Spring has sprung and there is no time like the present to engage youth in dialogue about health and safety—maybe especially in the season of proms and graduations.
Naturally, it is easy to believe what we want to believe about our children, particularly when it comes to the choices they may be making about alcohol, other drugs and sex. We want to believe he’s not drinking, even though we found an empty vodka bottle in his closet. We want to believe it was a friend’s marijuana in the pocket of her coat, just because she said so. And we want to believe the condom in his wallet is “just for show” rather than a sign he’s having sex.
All of these wishful-thinking scenarios could be true. But if 40 years of working with young people has taught me anything, it’s that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire.
Letting wishful thinking cloud our judgment is incredibly easy to do. After all, self-delusion is a powerful narcotic. When we think the best, it makes us feel good: proud, capable and successful. The feeling is addictive. But what’s the result of such blind optimism? We too often avoid information that might contradict our perceptions about our kids and leave us feeling confused, hurt and angry.
The reality gap is born.
Having our carefully-crafted beliefs dashed by a dose of reality can be painful because hearing not-so-good things about the people we love makes us question our own effectiveness in guiding them. It also causes us to be sick with worry. Gary, the dad of 17-year-old Jon, looked anguished when he told me, “I guess, like all parents, I thought my son was perfect. I never believed he would drink at a party.” (But Jon did, was arrested, and then sentenced by a judge to attend an “impact panel” designed to better educate youth offenders and their parents about the risks associated with alcohol and other drugs.)
I understand the pain that parents feel. I get the anxiety. Sometimes the truth hurts. But it also challenges us to better understand, accept and influence our youth in the future.
Avoiding the truth about our child’s behavior conveniently absolves us from the responsibility of having to do something about it. After all, if we know that Billy got drunk at the dance or Heather is getting high after school, we have to act, right? But if we don’t admit there’s a problem, we will have no confrontation and no conflict. That makes dinner time a whole lot more pleasant.
Unfortunately, it does nothing to protect our kids from the dangers lurking just outside the kitchen door.
Another obstacle to truly understanding youth is their propensity to hide the truth. In my ninth grade discussion groups at the summer camp I help direct, both boys and girls regularly raise issues of trust when talking about their relationships with their parents. “Why don’t they just trust us?” is a common refrain.
A couple of years ago, I started taking an informal straw poll when this question emerged. “How many of you would say it’s important to you that your parents trust you about where you go, whom you’re with and what you’re doing?” I would ask. Almost all arms would instantaneously shoot skyward. Then the followup: “How many of you lie about where you go, whom you’re with and what you’re doing?” Almost two-thirds of the raised hands regularly remained in the up position.
This disconnect is hard to explain, but these 14-year-olds had some answers. “It’s a game,” said one. “They expect us to lie,” stated another. “We’re supposed to lie,” offered a third. Few of them sensed a contradiction.
Testing the same phenomenon in a more rigorous way, I sampled nearly 1,000 young people across the country via an online questionnaire. The results were startlingly similar. For instance, among high school teens almost all (89 percent) say it’s important that they have their parents’ trust. Yet significantly less than half (40 percent) say they tell them the whole truth.
How are young people getting away with such dishonesty?
Many tell me that they speak in generalities, not answering questions completely or telling just enough of the truth to make their responses seem reasonable and believable. Even the most engaged and informed parents do well by “drilling down”—asking followup questions and inquiring about specifics. If we make it easy for adolescents to lie, many times they will, even if they don’t really want to. A startling number of teens say that if their parents came right out and asked them direct questions (such as, “Did you drink alcohol at the party?”), they would tell the truth. Too often, though, they get off the hook by responding to a question like, “Were there kids drinking at the party tonight?” without actually answering. “Oh, Mom, get real!” for example.
If we don’t know they’re drinking with their friends in the basement, how will we know when they’re drinking with their friends in the car? And if we don’t know—or pretend not to know—they’re drinking in the first place, will we pretend not to know that they’re using other drugs or having sex? Eighteen-year-old Robert’s parents missed the alcohol and, subsequently, the marijuana and sex that followed. Fifteen-year-old Mark’s parents simply chose not to notice. Mark told me, “They know. They don’t say anything, but they know. We were at the same New Year’s Eve party and I got really drunk.”
