Equipping Parents to Manage the Top Risks Facing Youth in 2024

Mother and teen daughter sitting together. Smiling. Looking at content together on teen daughter’s phone.

Get back to the basics by building trust and strengthening relationships through open communication, supportive boundaries, and factual information

Mother and teen daughter sitting together. Smiling. Looking at content together on teen daughter’s phone.

Parents of teens have their work cut out for them. 

Between navigating the complexities of technology and social media to safeguarding against substance use and mental health concerns– it’s fair to say there’s no roadmap that tells parents exactly how to do this.  

And, it’s true what they say – it really does go by so fast. 

To that end, we’re here to help professionals and parents alike return to the basics of what we know really works with youth. In this blog, we address some of the most pressing issues parents of teens face – including social media addiction and influence, anxiety, vaping, risky sexual activity, and more – while discussing how to open up meaningful conversations, create supportive environments, and set boundaries that respect a teen’s growing independence while ensuring their safety and well-being.

Teen Mental Health: Red Flags, Open Communication, and Getting Help

Youth mental health is a serious issue. 

Virtually every data set we look at offers a grim, but clear, picture of how youth are faring. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 42% of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless in 2021 for at least two consecutive weeks in the previous year that they stopped engaging in their usual activities. Girls and LGBTQ+ youth are particularly likely to report those feelings. Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and actual suicides among young people have also risen, with Black youth nearly twice as likely than their white peers to die by suicide, according to the YRBS and other CDC statistics. Depression and anxiety among youth, by some measures, doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic

Though the pandemic is behind us, teen mental health remains a complex issue. It is influenced by everything from social media pressures to academic and social stresses of teenage life to genetics. But at its heart, supporting our teens through mental health struggles is about understanding, empathy, and action.

Recognizing Red Flags

Teens may not always articulate their feelings clearly, and signs of mental health struggles can often be misinterpreted as typical teenage behavior. Look out for changes in mood that last more than a few weeks, withdrawal from social activities, or a drop in academic performance. These can all be indicators that something deeper is going on. Additionally, watch out for red flags. 

Red flags that warrant attention –  

  • Excessive sleeping (sleepiness beyond the usual teenage fatigue) or insomnia, difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares
  • Abandonment or loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Dramatic decline in academic performance
  • Notable weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Extreme mood change or confused thinking
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Substance abuse (alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs)
  • Ideas of suicide
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (headaches, stomach aches, etc.)
  • Hyperactive behavior or routine lethargy
  • Frequent temper tantrums, aggression or harm to self or others

Source: Kennedy Krieger Institute

Open Lines of Communication

Talking about mental health doesn’t have to be daunting. It starts with creating an environment where teens feel safe sharing their feelings without judgment. Ask open-ended questions, listen actively, and resist the urge to offer solutions immediately. This can be really hard for parents because it is so natural to want to ‘fix it’ when our children are hurting. Sometimes, just being heard is the most powerful support you can offer.

Seek Professional Help

If you know a teen is struggling, get them help. (Period). Facilitate an opportunity for teens to talk to a mental health professional such as the school counselor, a private psychologist, or a psychiatrist, for example. In some cases, meeting with a mentor like a coach or a member of one’s faith community may be a helpful support to fold into a plan of care. It’s essential to help parents understand the different types of mental health professionals and resources available to guide their teen to the appropriate type of support. 

Stress Management: Tackling Tension Together

Stress is part of life. Good stress, or eustrress, can motivate teens to study for a test or cause a sense of nervous adrenaline on a first date. And then there’s negative stress, or distress, that leads to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. Negative distress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Both types of negative stress can have implications for physical and mental health. Recognizing that both you and your teen face stress is an important starting point. Acknowledging stress is the first step towards managing it.

Managing Family Stress Together

One of the most powerful stress-busters is communication. Encourage parents to open up about their stressors and encourage their teen to do the same. Sharing experiences can not only bring you closer but also help you understand each other’s perspectives and challenges. Teens might be able to offer a bit more empathy if they understand a little more about how important their parent’s upcoming work deadline is. Plus, brainstorming solutions together can be a bonding experience.

Healthy Habits Go A Long Way

Incorporating stress-reducing habits into daily routines can work wonders. Regular physical activity, whether it’s a family hike or a solo gym session, releases endorphins that combat stress. Mindfulness practices, like meditation or yoga, can also help center thoughts and calm the mind. Encouraging these habits as a family can set the foundation for a stress-resistant household. If you’re not sure where to start with getting family stress back on track, start with the basics – food, water, sleep, and exercise. Rebalancing these healthy habits won’t fix everything overnight, but it will surely help. 

Setting Boundaries

Learning to say no is an essential skill in stress management. For teens, it might mean choosing activities they genuinely enjoy rather than overcommitting.  For parents, it might mean setting boundaries at work or home (or both) to ensure they’re not spreading themselves too thin. Teaching by example is powerful—show teens that it’s okay to prioritize well-being.

Stress doesn’t have to be a constant in a family’s life. There really are ways to slow down and relax – but families must make it a priority to have the conversations and adjust certain rhythms to make the shift.

Keeping Youth Safe Online

Today’s teens are the digital natives (aka “The Alpha Generation,) as they have never known a world without screens. Many can navigate online spaces with an ease that leave parents in the dust – yes, even us Gen X and elder Millennial parents who work in and with technology every day. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – there are strategies that really do work to help keep youth safe while their frontal lobes continue to develop. 

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are important in all aspects of parenting, but they’re essential when it comes to screen time, internet use, and social media access. Having a discussion, rather than delivering a lecture, will make it far more likely that teens will adhere to the boundaries and reap the benefits of those guardrails. Help parents discuss and set clear, reasonable rules together with their teens about screen time, social media use, online gaming, and any other aspect of digital that is relevant for families. Make it a dialogue, not a decree, to help them understand and value these boundaries.

