teens about where they are in life now, and where they will end up, is the “Life Hike” from one of the workbooks I mentioned in my last blog. Aspire describes in Chapter 1 on page 8 (LINK), how life is like a series of mountains to climb, with each mountain representing a different age, beginning with 1-15, 15-30 and so on. Can you imagine having a conversation with your teen about transitioning from “dependence” (on you!) and beginning to gain more independence? I wish I’d had this tool to help me talk through this stage of life with my daughters! Take a look at the above link, and perhaps draw out on a piece of paper the 6 “mountains,” asking him or her to put a mark on the spot “where you are now.” Then ask, “How much of your life is behind you, and how much is ahead?” and “Which mountain would you say represents the most important period of time for you to be thinking about now, and why?”Where they are now is at the precipice of young adulthood…where they will be increasingly responsible for these decisions. This activity can be done to help a young person realize that all of these critical decisions are still ahead, and while the past is important, it’s past! The decisions he or she will face in these next few years have the power to set the course for the rest of life…including those goals we talked about last week that they might have for themselves!
We can see in retrospect that the decisions we made as teens and twenty-somethings set the course for the rest of our lives, but if the teens under your care are like many young people, they are less focused on direction in life than what’s for dinner, who asked who to homecoming, and making the next kill in Fortnight before getting down to homework.
Do you know what your child would say if asked about goals in life? If you find yourself using the line: “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college” it’s time to rethink your strategy. Do we really thing kids can’t wait to finish high school, just so they can go to college for 4 or more years? No…college is a means to the other goals they have: A good job, a house, travel…and yes, marriage and family. So HOW can we help them put a name to their goals, and use those goals to drive the decisions they make today?
The first step, is to help your child identify the things that are important to them…put a name to it! Take one of the spokes on this life “wheel” (LINK) and talk about it at the dinner table some night…and keep going until you’ve talked about them all. Then, once important goals are identified and written down, talk through the HOW of achieving those goals. Next, identify the roadblocks they might encounter, or create by their lack of planning or poor decisions.
Teen Decision and other organizations are part of the effort to get teens to consider how relationship choices now can affect teens today AND tomorrow. Over 15,000 Illinois students this year have benefited from a state-funded workbook based program (A&M Partnership) teaching abstinence from a medically accurate, well-reasoned perspective. The very first chapter in each workbook talks about goal-setting. The entire first chapter of Navigator (LINK) has great resources if you want to take a page or two to help you talk through goals in life with your child. In the next blog posts, I’ll be taking some other tips and ideas from these workbooks to help you help your teen on the path to maturity.
I don’t have an iPhone, but almost all the teens I know do…as do many parents. Did you know Apple has made it possible for you to do all sorts of things to limit your teen’s use of their phone? And with the IOS 12 update coming in about 10 days, there are some exciting enhancements and new parental control features. According to Apple, these new features “include Activity Reports, App Limits and new Do Not Disturb and Notifications controls designed to help customers reduce interruptions and manage screen time for themselves and their families.” Here are a couple of articles that can guide you, including one where an adult reviewer borrowed a teen to try it out on…with success: Teen learns limits and Features overview
So what can do though your own iPhone (or directly on theirs) to help your teen get some of his/her life back that has been sucked into the vortex of social media? Here are some examples:
Do Not Disturb during Bedtime mode dims the display and hides notifications on the lock screen until prompted in the morning.
Do Not Disturb during family dinner (that means you too, Mom or Dad)
Through Screen Time view daily and weekly activity reports to see where all those hours are going, and where limits need to be set.
Set time limits for apps (Snapchat, Instagram, Fortnite Mobile and YouTube are obvious candidates for this).
I hear it’s easy to set up, so once IOS 12 comes out…go to it! If you have an Android phone, there are parental control apps (cost from $30 up per year) HERE.
I remember when my opinion of tattoos began to shift. I grew up in a generation where we thought only rough characters–like prison inmates, or foul-mouthed sailors–had tattoos. But when my friend (who had teens at the time) got an enormous tattoo expressing her deepest beliefs on her lower back…well, she didn’t fit my stereotype! Things have changed, and tattoos are mainstream…with a Pew Research Center study indicating that 38 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
Most parents reading this are younger than I am, and some of you have tattoos, but you still want to know how to talk to your kids about tattoos. The good news is that the decision about getting a tattoo has been taken out of your hands in Illinois:
It is a Class A misdemeanor for anyone other than a person licensed to practice medicine in all branches to tattoo or offer to tattoo a person under age 18. It is also a Class A misdemeanor to allow a person under 18 years of age to remain on the premises where tattoos are being performed or offered without a parent or legal guardian.
So your teen can’t get a tattoo until they turn 18. They can’t even walk into a tattoo shop without you there.
But talking about it is always a good idea…so here are some things to help your teen think through that urge to get a tattoo some day:
Will you get tired of seeing that same thing 365 days a year for the next 70 or so years of life?
Will your values change, since the tattoo you choose will probably reflect something important to you…now? For instance, if you want to put your sweetheart’s name on your body when you turn 18 senior year…what would it take to remove it when you break up? After all, only 3% of married people started their relationships as high school sweethearts.
Over decades, your skin will stretch, change, wrinkle some day. The tattoo will change too, and not for the better.
Might you go into a profession where tattoos will be thought unprofessional?
Do you know if you are prone to getting keloids (an overgrowth of scar tissue)? If you are, you should probably not get a tattoo.