As you might expect, his destructive behaviors escalated as well.
The simple issue of time is another factor fueling the disconnect between parents and children. If we don’t take the time to talk with—and really understand—our teens, how can we expect to know much about the choices they face and the decisions they make? Only when we carve out opportunities to spend time with our young people will we have a fighting chance of finding out what they’re all about.
It’s tough to find that time and to keep up with everything our children are doing, or thinking about doing. Most parents I know have incredibly demanding schedules. Early to bed, early to rise doesn’t hold much promise when the space in between is jammed with shuttling kids to and from school, attending teacher conferences, cheering at soccer games, reconstructing calculus problems, and doing laundry—all the while preparing for work the next day. Understanding and influencing adolescent behavior is time-intensive work, and that time always seems to be scarce.
Yet the more time we spend with our teens, the more we will discover about their world.
Of course, kids are busy, too. The sheer number of activities in which many youth participate is staggering. By the time they navigate the school day, play in a basketball game, practice piano, attend the SAT prep class, finish homework, plan a class project and instant-message their friends, there’s little time left for idle conversation. Sadly, family time often takes a backseat in our busy worlds, and time together for parents and teens gets crunched from both ends.
But finding time to be together and to talk pays off.
Atlanta 13-year-old Nasha tells me she and her mom make sure to talk about important things like drinking. “My mom does a really good job being a single parent raising a kid. She has told me that I can drink when I am an adult, but not now, even though other kids are drinking.” For Nasha and her mom, what little time they have together is clearly time well spent. As a result of it, Nasha understands her mom’s expectations for her and is able to talk openly about the appropriate role of, and time for, alcohol in her life. Her mom, on the other hand, understands more about the environment in which Nasha lives and goes to school, and more about the difficult issues she has to face.
Ironically, talking is often easier talked about than done. Once-open channels of communication between our children and us suddenly seem to become clogged at the start of their adolescence.
Parents approach me all the time after lectures or workshops, voicing the same complaint and expressing the same bewilderment: “We used to talk about everything. Now it seems we talk about nothing. It’s just a series of arguments about homework, chores and curfews.” Kids are often just as frustrated. In St. Louis, 15-year-old Matt told me, “I try to talk to my parents, but we end up arguing and the conversation just falls apart.”
Particularly during our child’s adolescence, we need to be careful about what topics we raise in conversation. Not everything warrants serious discussion, especially when disagreements, however politely expressed, may result. We need to pick our battles carefully and not waste precious “talk time” arguing about things that, in the long run, don’t count for much. I often witness parents and children spending hours bickering with each other over trivial things, such as when to get a haircut or how long it will take to complete an English paper. Meaningless debate robs both parents and young people of the energy and the enthusiasm they need to engage in constructive give-and-take about truly important issues.
And, in truth, adolescents need space to make some decisions by themselves, whether or not we agree with those decisions. So, we should constantly ask ourselves, “Is this really important?” If in doubt, leave it out. At least for the time being.
The change in parent-child communication during adolescence happens for a lot of reasons, including a teen’s relentless quest for independence. But knowing how to talk and what to say is also a critical component of any plan designed to help them make good decisions.
From my work with families I have learned that each has a unique pattern of communication. Some families tend toward the expressive: openly and eagerly sharing ideas and inviting debate about issues big and small. Other families seem to mostly communicate in code, with certain gestures or facial expressions carrying the burden of interaction.
No matter your family’s personal style, almost all of us have room for improvement in communicating openly and honestly with our youth about alcohol, other drugs and—maybe especially—sex.
I have found there are some basic rules that often prove helpful in making the most out of conversations with young people. For example, talk at time that is convenient for both of you and when you are both calm; express your desire to hear your child’s views; and communicate your wish to relate to each other. On the flip side, it is important to avoid lecturing, using scare tactics or making your teen defensive by saying, “We need to talk!”
