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Preventing Risky Behavior Before It Starts

There are 5 parts to preventing risky behavior in your youngster: (1) spotting possible problems, (2) working through the problem, (3) being a monitor, (4) being a mentor, and (5) being a role model. Let’s look at each in turn…

1. Spotting Possible Problems—

Consider these methods for spotting problems before they turn into full-blown crises:

• Be actively involved in your youngster’s life. This is important for all moms and dads, no matter what the living arrangements. Knowing how your youngster usually thinks, feels, and acts will help you to notice when things begin to change. Some changes are part of your youngster’s growing up, but others could be signs of trouble.

• Create healthy ways for your youngster to express emotions. Much “acting out” stems from kids not knowing how to handle their emotions. Feelings can be so intense that usual methods of expressing them don’t work. Or, because feelings like anger or sadness are viewed as “bad,” your youngster may not want to express them openly. Encourage your youngster to express emotions in a healthy and positive way. Let your youngster see you doing things to deal with your own emotions. Once these feelings are less powerful, talk to your youngster about how he or she feels and why. Make sure your youngster knows that all emotions are part of the person that he or she is, not just the “good” or happy ones. Once your youngster knows his range of emotions, he can start to learn how to handle them.

• Set realistic limits and enforce them consistently. Be selective with your limits, by putting boundaries on the most important behaviors your youngster is engaged in. Make sure you and your youngster can “see” a limit clearly. If your youngster goes beyond the limit, deal with her in similar ways for similar situations. If you decide to punish your youngster, use the most effective methods, like restriction or time-outs. You could also make your youngster correct or make up for the outcome of her actions. Make sure the harshness of the punishment fits your youngster’s “crime.”As your youngster learns how limits work and what happens when she goes past those limits, she will trust you to be fair. 

2. Working through the Problem—

Because problems are quite different, how you solve them also differs. To solve tough problems, you may need more complex methods. Keep these things in mind when trying to solve a problem:

• Admit when a problem is bigger than you can handle alone or requires special expertise. No one expects you to solve every problem your family has by yourself. Some problems are just too big to handle alone, not because you’re a “bad” parent, but simply because of the nature of the problem. Be realistic about what you can and can’t do on your own.

• Know that you are not alone. Talk to other moms and dads or a trusted friend or relative. Some of them might be dealing with or have dealt with similar things. They may have ideas on how to solve a problem in a way you haven’t thought of. Or, they might share your feelings, which can also be a comfort.

• Get outside help, if needed. There will be times when you just won’t know how to help your youngster; other times, you truly won’t be able to help your youngster. That’s okay! Someone else may know how to help. Use all the resources you have to solve a problem, including getting outside help when you need it. Remember that it’s not important how a problem is solved, just that it is. Ideas on where you can go for outside help include the following:
  • Community groups
  • Family members and relatives
  • Friends
  • Other moms and dads
  • Pastors, priests, rabbis, and ministers
  • Pediatricians
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • School nurses and counselors
  • Social workers and agencies
  • Support and self-help groups

3. Being a Monitor—

Being a monitor means you pay careful attention to your youngster and his surroundings – especially his peer group. Being an active monitor can be as simple as answering some basic questions:
  • Who is your youngster with?
  • What do you know about the person(s) your youngster is with?
  • Where is your youngster?
  • What is your youngster doing?
  • When will your youngster be home/leaving?
  • How is your youngster getting there/home?

You won’t always have detailed answers to these questions, but it’s important to know most of the answers, most of the time.

You may also want to keep these things in mind when being an active monitor:

• Give direction without being rigid. In some cases, not being allowed to do something only makes your youngster want to do it more. Is the answer just plain “no” or does it depend on the circumstances? “Yes, but only if...” is a useful option when making decisions.

• Know the people your youngster spends time with. Because you can’t be with your youngster all the time, you should know who is with your youngster when you’re not. Friends have a big influence on your youngster, from pre-school well into adulthood. Much of the time, this influence is positive, but not always. With a little effort from you, your youngster might surround herself with friends whose values, interests, and behaviors will be “pluses” in your youngster’s life. Your youngster also spends a lot of time with her educators. Educators play a vital role in your youngster’s development and overall well-being, so get to know your youngster’s educators, too.

• Know what your youngster is watching, reading, playing, or listening to. Because TV, movies, video games, the Internet, and music are such a large part of many of our lives, they can have a huge influence on children. Be sure you know what your youngster’s influences are. You can’t help your youngster make positive choices if you don’t know what web sites he visits or what he reads, listens to, watches, or plays.

