Like many working parents, the end of the school year brings a new set of worries to Jen Kelsey’s household: What will her kids be up to all day when she and her husband are at work?
The Kelseys’ children are in several summer activities to curb boredom and keep them busy. At ages 15 and 11, they know the rules for when mom and dad are out. Phone check-ins are a regular part of the day and the Salt Lake City mom keeps a close watch on friends who visit while she’s gone —as well as where their kids are headed with pals.
“They’re really great kids, so we’re lucky,” said Kelsey. “They can both be their own biggest tattle tale, so that can be helpful (when anything they shouldn’t be doing happens),” she joked.
But summer can be a challenging time for even the most well-behaved kids said Nikki Mihalopoulos, a physician at University of Utah Health Care who specializes in adolescent medicine. Just like families baby-proof their homes when a tot begins to crawl, parents can benefit from “teen-proofing” their homes so children and their friends don’t get into places where they’re not supposed to be, she said.
Recent research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that children ages 12 to 17 are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol during the summer than they are during other parts of the year. In fact, on an average day in June or July, more than 11,000 adolescents try alcohol —a daily average that sits closer to 5,000 at other times of the year. Some of those cases result from parents who don’t keep alcohol locked up in a liquor cabinet or assume their child would never take a drink.
“Additional free time in the summer can lead to more opportunities for substance abuse,” said Mihalopoulos. “Talk to your children about your expectations. Be clear about the rules in your home and enforce them consistently. Take an inventory of your home when it comes to alcohol or prescription drugs. Dispose of old prescriptions at the police department. Usually it is the friends of your kids who will raid your medicine cabinet.”
While the advice may seem simple, it never hurts to reinforce the same messages with teenagers whose brains are wired for sometimes questionable decision-making. University of Utah researcher Deborah Todd-Yurgelun, Ph.D., has spent part of her career studying how adolescent brains process information differently than adult brains. Formerly of Harvard, Todd-Yurgelun’s research asserts that because teen brains are still developing, they don’t think in the same way adults do when it comes to situations where they exhibit poor judgment.
“Don’t assume that because you’ve laid out the argument or presented the idea that teenagers are interpreting it in the same way you’ve presented it,” Todd-Yurgelun said in the interview with the publication Monitor on Psychology. “The frontal cortex is continuing to develop, and if you don’t have the neural structure in place, the adolescent cannot really think things through at the same level as an adult.”
That brain science boils down to what can be an unnerving fact for parents: Even a straight-A student can fall astray to peer pressure or impulses that lead to choices he or she may regret later.
Research carried out by Todd-Yurgelun hits home for Katie Adams* of Sandy, who was stunned by the behavior of her teenage son — a bright student who befriended a less-than-desirable crowd of friends shortly before his 18th birthday. Adams recalled returning home from work one summer to find that one of her son’s friends had swiped a prescription for Adderall that her son relied on for attention deficit disorder.
“I was shocked. This was a good kid who knew our rules and in every other aspect of his life behaved like you’d want your kid to behave,” said Adams. “While my son may not have been the one combing the medicine cabinets at our house for prescriptions, for whatever reason he didn’t feel like he could tell his friends to stop or he didn’t see what was happening. And that turned into a battle for us for the rest of the summer.”
“You always want to think that your kids know better,” added Adams. “They probably do. But sometimes they —or their friends —behave differently in a group or they still do things that are unexplainable despite all the education and conversations you’ve had with them as parents.”
Adams’ son eventually went on to college and found a new set of friends. But she still cringes when she thinks back to situations with her teenage son during his last summer at home.
So what can parents do to ensure they’re “teen proofing” adequately? Mihalopoulos offered the following safety tips for parents:
Drugs and alcohol
• Keep alcohol locked up, including alcoholic beverages kept in the refrigerator.
• Keep all prescription drugs locked up or remove them. This protects your children and any friends who may visit your home
• Make your attitude and expectations clear by talking to your children and clarifying rules about cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. This should be an ongoing dialogue.
• While teens may be too old for many summer camps and programs, there are a few geared to this age group. In addition, older kids can often work as counselors and junior staff at summer programs for younger kids, or find jobs babysitting or mowing lawns.
• Encourage older teens to get a summer job or play a sport that practices during the summer.
• Assign teens chores to help keep them busy and scheduled during the day.
• Encourage your child’s friends to come to your home so you can get to know them and don’t be afraid to make sure friends understand your house rules.
• Know your child’s friends and their parents. Make sure you connect with other parents about house rules and unsupervised time spent in homes.
Food and activity
• Help kids plan out meals so they aren’t prone to overeating and snacking on junk food all day.
• Provide grab and go snacks and drinks for kids such as fruit, yogurt, nuts, and sugar-free beverages.
• Have at least one meal each day as a family.
• If you are gone during the day, plan activities with kids in the evening. Many pools and parks are open late. By doing activities in the evening, you avoid the heat of the day and the most damaging sun rays.
Melinda Rogers is a communications specialist at University of Utah Health Care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @mrogers_utah .
*Name changed for privacy.