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Section 8. Helping Parents Practice Prevention with Their Children and Teens

Learn how to communicate with parents about ways to prevent their children’s risky or dangerous behavior.


  • How can community builders communicate with parents about prevention issues?

  • What can parents do to prevent their children's risky or dangerous behavior?

As community builders and health care workers, we need to think about how to help families stay healthy. And one of the greatest struggles families have in keeping healthy is preventing children and teenagers from becoming involved in activities that are dangerous or risky. Many families struggle to prevent their children and teens from getting involved in drugs, becoming pregnant before they are ready, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, losing too much weight, joining violent gangs, or becoming involved in other harmful activities.

Parents care deeply about their children and want the best for them. They want to learn about prevention strategies, so that they can stop their children's risky or dangerous behavior before it starts.

As community builders, we can help. We can develop prevention education programs in our communities that are interesting and accessible to parents. We can reach out to families in all segments of a community. We can provide support and counseling to families.

However, no matter what we do, we have to start with the basics. In order to reach parents, we need to learn how to communicate with them about important and sensitive issues. Many parents want information about prevention but often don't know how to get it. Sometimes parents feel defensive about their children or intimidated by "professionals." As community builders, we need to think about how to overcome parents' mistrust in order to communicate important information to them.

Additionally, we have to help parents understand what they can do to prevent risky behavior in their children. For example, what can parents do so their children will come to them when they need to talk or get some guidance? How do parents set limits with their children that are workable? What do parents tell their children about the realities of sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol, or violence?

How can community builders communicate with parents about prevention issues?

As community builders, we are eager to help families. But sometimes helping families around prevention issues is not an easy job. Parents are often wary of "helpers," and sometimes for good reason. Sometimes people in the social services, usually with the best of intentions, approach parents with unconscious criticism or unwanted advice.

In order to be truly helpful to parents and families in the area of prevention, we need to learn how to appreciate and empower parents, rather than to "correct " them. We have to understand what parents are up against, and then offer support and information.

Once you develop trust with parents, they want your help. You are needed!

Parenting is a tough job. With extended families not as prevalent as they used to be, parents are often on their own and without help. Many parents are stretched financially; some live with constant worry about meeting their family's basic needs. To make matters worse, our society often blames parents for not doing a better job, rather than giving parents the resources they need to do their jobs well.

However, even though many parents are up against great odds, we know that they care deeply about their children. Ask any parent to talk about their children--if you listen long enough and can get beneath the surface, parents will usually describe their children as their most precious gifts.

Most parents wish they could do better than they are doing. Parents long to give their children a better start in life than they had. For parents, there is usually a wide gap between what they want to give their children and what they can actually give, given the present conditions in our society.

With all the longing to do better, coupled with the criticism directed at parents by society at large, it is no wonder that parents might feel bad about themselves and defensive about their parenting.

Therefore, as community builders we have to figure out how to help parents, given the defensiveness and mistrust that is often an obstacle. We have to think of ways to communicate which will build trust and draw on the expertise and knowledge of the parents. Here are some steps you can take to communicate effectively with parents.

How do you communicate with parents about prevention?

Treat parents with respect

It's simple and essential, but easy to forget. You have to respect people in order to build trust and get information across. You have to assume that parents are intelligent, caring, and motivated to do well by their children. If you communicate an attitude of disrespect or superiority, people will pick up on that and will not trust you enough to use your help.

Listen without judgment

Listening is one of the most important elements of building trust. Listening without judgment is a valuable tool. Parents rarely have enough time and space to talk and think about their children. If you can listen to parents without judgment, you will be providing parents with an important avenue in helping them think about many aspects of their children's lives.

Also, people have to be listened to well, before they can really hear information that is given to them. Many people, but parents especially, are so distracted by worries and stresses that they have to talk for a while before they can clear their minds enough to take in new information.

As you listen to parents, there may be times when emotions will surface. If this happens, it can be a good thing. Don't try to distract people from crying as they tell you their stories. Crying can help heal people, and clear out a space for them to think more clearly about a tough situation.

Appreciate parents and the job they are doing

Parents can always use some encouraging words. Parents live in constant doubt about whether they are doing an adequate job. If you tell parents specific ways that they are doing well with their children, that can help them. Any sincere observation will help lighten the bad feelings that sit on families much of the time. From the parent's point of view, there aren't too many good things you can say to them about their parenting and about their children.