• Open the lines of communication when your son or daughter is young, and keep those lines open. It seems obvious, but honest communication is crucial. When your son or daughter is young, talk openly about things you do when you aren’t with your youngster …then ask your youngster what he or she does during those times. As your youngster gets older, keep up this type of communication. Both you and your youngster have to take part in open, two-way communication.

• Tell your youngster what thoughts and ideals you value and why. For instance, if being respectful to grown-ups is an ideal you want your youngster to have, tell her. Even more importantly, tell her why you think it’s important. Don’t assume that your youngster knows your reasons for valuing one practice or way of behaving over another.

4. Being a Mentor –

A mentor is someone who provides support, guidance, friendship, and respect to a youngster. Being a mentor is like being a coach of a sports team. A caring coach sees the strengths and weaknesses of each player and tries to build those strengths and lessen those weaknesses. In practice, coaches stand back and watch the action, giving advice on what the players should do next, but knowing that the players make their own game-time decisions.

Coaches honestly point out things that can be done better and praise things that are done well. Coaches listen to their players and earn players’ trust. They give their players a place to turn when things get tough.

Mentors do the same things:
  • be a friend
  • develop a youngster’s strengths
  • give praise
  • listen
  • offer advice and support
  • share a youngster’s interests

Mentors help children to reach their full potential, which includes mistakes and tears, as well as successes and smiles. Mentors know that small failures often precede major successes. Knowing this fact, they encourage children to keep trying because those successes are right around the corner.

There is no magic wand that turns people into caring mentors. Just spending time with your youngster helps you become a mentor. You can do ordinary things with your youngster, like going grocery shopping together. You can do special things with your youngster, like going to a museum or a concert together. The important part is that you do things together, which includes communicating with one another.

You may want to keep these things in mind as you think about being a mentor:

• Be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. If you know the answer to a question, say so. If you don’t, then say so. To build a trusting, but real, relationship with your youngster, you only have to be human. All humans make mistakes. You have – and your youngster will, too. Your youngster can benefit from hearing about your mistakes, including what you thought before you made them, how your thoughts changed after you made them, and how you changed your thoughts or behaviors to avoid them in the future. A youngster who thinks his parent is perfect builds expectations that moms and dads can’t possibly live up to.

• Introduce your youngster to things that you like to do. This is a useful way for your youngster to learn more about you. It’s sometimes hard for children to picture their moms and dads doing things that other people do, like playing an instrument, volunteering at a nursing home, watching movies, playing a sport, or knowing about art. If your youngster sees you doing these things, you become more of a “regular person,” rather than “just a parent.”

• Respect your youngster’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. Even if you don’t agree with your youngster, make it clear that you want to know what her thoughts are, without the threat of punishment. If your youngster is afraid of being punished, she may stop sharing things entirely. Let different points-of-view co-exist for a while. They will allow your youngster to think more about an issue. Remember that there is an important difference between, “I disagree with you,” and “You’re wrong.”

• Support your youngster’s interests and strengths, but don’t force things. Children spend their childhood trying to figure out who they are, how the world works, and how they fit into that world. Make sure your youngster has enough room to explore. If your youngster has no interest in an activity or topic, don’t push. Your youngster will soon begin to dread the “forced activity” and will find ways to get out of doing it.

5. Being a Role Model—

Role models come in all shapes and sizes …they do all kinds of jobs …they come from any country or city. Some kids view athletes as their role models. Other kids look up to authors or scientists. And, believe it or not, many kids see their moms and dads as role models.

All too often, parenting behavior is guided by parents reacting to their own childhoods (e.g., “I don’t ever want to be like my parents” or “It was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for my children”). Remember that reacting instead of responding prevents you from making decisions that can change the outcome of a situation. To be a more effective, consistent, active, and attentive parent, it’s best to focus on your kids and their lives.

Does this mean that you have to be perfect so your youngster will grow up to be perfect, too? Of course not. No one is perfect. But, you do need to figure out what kind of example you are setting for your youngster.

You may want to be the kind of role model who does the following:

• Be honest with your youngster about how you are feeling. Grown-ups get confused about emotions all the time, so it’s no surprise that kids might get confused, too. For instance, you might have a short temper after a really stressful day at work, but your youngster might think you are angry with him. If you find yourself acting differently than you usually do, explain to your youngster that he isn’t to blame for your change in “typical” behavior. Your youngster can even help you by lightening your mood or altering your attitude. You can prevent a lot of hurt feelings and confusion by being honest with your youngster about your own emotions.