The Conversation on Cyber Safety

Educating teens and parents about cybersecurity risks is an important step of protecting the whole family. Talk about privacy settings, the dangers of sharing personal information, and how to spot and avoid online scams and cyberbullying. Remember – most scammers and perpetrators are far more sophisticated today than in years past – these schemes are usually not easy to spot right away. Encourage teens to tell their parents about any online interactions that make them feel uncomfortable or threatened.

The Power of Positive Digital Citizenship

If teens are allowed to access social media, encourage them to be a positive digital citizen and use their online platforms to learn, create, and share in ways that are respectful and constructive. You might even do a little research beforehand to highlight stories of teens who have used the internet to make a positive impact. Does the teen have an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for creating? Maybe they learn the basics of starting a business by selling the candles they pour to family, friends, neighbors, and their community through their platform. Is the teen obsessed with sports? Consider challenging them to apply their AP Statistics work to the teams they follow. (… Insert any other example that truly fits the personality, interests, and abilities of a teen). 

Quality Time Offline

In a world that’s always online, unplugging is a radical act of self-care. Encourage activities that don’t involve screens. Teens might not show their enthusiasm for a family walk or movie night in the moment, but we promise you – it means a lot to them and it’s always worth it. Many families use a ‘home-base’ or docking station in a centralized location to help hold the entire family accountable to putting their phone to bed and keeping it out of the way during meal times. There are sophisticated boxes that serve as wireless charges and include apps that monitor screen time, but a shoe box also works well. 

Lead by Example

If parents are glued to their screens during family dinners or constantly checking their phones, they’re sending a mixed message. Ask parents to take some time to honestly evaluate their own tech use and consider if there are ways they could moderate their screen time and social media use in a way that supports the messages their family values and boundaries for their teen.

Risky Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy: Conversations That Matter

Discussion about sexual activity and teen pregnancy can be a challenging topic for any family, but open communication and supportive dialogue can make a significant difference in navigating this complex issue.

The Importance of Open Communication

Talking about sex should be an ongoing conversation that happens many times over the course of several years, not a ‘one and done’ birds and the bees talk. 

The foundation of addressing sexual health lies in open, honest conversations between parents and teens. It’s about creating an environment where a teen feels comfortable discussing relationships, sex, and contraception without fear of judgment. Start these conversations early and keep them ongoing. Again, this isn’t a one-time chat but a series of discussions about growth and development, healthy relationships, contraception, and consent. Encourage critical thinking and self-respect, empowering teens to make informed decisions.

Support Systems and Resources

Should teen pregnancy become a reality, it’s essential to focus on support and solutions. This means providing love and guidance, exploring all available options, and connecting teens with professional resources such as counseling, prenatal care, and educational programs. It’s about ensuring they don’t face this challenge alone and have the support to make the best decisions for their future.

The Role of Prevention

While discussing sexual activity and risks, including teen pregnancy, the role of prevention cannot be understated. This includes not only education on contraception but also discussions about self-esteem, personal values, and future goals. Encouraging teens to think about their aspirations can be a powerful motivator for making thoughtful choices.

Navigating the Minefield: Teens, Drugs, and Alcohol

The conversation around drugs and alcohol is hardly a new parenting challenge. With changing societal norms and the legalization of substances in many areas, the context of these conversations has evolved. (For example, it is now legal to use marijuana for recreational use in 24 of 50 states). Let’s get back to the basics for how to support parents in talking about drugs with their teens

Start Talking Early

The earlier you start conversations about drugs and alcohol, the better. This doesn’t mean instilling fear but rather fostering awareness. Discuss the reasons people might choose to use substances, the consequences of their use, and the importance of making informed choices. An early start lays the groundwork for open communication as children grow into adolescents and beyond.

Educate About Risks and Realities

Teens are bombarded with mixed messages about drugs and alcohol from the media, the internet, and even peers. Cut through the noise by providing clear, factual information about the effects of substance use on their health, well-being, and future prospects. Highlight the difference between the glamorization of drug use in popular culture and its real-life impacts. 

For example, vaping is often thought to be a less-addictive and less-damaging use of nicotine compared to smoking cigarettes. The reality is that vaping risks include “nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.” These are significant risks – parents and teens deserve to understand them.

Set Clear Expectations and Consequences

Encourage parents to be clear about their expectations regarding drug and alcohol use and the consequences of breaking those rules. However, ensure that these conversations are not just about laying down the law but also about understanding and support. Make it clear that a parent’s primary concern is their child’s safety and well-being.

Be their Safe Landing

Creating an environment where teens feel comfortable discussing their experiences and temptations with substances is essential for proactive prevention and intervention. Addressing the issue of drugs and alcohol with teens is about striking a balance between caution and trust. By maintaining open lines of communication, providing factual information, and fostering positive relationships and coping skills, parents can guide their teens toward making healthy choices in the face of peer pressure and societal influences.

GOOD Resources for Parents  

The journey of parenting is a shared one, and together, we can work with parents to ensure teens are prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead. Possibilities For Change is proud to be a leader in identifying and reducing youth risk, including the risks mentioned in this article. We work with professionals and parents alike to guide youth toward healthier, safer lives.

Check out our latest Teen Speak skill-building resources that have been curated specifically for parents of youth, including:

  • Micro learning modules
  • Online courses
  • Workshops
  • Research-backed articles
  • And more – 

These resources are accessible, digestible, and loved by professionals and parents alike. We know how challenging it can be to translate communication and behavior change strategies into easy-to-use, practical information for parents. Teen Speak bridges this gap and helps parents build even stronger relationships with their teens.

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