From the time they begin to talk, kids can ask some pretty difficult questions. Young children may ask where babies come from or why so-and-so's parents got divorced. They may demand to know where people go when they die, or why someone of a different race looks different from them. As your children grow up, their questions don't become any easier. Teenagers navigate a world full of questions about sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol and who they'll become as they transition to adulthood. When your teen asks about these issues, you may feel uncomfortable; no one wants to imagine their child involved with drugs or struggling with sexuality confusion. While an intimate heart-to-heart may not be your favorite thing to do with your child, open and honest conversation can help your teen make good decisions. And we've got a cheat sheet of answers that will make your talk a little easier.
It's tempting to project an aura of cool, calm, collectedness during an uncomfortable conversation with your teen. Such an attitude demands respect, right? But it's OK to acknowledge that a question is uncomfortable or that the discussion's getting a little embarrassing. That's completely normal, and showing you're aware of the situation's potential awkwardness will demonstrate to your teen that you're being honest. If your parents never spoke to you about things like drugs or sex, explain that to your teen. You can promise your child that you'll be doing your best because these kinds of conversations are important. If things become unbearably uncomfortable, ask for a timeout to collect your thoughts. A conversation between parent and child shouldn't be a one-time thing, but rather an ongoing dialogue.
Teenagers tend to be concerned with whether they're normal. They measure normality by what their peers do -- or by what they see on television -- but no matter their definition of "normal," they are probably concerned by the ways they believe they fall short. Perhaps they think that they should be out drinking every night, or maybe they think they're an anomaly if they haven't had a certain number of sexual experiences. They may feel that they should've developed bigger breasts or more facial hair. No matter the marker, it can be devastating to feel like you don't fit in, and feeling like an outsider can cause depression and stress. Whether your teen is stressed about not having a significant other or not maturing at the same rate as other kids, reassure him or her that there's no such thing as "normal." Remind your teen that there is no set pathway to adulthood.
If your teen has worked up the nerve to ask an uncomfortable question, you'd probably like to have a comprehensive, concise answer at the ready, right? You may think that any answer that's less than perfect will cause your teen to lose faith in your ability to field tough questions. But you won't lose your teen's respect if you admit you don't know. There's a reason why your teen's questions can be uncomfortable, and that's because they're tough and not easy to answer. Ask your teen if you can get back to them, or better yet, take time to research the answer to your teen's question together. You won't look dumb; you'll look honest, and that can be extremely reassuring.
Teens often want to know if you can understand the choices they're facing, so they may ask blunt questions. Did you have sex before you were married? Did you smoke pot? Were you bullied? You may wonder if it's wise to own up to your past. If you did engage in behaviors that you hope that your child won't at this age, you may think that admitting them is some form of tacit approval. You may worry that your teen won't respect your authority if you were anything less than perfect.
There's no one way to answer those types of questions, but research from some studies reveals that being honest about your past helps your teens turn down risky options [source: Klass]. It's unlikely you'll glorify anything that your teen hasn't seen glorified on television, so instead, take time to talk about how you made your youthful decisions, and what you wish you'd done differently. If you feel you made a mistake, talk about why that is. Showing your teen that you faced the same issues that he or she is facing now will remind your teen that you're a reliable source for these tough questions. And you can be honest without relaying every single detail of your past.
If your teen comes to you with a question, it's probably because he or she knows that information from popular culture or other teenagers isn't likely to be completely accurate. This is your time to lay out the facts about the risks and responsibilities of certain actions. It may be tempting to scare your teen; for example, you might want to say that sex is awful and your teen should never do it because a baby and an STD will probably be the result. But resist the impulse to use scare tactics, which can cause your teen to shut down. Instead, try to present a balanced picture while clearing up common myths your teen may have heard. Perhaps your teen has heard that it's impossible to get addicted to drugs the first time they're used, or that girls can't get pregnant when they're on their period. Clear up such misconceptions and show your teen how every behavior -- no matter how tempting -- can carry certain consequences.
