Trying Out “Bad Things” Does Not Make Your Teen a “Bad Kid”

I was listening to a podcast the other day hosted by an 18-year-old who was going to talk with his mom about all the things that go on in the lives of teenagers. I almost skipped over it because I thought I was getting really good at this teen parenting gig and I wanted to listen to my ’80s play list.

After hitting play by accident, the podcast ended up being one of the most enlightening things I’d listened to in a long time. This boy, who is about to become a professional golfer, got straight A’s in school and was dedicated to his church, came right out swinging the truth around–the truth was something no parent wants to hear.

It went something like this; If you think your kids aren’t doing something you wouldn’t approve of, they are– even the really good kids. If you think they are above drugs, sex, drinking, experimenting–they aren’t. They all dabble. They are surrounded by it in every group they belong to–especially in middle school.

The kid then said that if teens don’t feel like they can go to their parents and talk about this stuff for fear of being punished, they will lie about it instead.

teen girls at the beach
It is not uncommon for teens to experiment with alcohol or sex. @criene via Twenty20

A few years ago, I found out my 14-year-old son was having sex and smoking pot. I was appalled. I was a mess. I wondered where I went wrong and how this could have happened. I didn’t indulge in any of that until I was at least 4 years older than he was. His behavior scared the living daylight out of me and he knew it.

As a result, he buttoned up tighter than a cocoon and I had no idea what was going on in his world, even though I asked him countless questions.

Now that my other kids have gone through different phases, some of them wonderful, and some of them leaving me with heart palpitations and bags under my eyes, I realize that: It is normal for kids to want to try out “bad” things. It is normal for them to be curious. It is normal for them to be tempted but, these behaviors, in no way, make them “bad kids.”

And what happens when we make them feel like a bag of trash for taking a sip, smoking a joint, or having sexual desires? They just clam up. They don’t tell us about it. In fact, they may be even more drawn to these behaviors when they don’t feel like their parents are a safe space to talk things over.

It doesn’t mean they are going to tell us every little thing–believe me, there have been times it feels like a gift to not know the depths of my teenagers’ souls–but at least I know the general idea of what they are doing now because I’ve changed my tune.

We keep it wide open up in my household. I don’t stop letting my kids know that they can come to me with anything at any time but that’s not enough of an incentive. I also ask tough questions in a cheerful tone. I reassure them I will love and support them, even if I don’t love their decisions. I remind them of their autonomy and that the right choice for someone isn’t always the correct choice for someone else.

We talk about sex, STDs, periods, sexting, drugs, drinking–nothing is off limits and they know it.

We can leave the door open for our kids and set boundaries. We can encourage them to be true to themselves and think on their own without punishing them if they screw up. We can have consequences for certain behaviors instead of walking around devastated giving them the cold shoulder for a week because they’ve broken our heart.

It’s not an easy dance. It’s uncomfortable and I’d like to live under a rock and think my kids always set the example, stand up to peer pressure, and are never tempted. But, I’d rather be honest with myself, and them, and stay in the real world where teens do stupid things and sometimes need their parents help to find their way out of a rabbit hole.

I’d rather hear that one of my kids is having sex, or that they were drinking at a party from them, not from another parent or kid. And most of all, I want them to feel like I’m approachable, but not so lax that they can do whatever they want without consequences.

I believe we can walk both lines but it takes more grit than anything else I’ve experienced in life. I gladly do it now and keep my relationship with my kids as open and healthy as I can. I think the long-terms gains of having an open dialogue with them will, in the long run, pay off.

I’d rather talk things out with my kids than expect them to act like obedient soldiers while they are living a secret life and lying to me about it.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

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About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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