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.
Scott Wooding, a child psychologist, speaker and author who lives near Calgary, believes it’s important for parents to understand that teen behaviour often has more to do with brain chemistry than with a desire to drive you crazy. Teenagers need to become more independent and to feel they’re making some of their own decisions. “They seem to weigh the pros quite well, but their brain doesn’t click through all the negative things that could happen,” he adds. “It causes them to want to take risks. Parents love to blame things like shoplifting on their kid’s peers. But it doesn’t go like that.”
In fact, peers were just as worried as parents when 17-year-old Mike* missed his 2 a.m. curfew. By 3, his father was phoning and texting his son, but was getting no answer. By 4, Mike’s parents were calling his friends and the house where the party he had gone to that night had been held. “I was feeling so desperate,” his mother recalls. “In my head, I couldn’t think of a scenario that was OK.” At 6 a.m., Mike finally appeared, totally incoherent, wearing only one shoe and missing a sweater, jacket, cellphone and wallet. “I’d heard stories about other kids coming home completely drunk,” says his mother. “I just kept waiting for that to happen. That year I’d suspected he’d been drinking, but he always came home on time and seemed to be responsible about it. This was so the opposite.”
In this case, concern overcame anger, at least for Mike’s mother. “His dad was quite angry, but there was no getting through to [Mike].” Indeed, in situations like this — when parents are thrown for a loop or have been worrying themselves sick — it’s tough to react with the head and not the heart. “The kids aren’t doing it to you,” says Wooding. “They just do dumb things sometimes. You can’t let them get away with it — but you don’t have to get mad.”
In an ideal world, what should parents do when their child is drunk or stoned, in trouble at school or with the law, or in a compromising position with another person? Get through the immediate situation with minimal damage, says Wolf, “because what you really want is a bit of time to think about it (What does it mean? What do you want to do?)”
*Names changed by request.
Head, not heart So if a child comes home drunk or stoned, or even just really late, it’s best to send him to bed and tell him you will discuss it in the morning — and then follow up first thing the next day. Similarly, if you walk in on your teen in the middle of a passionate embrace, don’t freak out. Ask the pair to get dressed and the guest to leave. That will buy a few minutes of time, at least, for self-composure. Mike’s consequence — aside from being grounded for a few weeks — was to apologize in person to everyone his parents had woken that night while searching for him. His parents also set Mike up with a drug counsellor, who talked to the teen about ways to handle peer pressure and how to drink responsibly.
Wooding adds that when the child is sobered up and everyone has had a chance to calm down, “ask, ‘Why?’ or my favourite, ‘What happened?’ — just conversationally.” Let your teen tell the story, then decide if the incident deserves a consequence. Then it’s “‘This is the consequence; I love you; goodbye.’ You’ll get eye-rolling and that’ll irritate you, but don’t lecture because they already know what they did wrong.”
Laura* had time to figure out what to say to her 16-year-old daughter after an incident in their house, but it still didn’t make for an easy exercise. She had arrived home one day to an empty house, but found a condom wrapper on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom. “It was like shock, and then I said to myself, ‘At least she’s having sex with a condom in the safety of her own home, not in some strange place, half out of her mind drunk.’”
Laura didn’t need to confront her daughter. She had tried hard to maintain open communication in the hope that her daughter would never feel there was something she couldn’t discuss. Still, when her daughter confessed to having had sex, Laura says, “it made my stomach lurch even though I suspected this had happened. It really rocked my world.” But she didn’t make those feelings obvious to her daughter. “I said, ‘What was it like?’ and she said, ‘It wasn’t that great, Mom.’” They talked about being smart about birth control and about the importance of her daughter “keeping her power” — not having sex to get people to like her.
“Ultimately, as a parent, you have to accept the fact that your children have to explore their sexuality,” says Laura. “All you can do is hope it’s not a bad experience and make sure they know you’re there for them.”
At times, though, the heart prevails and parents react emotionally and say or do things they regret. If you do say something you regret, apologize. Period. “If there’s something you said or did that you feel was a mistake, if you sooner rather than later make that clear to your kid, it really does significant damage control,” says Wolf.
Wooding agrees that explaining to your teen that you were scared — and you reacted accordingly — is the only way to go. “You’ve got a bond here,” he explains. “It’s pretty hard to mess it up. You’re not going to lose face or lose your status if you make the occasional mistake. Eighty percent of the time parents are right; every once in a while you blow it. It’s straightforward to go back and apologize, and the kids really appreciate it.”
*Names changed by request.
Bottom line? Teens are going to do teen things, and parents would do well to recognize what’s going on in their world. “If we’re thinking zero tolerance when it comes to experimenting, that’s where we come into conflict with our kids,” says Jay Pasternack, clinical director of New Life Counselling and program director of the Jewish Addiction Community Services in Toronto. “Anger will never solve the situation, but you have to give consequences.” Those consequences need to make sense and have limits. In other words, if a teenager comes home drunk and it’s a first offence, parents might consider grounding the child for a finite period of time. However, forbidding a child from seeing certain people in an attempt to control substance use or in the hopes of severing a relationship is a no-win game — and, in fact, may backfire and intensify the less-than-desirable behaviour.
It may feel counterintuitive, but Pasternack maintains that one of the best ways parents can deal with their teens is by giving them some autonomy. “Kids who get jumped on go underground very quickly,” he says. “The very best prevention or intervention is to have things above board, without judgment or an authoritarian manner to it. Tell them what your values are in the house and why.”
Louise and Colin’s parents dealt their teens an effective consequence. Their mother acknowledged that she understood there was sometimes beer at parties, but stressed that being lied to was absolutely unacceptable. Louise’s dad recalls: “She said, ‘We need to know where you are at all times.’ And then, ‘We’ll take the beer to your party, but we have to phone the parents and make sure it’s OK with them.’” The parents were open to it, and Louise’s mother drove her daughter — and the beer — to the party herself. “It kind of ruins it if your parents are in on buying the beer,” says Louise’s father, with a laugh. “If we’d overreacted, they might have become more sneaky.”