How to Help Your Teen Avoid High-Risk Behaviors

family-eating-dinner-togetherSmoking, alcohol, drugs, sex. To parents of teenagers, they’re like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We worry about any of these temptations causing challenges in the lives of our kids.

Children are experimenting with these temptations sooner than ever, typically in their early teen years as they enter junior high, said Nicole Florence, MD, an internal medicine physician and pediatrician with Memorial Physician Services-Koke Mill, part of Memorial Health System.

Most children take their first puff on a cigarette between 10 and 12 years old and have had at least one drink of alcohol before they’re 13. One in 10 have tried some type of illegal drug around the age of 12 or 13, and 6 percent of teens have engaged in some sort of sexual activity before they turn 13.

Dr. Florence talked about these challenges during a recent interview on WTAX’s “Ask The Expert.”

While new laws have made it tougher for teens to get their hands on tobacco, about one in five teens actively smoke. That’s actually lower than it used to be. However, among active smokers, four out of five will go on to be adult smokers. And the use of e-cigarettes, which also contain addictive nicotine, has doubled in the teen population.

The number of teens drinking alcohol is actually lower than 10 years ago. However, some people are at risk genetically to develop an alcohol addiction. Teens with a family history of alcoholism put themselves at risk when they start drinking at an early age. “The easiest thing for a teenager to do is to access the alcohol that’s in the home,” Dr. Florence said. Parents should keep their alcohol secure and be aware of how much is on hand.

While the vast majority of teens are experimenting with marijuana, about 2 percent of teens have tried psychotropic drugs like LSD. Prescription drug use – Vicodin, OxyContin, Xanax – is on the increase with teens. Parents should also keep their prescription medications in a secure place and make sure they know how many they have.

Teens are exposed to far more frank sexual imagery on television and in movies, more so than when most parents were growing up and watching “The Love Boat,” where we might see the occasional long kiss on the dock. The internet also exposes teens to explicit sexual situations.

The key to help teens navigate all these temptations is nonjudgmental conversations, Dr. Florence said. For example, if you see something about teens and cigarette use on television, ask your teen, “What do you think about that?” or “Have you ever had to face that?” A nonjudgmental question allows teens to feel safe sharing information with you. If, instead, you make a judgmental statement, like “You better not have done anything like that,” your teen is probably not going to open up to you.

And families that eat dinner together three or four times a week have kids who are less likely to partake in high-risk behaviors, Dr. Florence said.

Nicole Florence, MD, is an internal medicine physician and pediatrician with Memorial Physician Services-Koke Mill. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where she completed residencies in internal medicine and pediatrics. Dr. Florence is board certified in internal medicine, pediatrics and obesity medicine.