Face it -- teens are going to get into a little hot water. When that day comes in your family, your reaction can turn down the heat
It was a little slip of the texting fingers that got Louise* found out — a text message from a friend mistakenly sent to the land line at her house: “Party at Sarah’s. Friday night.” Louise, then 14, had told her parents she would be sleeping at a friend’s house that night. To top it off, her parents also registered some “very ill-disguised whispery talk,” as her dad recalls, between Louise and Colin, her 18-year-old brother. Shortly after, they found him stashing a case of beer outside between the garbage cans at the side of the house — beer his younger sister had talked him into buying for her.
It’s typical teenage stuff, but troubling and disconcerting to parents nonetheless. The list of things the average teenager may get up to hasn’t changed much over the years. And many of us who have teenaged children (I have three) live on the edge, knowing it’s probably only a matter of time before the going gets a little rough.
“If you have a teen, you have to assume you’re lucky if something doesn’t happen that will shock or seriously disappoint you,” says psychologist and bestselling author Anthony Wolf. Still, despite our own experiences as teenagers and the countless tales out there of teenage exploits, many parents are still at a loss as to how to respond when they’re face to face, for the first time, with their drunk/stoned/late/suspended/partially clothed child. But knowing how to react is key — to a continued good and open relationship with your teenager and to helping guide her through turbulent times. Even if the teen years are a way off for you, thinking about your reactions now may help when the time comes.
To step back a bit, it’s helpful to understand what’s actually happening, physically and emotionally, during the teen years. For one thing, hormones are fluctuating madly, which certainly play a role — though perhaps not a huge one — in a teenager’s behaviour. More importantly, the brain is still under development — a process that may not wind down until at least the mid-20s. One of the last areas to mature is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs all sorts of necessary abilities like planning, reasoning, impulse control, judgment and organization. Teens are also in the throes of figuring out who they are and how and where they fit in to the world. So when you put it all together, it’s no wonder the potential for crisis is high.
*Names changed by request.