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Back-to-School Rx: Solutions to Your Problems

The transition from easy-breezy days of no school to homework-filled nights can be as tough for moms as it is for kids. Lessen your stress with our strategies for starting the year off right, featuring questions from the Momster community.

By Christine Mattheis

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Teens at Field Party
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Last fall, high school seniors in my town were caught throwing "field parties," which involved lots of drinking. Now that my son is entering 12th grade, what should I say to him about these events?

Unfortunately, these gatherings—where teens meet at a secluded outdoor spot, avoiding parents and police, to get drunk—are pretty common. Newspapers are filled with reports of tragedies that result from this type of party, says Sharon Levy, M.D., director of the adolescent medical substance abuse program at the Children's Hospital of Boston. "Field parties tend to end badly because when teens drink, they're more likely than adults to do something risky like drive a car."

As part of your ongoing dialogue about alcohol, remind your son of the dangers of drinking, emphasizing that just one reckless act can end with dire consequences, including death. Tell him you know field parties exist and that you expect him not to attend them. Set very clear boundaries: "If you drink, I'll take away your driving privileges and you'll be grounded for a month. No exceptions." Also consider contacting the parents of your son's friends to make a no-go pact; your kid will be less tempted to go to an alcohol-fueled party if his buddies won't be there.

Despite your best efforts, your teen may still decide to drink. According to national surveys, by senior year nearly 80% of high school students have tried alcohol. So although you need to make it clear that you will not tolerate underage consumption, it's important to include a caveat: "If you do decide to drink, don't get behind the wheel and don't take a ride from a friend. Call home. We'll come to get you, anytime, anywhere, no questions."

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My 11-year-old daughter frequently complains of being fat, even though she's clearly not. How can I boost her self-esteem?

Don't automatically say, "You're not fat," because she'll just answer, "Yes, I am!" (even if only to herself). Instead, ask gently, "What makes you feel like you might be overweight?" Keep in mind that she's at a tough age—about to enter middle school, which is a notoriously difficult time in terms of peer relationships, says Stephanie Setliff, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital of Dallas. "And if she's among the first of her friends to hit puberty, she could be feeling insecure and confused." There is a good chance that she has in fact noticed some additional fat around her hips, belly and thighs, since girls need to gain 30 to 40 pounds at the start of puberty (which typically hits between the ages of 9 and 14). Explain that all girls need to gain some weight to become women. In addition to complimenting her appearance, praise her for her intelligence, accomplishments and actions.

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My son is starting junior high and has food allergies. What's the best way for me to notify the school?

Each fall, any parent of a child with an ongoing health issue should send the school nurse a written treatment plan from a physician, including specifics about the condition, symptoms, a list of medications the child has to take during school (if any), instructions on what to do in an emergency and contact info for the parents and doctor, says Todd Mahr, M.D., director of pediatric allergy/immunology at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Whether a child has a potentially severe condition like a food allergy or a less-threatening issue that still requires prescription medication during the day, a detailed action plan is essential for safety's sake.

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My 12-year-old sent more than 1,000 instant messages in a single week after we set him up with IM privileges. This can't be healthy, right?

Well, the good news is that your child is connecting with his friends and classmates. Increasing the amount of time he spends talking to his friends is a normal part of social and emotional development, and these days a lot of that is happening on the Internet, says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., author of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clinical report on the impact of social media on kids and families. "But it's important to establish boundaries."

First, set a daily time limit. The AAP recommends children spend less than two hours total watching television and using a computer for non-school activities each day, and that's especially important once homework and extracurricular activities are looming.

Your next step: Make it clear to your kid that his tech use is your business. In addition to putting the family computer in a public part of your home, bring up instant messaging during casual conversation ("Did you Web-chat with any of your friends today?") and even share a bit about your own Internet use to facilitate the discussion. ("I messaged my friend and e-mailed some photos this afternoon.") If you decide to read his IMs to see if he's been gossiping, using inappropriate language or bullying other kids, don't sneak. It will be harder to confront him because he'll want to argue with you about whether you've violated his privacy. You could say, "Tomorrow I'll be checking your computer" or "Let's take a look at your chat log together."

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My 14-year-old generally seems happy, but has a history of waking up in the middle of the night worrying about things like what to wear to school the next day. What can I do to help her have a more relaxed year?

Throughout the day, as your daughter encounters different pressures—friends, extracurricular activities, homework—she bottles up her stress, and by the evening, she's ready to burst. Teens lead such hectic lives that when they finally slow down, the thoughts, fears and triumphs of the day rouse anxiety, says Janet Taylor, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City and a member of the Family Circle Health Advisory Board. "By saying she doesn't know what to wear, she may be masking the normal teenage angst of fitting in." Make a point to really engage with your daughter every day. Ask questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no, like "What were you most proud of today at school?" or "How do you like the new teacher?" Kids her age tend to resist talking to their parents, but keep trying—when she sees that you're genuinely interested, she may open up.

Beyond that, encourage your teen to keep a journal. Putting pen to paper helps many kids process thoughts and feelings. "Regular exercise is also a great stress-buster and can assist her in getting a good night's rest," says Dr. Taylor. You could invite her to join you on after-dinner walks, or urge her to go out for a sport—with the beginning of the school year imminent, it's an ideal time for her to try something new.

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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