I've developed the following tips as a result of twenty years of working with teenagers around sexuality, substance use and risk behavior. I have plenty more, but this is a good start.
Please note that I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the experts who deal with data and research around teen behavior. The tips I share here come from my front line experience working with teens in my clinic, in the classroom and working with my team of peer educators. I spend lots of time talking with teens. I build rapport with teens easily and am an expert at establishing a supportive and nonjudgemental environment in which teens can learn and grow. In return, teens give me their honest opinions and share their experiences readily when I ask them to.
So here you go ...
Let your teen know what your values are ... and why!
Teens want to know what's important to you.Surveys of teens consistently tell us that parents have the most influence on what teens. It may not seem like they are listening when you speak, but they are. They may even resist "the talk" but they really want to hear what you have to say. They also want to know why you feel the way you do. Even if it appears they could care less.
Also, don't be afraid to disclose personal experiences that led you to forming your values. They don't need the nitty gritty details, but a general idea of why you feel the way you do is very helpful. Although some of the experts may not agree with me on this, teens tell me that they want to hear about the experiences that led you to your values.. They say it helps them feel feel more connected and helps them make better choices.
Conversations should be ongoing, using a "go where they are" approach.
Look for opportunities in everyday life to bring up a topic and check in with your teen. Perhaps a movie or TV show you've shared brings up a topic. Or a conversation you had or heard while driving your teen and their friends to or from an activity. In response to a news story or a school event. Perhaps something on the internet.
Short "soundbytes" seem to work best. I do my best work on a chairlift ride, In the few minutes in before class starts, on the couch while knitting socks in between patients at the clinic, in the school cafeteria line or walking down the hall with a student, or via text message or a two minute Facebook chat. Teens love to share their opinions and perspective ... so ask! Go where they are!
One teen told me that she and her Mom have a shared journal where they write notes back and forth to each other ... sometimes about basic day to day stuff that they each need to know ... sometimes posing a question or concern with thoughts and feelings shared. Very rarely do they take the conversation out of the journal and if they do, it usually comes in the form of time spent together doing something fun while continuing their dialogue.
A note here ... teens often tell me that they feel guilty about not spending as much time with family as they used to. It is perfectly natural for teens to want to hang out with friends more often. It's part of growing up and becoming more independent. However planning special, fun time between you and your teen is important!
Encourage your teen to have an adult support system in addition to yourself.
I recommend the Rule of Five. Encourage your teen to develop a list of five adults over 25 (it's a brain development thing ... more on that later) from five places in their lives. Even though you share your values with your teen, your teen may not choose to adopt them as their own ... at least not right away. Therefore, be sure to include resources that will help them sort through the questions they may have and get accurate information about sexuality, alcohol and drugs. Even if you promote abstinence ... please, please, please encourage your teen to have access to comprehensive information just in case there is a gap between your values and their own!
Teens are curious and many teens will experiment ... no matter what you do to support them. Don't take it personally. Keep in mind the ultimate goal. To keep them safe and support them in making healthy choices.
I survey teens in the classroom all the time. They tell me that when it comes to sex, drugs and alcohol, they would rather talk to their friends. Their primary reasons are: fear of punishment, fear of parents restricting friends, and fear of disappointing their parents. Teens say that even if they aren't participating in risk behavior, they would rather not let their parents know they are curious or have any questions.
From my perspective, the big problem with teens just talking wth their friends is that their friends are functioning with a teen brain, which is not fully developed and will most likely not be able to see the big picture, assess risk and support healthy choices. So Five People From Five Places over the age of 25 is a great rule of thumb.
Talk with your teen about your family history.
There seems to be a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and addiction that runs in families. Your teen absolutely needs to know their family history in order to make healthy, informed choices around substance use. Keeping secrets and denial about alcoholism and addiction in families is a common occurence. For the sake of your teenager, be honest and open. If you can't, engage the help of a family member who can. It's crucial!
To be honest, although they sometimes seem disengaged or disinterested, kids don't miss much when it comes to family dynamics around drinking and drug use. They are very perceptive and sensitive as well as curious. Their job is to take it all in so they can grow up and become independent. So be careful to underestimate what they know and observe. I am always amazed at the stories kids share that I'm sure would surprise parents if they knew their kids had even noticed.
Avoid the "not my kid" trap!
I often talk with teens and parents together about sex and substance use. As part of what I do, I insist on spending some time alone with teens to be sure that the information shared in the presence of a parent is, in fact, accurate. In my experience I've discovered that there seems to be a period of time when teens don't share information with their parents about substance use and sexual behavior. I've outlined the reasons above. The bottom line is that parents need to support their kids in getting adult support in addition to (not in place of) themselves in order to best support their teens.
Feel free to share your comments, concerns or questions by clicking on "Add Comment" below or by emailing me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember that I have access to an amazing panel of teens working with me who are happy to share their perspective with you and answer your questions!
Transition on Purpose