Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parenting, Not Lecturing

Reading findingDulcinea’s recent article on what parents should know about teen dating reminded me of Otto Frank's remarks when he first read his daughter Anne Frank’s diary in the 1960s:

“For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.”

Isn't this what every father reading his daughter's diary would think?

So, short of reading a diary, how do fathers (and mothers) learn the depths of their children’s thoughts and feelings? And how can parents use this knowledge to safely steer their teenagers past the risks that confront today’s teens?

I don’t want to set myself up as a parenting guru, out of fear that my Internet-savvy daughters will post a counterpoint in the comment section. But that findingDulcinea article confirmed many of the strategies and insights I’ve stumbled upon while raising kids.

First off, I’ve found that an “open dialogue” is, as the article says, essential. Don’t do all the talking. Or even most of it. Ask questions – their answers might surprise you. More importantly, behave as if there is no "right" answer, and no repercussions for the "wrong" answer. Listen to and reflect on their responses, and then act on them.

Heatedly lecturing them about drugs or sex, for example, is often counter-productive. Before you try to scare them, ask about the landscape they encounter and how they feel about it. For all you know, your kid may be struggling not with drugs or alcohol, but with fitting in as someone who doesn’t use them. In that case, she’d need support, coping strategies, and a sympathetic ear more than a threatening harangue.

And, having felt invincible myself at age 16, I always attributed reckless teen behavior to illusions of invulnerability, but a recent study found the opposite can be true. A shocking number of teens simply don't care about their safety because they believe they will die by age 35. Imagine shouting at an irresponsible teen that she wasn't invincible, only to discover that her recklessness stemmed from hopeless fatalism. Ask about the problem before you try to solve it.

Another way to build trust with your teen is through “ground rules” – for both child and parent. Your kids should understand what you consider unacceptable behavior, but should also feel they can come to you when there’s a real problem. Everyone makes mistakes, and your son or daughter is not only a human being, but one still very much developing. Who survives adolescence without a crisis or three? And when that crisis comes, they need to turn to you, without worrying about the repercussions, or else you may only found out about the crisis from someone else, and when it’s too late to do much about it.

For instance, if they’re stranded somewhere drunk or high or just in a troubling situation, it’s more important that they get home safely than that they get grounded for a month. Let them know that they can call you with immunity. The very act of picking up the phone to ask for help is an admission of wrongdoing, and, for their safety, you need to accept it as their apology.

That said, they should still take such situations seriously. If they’re calling you for help often, then there’s a bigger problem to address, and one that requires both vigilance and consequences. Some parents even make contracts with their teens, so that each party acknowledges its own responsibilities.

I don’t have all of the answers, and neither do you. But, as another article stresses, a strong family support system can make the difference between a healthy and a troubled teen. That support system can only be built through great communication with your kids. Your role is not simply to impart wisdom learned from "when you were a kid." Things change, teens change, and things likely never were the way you remember them anyway.

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