Caution: Your Child's First Job May Be Hazardous to Her Health

A new twist to the helicopter-parenting saga: When it comes to working teens, parents might not be hovering enough

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An estimated 80 percent of teens are employed at some point during their high school years—but many of them are ill-equipped to deal with on-the-job hazards. Around 146,000 adolescents are injured in the workplace every year, according to federal data, with about 70 dying as a result. Even worse, a study in the current issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health argues that parents are unprepared to help their children stay safe.

"There's just a huge information gap in terms of parents knowing what's going on in the workplace right now," says co-author Michael Schulman, a North Carolina State University occupational-injury expert. "Parents are very active in helping kids find a job, but there's a big drop off in involvement after."

Schulman collaborated with lead author Carol Runyan, Catherine Vladutiu, and Kimberly Rauscher for the study. They interviewed a nationally representative sample of 922 pairs of working 14- to 18-year-olds and parents over the phone, and found that over 70 percent of the parents helped their teens find and land jobs. Less than half of the parents, however, reported discussing child-labor laws and workplace safety with their kids. Moreover, when the researchers presented parents with hypothetical reports of workplace hazards (such as motor vehicles and flammable substances), the parents tended to miscalculate how aggressively they'd react. The parents of the 84 teens who voiced safety concerns were actually much less vigilant in real life than the hypothetical situations had suggested.

"Health and safety on the job is the responsibility of the employer," Schulman says. "But what we're arguing is that parents need to become better mentors and advocates to assist teens during this transition from the home to the workplace."

John Lewko, director of Laurentian University's Centre for Research in Human Development in Ontario, Canada, agrees. "Parents should become more informed, as opposed to more involved," he says. "This would allow them to continue with their role as a guide and to assist their teens in learning how to work more safely."

Ultimately, teens have to open up. But they "may be trying not to, excuse the word, be a sissy," Schulman says.

Practically, the researchers suggest that parents check on employer compliance with child-labor laws, and engage their children in conversations about workplace training and conditions. Parents of teens who are involved in retail or service-oriented jobs, in particular, should inquire if their children have been trained to deal with angry customers, possible robberies, and hazardous equipment, among other risks. They should also curb their tendency to prioritize other aspects of teen work over safety.

"Most parents want their children to have jobs and believe that employment instills responsibility, independence, and an understanding of the value of money," says Jeylan Mortimer, author of Working and Growing Up in America. "But the workplace may be hazardous, posing risks that could be avoided with greater parental and teen-employee vigilance."

Still, it's ultimately the teens who have to open up. Less than 10 percent of the study respondents reported potential workplace risks to their parents, however, indirectly confirming previous research by clinical psychologist Curtis Breslin that indicated that working teens are under increasing pressure to conform on the job and act like an adult. "They may be trying not to, excuse the word, be a sissy," Schulman explains.

Breslin, who works at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto, puts it more delicately in this excerpt from his 2007 Social Science & Medicine study:

...[L]earning to suppress one's complaints at work may constitute part of a "risk socialization" process through which youths forge their identities as mature persons. The desire to construct oneself as a mature worker—as a worker who does not whine or complain about minor injuries or questionable working conditions—may be particularly meaningful for new and/or young workers as they enter the workforce and as they strive for independence away from school and family life.

Once a dialogue about workplace safety is established, though, parents should resist the urge to become too involved. Schulman concedes that drawing the line between responsible versus overbearing helicopter parenting is difficult, but he does suggest keeping parent-supervisor interaction beyond the requisite introduction to a minimum. Parents should, for instance, encourage their children to bring up safety issues at work and try not to do so themselves.

As Breslin points out, "No matter how much awareness or knowledge is transmitted to parents of teens who work, they do not have the experience or authority of a qualified labor inspector."

Image: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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