Does it surprise you to know that parents are the most powerful influence in a child’s life — greater than peers, popular music, television, celebrities and the media?

10 Things You Must Tell Your Teen

You want — and need — to give your teenager advice. So what exactly do they need to hear from you? Is there a better way than trying to yell advice in their direction as they’re getting out of the car?

Here’s what to say and, maybe more important, how to say it to get through to your teen.

Teens are risk-takers, and that’s good. They can’t grow without trying new things and taking some risks. But they also act on impulse, and the two together can be trouble. Ask your teen to stop and think, says Melisa Holmes, MD, co-founder of Girlology and Guyology, educational programs about adolescent health.

“It takes a conscious effort for teens to learn how to put the brakes on their brain,” Holmes says. “The best place to practice is when using social media.”

If your teen is thinking about posting a photo or going into an online chat room, urge them to ask themselves: “Why do I want to do this? What risks may be involved? Is it worth it?”

They may not think of using social media as a risky behavior, but like other choices they make, it can have a lasting impact on them. By practicing in one arena, they’ll learn to pause to ask the same questions when weighing other choices.

Why tell your teen this? Your gut remembers your true self and the guidance of teachers, coaches, parents, or youth leaders. That can help when you’re in a tricky situation or unchartered territory.

Let your teen know you have confidence in them to think for themselves and make solid choices. Tell them that learning to hear their “inner voice” takes practice, but it will guide them well (when you’re not there).

Your teen may learn that everyone else isn’t doing it — whether “it” is drinking, having sex, or something else. Finding that out can relieve the peer pressure to do something he or she may not feel ready for.

Take sex as an example. Your teen may think everyone their age is sexually active, but in fact, less than half of U.S. high school students are.

“He may find out that his peers are not really doing it, but they’re letting people think they’re doing it while they figure out if it is OK,” says Holmes.

This may sound weird because you probably don’t want to think about your teen having sex, but thinking about it now can make a difference, experts say.

“Teens aren’t great at thinking on their feet,” Holmes says. When they work out ahead of time how they will turn down drugs, drinking, sex, or other challenges, they are much better at matching their actions with their values.

“Making a plan ahead of time can delay intercourse up to 18 months,” Holmes says.

But talking about it happening doesn’t mean you’re being totally lax or giving your teen a free pass. Be clear about what you expect. For example, you might say, “I want you to delay having sex until it can become part of a meaningful relationship.”

Also make sure your teen knows about STDs and how to prevent them, where to get condoms and birth control (including emergency contraception), how to use protection, and how to see a doctor even if he or she doesn’t want you to know that they are going, Holmes says.

If that feels as if you’re giving a mixed message, she suggests saying, “I want you to have this information because you will most likely need it yourself one day, but you also might use it to help a friend now.”

Even adults have trouble saying “no” sometimes. Rehearsing ahead of time cuts down on the stress of having to say no and thinking of how to do it. Point out that having a plan will give your teen more resolve and power in sticky situations, says Carl Pickhardt, PhD, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, and the author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence.

Most likely, your teen can come up with their own ways to say “no.” But when caught by surprise, Pickhardt says, a good standby is to say, “‘Not right now.’ In other words, ‘I’ll do what I like when I want to do it, not when somebody else wants me to.’” This response can also cut down on people asking “Why?”

Teens may think it’s safer to get high on prescription drugs like Adderall (used to treat ADHD) or nonprescription drugs such as cough medicines because they’re legal — unlike street drugs.

Many teens don’t know that you can overdose on nonprescription medications, because you can buy them at a pharmacy or the grocery store without a prescription. But they can be just as dangerous as street drugs when they are abused. Also, because medicines can be easy to get from home medicine cabinets, some kids share medicines with friends or sell them.

“Tell your teen that even prescription and over-the-counter drugs carry risks and side effects, and she doesn’t know what the side effects will be for her because they’re different for everyone,” Pickhardt says.

Abusing stimulants like some ADHD drugs can cause seizures or heart failure. Let your teen know that their body and brain are too precious to take the risk.

Explain that 21 isn’t just a random number. The reason the legal drinking age is 21 is because alcohol can cause long-term changes in your teen’s brain while it’s still developing.

Teens who drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex and be assaulted or assault others sexually, get in car accidents and fights, and take dangerous dares.

Urge your teen to become an expert in something they love. This will help satisfy their longing for excitement.

“He’ll learn that he can get thrills from things like performing, being recognized, pushing the boundaries, and being creative — not just from sex, drugs, or other risky behavior,” Holmes says. Follow this up by making opportunities for him to try new things, Pickhardt says.

It may seem obvious, but teens need to be reassured that everyone makes mistakes and that they can use theirs as learning opportunities.

For example, Holmes says, a girl who regrets having had sex may think that since she has done it once, “What does it matter anymore? It’s too late to change.”

But she can set new limits to avoid making whatever she feels is a mistake twice. Tell your teen that learning from their mistakes will make them wiser.

It’s not really a piece of advice, but it is one of the most important things you can tell your teen. Remind them often that you respect them, want to help them succeed, and are here for them no matter what.

If you do, they’re more likely to listen when you give advice.

Written by Camille Peri; Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD