Gone are the days of gathering with the other parents at the edge of the playground each morning, travel mugs in hand, watching your little bundles of joy trundle across the playground to primary school. Back then you knew what they were doing and who they were doing it with. And you had those other parents to talk to about raising kids. The members of Stratford Central School Council, together with a professional teen counselor, have written a series of articles that we hope will provide insight, advice and support for parents of teenagers on topics that aren't always easy to discuss. If you would like to send us a comment please email us at SCSS_SCC@fcmail.amdsb.ca. This is the final article in the series.
So here you are, the parent of a teenager. Congratulations. You have made it through the sleepless nights of infancy, the tantrums of the "terrible twos", toilet training, starting school and sibling squabbles. You now have a young person who is making the last stages of transition from total reliance on you to independence in the world.
The first thing you should know about parenting your teen is that, no matter how wonderful your child is, no matter how great a job you have done at building a strong parent-child relationship, and no matter how well you have prepared your child for the challenges they will face in adolescence, it's inevitable... Your teenager is going to mess up. It's part of the human condition to err, and it's part of the teenage condition to err often! As parents, we sometimes get frustrated or worried with all the erring going on, but take heart. Making mistakes is normal and essential for your child's learning process. In fact, mistakes have the potential to be our best teachers.
Think about your own adolescence; it's likely that your greatest life lessons came after taking a wrong step. Perhaps one impulsive choice led you into a whole lot of suffering and trouble. To avoid that trouble, you never repeated the mistake. The consequences of making a bad decision are sometimes enough to teach an important lesson. In these instances, very little parental intervention is required, and it is best to step aside and let Life be the teacher. At other times, it is necessary for parents to impose consequences to mimic the natural process of learning. Either way, our role as parents is to help our teenagers to make good decisions and to learn from their mistakes when the decisions are not so good.
Outlined below is a step-by-step procedure for use in dealing with general parenting challenges with teenagers. Following that are some suggestions for dealing with more specific problems, such as handling your teenager's first experience with underaged drinking, and use of illicit drugs.
Step #1 Stay Calm
An incident of bad behaviour is not necessarily evidence of a lifelong character pattern. Try not to react as if your child has ruined his or her life (or yours). This is probably just a moment in a life, an opportunity to experience some learning. Unless the situation is life-threatening, it's not a crisis. No matter what the problem is, it will be best handled with a calm and reasonable approach.
Remember, you are in charge. Be proactive, rather than reactive. Think: "What do I want my child to learn from this?"
Step #2 Listen
Let your teenager tell their story with minimal interruptions. This is not as easy to do as it is to recommend. Sometimes what your teen is saying will trigger strong emotions in you and you will want to leap in and correct their thinking, or show them the error of their ways. Try to be patient and refrain from judging. Ask questions for more information. Try to understand their point of view. Whenever possible, include both parents. While you are listening, try to remember that teenagers ultimately want to make good decisions for themselves. Under normal conditions, they do not want to hurt themselves and they want to grow up to be a functioning part of society. In other words, they have the same primary goals for themselves that we as parents have for them.
Step #3 Share Your Feelings
Now it is your turn to talk. Tell your teenager how you feel about the incident. If you are disappointed, worried or angry, let them know. Be as honest and open as you can. Explain why you think they have made a mistake and what all of the potential consequences could be. Share your values and why they are important to you.
Step #5 Analyzing the Bad Decision
Allow your teenager to respond to what you have said and to have a say in analyzing their decision. In fact, let them take the lead. They should be able to reason out what they did wrong and what they could have done differently. Help them to come up with alternatives, but let them do most of the thinking and talking. This allows your teen the opportunity to learn how to analyze their mistakes, an invaluable tool for living. It also shows them that you respect them and believe in their ability to think for themselves on their own behalf. You are now teaching them an important life skill, rather than just lecturing them about your own thoughts. You are also relating to them with respect, which makes them more likely to behave in accordance with parental and societal values.
Step #6 Determine Consequences
After discussion with the other parent if possible, decide what (if any) consequences need to be imposed. What constitutes an appropriate consequence? First, it should be something that makes sense to the infraction. Keeping in mind the question "what do I want my teen to learn from this?", impose a consequence which "fits the crime". Make it as natural as possible. For example, breaking curfew could result in an earlier curfew for the next night out (i.e. if they come home at 1 a.m. on a midnight curfew, next time their curfew could be 11 p.m.). If they skip classes, make sure the school takes steps to discipline them.
Consequences should be imposed as soon after the bad behaviour as possible. They should be reasonable, and they should be something a parent can monitor. It's no good to tell your teen they are prohibited from using "msn" for a week, because unless you are always home, you cannot monitor that consequence. Choose a consequence where you can actually supervise compliance.