Build on the expertise of parents

As you begin to give information about prevention to parents, build on the expertise parents already have. Ask them what they already know about prevention. Ask them what works with their children. They may know, for example, that their teenager is more open to communicating after she has been home from school for an hour or two, rather than when she first gets home.

Parents don't always have all the answers. Like all of us, parents make mistakes and do things that don't always work. However, parents already know a lot about their children. Connecting new information about prevention with what they already know will help parents become more engaged and empowered in using prevention strategies.

Offer basic information about prevention to parents

Parents want dependable information about prevention. They want to learn about addictive substances, unsafe sex, and other dangers.

The more you can answer their questions as a way of giving information, the better.

Remember, less is often more. Information about drugs, for example, is important, but don't overwhelm parents with too many facts and statistics. Give them strategies that they can put to use. For example, learning how to set limits with children may be more useful to parents than learning minor details about the origin of each drug.

Also, don't unnecessarily scare parents. These topics are already sobering enough. People can't function very well when they are paralyzed with fear.

Offer opportunities for parents to get together

Getting parents together for a potluck, a forum, a discussion, or a support group can be a real help. Having a chance to relax and talk to other parents facing similar struggles can cut the isolation that many parents face. It can be a real relief to know that you aren't the only one going through a difficult time. Bringing parents together can help ease tensions, and will often lift spirits.

An ongoing parent meeting or support group can especially help parents over an extended period of time. In a support group, people meet regularly to talk about the ups and downs of parenting. In these groups each person gets a chance to talk and be listened to while she tells her story and sorts things out in her mind. People in a group usually develop trust over a period of time and often feel increasingly safe to talk about important and difficult issues.

Support groups can help parents maintain closer connections with their children. Parents need to unleash some of the built-up stress that accumulates. It is more constructive for parents to unload their worries and angers in a support group, than to aim them at their children.

Support groups can also remind parents how much they love their children, and can help parents unravel difficult problems. Support groups can give parents reassurance and support around one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

You can also set up parent "listening partnerships" in which two parents can give each other ongoing support. In these "listening partnerships" parents meet together once a week or so and take turns listening to each other talk about their lives and their children. As with a support group, trust builds over time and parents become more willing to talk about the key issues in their lives and in their parenting.

Encourage parents to advocate for their children when necessary

Although there is a lot that parents can do to help their children within the family context, there are some problems that also have to be addressed in institutions. For example, if a parent feels that his child is not achieving in school because of racism there, that problem has to be addressed within the school setting, not at home.

Many parents may be afraid to go to schools, school boards, or other institutions with their concerns. They may lack the skills and confidence to speak with a principal or to attend school committee meetings. As a community builder, you can encourage parents to voice their opinions. You can also refer parents to community leadership training programs that could empower parents to advocate for their children.

So, now you are able to communicate with parents effectively and help them in sensitive areas. What do you tell them? How can they help their children stay clear of drugs, alcohol, violence, and other harmful activities? What information can you give parents? Read on and find out.

What can parents do to prevent their children's risky or dangerous behavior?

Below are some general guidelines that parents can use in preventing their children's and teens' risky or dangerous behavior. As a parent, you will notice that some of these steps will also help your children grow and blossom, not just keep them out of trouble:

  • Stay connected with your children and teens
  • Talk to children about your values and expectations
  • Give your children information
  • Help your children learn to make decisions
  • Get the help you need

Stay connected with your children and teens

Staying connected with your children is key in prevention. Children need a trusting relationship with their parents. A solid connection to parents makes all the difference in the world for children and teens who are exploring the world and trying to figure out hard questions. This doesn't mean you will never have fights and disagreements. Family relationships often get messy. It does mean you think of ways to keep in touch and grow together. That way when problems arise, children will be more likely to come to you rather than resorting to dangerous activities.

What is important to remember is that children want to be close to their parents. They may not show it directly, and they may not show it at all, but children want to be close to their parents more than anything in the world.

Here are some ways to keep connected with your children and teens:


Just as parents need someone to listen to them, children need to be listened to as well. Listening is one of the most important jobs a parent can do in staying close to children. Listening to children builds trust and keeps our children close to us.

But sometimes it is not easy to listen to our children. Our worry about them leads us to interrupt them or give advice too quickly. Sometimes our anxiousness pushes us to ask too many questions, instead of letting them talk at their own pace.

Also, children don't always communicate with words. Children often communicate through their actions, their play, and by showing their emotions. Young people need us to listen to them in all the ways they speak to us.

