Help your teen stay safe

U.S. News & World Report

Reading up on health and safety topics could be the last thing on your teen's to-do list. That's why informed, proactive parenting can make such a difference, especially in high-risk areas like driving, relationships, and mental health. While your adolescent may not intend to occasionally jeopardize their well-being, it's not something you want left to chance.

Road Safety

Car accidents are the chief cause of death and disability among teenagers, with teens being killed at four times the rate of adults. The contributing factors are legion: inexperience behind the wheel, tendencies to eschew seat belts and to speed, distractibility (as attention flits, perhaps, between road, radio, telephone, and text message), overconfidence in their skills, and underdeveloped judgment and impulse control.

A growing number of solutions--from sophisticated GPS tracking devices to bumper stickers bearing toll-free numbers that forward called-in complaints straight to Mom--empower parents to take an active role in steering their kids away from accidents. The gadget DriveCam provides parents with an in-car camera device. It senses and records the sights and sounds of any abrupt, potentially risky maneuvers made by your licensed teenagers and alerts you immediately by E-mail.

Your other options include GPS tracking tools designed to alert you electronically if your novice drivers blow through preset speed limits, ignore driving curfews, or cruise beyond certain boundaries. One is offered through Safeco Insurance's Teensurance program, a service that became available to customers and noncustomers alike last May.

A lower-budget approach: bumper stickers bearing slogans like "Call My Mom" and a toll-free number for reporting erratic driving. Each sticker contains a unique code number, allowing anonymous tips to be quickly forwarded to the appropriate parents.

Sexual Health

There's no denying it. Teens are doing the deed. About 70 percent of teenagers have had sex by their 19th birthdays, and about 14 percent lose their virginity before turning 15, surveys suggest. A result: approximately three quarters of a million teen pregnancies each year. And while today's teens overall report having safer sex than did those in years past, about a quarter of girls ages 14 to 19 are infected with at least one of four common STDs (human papillomavirus, chlamydia, herpes, and the parasitic infection trichomoniasis), federal health officials reported last March.

Adolescents are ultimately responsible for their own actions, of course. Yet you can do a lot to guide your kids through the treacherous tides of teen lust--without insisting on a chastity belt. A powerful, if dreaded, tool doesn't cost a cent: open dialogue about sexual issues. That's dialogue, experts stress, not a one-time "sex talk." Repeated conversations about things like orgasm or condoms appear to make teens feel closer to parents and more able to discuss tricky topics like sex with them. Start well before kids hit puberty, and don't shy away from questions or you'll encourage them to turn elsewhere for information.

As for protection, what's best is the "belt and suspenders" approach: condoms to thwart STDs and a hormonal contraceptive for girls as a second-line defense against unwanted pregnancy. More important, teens need to know how to use these methods properly; condoms, for example, expire.

Mental Health

It might be tough to watch your beloved child morph into a teenage cliché--a back-talking, door-slamming, bedroom-retreating, fickle being. But it might be tougher yet to discern "normal" adolescent behavior from the signs of a materializing mood disorder.

Yet half of all mental illnesses arise by age 14. And about 2 million 12-to-17-year-olds, or 1 in 12 of them, experience clinical depression each year, government health officials estimated last May. What's more, on average a child has had symptoms of mental illness for more than six months before getting help. That lag could have devastating consequences, since untreated mental illness can lead to suicide. The third-leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-olds, suicide appears to be on the rise among youth and young adults after more than a decade of decline.

Spotting warning signs can be tricky. Many teenagers with depression, for example, exhibit an easily overlooked blend of mood and behavioral issues rather than the symptoms typically seen in adults, experts say. Stress from things like pressure to excel in school or to land a good job may precipitate psychiatric disorders, which they found almost half of the more than 5,000 college-age individuals studied had suffered from in the past year.

You can take steps to cultivate resilience in your children by setting a good example when, for instance, coping with setbacks. Another is to focus on raising a balanced person, not a high-achieving performer; if kids are made to feel as though their ultimate goal is to please parents, not themselves, they won't learn how to identify their own strengths and preferences. So if you notice that there might be something wrong and your child is no longer coping well, that's the time to seek help.

Sports Safety

Teen sports are great: They can promote teamwork, jump-start a lifelong exercise habit, and provide an antidote to obesity. But teen athletes can also get hurt, which means they--and their parents and coaches--should be vigilant about prevention.

Sports injuries fall into two categories. Acute injuries, like a sprained ankle or torn ACL in the knee, occur suddenly, after a missed step or a midfield collision. Overuse injuries are caused by repetitive motion that damages the body over time. Those used to be fairly rare among teens and kids. But increasingly, doctors see teens with overuse injuries that used to plague mostly collegiate or pro athletes--such as a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

There are ways to protect against both overuse and acute injuries. Proper conditioning is crucial. Teens new to sports should start by getting in good overall shape--including working on aerobic fitness, strength, and flexibility. On the other hand, serious teen athletes may need to build more recovery time into their schedule. Train hard on some days, but go easier and work on recovery and technique on alternate days, he recommends. Done correctly, both strength training and working on the core muscles of the back and abdomen may prevent injury and boost performance. Sports-specific warm-up programs also can help.

(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report

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