Step #7 Follow Through
Whenever possible, have both parents present in giving consequences. Calmly state your feelings, values and expectations in the situation. Describe the consequence clearly. Respond to any objections assertively. Do not argue. Do not allow yourself to get riled up over any reactions your teenager might have. Remember you are the adult in charge and you are providing leadership to your teen, who needs some direction. Once the consequence has been established, see it through. Do not cave in to feelings of pity or guilt and lessen the consequence. It is important to stay consistent. If you have taken the time to choose an appropriate and reasonable consequence, it should stand.
It is equally important to let go of your teenager's learning process once the consequence has been imposed. Don't lecture your teen about their mistake. Never use it as a weapon against them. And don't use their guilt over their mistake to manipulate their behaviour. Your greatest influence over your children is the strength of your relationship with them, and a relationship built on trust, honesty and respect has the most power. Your kids have paid the price for the infraction and now have a clean slate. However, if the behaviour persists, they are clearly not learning from their mistakes. Professional help may be indicated (see sidebar).
Tips for Dealing
with Underage Drinking
Your child's first experiment with alcohol is likely to have a drunken result. As shocking and upsetting as this can be to a parent, it's a logical outcome in territory which has unknown limits. Getting drunk for the first time, while usually nasty, embarrassing, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, is also an opportunity for learning some very important lessons.
If your son or daughter comes home drunk, your first duty is to their safety. If they are incoherent or passing out, seek medical attention. Alcohol poisoning from overdrinking can kill a teenager. If you determine that they are not in any danger, send them to bed, checking on them a couple of times through the night. Do not discuss the incident while they are drunk. They are not in any shape to do so - you probably aren't either. In the morning you will both be more coherent. In the meantime, let your teenager see that his or her safety is your first concern.
The next day, your teenager should be expected to carry out the full duties of their day as if they were feeling well. Require them to get up at a reasonable time, serve them breakfast, expect them to complete family chores and obligations, run errands, do homework, etc. (If nothing was planned, you may want to create a few activities.) Having to function at a normal level while hung over and sick is a natural consequence to their decision to drink too much alcohol.
Calmly discuss the dangers of over drinking. A partial list would include accidents, regretful sexual behaviours, embarrassment, sexual assault, hangovers, legal troubles, etc. Remind them that there is a legal drinking age of 19 and drinking under that age is breaking the law. Call upon your teenager to use this information to make good decisions for him or herself.
Although your preference is that they abstain completely, it is realistic to expect some teenage drinking. A 2005 poll shows 62 per cent of Ontario youth aged 12-16 had consumed alcohol. Since they are already learning to drink, you can help them to be sensible and minimize their risk by guiding their decision-making process.
What about Drug Use?
Not all drugs were created equal. We tend to group all illicit substances into one category called "drugs", but it must be acknowledged that some drugs are far more dangerous than others. Let's separate the use of marijuana from the use of other drugs. It is used much more frequently amongst young people and is a known entity even amongst non-users because of its widespread use. A 2005 poll shows that 26.5 per cent of Ontario youth aged 12-16 years had smoked marijuana.
You can address marijuana use similarly to how you deal with drinking. Discuss the ramifications rationally and openly. Marijuana use and possession is illegal. Discuss legal consequences and how a criminal record limits mobility and employability. Explain that the use of marijuana can impact motivation, concentration, memory and school performance, and physical health, such as lung damage, increased susceptibility to cancer, and decreased fertility. Apply appropriate consequences to discourage continued use. For example, suspend allowances for a period of time, stating explicitly that you will not pay for marijuana.
Drugs such as Cocaine, Crack, Methamphetamine, Ecstasy, Heroin and LSD pose an entirely different and far more dangerous set of risks. If you discover that your teenager is using any of the other drugs listed, or even if you have a strong suspicion of such, take your teenager for an assessment with a professional drug and alcohol counsellor. Educate yourself and your teenager about the effects of these drugs. There are many dangers associated with them and immediate intervention is warranted.
Navigating the rough and unknown waters of adolescence is a big task for our kids. Helping them get through it without any permanent damage can be anxiety provoking for parents. Following the process outlined in this article can help you make the experience more positive for both of you. Good luck!
- Stratford Central School Council
Where to go when you need
For referral to counselling, see your family doctor
or one of the following service providers:
Family Services Perth-Huron 273-1020
family & individual counselling
Rick Graff & Associates 273-2522
family & individual counselling
Huron-Perth Centre 273-3373
children & youth age 0-18 and their families.
Choices For Change 2 71-6730
counselling for drugs, alcohol & gambling
- also family members
Huron-Perth Crisis Intervention 274-8000
Outreach Eating Disorders 272-2120
eating disorders program
(Stratford General Hospital)
Safespace Program 273-6537
programs for gay youth
Children's Aid Society 271-5290
families with children under 16