Sometimes your child may need to play a silly game with you to demonstrate what is on her mind. Older children may need you to hang out with them and listen to music before they will start talking. Sometimes a young one or a teen needs to cry for a long time before he can talk about what is difficult. The more you can listen to children on their terms, the more they will trust you and come to you with their needs, questions, and problems.

Appreciate your children

Children, like all of us, need to be appreciated. Children need to be reminded over and over that they are doing well, that they are good, that we care about them, and that we are so happy that they belong to us. Even the most indifferent looking teenager loves compliments. Sometimes a compliment from a parent is the only nice thing a teenager hears all day. Saying something like, "I'm so lucky to have you for my daughter," can turn around a grumpy, lonely teen into a cheerful one.

Play with your children

Playing with children is a great way to stay connected to them. Children love to play with their parents. For children of different ages, the play will vary greatly, but however they play, playing builds trust with parents. Whether it is a game of Frisbee or cards, some rough and tumble play, a game of dolls, or simply reading a book together, children want to connect with their parents by playing with them.

Sometimes it is difficult to play with children. We sometimes are too exhausted. Still, if we make the effort to play with our children, even for a short time, they notice and it builds strong connections.

Set up one-on-one "special time" with your children

Parents are busy. We never have enough time to be with our children. We are constantly interrupted and distracted. Setting up a "special time" to be with our children when we will not be interrupted is a great way to stay connected.

For anywhere between ten minutes a day to an hour or more a week, you can:

  • Spend some uninterrupted time with your child where you do activities that they want to do
  • Follow their lead in playing
  • Try not to refuse activities that you may not usually be excited about doing. For example, you may not like to play video games - however, if your daughter wants to play video games during her special time, try to do so, even if you don't usually enjoy it.
  • Enjoy your child thoroughly - focus on how well they are doing, not their difficulties

Help children express their emotions

Children, just like the rest of us, have emotions; if your children show you their emotions, that is healthy. The more they can show you how they feel, the closer you can stay connected and the happier your children will be.

Your child will often show emotions when you least expect it. Sometimes they will get upset right after they have a really fun day. Or their emotions may bubble up after having an especially close time with you. If that happens, it's okay. It just means you've provided them with enough safety and reassurance that they can show you some of the bad feelings they carry around day-to-day.

Also, emotions aren't always grim. Sometimes your child or teen needs a good laugh to help him pull out of a funk. A good cry can often lift a crabby mood.

But how do you deal with anger, the toughest of emotions? Remember, underneath that fury is often a frightened, lonely child. If you can get closer to an angry child, instead of sending him to his room, he may just open up and tell you how scared he really is.

Be affectionate and show your caring

Being affectionate and showing caring every day is important to children. As parents, we often forget to openly show our children how much we love them. Still, our children need the reassurance on a daily basis. Often they will rebuff our displays of affection, but that doesn't mean they don't want them.

Don't give up when your child and you temporarily disconnect

At times, we lose our connection with our children. The stresses of life often pull parents and children apart, making it hard to stay close. A few angry words can temporarily distance parents and children, making it difficult for each one to remember how much they love the other.

When this happens, don't forget that your child is hoping you will come back to him. He wants you. You can always reestablish a connection with your young one. It may take some work, but it can be done. Try these:

  • Do something fun together, and don't talk about difficult topics during that time
  • Get some help and attention for yourself, so you can try again with a refreshed spirit
  • Go after your child persistently, following her around, and playfully begging her to be with you
  • Play with your child
  • Resolve the differences between you and your child when both of you are in a good mood

If you and your child have been disconnected for a long time, reconnecting may take some time. If so, don't become discouraged. The efforts you make will add up and make a difference in the long run, even if the results don't show themselves immediately.

How to keep close with pre-teens and teens

Sometimes pre-teens and teens are especially hard to stay connected to. They appear to be uninterested in their parents. Often, they don't tell you what is going on with them when you ask.

Teens do want to be close to their parents; but you have to figure out different strategies for staying connected. Instead of playing board games or pretend games, they may need you to just hang out with them, until they are ready to talk. Sometimes, just being in the same room with them, while they are doing their homework or reading magazines, will set the stage for talking about important things. They may start talking about not being popular in school or how nasty their algebra teacher is. In some ways teens require more time from parents, not less.

Also, it's good to hang out with your teens and their friends. Most adults stay away from groups of teens. We are afraid they don't want us to be with them, or they will make fun of us. However, if you are willing to be with them on their terms, teens want to hang out with adults. You may have to be the object of some jokes, and you may have to ask a lot of questions about their music - or anything else they're interested in. If you do, they will rely on you more. Even your children's friends might come to you when they need to talk to someone.

