Extension family life specialist says building trust key to helping troubled teens
By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture
March 16, 2023
- Communication, consistency is key
- If concerned about teen behavior, talk to a doctor
- Monitor phone and social media use
(Newsrooms: with sidebar 03-16-2023-ark-cdc-teenagers)
LITTLE ROCK — Building trust with teens is critical for parents to help children through troubled times, said Brittney Schrick, extension assistant professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
For parents of teenagers, building trust means conveying that “you’re a safe place for a kid to come” if they are having scary thoughts or feelings, she said. Though sometimes, a parent may not be the adult to whom their child feels comfortable turning with these feelings.
“Sometimes, you may not be that safe place, so you need to be willing to hear your child’s concerns from another adult who is — a coach, a teacher, a grandparent or another adult whom that kid feels more able to talk to,” Schrick said. “It’s important to be okay with the fact that they went to somebody else.”
Part of building this trust over time involves “having real conversations with your kid” and engaging with the day-to-day events of their life.
“You may not care about who broke up with who at school today, but if you’re not willing to listen to them tell you that, they’re not going to tell you anything else,” Schrick said.
Parents should pay attention to changes in their teenagers, especially if they withdraw from friends or activities.
“This can be hard to be pinpoint because it’s not super abnormal for teenagers to want to be on their own,” Schrick said. “But if they’ve suddenly lost interest in things they’ve liked — like they’ve always played a sport and all of a sudden they don’t want to do it anymore — it’s at least worth a conversation.”
Schrick said parents should also take safety precautions to ensure medications and firearms are not easily accessible. If a child is coming to their parent with tough feelings, or a parent becomes concerned about their child’s well-being, Schrick said a good first step is to have a conversation with a family doctor.
“If it’s just a concern, or you want to nip something that you see happening, I would start with a family doctor, adult to adult, and then go from there,” Schrick said. “All of this is moot if the child is in immediate danger. If that is the case, they need to be taken to a hospital.”
Phone and social media use
A compounding factor of the social isolation enforced by the pandemic was the resulting increase of phone usage and time spent on social media, Schrick said.
“Our brains are not prepared to deal with this constant information,” she said. “We don’t have the ability to tease it apart into usable chunks quickly enough. Even adults don’t, and kids really don’t. So when they’re always in this information overload, they can’t determine what’s important, and it gives them this dopamine hit that feels bad when it’s removed.
“When they don’t have their hit, they look for it,” Schrick said. “So, they go back to their phone.”
Parents should model appropriate phone use and create phone-free zones or activities.
“If a parent is constantly on their phone and then getting onto their kid about doing the same thing, you don’t really have a leg to stand on,” Schrick said. “Putting away phones during meal times and limiting phone usage during things like car rides is a good idea. If you’re just riding across town, make it a normal thing for the people in your car to not have their phones out during that time, so you can have an actual conversation.”
It’s also important for parents to monitor their teens’ phone and social media use. Applications such as Bark, Circle and Life360 can help parents check in on what their children are doing.
“It’s not an invasion of privacy to check up on your kid,” Schrick said. “It doesn’t mean you have to read every text they send, but just take an occasional flick through the photos or a look at who they’re talking to. That’s to help them filter out some things that their brains are not mature enough to handle.”
In terms of protection, it can also help to wait until a child is 13 or 14 years old to buy them a smartphone.
“Waiting to get your kid a smartphone sounds impossible because ‘all their friends have them,’ but they can have a phone without it being a smartphone,” Schrick said. “If you need the ability to communicate with them, you can get them a simpler phone that still allows them to get in touch with you in an emergency.”
Schrick said that having social media perpetually accessible on smartphones exacerbates teens’ natural tendency to compare themselves to their peers.
“Social media certainly has an impact on mental health,” Schrick said. “When you are constantly being sold to — whether it is a lifestyle, a certain ‘look,’ or a product that you think could help you achieve that lifestyle — that leads the immature brain to immediately assume that because they don’t have that, then they should. Or if they don’t look like that, then they should. They can’t necessarily discern reality from what they’re seeing all the time in their feeds.”
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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