Teen Shares Risk-taking Behavior; Now What do you Do?
I overheard a mother and her teenage daughter talking to each other recently. Some important issues were being addressed and while both mother and daughter were struggling with these issues, neither seemed to realize exactly what was going on in their discussion – or their relationship.
The surface issues had to do with communication, morality, discipline, and trust. But, the age-old problem of redefining the relationship between parent and adolescent was also lurking underneath their conversation.
In this discussion, 16-year-old Charlotte wanted to be honest with her mother and she said she wanted to let her mother know that sometimes she drank beer with her friends.
“And you expect me to just say, okay and let you do that?” her mother asked. “What else can you do?” Charlotte responded.
“As a parent,” her mother replied, “I have an obligation to tell you it is wrong. Maybe I should even try to stop you – or forbid you to hang around with your friends.”
“You can’t do that,” Charlotte said. “How would you do that anyway?”
Although there was a defiant edginess in this question by Charlotte, it was actually an excellent question. At the same time, it revealed the conflict that often takes place between parents and adolescents. Parents may realize they may need to continue to set limits, but how exactly do they do that with a girl like Charlotte who drives, spends time with friends, and is away from home a good part of every day?
Although the conversation started out as Charlotte’s attempt to be open with her mother about her behavior, her mother was concerned about Charlotte engaging in a risky behavior – drinking. And her mother wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge. Should she try to stop her daughter from drinking? If so, how would she do this? Should she repeat again (for maybe the 100th time in Charlotte’s life) that drinking alcohol at her age is illegal and that she — her mother — thought drinking was wrong?
Would anything her mother said or did have any significant effect on Charlotte’s future behavior in regards to drinking alcohol with her friends?
Charlotte and her mother were visiting a classic struggle that countless other parents and teens have faced. The problem seems to be about drinking, but the conflict has much more to do with the relationship between parents and teenagers.
Parents worry that they are losing control and that they have a diminished ability to play a significant role in what their adolescents do. On the other hand, teens may seek out a more equal relationship with their parents and they may want to be able to share things about their life in an open, adult-like manner.
Yet, a parent doesn’t stop being a parent – certainly not with a 16-year-old daughter or son. So even though a child may reveal things that are of concern, how is a mother or father supposed to handle it?
In this conversation, Charlotte’s mother was not ready to say what needed to be said. However, based on my experiences with teens, here’s the way I believe parents need to respond in this kind of situation:
Mother: “I appreciate you being honest and open with me about your drinking. I’d like to believe that we have an honest relationship with each other and I hope that continues.
“However, as you are aware, I can’t offer my support for you doing something that is illegal and maybe even dangerous. But I also have a lot of confidence in your ability to make wise decisions.
“I prefer that you not drink with your friends. You know all the reasons why I’m against teenagers drinking. And you know I love you and worry about your health and safety. However, I also know I can’t stop you from doing things when you are with your friends that are risky.
“But, again, I trust that you will make good decisions that will make me proud of you. I’m willing to discuss your decisions any time you want. And if I can help you make the right decisions, you know I’m always here for you.”