Still, the question of content remains: What do I say?
While there is no fail-safe recipe that outlines the perfect, measured ingredients for successful conversations, we serve everyone best by remaining focused on the risks associated with certain choices (such as alcohol, other drug use and intimate sexual behavior), steering clear of more emotionally charged debate about the motivation behind them. That can come later.
Adolescents instinctively understand and secretly appreciate our concern for their health and safety. When we avoid moralizing about behavior and remain fixed instead on the dangers posed by certain choices, we are more likely to have receptive ears on the other side of the dinner table (“We’ve all seen tragic consequences when young people decide to drink” rather than “Smart teens don’t drink alcohol.”)
Essentially, there are five key risks that permeate underage drinking, other drug use and early, intimate sexual behavior: physical, emotional, social, developmental and legal. Imbuing dialogue with references to these hazards helps youth to truly understand the breadth and depth of the problems associated with certain choices and to pattern their behavior accordingly. Thinking through how these risks might play out in your child’s life will help you to guide your discussion.
For example, while many adolescents are at least generally aware of the physical risks of sex, too many are often are unfamiliar with the potential emotional toll of becoming too intimate too early. Stephanie, whose short stature, soft features and simple, casual clothing make her look at least two years younger than her 15 years, explained to me that she began to have a physical relationship with her boyfriend, Craig, during her freshman year of high school, even though “it felt weird.” But Stephanie went along anyway, and by the beginning of sophomore year she’d agreed to have intercourse. “I had always told myself I would wait until I was in love, comfortable. But Craig kept asking. Afterwards I thought, ‘What did I just do? Am I out of my mind?’”
Guiding our child’s thinking can promote thoughtful consideration of possible ramifications of sexual behavior as well as underage drinking and other drug use. While you may think the risks are obvious and that your teen is well-schooled in each of them, chances are he is not. Even those risks that appear logical to us may not be well understood by our kids.
With all the talk about talking, remembering to listen is just as critical, if not more so. What our reading, observations and personal experiences don’t tell us, our kids usually do—even if they don’t realize it. So it’s crucial to listen to what they have to say.
Melanie, the mother of 14-year-old Molly, had her antennae up the morning after a party Molly attended. Molly was uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn. Concerned, Melanie asked, “What is wrong with you?” Molly burst into tears, admitting she had been drinking at the party even though she had promised she wouldn’t. Molly felt bad and was looking for a way to let her mom know she had betrayed her trust. Fortunately for Molly, Melanie was paying attention to her daughter’s cues. Their subsequent conversation helped Melanie gain a better, more realistic understanding about what was going on with Molly’s friends and led Molly to more fully appreciate her mother’s expectations for her behavior and the consequences that would follow for breaking the rules (Molly was grounded this time).
Just as important, both mother and daughter agreed on the importance of honesty in the future. The lesson here is that, one way or another, young people will almost always tell us everything we need to know. We just need to be ready to hear it and ready to respond calmly, rationally and consistently.
The hectic pace of life in the 21st century robs each of us of important opportunities to invest in the future by paying close attention to the present. It’s difficult, often exhausting, work to keep up with our youth as their world spins wildly all around us. Doing so seems to require the skills of an investigator, commentator, acrobat and magician combined. But when we learn to talk and listen well to our teens, we can play an incredibly powerful role in influencing the choices they make. That influence is something they admit they want, and most assuredly they need, if for no other reason than to stay safe. There’s no better reason to talk than that.
And no better time than now.
Editorial Note: While all accounts in this article are factually correct, privacy considerations have dictated that I change minor details such as names, descriptions or ages of those referenced. In some cases, dialogue has been paraphrased. I have taken pains to conceal the identity of the young people whose stories appear in these pages. Any perceived identification of a subject of discussion by readers, particularly parents, is most surely mistaken.
This article is largely excerpted from the book Reality Gap—Alcohol, Drugs and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling.