As I coach parents of teens, I see that often parents are quite troubled by the risky things their kids do. You know the stuff: racing mom’s car on the Tollway; sending a sexually explicit picture via text; tossing down four shots of alcohol at a school event. “What was he THINKING!” we demand. “Does she have ANY IDEA how dangerous that is?” we lament. Behind closed doors, we fret and wring our hands, somewhere between abject terror and raging fury.
Take a deep breath. Calm down a minute and take a side trip for a little information on parenting teens. Remember back to when she was two? She absolutely would not share. You could scold her, put her in time out, bribe her. But nothing worked. You were pretty sure that you were a terrible parent OR that she was the most selfish kid on the planet. Then, one magical day, it happened! She shared! You rejoiced; you really were an excellent parent! Not to burst your bubble, but not-sharing-to-sharing is an excellent example of maturational development. She got better because she grew up!
Likewise is this whole issue of thinking things through and using good sense. Teens are notorious for their sense of invincibility. It honestly does not occur to them that something bad might happen:
I can drive really fast and I won’t have a wreck; I am an EXCELLENT driver!
- Even though I had unprotected sex, I won’t get an STD or become pregnant.
- I didn’t put much effort into studying for the SAT but I’ll do fine.
- I drink way too much but I won’t get caught.
I have sometimes wondered if a feeling of invincibility is Nature’s way of helping late teens and young adults make the risky changes they need to grow up. After all, it’s scary to leave home, to go to a college where you know no one, to join the military, to accept a job in a new city! Maybe it’s a good thing they head out with the attitude, “I’m bullet-proof! Nothing bad is going to happen to me!”
So, what’s a parent to do? First of all, keep an eye on their safety and if necessary, keep acting like, like… well, like a parent! Setting safe, decent limits until you see that they are able to do so for themselves. Also, you can talk, talk, talk and listen, listen, listen. We begin by giving information: pointing out TV news items, reading the newspaper together, sharing experiences. But even more useful is asking AND listening. It might sound something like, “I know that you and I are hoping you’ll get home from work before the weather blows in. But what if you don’t? What problems do you anticipate? Is there anyone you could ask to help you if you need help? What’s your plan?” And, of course, “Do you need help from me?” Talking things through with kids (as opposed to dictating what they should do) is helpful in a couple of ways:
- First, it allows you to hear their thought process, to see how they’re developing. Maybe they really have thought it through!
- In case you see holes in their line of thought, you can help them figure it out. Remember, the goal is that they be able to do this without you in the future!
So when you are stunned at your kid’s choice, perhaps rigid with fear, remind yourself that invincibility is part of adolescent maturation. Be willing to continue parenting; be willing to listen and reason through new challenges. And DON’T FORGET, when they get it right, let them know!
I welcome your comments and feedback.