- Nutrition. As teens become more independent, their eating habits frequently change for the worse. Family dinners are replaced by pizza with friends or fast food between extracurricular activities. At the same time, increased social pressures can result in body image issues and eating disorders.
What parents can do: Continue to stress the importance of fueling your body with good food, stock the refrigerator with healthy options, and model good eating habits. If the teen no longer drinks milk, introduce calcium and vitamin D supplements to strengthen their bones during this time of growth.
- Sleep. Teens are sleeping less and less. Between extracurricular activities, school, friends, and electronics, sleep becomes a teen’s last priority. Sleep is very important however and teens need nine hours of sleep a night on average. Not getting that amount is associated with everything from poor school performance to obesity to depression.
What parents can do: Emphasize regular bedtimes, restrict phone use at night, limit activities, and talk to your schools about later start times.
- Exercise. There are kids who struggle with both too much and too little. Athletes who specialize in single sports at a young age suffer from overuse injuries and burnout. Kids who don’t have opportunities for regular exercise struggle with obesity.
What parents can do: Encourage a goal of at least one hour of aerobic activity every day. For athletes, emphasizing cross-training and breaks can help with injuries.
- Vaping. E-cigarette use has been rising exponentially in teens over the past several years. Now, about 1/5 teens have used them! The chemicals in the vapor are toxic, but more importantly, the nicotine in e-cigarettes is highly addictive. It makes it much more likely that they will go on to use cigarettes. It also affects the developing teen brain.
What parents can do: Talk to your teens early about the dangers of e-cigarettes. For more information on vaping and adolescents, check out this article.
- Marijuana. As many states are beginning to legalize marijuana, we are seeing increasing use in teens. They view it as the “safe and natural” drug since it is legal. However, marijuana has significant negative effects on the developing teen brain. It is not safe for kids to use! In addition, many teens are using their e-cigarettes to vape marijuana.
What parents can do: As with vaping, talk to your teens early about the dangers of marijuana.
- Alcohol.Thirty percent of high school students drink so this is a topic you can’t skip. Of particular concern is that many teens are drinking hard alcohol rather than beer and they are much more likely to binge drink. This is particularly concerning because they are much more likely get alcohol poisoning; teens need to understand that drinking strong liquor quickly can be very dangerous.
What parents can do: Start discussing this important topic early and consciously model responsible behavior. Timing is crucial as you don’t want to bring it up for the first time as the teen is walking out the door to go to a party. Use a news story, movie or TV show to bring it up in a relaxed atmosphere like dinner. Luckily, teens now are generally much smarter about drinking and driving, but that is still something that should be discussed with every teenager before they get he or she gets a driver’s license.
- Acne. Acne is one of the most stressful parts of being a teen. So much of a teen’s identity revolves around his or her appearance. Luckily, there are many options for acne treatment now; they don’t need to suffer through it.
What parents can do: Let your teen know that acne is not a hygiene issue and that over-scrubbing his or her face can actually make it worse. If over-the-counter medications don’t work, talk to your pediatrician.
- Sex. The “birds and the bees” talk is one of the big milestones that your child is growing up. Although it is awkward (for both the parent and the kid), it is critical for your teen to get accurate information from you rather than inaccurate information from friends.
What parents can do: Giving your teens a book to read beforehand (or together) is a good way to start the conversation. Being open-minded and non-judgmental will go a long way to keeping the lines of communication open between you and your teen for years to come.
- Hygiene. Hygiene can be another awkward conversation but is vital to discuss. Some kids figure this out on their own; others need some guidance.
What parents can do: Let teens know that the changes in their body make it important for them to care for themselves differently. They need to shower every day, use deodorant and wash their clothes regularly.
- Bullying. No matter how many educational sessions teens have, after-school movies they watch, rules that guide them, bullying continues to be a big problem. And now with social media, bullies have a whole new and particularly vicious way of tormenting their peers.
What parents can do: Open the door to conversation by bringing up stories that you hear. Keep a watch out for signs that your teen is being bullied and get help early if you suspect bullying. Beaumont Health’s anti-bullying program, NoBLE, has resources.
- Mental health. Many mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia present during adolescence.
What parents can do: Talk with your teen about mental health, especially if there is a family history. Like with bullying, look for signs such as mood swings, change in activity or sleep or appetite, loss interest in friends or activities, or substance abuse. Don’t assume these changes are “normal teen behaviors.”
Many of these topics don’t need a formal, sit-down discussion. In fact, those can make your teen uncomfortable and less likely to hear what you are saying. My favorite way to bring up many of these topics with my teens is in the car using a situation I had heard about. For example, when we were travelling near a college campus, I commented on all the vape shops I saw and mentioned that I was worried about e-cigarette use. My then-12-year-old son reassured me that e-cigarettes were perfectly safe – just water vapor – and that one of his friends got one for Christmas. What?! But that opened the door for conversation and I got a chance to have a really good discussion about vaping.
Good luck! The teen years are both wonderful and terrifying, but before you know it, they will be gone and you will miss them.
– Rita Patel, MD, MPH, is the associate director of the pediatric residency program at Beaumont Children’s Hospital. She is also an associate professor at OUWB School of Medicine.