By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Q: “How can you keep your teen’s trust, while still trying to keep them safe?”
— Boulder High Parent
Q: “How do I find the balance between policing my teen and being a supportive parent?”
— Struggling Mom

A: The commonality of these questions reflects the universal nature of the challenge; maintaining a good relationship with your teen, while making sure that they are not engaging in risky behaviors. While substance abuse is a common concern, other issues such as sexual behavior and driving habits are also important to consider.

Even though you cannot fully control your teen’s behavior, there are several strategies that may prove useful:

The preemptive discussion: Create an opportunity early on to have a frank discussion with your teen regarding risky behaviors and their consequences. Ideally this should be prior to any significant problem behaviors, at a calm moment, not on the heels of a disturbing discovery or heated conversation. Try to reach a clear understanding of each other’s point of view and what consequences should be expected. The more talking your teen does, the more effective this strategy will be.

Reinforce honesty: It is important to discuss and demonstrate that the parental consequences to your teen for engaging in any risky behavior will be far less if you find out about it first from them.

Clarify your motives: Your teen will probably assume that your motivation is a function of your wanting to control them or not trusting them. Take the time to help them understand that your motivation is genuinely a function of your love and caring about their well-being.

Catch them being good: Provide positive feedback when your teen is behaving appropriately. The feedback should be specific in terms of the behavior that you want to see continue. This is actually much more difficult than it sounds, as we naturally focus on the negative behaviors and simply expect the positive ones. It is also why this approach is so powerful, when we remember to do it.

The school of hard knocks: If your teen engages in behaviors that result in natural external consequences (for example, from school or justice system authorities), it may be better to allow those consequences to occur instead of stepping in and trying to minimize them. This is very difficult to do because as parents we naturally want to protect our children. It is far better, however, for them to learn now rather than later when, as adults, the consequences may be far more severe. Our role here is to be empathic and not enabling; “It must feel really upsetting to have gotten yourself into such a challenging situation.”

The overall goal is to develop a healthy, ongoing communication process with your teen. The earlier we begin this with our children, the easier the teenage years will be.