Talk to children about your values and expectations

Communicate and model your values

It is helpful to tell your children your views, your values, and your moral beliefs. From the time they are very little, right on through their teenage years and beyond, your children will look to you as their guide for what is right and wrong. The more clearly you can communicate your thinking about how you see the world, the more they will have guideposts while they travel a sometimes bewildering path to adulthood.

As you teach them your values, ask them for their opinions and thinking. The more you help them figure things out for themselves, the stronger their convictions will be.

Of course, children always study their parents closely to see if they act according to what they say and teach them. If they point out your failings, don't take it too hard. It just means they expect the best of you. If you, yourself, are having a hard time with addictions or vices of any kind (and most people have some kind of vice, even if it's chocolate), talk openly about your struggles with your child. The more honest you are about your difficulties, the more your children will be honest with you about their struggles.

Tell your children what you expect from them

The clearer and more specific you are with your child or teenager about your expectations around drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sexual activity, gangs, etc., the more they will be able to follow your guidance. For example, if you tell your child to never use drugs, that may not be clear enough--they may not think of alcohol as a drug.

Think carefully about many situations and make your policies clear. If your child needs a ride home from a party, and everyone has been drinking, what should she do? Can they have a drink of wine at dinner with the family? Can they chew tobacco, but not smoke cigarettes? The more specific you are ahead of time, the more likely your children will be able to make sound decisions when confronted with a confusing situation.

Give children information about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, weight loss, unsafe sex, etc.

Children and teenagers need you to give them information. If they don't get the information from you, they will get it from much less reliable sources--their peers, TV, movies, and other carriers of misinformation. You will probably have to educate yourself about these topics in order to do this.

At the end of this section, there are resources listed that you can use. Also listed are organizations that you can contact that will help you find appropriate resources for you and your children.

Many guides and books have been written for teaching children and teenagers about drugs, alcohol, and violence prevention. As you are choosing literature, you might ask the referring organization or salesperson if research has been done to test whether that book or guide has actually been successful at preventing dangerous behavior among children and teens.

The best way to give young people information is to answer their questions. If they don't come to you with questions, ask them questions. For example, you can ask them if their friends have problems with drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. Listen to them before you give them information. Remember, less is more--only give them a little information unless they ask for more.

Try to be reasonable as you give information to your children. For example, give them facts about drugs. If you threaten your children or unnecessarily scare them, they may not trust your judgment. It is hard to be relaxed when talking about a topic that has so much potential danger; but if you can relax, your children may be more willing to listen.

Help children build skills in making decisions

Encourage sound decision-making

We want our children to be able to make good decisions in their lives. In order to prevent your children from becoming involved in dangerous activities, you need to help them build a solid foundation for decision-making.

How do you build this foundation? One way is to give them lots of practice in making decisions. The more they practice making decisions for themselves, with guidance from you, the better their judgment will become.

Of course, we don't want to have our children make decisions that might bring them harm, even when they are learning and practicing. So it's often useful to let children practice decision-making about issues that do not have harmful consequences. For example, maybe they could choose their baby sitter (from an approved list), or choose their after-school activities, or choose which clothes to buy (within your budget ).

You can also let them make decisions that will teach them important lessons. For example, once in a while you might let your six-year old eat all the candy he wants, so he knows what that feels like. A stomachache can be a natural consequence that can teach an important lesson. Or you might let your pre-teen stay up as late as she wants on a Saturday night.

What is most important is that as you let your children make decisions, you stay close to them and continue to be involved. For example, if they decide to watch a scary movie, stay with them while they watch it and talk with them while the movie is going on.

As your children go through the decision-making process, ask them what they are thinking and how they feel about it. Help them think through the pros and the cons of a decision. Your daughter or son may be trying to figure out if they should stop dating someone. Listen to them think it through and ask questions like, "What do you like about this person," or "Is there some reason you don't trust this person?" Try to let them make the decision themselves, rather than taking over the decision -making process.

At times our children will make decisions that are truly not good for them. Then we have to intervene and set limits or make the decision for them.

Set sensible limits

There are times when our children are not able to make wise decisions for themselves. Sometimes they do not have the information and experience to understand that there might be a danger. Other times they act uncooperatively; or they act in ways that are hurtful to themselves or others.

Setting limits helps protect our children. It also shows our children that we care about them enough to take a stand; we won't let them do things that will lead them to more hurt.

