Parents try to balance freedom, fun

? Everyone knows teenagers and risk-taking can go hand in hand. After all, it’s the job of teenagers to push limits and experience consequences. How else can they find out who they are and the power they have to shape their future?

But for parents, many of whom shudder when they remember their own teenage years, raising a teenager can be harrowing.

Those anxieties were heightened in San Jose recently when three teenagers died after crashing a stolen Jaguar. A fourth was hospitalized.

Police said the teenagers were driving a stolen car and took off after being stopped by a police officer. Parenting experts say that behavior may not be typical for teenagers, but the tragedy resonates with many parents worried about the situations their own teenagers may find themselves in.

Not all teenagers are risk-takers, of course.

“I figure other people have made mistakes and I can learn from them,” says Jessica Lorman, 17, a senior from Sunnyvale, Calif. “I’ve learned that if I do something wrong, something will happen that is not in my favor.”

Jessica’s parents have given her a lot of freedom, as long as she keeps them informed of what she is doing and who she is with. They have never grounded her, but they did take away her car once when she broke a rule against driving a friend before having her license for six months. “Once they caught me, I expected them to take it away,” says Lorman.

Jessica’s father, Woody Lorman, says his daughter has rarely tested the limits. “I don’t know what I’m doing right,” he says. “I got lucky.”

Appetite for risk

But some teenagers seem to have a high appetite for risk and tend to make bad decisions. Add to that teenager qualities such as impulsiveness, a sense of invulnerability and an overestimation of their skills and abilities, and they can frequently find themselves in trouble. Complicating efforts to help them, many teens tend to push parents away during these years and discount their advice.

Use newspapers, television and examples from teens’ lives to talk about decisions others have made.Decide what risks are unacceptable and talk to the teen about why. Be specific about what can go wrong.Maintain the lines of communication, particularly in the midst of a crisis.Allow teenagers to experience the natural consequences of their actions as much as possible.Talk to teenagers about risks even if they roll their eyes and act like parents are making a bigger deal than necessary.Source: Interviews with counselors and therapists

Parents often wonder what they can do to help their children make good choices.

It’s an issue that weighs on Dena McAfee, a San Jose mother of twin 16-year-old boys who both recently got their driver’s licenses.

A few weeks ago, she and her husband allowed the boys, Sean and Chris, to drive to San Francisco for a 49ers game. But before they left, she followed them to the car with advice and warnings. Her husband said, as he always does, “Don’t get in trouble.” Her boys said, “Nothing is going to happen” as McAfee rattled off the list of risks.

And nothing did happen, but still McAfee can’t help but worry. “It’s hard, it’s scary,” McAfee says.

She and her husband try to strike a balance between giving the boys some freedoms (they are allowed out until 10 p.m. on school nights, midnight on weekends) but responsibilities (they have to be home for dinner at 6 p.m. and they always do the dishes). The rule is that if they want to do anything out of the norm or change their plans, they have to ask.

Parenting experts say that much of the ground work for helping kids make good choices happens when they are much younger. Parents can use television shows, movies or newspaper stories to talk to kids about choices that people make, says Beckie St. George, a marriage and family therapist in San Jose.

“The scary part is that you can’t be there all the time,” says St. George, who has two children. “So it’s important to take any opportunity to talk about choices and decisions.”

Communication is key

Communication, of course, is key once something goes wrong. Parents say that letting their children experience the real consequences of their actions has taught them more.

When her son was handcuffed and arrested recently for setting off fireworks, Jan Etre, a special events organizer in Berkeley, Calif., says she worked hard to keep control of her own reaction.

“I was tempted to freak out,” says Etre, whose son, Daniel, is 15. “There was no reason for us to be harsh or set consequences. They were meted out by the law enforcement. I stayed non-judgmental. He had a safe place with us to deal with his feelings.”

When one of Barbara Von Gehr’s sons was in high school, he had a party at their home in San Mateo when she was out of town. The party got out of control and neighbors complained. Later, the neighbors held a meeting with a local police officer to talk to her son and Von Gehr about the party. “It was embarrassing for my son, but he had to do it,” Von Gehr says.

Some parenting experts think parents lose credibility when they exaggerate all risks — “Do you know you can die choking on a hot dog?” Parents might need to learn how to soberly assess risks themselves (how many teens died choking on a hot dog last year?) and teach children to do the same, says Sheila Dubin, a parenting consultant in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, Calif.

Parents then can pick the risks they are most concerned about and talk to their teens about them. But there is also a gray zone of risk-taking that teens might find themselves in.

“We usually say, ‘Don’t do this,’ or ‘Do this,”‘ she says. But parents tend not to talk about consequences and help teens decide whether the risk is worth it. For example, a teen may cut class to help a friend in need. “In those kinds of situations, parents need to talk to the kids about how they made their decision and point out how their thinking could be faulty.”