During the school year, adolescents’ lives are incredibly structured – they attend classes everyday, participate in extracurricular activities, and when they’re at home, much of their time is taken up by homework. While that structure can come with it’s own issues, like stress from over-scheduling or pressure to appear perfect, it also means that most teens spend the majority of each day with a parent or educator close by, and clear that their focus is supposed to be on accomplishing goals that support their academic success. That clarity and structure often falls away during the summer. While some teens will have summer activities like jobs, camps, or internships to attend to, for many summer means more freedom and more time with friends – and less clear expectations from parents. It’s critically important that adolescents have the opportunity to de-stress and explore their non-academic interests. Yet to do this in healthy ways, kids need their parents to attend to their social and emotional development with the same interest and commitment that they they attend to promoting academic growth during the school year. The sudden drop in structure and supervision for most teenagers can be a risk factor for substance use and other risky behaviors, and is one of the main reasons that a Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration study found that first-time adolescent substance use peaks in June and July. It can be tricky to parent in summer – it’s often a time of more relaxation and flexibility for the whole family, not just kids who are out of school, and it can feel healthy to loosen up with your children and bend the normal rules a bit. Doing this in combination with thoughtfulness around building social and emotional skills can help ensure that children have safe (and fun!) summers.
- Set summertime rules: Young people thrive when there are clear expectations for their behavior, and consistently enforced consequences when those expectations aren’t met. While it’s fine to give your children more freedom during the summer than you would during the school year, it’s still important that you have a clear set of rules and that those rules get upheld. For example, you might extend your child’s weeknight curfew by an hour, but they should still have a curfew. It is also important to talk with your children about why rules are changing (or not) and root this explanation in your love and concern for them.
- Talk to your child about your expectations around substance use: Be clear with your child about your expectations around drinking, smoking, and drug use. While many of us have the expectation that some amount of experimentation is normal in adolescence, we also know that the earlier a young person starts to use, the more likely they are to develop a substance use issue. Make sure they know where you stand.
- Check in with your child (and with other parents!): Young people are much more likely to use substances when they lack adult supervision. While it is important to give your child space to manage their own day to day decisions, it is also important to be physically present or ensure another adult is present when groups of teens are hanging out. Check in with your child about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with – this helps you understand if they’re keeping safe and helps keep you connected.
- Be responsive, not reactive: While adolescent substance use is serious, it’s also critical that your children feel like they can talk to you. When parents react with anger or threats, teens can very easily shut down and take away the message that they can’t share these experiences with you. If your child comes to talk to you about their use, it’s probably because they’re looking for support in how to navigate the difficult terrain of adolescence. Engaging them in conversation about their experiences with substances will help you understand the severity of the issue, whether they need outside support and what that support might look like, and open up communication channels for future conversations about difficult issues.
- Give space to grow, while watching for risk: A critical part of supporting healthy adolescent development is giving our children space to make mistakes, deal with disappointment, and learn they can handle increasingly complex decisions on their own. It is important to distinguish between the areas where we need to stay involved and communicative, like about substance use and other risky behaviors, as opposed to times when we can back off and say “I know this is anxiety provoking, but I also believe you can handle it. Let me know if you want to talk or plan what to do together.” As a general rule, stay involved with any potential safety issues and give space for learning life skills.