On the last page we talked about presenting the facts to your teen about controversial issues. But a talk with your teen is also a time to lay out your own beliefs and values -- just make it clear which statements are facts and which are opinions. Your kids want to know where you stand, and how you feel about the choices they're making. You don't need to preach your values as the only existing truth, but your stand can help kids shape their own opinions and form some boundaries. After you've expressed your ideas, ask your kid what he or she believes, and be ready to remain calm if you hear something you don't agree with. If you yell or put down your teen's opinion, your child may cut you off, which eliminates your chances of further shaping and influencing his or her ideas. Acknowledge that you've heard what your teen said, and then reinforce your own beliefs.
Sometimes, your values aren't going to change your teen's mind. If that's the case, you might want to protect your child as best you can from afar. For example, you might want to educate your teen on birth control, or give your kid the number of a cab company in the event that he or she becomes too drunk to drive. Though you may feel that you're enabling your child, you may also be preventing a tragic outcome. Talk to your son about ways to resist peer pressure if he refuses to drop a friend who's been advocating drug use, or speak with your daughter about what a healthy relationship looks like if she insists on dating a guy you suspect is a deadbeat. Your kids may still make decisions that you don't like, but you can help them make responsible, safe decisions.
You shouldn't shy away from answering your teen's tough questions, but you needn't be the only one that your teen consults on such matters. Do a little research and find some books and Web sites you can recommend to your teen. Let your teen know that it's OK to consult other adults if he or she would like. Your teen's doctor, a family priest or a school counselor may all have wise words to share. Offer to set up appointments for your teen to chat with someone, and provide transportation if your teen can't drive yet. But don't let these other parties take full responsibility for the tough talks; check in with your teen regularly to see if he or she has follow-up questions.
Your teen may worry that you're freaked out and disappointed by something in the conversation. He or she may have said some things that it will take some time to accept. It's important to remind your teen that no matter what happens, you're still there for him or her. Remind your teen of your unconditional love, and thank him or her for coming to you. Tell your teen that you're willing to make these kind of conversations an ongoing thing, and that you'll always be ready to listen.
As The Who would have said, the kids are all right. See the results of a survey on teen behavior at HowStuffWorks.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. "Talking With Your Teen: Tips for Parents." 2010. (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.aap.org/featured/talkingwithyourteen.pdf
- American Social Health Association. "Talking to Your Kids." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.ashastd.org/parents/parents_overview.cfm
- Baar, Karen. "Talking About It…With Your Parents." Current Health Human Sexuality Supplement. October 2006.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Talking With Your Teen." March 5, 2010. (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.cdc.gov/chooserespect/at_home/talking_with_your_teen.html
- KidsHealth from Nemours Web site. (Jan. 24, 2011)http://kidshealth.org/parent/
- Klass, Perri. "Q. Did You Ever Smoke Pot? A. It's Complicated." New York Times. July 12, 2010. (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/health/views/13klass.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Sex Education: Talking to your teen about sex." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sex-education/CC00032
- Mayo Clinic. "Teen Drinking: Talking to Your Teen about Alcohol." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/teen-drinking/MY00521
- Mayo Clinic. "Teen Drug Abuse: Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/teen-drug-abuse/MY01099
- Planned Parenthood. "How to Talk with Your Children About Sex -- At a Glance." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.plannedparenthood.org/parents/how-talk-your-child-about-sex-4422.htm
- Rhode Island Department of Education. "Talking to Your Teens, Even About Uncomfortable Things." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.education.com/reference/article/talking-your-teens/
- Rhode Island Department of Health. "Be There for Teens: A Guide for Parents." (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.youngwomenshealth.org/be_there.html
- Warner, Robyn. "How to Talk to Your Teen." National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. (Jan. 24, 2011)http://www.natsap.org/pa_howtotalk.asp