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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Keeping Teens Safe: The Village Approach

By Ellie McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

About a month ago, I came across a parenting concept called the X-plan. You may have seen this blog post written by Bert Fulks, founder of Empty Stone Ministry, called X-Plan: Giving your kids a way out.

With the X-plan, you and your child create a secret code, such as an “X,” that they can text to you or anyone else in the family if they are feeling uncomfortable for any reason. When the receiver gets the text, they call the teen’s phone and tell them something like, “Something has come up and I need to pick you up right now!” The teen may ask what happened. The parent can respond with, “I’ll tell you about it when I pick you up, but I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

As a parent, I used a similar strategy with my three teenage girls, even though they were not the ones out at parties on the weekends. They were good kids who treated others with respect and kindness. They were not huge risk takers, but… they were teens.

Here’s one advantage I had in my parenting: Knowing how a teen’s brain develops.

I knew the prefrontal cortex in the brain helps with decision making and self-control. This area is not fully developed until a person is well into their twenties. I knew that an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex could set up my teenagers to get into unsafe situations or make risky choices. I wanted to be sure they had an “out” of any situation they were in.

This prompted me to have several discussions with them. I chose times when things were calm and we all felt open to a conversation about how they might get out of any situation where they felt unsafe. I started by telling them that if they ever felt unsafe when they were out with friends or anywhere, they could always use me as an excuse.

I suggested they could look at their watch and say, “Oh man, my mom’s going to be so mad at me! It’s so late — I gotta get home!” Or if someone offers them something that they didn’t want, they could say, “I can’t because my mom’s like a beagle. She’ll smell it on me for sure!”

Next, to make my teens more comfortable with these options, we practiced. Before they went out, I might say, “Here, take a sip of this. You’ll love it!” Then I waited for their response so they had chance to practice.

And I wasn’t just making this up! “Research supports that when young people are prepared to respond in a tough situation before they get into that situation, they are less likely to feel pressured to participate in something they don’t want to do,” said Jodi Dworkin, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Department of Family Social Science associate professor and Extension specialist. “On top of that, they are more likely to make a choice consistent with your family values.”

Just like the X-plan, the safety plan my teens and I practiced gave them an out from peer pressure. And I promised them no questions asked upon pick up.

And that’s the key: Your child knows they can tell you as much or as little as they want about the situation they’ve just left. This may be tough, but the trust is key to using such a plan. As a parent, I feel it’s much more important to keep them safe than to know what happened.

An additional option I would offer to the X-plan is to give your teen the choice to have other important adults be part of the plan. For some teens, it may be easier to text that code to an adult who is not Mom or Dad. That’s okay! The goal is to keep our kids safe and to offer support as their brain grows in its ability to make decisions and exercise self-control.

The major theme in my parenting safety plan and the X-plan is a team approach to well-being. It not only takes a village to raise a child, but also to keep them safe. The more adults that are involved in a teen’s life and their choices in a positive way, the safer they will be until their brain is able to make safe choices on their own.

With these types of plans in place, adults can help teens navigate their new world they have to manage with its variety of social pressures. Making — and practicing! — a plan will let them know that you understand how difficult it can be and that you want to help keep them safe.


Mary Jo Katras said...

An important strategy to share to help keep our kids safe and connected --great blog Ellie!

K Lefebvre said...

Excellent strategies. Love this Ellie

Kari Robideau said...

I like the "X" strategy! As a mom who has up and coming teens, the brain research is an important reminder of WHY, and the X Strategy is a helpful, "easy" tool!!

Peggy Simonson said...

I have 3 teens, God help me! Love these practical ideas.

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