• Do as you say and say as you do. Kids want to act like their role models, not just talk like them. Kids learn as much, if not more from your actions as they do from your words. Don’t just tell your youngster to call home if she is going to be late. Make sure that you call home when you know you’re going to be late. Don’t just tell your youngster not to shout at you. Don’t shout at your youngster or at others. This kind of consistency helps your youngster form reliable patterns of the relationship between attitudes and actions.

• Make sure your youngster knows that being angry does not mean “not loving.” Disagreements and arguments are a normal part of most relationships. But many kids can’t separate love from anger. They assume that if you yell at them, then you don’t love them anymore. Even if you think your youngster has a solid grasp of emotions, you may want to be specific about this point. Otherwise, you run the risk of having your youngster think she is not loved every time you have a disagreement. Most of all, try to be alert to changes in your youngster’s emotions so you can “coach” your youngster through moments of anger or sadness without brushing-off the emotion or ignoring it.

• Pinpoint things that you wouldn’t want your youngster’s role model to do, and make sure you aren’t doing them. For instance, suppose your youngster views a sports player as his role model. If you found out that player used illegal drugs or was verbally or physically abusive to others, would you still want your youngster to look up to that person? Probably not. Now apply that same standard to your own actions. If you don’t want your youngster to smoke, then you should not smoke. If you want your youngster to be on time for school, make sure you are on time for work and other meetings. If you don’t want your youngster to use curse words, then don’t use those words in front of your youngster. Reviewing your own conduct means being honest with yourself, about yourself. You may need to make some changes in how you act, but both you and your youngster will benefit in the end.

• Show respect for other people, including your youngster. For many kids, the word respect is hard to understand. It’s not something they can touch or feel, but it’s still a very important concept. To help your youngster learn about respect, you may want to point out when you are being respectful. For instance, when your youngster starts to pick out her own clothes, you can show respect for those choices. Tell your youngster, “That wouldn’t have been my choice, but I respect your decision to wear that plaid shirt with those striped pants.”

Now that you know how to prevent risky behavior before it starts, it’s time to put these ideas into action. Good luck!

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents


Distance Learning said...

In this kind of situation, you just need to have some time to talk about this odd behavior with the family. And talk to the child or person involve with love and understanding.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I am now completed with the program. And like you said, it will get worse before it gets better. In the last 4 weeks my son (who is 14) has had more run-ins with police than I would have ever imagined. The first incident was on Sept 8, I found 2 pipes, empty pack of cigarettes and dip in his room. When I confronted him I informed him that he knew the house rules for these items and since he chose to break the rules then he had to face the consequences. Of course I was threatened with him running away. Once he left I called the police to report as a runaway. He came back within 10 minutes thanks to his friends dad bringing him home. He then grabbed knives and threatened suicide. I called the police back and they sent 3 cars out. They had a "nice" long talk with him. Since then he has been much more pleasant to be around. I guess knowing I'm not playing these games with him anymore.

BUT....yesterday had another incident. He was with a friend coming home from school and was "joking around" with some younger girls. The girls eventually flicked them off so one of the boys said "wait till you're in high school, you're gonna get raped". The girls then went to the parents, they called the police and wants to press charges. It's now up to the parents to go to the courthouse to file a warrant. I am at a total loss on how to deal with this. Do I have my son go to them and apologize or do I let it be and let the system do what needs to be done? The problem with my son is that he sees that he did nothing wrong. He is not remorseful in any way. So I'm afraid that if he is "forced" to go apologize then he will have an attitude and it will make it worse. Also, do I punish for this? He is still grounded for the drug paraphernalia. Only has his TV in his room. But has no phone, no internet or hanging out with friends. Or is his punishment whatever the courts give him?

I just keep having this dreaded feeling that he will be grounded week after week because he just can't seem to make the right choices. And by the way he speaks, he could care less what happens to him. But I put on my best poker face and act like what he says doesn't faze me.

Thank you!!

Mark Hutten, M.A. said...

First of all, thanks for being a good student (as bad as it is right now, think how much worse it would be if you hadn't being implementing these techniques)...

RE: Do I have my son go to them and apologize or do I let it be and let the system do what needs to be done?

I would let the system take care of implementing the consequence at this point.

RE: Also, do I punish for this?

Only if the legal systems drops the issue (or doesn't pursue it at all).

RE: I just keep having this dreaded feeling that he will be grounded week after week because he just can't seem to make the right choices.

He might be grounded more often than not for a few months. That's o.k. It will take some time for him to come to the realization that you mean business (and don't be fooled into thinking that he doesn't care -- that's a manipulation on his part).

Stay the course (and don't forget about the "deal-with-it-later file").

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