Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the Harm of Asking

In adolescence asking questions can be hard to do

"There's no harm in asking," said the parent, trying to encourage her high school junior to pose his question. "With all that's been going on, maybe the teacher will give you an extension on the paper and not grade you down for being late. What do you have to lose by asking?"

That shows how little parents know. Asking for an adolescent can be risky business. In this case, pleading for an exception can sound like he's really angling for special treatment which won't go over well with a teacher who believes that to be fair, all students should be held to the same strict account. Ask and the teenager could lose a lot of standing in her eyes.

Consider some other risks that can come with asking in adolescence.

Ask for money and it shows how dependent you are. Sure, parents get tired of the 18-year-old constantly asking them for money. However, the teenager doesn't like it either because on each occasion it feels degrading, demonstrating that he's not grown up enough to take care of his own financial needs at this older age and must still rely on them.

Ask for help and it means you're not capable. Sure, the 13-year-old can ask her mom, who's an accountant, for help with math, but her questions just show she's not as good with numbers as the woman and feels like she never will be.

Ask for information and it shows you're ignorant. Sure, the 11-year old can raise his hand and ask the teacher about what he doesn't understand, but not without one of his friends teasing him after class: "What, you didn't know that?"

Ask for permission and you put other people in charge of your life. Sure, the 17-year-old can approach her parents for approval to attend the senior keg party, but then she gives power to parents to tell her what she can and cannot do.

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Ask someone out and you risk being rejected. Sure, the 16-year old can ask the girl he's liked from afar since last year out on a movie date, but suppose she turns him down, other people find out, and now he feels more like a loser than before?

Or consider the scenario in this more extreme example. At the supper table, the 15-year-old, the oldest and boldest of the three children, and who happens to have a new boyfriend, out of the blue asks her parents, "Is it true that if you're drunk enough when having sex, the alcohol in your body will keep you from getting pregnant?"

A girl friend had confided this piece of teenage folk wisdom during lunch at school, and now the young woman just wanted to check it out with her parents. She figured it was a simple question, no big deal, except it was to her dad.

"Why are you asking such a question like, young lady, that's what I want to know?" he exploded. As far as the man was concerned, if his daughter was asking about drinking and sex that probably meant she was thinking about alcohol and intercourse, and he wanted to cut this conversation, and this line of thought, off before it went any further.

As for the mother, she was equally taken aback. "Do we need to stop your social life long enough so you can rethink your choice of friends? And, do you think this is an appropriate topic for supper conversation with younger members of the family present at the table?"

That's another danger of asking questions: it exposes what you're interested in knowing to others who may not want you thinking about that kind of thing.

So what was the parents' answer to the girl's question? They never got around to answering it because they had so many questions of their own. Thus what their daughter learned was this. "In my family, there are some topics like substance use and sex that are best avoided because my parents equate interest with action and then get upset at my asking. Better to keep certain questions to myself." One luxury in adolescence is having parents who say and truly mean: "You can always ask us about anything and we will give you the most informed and honest answer that we can."

This brings up a useful question for parents to ask themselves when their son or daughter enters adolescence: what are their ‘no-question zones'? What do they not want to be asked about? What do they want to be kept private, like how much money they make, how they decide to spend it, and how they sometimes overspend? Or what do they want kept secret, like their history of sexual behavior, substance use, lying, law breaking, or other harmful risk taking growing up?

Often, what is secreted is information that could be really helpful for the adolescent to know - how parents learned hard lessons from hard experience. Such instructional examples if disclosed might help persuade the teenager not repeat the errors of parental ways.

Then there is the adolescent who has just about sworn off asking parents for anything "because all they ever say is ‘no'." He's feeling pretty discouraged by their repeated refusals. "There's just no point in asking!" he declares. But I disagree.

"You're forgetting the law of parental refusal," I say.

"I know that law," he argues back. "That law just says they have the right to refuse me whenever they want!"

"Yes," I agreed this time, "that's part of it. But the other part is this. Sooner or later all their ‘no's' start adding up and they grow tired of denying you each time you ask. Most parents would rather say ‘yes' than ‘no' to requests from their teenager. They'd like to give and allow you what you want when they can because they'd rather be in the business of making you happy than unhappy, being popular with you than unpopular. Also, because repeatedly saying ‘no' can get tiring for them, sometimes they'll just say ‘yes' to stop all the asking. That's why the law of parental refusal says this: The more often your parents say ‘no' when you ask, the more likely a future ‘yes' from them may be forthcoming."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)  More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence and Aging out of High School Early

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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