Five important conversations to have with your teens now
by Dario Lussardi
Jun 06, 2013 | 4672 views | 0 0 comments | 546 546 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dario Lussardi
Dario Lussardi
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When I was parenting two teenage boys I heard all kinds of good advice, some of which was useful and some that seemed impractical for my particular circumstances. Looking back however, I wonder if sometimes I used this as an excuse to avoid some difficult conversations that come with parenting. There is not always a clear line between letting kids learn from their own experience and guiding or steering them into making good choices.

Today when I talk with teenagers and/or their parents, I am amazed at how often important things are not discussed between them. Looking back and also having an eye on the reality of the decisions teens face today, there is no doubt that there are some conversations that are essential for parents to have with their teens. In spite of what they may say to the contrary through their rolling eyes, dismissal, and even outright protest, teenagers want and need to hear their parents’ opinions and direction on important matters.

Any time the opportunity presents itself is a good time to talk to your kids. Sometimes however, a special effort is needed to make it happen. If you haven't talked with your kids lately, doing so before school gets out is an especially good time. With summer fast approaching, teens will be looking toward more free time and will be exposed to having to make choices and possibly some risky decisions that could have lifelong impact. And while more than one in five parents of teens think what they say has little influence on their youngsters’ decisions, national surveys show that teens are far less likely to do things if they believe their parents would strongly disapprove.

With summer fast approaching, this would be a suggested list of “must have” conversations with teens.

First and foremost is to communicate about communication. Even though teens may show signs of not having any interest in talking to you, it is important that you make clear you are interested in listening to and hearing from them about what they think. This will require persistence, patience, and a sense of timing. Showing that you are genuinely interested in what they think and are not just trying to “trap them” or finding fault will pay off. Encourage them to identify other trusted people in whom they can confide.

Second, it is really important to encourage teens to think for themselves. Teens are risk-takers, and that's normal. They can't grow without trying new things and taking some risks. But they also act on impulse, and the two together can lead to problems. There is a lot of pressure on them to go along with others. Inform them (possibly with examples from your own experience) how to:

a) Stop and think before doing something risky or when they feel uncertain or pressured.

b) To check their gut when they find themselves in tricky situations.  Tell them that learning to hear their “inner voice” takes practice, but it will guide them well. Let them know you have confidence in them to think for themselves. If they are willing have them practice saying “No,” or “I don’t feel right about doing that.”

c) And finally teach them to check the facts. Your teen may think that everyone else is doing it – whether “it” is smoking, having sex or something else. Finding that out can relieve the peer pressure to do something he or she may not feel ready for. Take sex as an example. Your teen may think everyone their age is sexually active, but in fact, less than half of US high school students are.

Discuss with them now the decisions they are about to face. Because they tend to be impulsive, teens don’t always make the best decisions on the spur of the moment. For example, talking with them when and under what circumstances they think they will be ready to have sex, will help them to imagine, and provide a frame of reference for future decisions. What would they say to a friend who is speeding or texting while driving? Talking about it happening doesn’t mean condoning or giving your teen a free pass. Be clear about what you expect. For example, you might say, “I want you to delay having sex until it can become part of a meaningful relationship.” When they work out ahead of time how they will turn down drugs, drinking, sex or other challenges, they are much better at matching their actions with their values.

Talk with them about the importance of protecting their brain and their body. Because their brains are not fully developed, they are not very good about anticipating or thinking of consequences. Since that part of their mind responsible for decision making is not fully matured, they can make some reckless and seemingly senseless choices. They are also more vulnerable and sensitive to mind altering chemicals like alcohol, marijuana, and prescription or other medications. Let them know that over-the-counter drugs carry risks and side effects that are different for everyone. The reason the legal drinking age is 21 is because alcohol can cause long-term changes in your teen’s brain while it's still developing. Teens who drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex and be assaulted or assault others sexually, get in car accidents, and engage in fights.

Finally and most important, let them know you love them. Discuss with them that you don’t expect them to be perfect and that when they do make mistakes you hope they will learn from them. Assure them that you will stand behind them but that you may not be able to protect them from their mistakes.  Remind them often that you respect them, want to help them succeed, and are here for them no matter what. If you do, they're more likely to listen.

Talking about these matters can become a form of “inoculation” against taking risks, making impulsive decisions, and peer pressure. When talking with youngsters it is also equally important to listen to them and be mindful that they learn as much from watching what you do as from what you say. Above all, remember that your love, expressed by your actions, is the greatest force you have to protect them.

“You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.”-Bill Cosby

Editor's note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation and therapeutic services at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.

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