Adolescence is an exciting time filled with growth, new experiences, increased independence and self-discovery. Most teens are generally healthy, and common dangers to their health and safety are largely preventable. Injuries from a variety of sources — poisoning, drowning, motor vehicle accidents, fire, suicide and homicide — are the leading causes of injury and death among teens. Risk-taking behaviors, including unprotected sex and substance use, can also negatively impact your teen’s health.
Parents play an important role in keeping teens safe. You took the time to childproof your home a while back. Now that your kids are older, it’s essential to identify and remove potential dangers again. You are also an important source of information and can help your teen to make informed decisions and avoid unnecessary risks. Ten health-and-safety tips follow.
1. Schedule a wellness visit.
Wellness visits are important opportunities for healthcare providers to talk with teens about their health, screen for risk-taking behaviors and offer guidance specific to your teen. The wellness exam also can identify hearing or vision deficits as well as any physical or mental health concerns. It’s important for teens to spend time alone with the provider to allow an honest assessment of risk-taking behaviors and to assist them to gradually assume a more active role in their health. Your provider will give your teen the help needed or a referral for any additional services.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that 11-to 12-year-olds receive the Tdap vaccine to continue protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), MCV4 to protect against meningitis, a brain infection, and HPV9 to protect against nine human papillomviruses that can cause genital warts and certain cancers. In addition, the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone (Including you!) every year. Be a good example. Most healthcare visits are an opportunity to update immunizations.
2. Install new smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
To be most effective, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are recommended on every floor of your home and in each sleeping area. Check and change batteries regularly, and replace fire detectors every ten years. Review or establish a family escape plan, and practice it twice a year when you change your smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries. Teach teens how to use appliances and respond to kitchen fires. Supervise while cooking. Review how to call for help if there is a fire or an emergency.
3. Learn the signs and symptoms of adolescent depression.
Suicide is a significant cause of death during adolescence — 29.9 percent of high school students report feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 17.7 percent report considering suicide, and 14.6 percent have made a suicide plan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Get help! Call a suicide hotline number (1-800-273-TALK) if necessary. Discuss partner violence: Help your teen understand the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
4. Remove unused medications from your home.
Teens need parents to supervise their medication use, even with prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, a vitamin or a supplement. Teach teens to read medication labels carefully and follow the instructions. Even commonly used medications can interact and cause harmful side effects. Have teens check with you before taking medication. Discard all medications that are not being used. According to the CDC, 16.8 percent of high school students report having taken a prescription medication not prescribed for them — such as ones used for pain, depression or ADHD — one or more times. Many communities have drop-off locations for unused medication, and the internet provides instructions on how to safely discard medications that are expired or no longer needed.
5. Talk (and keep talking) with your teens about sex.
According to the CDC, 30 percent of high school students are sexually active. The rates of sexual activity increase steadily from 9th (15.7 percent) to 12th grade (46 percent), and 14 percent of sexually active teens report they did not use contraception or a condom the last time they had sex. Parents’ expectations regarding sexual activity and pregnancy are important. You are the person your kids want to talk with about relationships, puberty and sex. Start and continue these conversations throughout adolescence. Make an appointment for your teen to meet privately with a healthcare provider to discuss abstinence, safer sex, contraception and preventing sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
6. Discuss tobacco, alcohol and substance use.
Inform your teen of the potential health and legal consequences of drug and alcohol use, including the use of e-cigarettes. Electronic vapor products are not safer than other tobacco products. According to the CDC, nearly half (44.9 percent) of teens have tried alcohol, 38.6 percent have tried marijuana and 31.4 percent have tried a tobacco product. Be on the lookout for signs of alcohol, tobacco or drug use. Get to know your teen’s friends and with whom they hang out during and after school. Ask what their peers are doing and practice how to say no. Educate your teen about the dangers of inhaling (huffing) household chemicals. Remove or lock up hazardous chemicals when possible.
7. Monitor computer and social media use.
It can be difficult to monitor computer use and at the same time respect privacy. Discuss internet/social media safety. Images on the web are difficult to remove. Cover cameras on electronic devices when not in use because these devices can be hacked and used to record people unknowingly. Bullying affects may teens. The CDC reports that 15.5 percent of high school students report they have been bullied electronically, 20.2 percent while at school. Check in with your teen frequently about their friends and peers.
8. Lock up firearms.
Keep all weapons locked up, and store ammunition separately. Discuss firearm safety, especially if teens participate in supervised shooting sports.
9. Buckle up in the front and back seats.
It’s the law. Teens should not ride in the front seat until age 13 to prevent danger from the front air bag. Discuss responsible driving (do not drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol and never test or email while driving). Make a plan to help your teen avoid getting in a car with a peer or relative who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Let your teens know that you are the age person to call if they ever need a ride. Refusing a ride from a friend can be difficult. Refusing one from an adult may be even more difficult.
10. Make sure your teen learns to swim.
Teens should know how to swim, and should never swim alone or dive into shallow or murky water. Keep emergency equipment poolside. Learn CPR or take a refresher course.
Remember that most risky behaviors, accidents and injuries are preventable, and you can play a major role in keeping teens safe and guiding them to avoid risky behaviors now and in the future.
Alison Moriarty Daley, PhD, APRN, PPCNP-BC, is an Associate Professor at Yale University School of Nursing. She is the former Chair of the Adolescent Health Care Special Interest Group for NAPNAP. Her clinical practice focuses on the primary care of adolescents.
Meara Petersen, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, is a PNP at North County Health Services near San Diego, CA. She is the current chair of the Adolescent Health Care Special Interest group for NAPNAP. Her practice focuses on adolescent and young adult primary and reproductive healthcare.