Adolescence and Parents as Valuable Informants
Discussing worldly dangers and disclosing personal history is complicated to do.
Posted Mar 31, 2014
There is a full disclosure question most adolescents wrestle with during their growing up: “How much should I tell my parents about what’s going on in my life?”
The answer is complicated because while telling parents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may contribute to gaining their trust; at an age when independence is very important, such an open declaration can trigger more parental alarm than appreciation. When it does, instead of truth-telling setting the young person free, it can do just the opposite. Thus in alarm at what they have been told, parents may exclaim: “You did what? You are doing what? You intend to do what? No way you get to go!”
This outcome is why all adolescents lead double lives—the one parents are told about, and the other about which they are not. And for most parents this selective telling is okay because they know that to be truly told about “everything” would give them too much to worry about. So adolescents continually assess their parents’ tolerance for the truth and need to know, and their parents’ need for ignorance and need to not know.
Of course, how much to tell is not only a question that perplexes the adolescent with the parent; it also perplexes the parent about “what to tell?” their adolescent. Consider two of the complexities: telling worldly knowledge and telling personal history. In both cases, parents can be valuable informants.
TELLING WORLDLY KNOWLEDGE
Separating from childhood around ages 9 – 13, the entry into early adolescence opens up curiosity about the vast, scary, and fascinating larger world beyond the family circle, the world through which the journey to young adulthood must be taken. Adolescence awakens every kind of interest parents can expect, and many more they cannot. Today, in addition to media and peer sources, a young person at a very young age can pretty much access any information they are curious to know via the Internet (see 2/10/2014 blog.)
Now the parental job is less to censor information than to maintain sufficient communication with their adolescent to keep track of what their daughter or son is coming to “know.” This way, they can declare: “When we have something to tell you different from what you have learned, we are not trying to change or control your thinking. We only want to add further information as you make up your mind. Just as we want to listen to what you have to tell us, we hope you will listen to what we have to say.”
Of course, the great problem of worldly knowledge in adolescence is not what the young person comes to know at a very early age; it is what they believe they know that isn’t so. At this point, parents have a responsibility to tell to dispel.
In their curiosity, and relying on unreliable sources (like gossip and hearsay and popular myth), young people are vulnerable to believing a lot of comforting misinformation that can do them harm. For example, consider adolescent ‘immunity beliefs.’ The teenager may “know” when it comes to disobeying the Law, “minors can’t be put in jail like adults.” Or when it comes to using Drugs, “inhalants aren’t risky because what you don’t swallow can’t hurt you.” Or, when it comes to protected sex, “if you douche right after intercourse you can’t get pregnant.” Parents need to weigh in with what they know to the contrary.
And if parents have forbidden certain high risk activity, but the older adolescent chooses to persist, then parents have a duty to inform, to tell how to moderate that risk where possible. “We didn’t want you and your love to become sexually active, but if you are both determined to be, we want to talk with you about doing so in the safest possible way.” Parents need to tell to protect.
One risk is when parents give too many warnings about worldly dangers. Thus the 10-year-old who is considering taking a cross-country flight alone to visit grandparents changes his mind when told by worried parents about all that could go wrong and what to do if it did. “If everything you say might happen, I don’t think I want to go.” Fearful parents made the experience sound so daunting that their son decided not to take the dare. To a degree, the Three Blind I’s—Ignorance and Innocence and Invulnerability—allow adolescents to deny danger and risk new experiences out in the world. So part of the art of parenting adolescents is providing enough cautionary knowledge for safe awareness, but not so much knowledge that fear discourages healthy growth.
And, when a younger adolescent discounts what parents have to tell on the principle that they are old fashioned and don’t know anything, the adults have to keep broadcasting the truth to an unappreciative audience so that important messages can be installed. Even though at the moment this information appears to be tuned out and ignored, it is usually entered and can even be recalled for later use—“My Mom used to warn me about this!” So, mindful of what he had once been told, the teenager elects not to passenger with drunken driving friends, and finds a safer way home.
In addition, as the young person enters the last stage of adolescence around ages 18 – 23, the need for practical worldly knowledge about how to manage functional independence transforms what were overly worried parents in older adolescent eyes into experienced sources and valued informants. The adults who were dismissed as out of touch during the young person’s earlier years become grownups who understand a lot that she or he now needs to know.
TELLING PERSONAL HISTORY
Now consider the parent who grew through adolescence running on the wild side, daring all kinds of dangerous challenges, who somehow emerged from “experimenting with most everything” into adulthood relatively unscathed, an adult survivor of risks they fervently hope their teenager will never take. This personal history is on the parent’s fearful side. “Chapter and verse, I know what is out there just waiting to be tried.”
However, there is also a beneficial side. Compared to other parents who were far less adventurous growing up, parents who craved excitement and chose it growing up have a lot of very specific cautionary information to share about what this experience was like and what dangers to beware. But should they do so?
There are powerful incentives not to tell. “We don’t want to talk about what we did at his age because then he’ll think less of us, lose respect for us, will use what we did against us, will even feel justified in following our example!” These objections cannot be entirely discounted. However, sometimes a contractual balance can be struck where parents from highly adventurous adolescent backgrounds selectively self-disclose to positive effect.
Contracting with their daughter or son might sound something like this. “There is a lot of information from my growing up that might be useful for you to know. There is WHAT I know and there is HOW I know. What I know is what I learned. How I know is the experience I went through to learn it. Except where I choose to keep some personal details private, I am open to answering questions about the HOW of my growing up. I will do so in the hope that you can learn from what I did without having to do it. Maybe you can profit from what worked for me, avoid mistakes I made, skip dangers I ran, and avoid costs I had to pay. In return for this honesty from me, I want two kinds of agreements from you. First, I want agreement from you to be honestly open to similar questions from me. And second, just as I commit to keep confidential what you tell me, I want you to keep confidential what I tell you.”
When mutually honored, I have seen this kind of formal or informal self-disclosure agreement benefit the adolescent who gains respect for a parent who has the courage to be personally honest about her or his younger years, and who has credible authority from which to speak. Usually the teenager has been more willing to be open in return.
Even if HOW you grew up seems relatively tame and you were just an average “good kid who did a few stupid things,” you still may be sitting on some information about risk taking and mistakes that your teenager could profitably be told. Cautionary personal stories from parents can have a lot of influential power. After all, a big part of what parents give their adolescent is getting to know who and how these adults are, and how they came to be that way.
What parents learned from hard experience growing up a generation ago can often be of service to a teenage son or daughter growing up today.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: The Value of Adolescent Arguing with Parents