Kids Need Attention, Not Tide Pods

Teenagers (even the straight-A students) don't have a complete set of brain cells yet, so watch them closely — and love them

Forget baby-proofing your home — now you need to keep it safe from your teenager. Who would have thought that teens would be eating laundry soap?

Truthfully, at this point in my career, nothing surprises me. So what is a parent to do?

This must be a pithy reminder that teenagers — yes, even your stellar straight-A star — don’t have a complete set of brain cells. Research clearly shows that teens are far from having mature cognitive function until they are well into their 20s. That means, dear parents, that your teen may act more like a 2-year-old than a 15-year-old — so when that happens, don’t be too surprised.

(Yes, teens even have temper tantrums, too.) When it comes to whether or not you can “trust” your conscientious soccer star, think twice. The answer you should quickly conclude is this: You can only trust him with things that he can understand and grasp. And because he has limited frontal lobe development, the list he can be trusted with is short because of his brain maturity.

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It has noting to do with how good a kid he is or how conscientious. In his mind, he may truly believe that he can swallow 15 Tide pods and go home and have dinner with you. No vomiting, loss of consciousness or respiratory arrest — nothing, because his brain genuinely believes he is immune from bad things happening to him.

Every parent needs to understand that 17-year-old (even 19-year-old) girls and boys cannot conceive that “bad action A” today leads to “bad consequence B” in an hour or two. So trust can’t and shouldn’t ever be put on the table. To ask an immature brain to do something it can’t is cruel and dangerous.

Aside from brain immaturity, there are plenty of other reasons that we see this swell of dangerous soap-swallowing behavior and these are reasons that any parent can help counter. So roll up your sleeves, fearless Mom or Dad.

First, teens have a primal need to get attention. You know this because you were a teen. Every teen wants to be the cool, tough, capable kid who can endure anything. And if you have a daughter, don’t count her out.

My 13-year-old daughter ate a handful of jalapenos at lunch one day to show how tough she was. So understanding that your teen craves attention — here’s how you can keep him from eating Tide pods. Give him attention. Really. Studies show that the average teen spends about 10 hours a day in front of a screen (and this includes video games and social media) and just 42 minutes with a parent.

So shift the balance. Take your son camping on the weekend, on a bike ride, to the movies, out for breakfast on Saturday morning. Sounds simple — but studies also show that the number-one way to keep kids away from the bad stuff is through parent-connectedness. Teens tell us over and over that they want our time and attention, so give it to your son. And no, driving him to soccer practice doesn’t count. Give him time with you where he knows you have set aside time just to be with him and enjoy his company. 

Second, please see how powerful social media is on your kids (how much more can I beg you to limit your teen’s screen use?). This crazy Tide pod challenge has been driven by social media — kids prompt kids to do something that will earn them a badge of bravery. See how desperate kids are for attention? The antidote is in my first point, so you may want to read it again. Let it sink in.

Third, pay attention to what his friends are doing. One of the best ways to figure out whether or not your child could be doing stupid things is by finding out what his friends are doing. Without putting him on the defensive, say something like: “Johnny, I was reading about kids who eat things like Tide detergent. When I was a teen, I knew kids who did things like this. Have you seen this at school?”

Related: The Dark Secret in America That Threatens Our Kids

When he answers, look at him. Watch his facial expressions and tone of voice. If he says that yes, he does have friends who have “tried pods,” then very calmly ask, “What about you — have you been tempted to try?” The most important thing here is to not freak out. I know it’s hard, but you need to know what your teen is up to and remember, doing stupid things doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid. It just means he’s a show-off.

But you need to keep your show-off safe.

Fourth, get to know your teen’s friends well. Be the mom who has kids over to the house so that you can listen in on conversations (no, that is not a violation — it is your duty to know what’s going on). Watch your son or daughter interact with friends — and pay attention to what they say.

Don’t interrupt or engage when you hear something you don’t like. Wait. When they are gone, talk with your son or daughter about what you heard and ask his or her opinion about it before you give your own.

Related: You Might Be Praising Your Kids for the Wrong Things

Finally, don’t be afraid. Be smart. Your kids are growing up in a tough world that feeds them messages that hurt them daily. So keep your eyes wide open — especially with “good” kids. Why? Because “good kids,” particularly girls, don’t say no to people. They want to please their peers.

If you find out that your son or daughter is swallowing Tide pods or doing other harmful things, engage. Don’t shy away. Ask questions. Listen to answers. Don’t preach, but listen and then teach. Let them know that above all else in your life — you make being his or her mom your # 1 priority.

Once your child realizes that you take your job as his mom very seriously, you’ll see him change. He’ll relax because he’ll know that he is valued, loved and that he has your attention.

And this will make swallowing things like Tide Pods a whole lot less necessary.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

(photo credit, homepage image: Tide Pods Laundry Detergent Capsules, CC BY 2.0, by Austin Kirk; photo credit, article image: Tide Laundry Detergent PodsCC BY 2.0Mike Mozart)