Protecting Teens On This New Playground

Our family explored a canoe landing along the Mississippi River on a spring evening. A large concrete culvert protruded from the embankment and emptied storm water into the river. My husband climbed over the chunks of concrete on the river’s edge and our oldest daughter and son followed him.

Our youngest daughter hesitated. With fear in her voice, she mustered up as much authority as she could and said, “I don’t think we should be doing this.”

I reassured her that it would be safe if she followed Dad. Paul walked out on the end of the concrete that jutted into the river. Once KH got comfortable, she not only walked out to where he stood, she began running on it. With the fast current on either side, my motherly instinct was to reach out to to protect her and prevent a fall into the river.

No one fell, and we moved on to a playground they haven’t visited in many years. They taught us a game of tag that involved the person who was “it” walking over the playground equipment with his or her eyes closed. When I determined that didn’t seem any safer, I sat out and watched.

I don’t believe I am an overprotective mother. My children have freedom to run and play and explore, but they also have limits that we impose. Those limits protect them from not only accident but also the harm others can inflict upon them. But as my kids move into their teenage years and encounter some of these hazards brought on by their own choices, circumstances, and other people, I’m learning that protecting them like I did on the playground is no longer the best option for their safety.

In two weeks my oldest will test for her driver’s license. My son joined the on-line social networking world. And our youngest is on the edge, peering into a new world with a mixture of trepidation and delight. Clearly, my teenagers can’t have and don’t want me standing at their side calling out to them to be careful.

Of course we define boundaries and enact consequences, but since their choices ultimately have to come from within themselves, we’ve been doing more to ensure that they have an internal protection to take with them.

Educate about the risks and realities. I’m pretty direct. Straight talk about the truth of sexuality, violence, alcohol, and drugs to this generation of kids is absolutely necessary. Just as an example, a week ago on family night, we discussed pornography. I used Internet Safety tips from a new web site called Combating Pornography. We talked about predators online and how they target children. We kept it age-appropriate, but I still heard a little tittering. Overall, they were relieved to ask questions of us and know that they could get honest answers.

Train the senses. A fellow parent and I were discussing the recent trend of “body boxing” that has erupted at our middle school and how many kids have been desensitized to violence.  To counter that, we limit media exposure at home not only to reduce the images they might see, but to heighten their sensitivity to real life emotions and know how to manage them.  This could also be called “listening to your conscious” or “being aware of your surroundings.”  What it really means is that we’re teaching our kids to recognize what their internal cues tell them about what is going on externally. Then, they need to respond confidently based on those messages from their senses, even when it is not popular.

Expect to be informed. This month a boy made threatening remarks to my son on the bus. NH told me, just like we’ve instructed him to do, and I called the school principal. We worked within the established system to resolve the issue. But as the situation played out and more children and parents became involved, I was surprised to discover my actions being labeled as tattling to the school or smearing the offending child. I was grateful when a police officer confirmed that I have every right to speak about the issue openly in a courteous manner to solve the problem. Offenders or abusers want to keep problems secret so they can manipulate the situation for themselves. Teenagers also may want to keep their activities hidden from us. Expecting to be informed is the second half of open communication with our kids. And it protects all of us, even when our kids are the ones in the wrong.

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