When we set limits for our children, it is helpful to not blame them or attack them for their difficulties. You can set a firm limit and still show caring for them.

Sometimes, as you set a limit a blow-up will occur. This can often be a positive thing. Children and teenagers need to blow up every now and then. Parents are the safest target for a blow-up. Young people need a place to show someone how badly they feel. In fact, according to child specialist Patty Wipfler, "When you've forged a strong connection with your child, he feels safe enough to tell you about the times he's felt hurt, and the hurt will often be blamed on you." In other words, if your child blows up at you, it is not necessarily a sign of your failings; it can be evidence that you succeeded in establishing enough trust with your child so that they can show you their biggest difficulties.

Also, set limits that make sense. If your teenager is not able to come home at the time you both agreed on, choose a limit that will help him get back on track. You might say, "If you remember to call me to check in at 9:00 p.m. for three weekend nights in a row, you can stay out till 11:00 on weekends instead of 10:00. "

Keep your child's environment safe

Don't tempt children into making a decision that is harmful. The less access they have to drugs and alcohol, the less likely they will be to use them. Just as you used to keep medicines or toxic cleaners away from them when they were babies, it makes sense to keep alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs away from children and teenagers.

Teach refusal skills

You may need to help your children think about how they can refuse drugs, alcohol, tobacco, unsafe sex, or other harmful activities when they feel peer pressure to do so. Ask your child if they've had experiences when other kids have pressured them to use drugs, smoke cigarettes, or do anything that they really didn't want to do. Encourage them to talk about what that experience was like.

You can also do role-plays with your child or teen so they can get some practice in handling difficult situations. For example, you can play a person who is pressuring your child to use drugs--while your child tries different ways of handling the situation. Or change roles and you play your child, and your child can be the pressuring peer. Making this activity fun and comical can lighten up a potentially tense topic. Any way to talk, joke, or play around with the topic of peer pressure will help your child think about what to do when a real situation occurs.

Get the help you need

In order to be able to help your children, you may need some help too. It's hard to pay attention to children when you are exhausted, worried, and emotionally drained. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Remember you are important, too.

One way to get help for yourself is to join a parents support group or a listening partnership. (See explanations above.) Support groups and listening partnerships can give you a place to unload the stresses of parenting, make it easier for you to enjoy parenting, and can you take care of yourself.

In Summary

Children are our greatest resource. There is nothing more important than the health and well-being of the children in our communities. In order to keep our children healthy, community builders and parents need to work together to prevent children from becoming involved in activities that are either immediately dangerous, or have consequences that can seriously limit their lives in the future.

If you are someone who is interested in children, you can do something to make a difference. You can reach out to parents and offer them support, respect, and information. If you are a parent yourself, you can get the information, and support necessary to help your children. You can also reach out to other parents and offer them encouragement, caring, and information about how to get help.

Marya Axner

Online Resources

Chapter 12: Prevention and Promotion in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" describes historical perspectives on prevention and promotion, the different types of prevention, examples of risk and protective factors, and various aspects of prevention programs and evaluation.

Print Resources

Hawkins, D., et al., (1988). Preparing for the drug (free) years. Seattle, WA: Comprehensive Health Education Foundation. (Order from Developmental Research and Programs, Box 85746, Seattle, WA 98145.)

Reppucci, N., Britner, P., & Woolard, J. (1997). Preventing child abuse and neglect through parent education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Small, S. (1990). Preventive programs that support families with adolescents. Washington, DC: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

U.S. Department of Education. (1989). Growing up drug free. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education (To order a copy free of charge, call 1-800-624-0100.)

Wilmes, D. (1988). Parenting for prevention. Minneapolis, MN: Johnson Institute Books.

Wipfler, P. (1991). Listening partnerships for parents. Palo Alto, CA: The Parents Leadership Institute.

Wipfler, P. (1990). Six-pamphlet set: Special time, Playlistening, Crying, Tantrums and indignation, Healing children's fears, and Reaching for your angry child. Palo Alto, CA: The Parents Leadership Institute.

Wipfler, P. (1995). Setting limits with children. Palo Alto, CA: The Parents Leadership Institute.

Wipfler, P. (1995). Supporting adolescents. Palo Alto, CA: The Parents Leadership Institute.


Join Together (A national resource for communities fighting substance use and gun violence)
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National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)
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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Publications
(For a free customized search on co-existing disorders involving alcohol and other drugs.)

Partnership for a Drug-Free America
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