Like many people of my generation, I received next to nothing in the way of meaningful conversations about important teen subjects from my parents. I was the sixth of seven kids, so one-on-one conversations were practically nonexistent. Plus, my family is Korean and my parents were old school. They just didn’t talk about “private” matters.
As a parent—in particular one who has reflected repeatedly on the good fortune of making it out unscathed from a young adulthood replete with clueless, questionable decision making—it’s been a priority for me to talk to my kids openly and honestly about their health and well-being, and for them to know that they can talk to me about anything. I have felt very confident in my teen’s ability to talk to me until a recent weekend that I now call “The Weekend of Teen Reckoning.”
On a Saturday morning as I waited for my teen’s soccer game to start, I learned from a fellow parent about an incident that involved behavior such as: shoplifting, peer pressure, alcohol abuse, and multiple student suspensions. On the ride home from the soccer game, I asked my daughter about it and proceeded to learn something completely new about her communication style—that she was erring on the side of not telling me things because she didn’t want to be gossipy. I also learned some other details about the original incident I asked about and a few other intense things involving mean girls, drugs, sex, and relationships.
Suffice to say that when I offered to drive her to and from her soccer game, I did not expect to be hearing all of the information my daughter shared with me. But, quite frankly, it ended up being a blessing. One of the best places to communicate with teens is in the car when you have a captive audience, but they don’t need to make eye contact.
I was shocked by how much ground we covered in under one hour (though the conversations have definitely extended beyond the car). I wanted to share the key messages conveyed because these topics are SO IMPORTANT. And I’m going to lay out the basics of what I said, and the key messages that I was trying to convey, because I know from my work in the sex ed space that parents want the exact words to say in the face of tough conversations.
How to Talk to Your Teen About Sex, Drugs, Alcohol and More
The Difference Between Gossip and Disclosure
WHAT I SAID: “I really appreciate that you don’t want to be gossipy…that’s a really good thing. However, there’s a difference between being a gossip and telling me about things that could impact your health and safety by virtue of the people you are hanging out with.
Please err on the side of telling me things even if—probably especially if—you’re nervous about the situation. What is happening is heavy and you shouldn’t carry all of this stuff on your own.”
KEY MESSAGE: You are not alone. Keep talking to me. I am here to support you.
WHAT I SAID: “Shoplifting obviously is a bad choice and I don’t know if this was impulsive, attention-getting, or some other type of situation. I’m not sure how the parents are handling the chain of repair that needs to happen, but if you and I were in this situation, the first logistical step would be that I’d take you back to the store where you stole from so you could repay the store with your own money and apologize to the manager.”
KEY MESSAGE: Bad behavior has (seemingly humiliating for a tween/teen) consequences.
WHAT I SAID: “Whoa, 12-years-old is crazy young to be drinking. I know alcohol is not of interest to you right now but I also know that you may get curious about alcohol and other things at some point—because curiosity is normal. And honestly, when you reach this point I’d rather you be curious at home.
Remember how you were curious to try champagne at New Year’s and I gave you a sip and it wasn’t a big deal and you actually thought it tasted gross? If you get curious about other types of drinks, just ask me!
Also, a big issue with alcohol is that it impairs function in a big way. The best way to describe it is that if you consume too much, everything can get blurry—your memory, your vision, your motor skills. So even if YOU aren’t doing the drinking you also need to be aware of what other people are doing, especially if you are going to get a ride home with someone.”
KEY MESSAGE: Curiosity is normal. I’d rather you be curious about alcohol in the safety of home. Also, even if you aren’t drinking, you have to monitor the situation and make choices accordingly if your friends are drinking.
Peer Pressure and Consequences
WHAT I SAID: “I totally understand that you feel that it’s unfair that your friend’s brother was suspended since he says he didn’t know there was alcohol in the bottle. Unfortunately, this is an example of how you can’t just go along with whatever someone is pressuring you to do. If something feels off it may be best to extract yourself from the situation. Obviously, that’s not always easy but it’s a good reminder that you can get in trouble even just for being there.”
KEY MESSAGE: Life can be unfair. Friends may make bad decisions and those decisions may impact you, so you need to work on being okay with marching to the beat of your own drummer.
WHAT I SAID: “Wow, it is seriously none of those girls’ business to send your friend those nasty text messages…the situation does not involve them! I’m not sure if it is that they don’t have enough going on in their own lives or just like gossip, but I think this is a good reminder to be neutral and friendly to toxic people like this and also to keep a safe distance.”
KEY MESSAGE: Keep a check on mean girls.
WHAT I SAID: “Yikes, freshman year is way too early for weed. There is research that shows that smoking weed leads to developmental consequences. And unfortunately, it’s really easy to slide down the slope of trying pot once and graduate to using it a couple of times a week and then to getting high every day before school.
I know that as far as you know, it was your friend’s first time and I do not want to break the trust you have with your friend, but if I get a sense that your friend is heading towards danger, we will need to talk to the parents. Also, given the prevalence of weed, I have no doubt that people will continue to offer it to you. You will need to brace yourself for the discomfort in these situations.”
KEY MESSAGE: There are consequences to weed and it’s way too early. If we get the sense that your good friend is going down a bad road, we will need to intervene. You will likely continue to be asked to try things and be prepared for how to respond.
WHAT I SAID: “OK so in my opinion, 14 is too young to have sex. BUT, I am hugely relieved that your classmate worked with her parents to get contraception. When the time is right for you, please ask me for help. When I was a teenager my family did not have insurance, plus talking to my parents was not an option. It was really scary to navigate birth control on my own and I am here for you so you don’t have to be in that position.
KEY MESSAGE: When the time is right for you, ask me for help. I am here for you.
WHAT I SAID: “The relationship between your classmate and her boyfriend sounds intense. It’s one of the reasons I was worried when your classmate abandoned her friends when they started dating. It’s no wonder that she sent a million emails and texts when they broke up. Emotions in teen relationships get so high—I know, I’ve been there!—but this is a good example of why it’s important when you get into a romantic relationship to stay keyed in to your friendships.”
KEY MESSAGE: Emotions are real but even when you are into a romantic relationship, it’s important to maintain your friendships.
So that weekend was extra in terms of communication! The basic thread that ran throughout all of these topics was that through early adulthood kids will be faced with challenging experiences. They will need to make tough decisions and they will feel the weight of peer pressure.
I tried to convey to my daughter how relieved I was that she was able to maintain a strong sense of self (in the face of drug offerings), that I was there for her at all times, and that I didn’t expect her to be perfect in these moments of chaos. It’s crucial to keep the communication channels open with your teen, even if—perhaps especially if—they are high functioning and seem fine. Our world is growing more complicated and there’s a lot that kids are shouldering. Let’s help them not do that alone.
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