Teenagers: The freedom fighters

You're a peace-loving parent, but battle lies ahead: Teens make fierce warriors when it comes to independence. From booze to body art, here's how to avoid the land mines

At 16 my daughter came home with a tattoo. She didn’t try to hide it; in fact, she pointed it out to me — a delicate little forget-me-not forged into the butter-soft flesh of her hip. I thought it was a stick-on at first. I picked at it with a finger to try to remove it. “Mom, that hurts!” she told me. I started to cry.

Carly and I had discussed the tattoo just a week before. I told her she was too young to make a fashion choice that would last the rest of her life. “When you’re 18, you can decide to do that,” I told her. She harrumphed off, but I thought I’d been reasonable and non-hysterical, that she had listened and the crisis was averted. I was wrong. She listened and then she did what she wanted anyway.

All teens reach for independence; that’s what they’re supposed to do. The tough part is figuring out where that leaves you as a parent. After carefully steering your kids toward their future for so long, it’s time to give them the wheel. You still have a role in their lives; it’s just that now that mostly consists of sharing your wisdom and then backing off. So even though you may not appreciate your teen’s penchant for gangsta rap, banning it would be virtually impossible and probably unwise. On the other hand, if you really fear your teen is making a dangerous choice, you need to take a stand. If it all sounds a bit confusing, welcome to the teen years. But don’t worry. We’ve got some sage advice from experts — and parents who’ve already been there — to help you navigate those murky waters.

“It’s my body”
When her daughter, Sarah,* was 13, Anne Leduc* thought she’d been kidnapped by aliens. In place of her bright-faced, strawberry-blond teen, the Toronto mom was left with a ghoulish goth child, complete with low-cut, ripped T-shirt, torn fishnet stockings, safety-pin earrings, heavy eyeliner and dyed black hair (which, I might add, turned a dreadful shade of chartreuse).

Leduc — who wears no makeup and has an abiding passion for turtlenecks — admits she had some heated discussions with Sarah about the teen’s style choices. “You have male teachers who are going to be looking down your top,” Leduc told her daughter. Sarah said that was “gross,” but also that it was the teachers’ problem, not hers. Leduc didn’t know what to do.

Translation Teens are going to try on different identities, says Jane Bow, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “It’s one of the developmental tasks of adolescence.” Young people often define themselves in opposition to their parents. “You know, the Alex P. Keaton type,” she says, referring to the finance-obsessed, tie-wearing character on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, whose parents were former flower children.

Your move Bow’s advice: Save the “absolutely nots” for things that are life-threatening or future-career-ending. “If your child wants to dress like a goth, who is that really hurting?” she asks. “But if she starts piercing with safety pins, that’s a health issue. You might want to prohibit that.”

Bow says you’ll get further if you shift your strategy to being an adviser rather than a know-it-all. Instead of “You’ll never get a job if you have a tattoo,” try “Have you considered what employers might think of your tattoo when you’re ready to look for a job?”

In Leduc’s case, talking to a neighbour who teaches high school helped put things in perspective. “I’ve seen kids go through all kinds of phases,” the teacher told Leduc. “The earlier they do it, the quicker it goes.” The neighbour was right. Within a couple of years, Sarah moved on to dreadlocks; she’s now in university and “wears a lot of beige.”

*Names changed by request.

“I don’t like hockey anymore”
Marla Thomson,* was dismayed when her son, Jack,* quit soccer at age 13. She worried that her somewhat withdrawn boy would lose what little contact he had with other kids and that he’d give up physical activity altogether. But her husband, Jonathon,* stood firm. “He doesn’t want to play anymore,” he said. “We can’t make him.”

Initially, the couple insisted that Jack take up another sport. He chose curling. But when the family moved from the town of Duncan, BC, to the country, Jack gave that up too. “I liked the curling club in Duncan,” he told them.

Translation As their need for social time ramps up, young teens may feel overloaded by the activities that they used to enjoy. “We involve our kids in sports, arts, volunteering,” says Bow. “Sometimes they have part-time jobs.” Each of these demands more time the further you get into it, and it’s natural for kids to want to opt out of some things, especially as they start taking more control of their own schedules.

Your move First, explore why your teen wants to give up the activity. Does she feel overscheduled? Maybe she can take piano lessons less frequently. Is your son feeling too much pressure from a coach? Dropping back to a less competitive league might do the trick.

If your child still insists that he’s done, there’s not much you can do, says Bow. “If he truly has a shot at the NHL or a career as a concert pianist, you might be a little more pushy. But if he’s just the average reasonably talented kid, it’s probably a different story.”

She suggests trying to keep kids engaged and active, even if not in an organized sport. When Jack expressed an interest in cycling, his dad picked up a second-hand 10-speed for him and suggested they go riding. It’s been a hard sell, says Thomson, “but you never give up.”

The caveat, according to Bow: If your teen opts out of a much-loved activity and also begins to hole up in his room for days at a time, refusing to go out and cutting off friends and family, you might want to consult a counsellor or doctor. “Those could be signs of depression,” she says.

*Names changed by request.

“But everybody smokes pot”
Two years ago, Laura Butler,* who lives in a town west of Edmonton, picked up her 14-year-old daughter, Lizzie,* from a friend’s house and found her visibly drunk. It wasn’t the first time that Lizzie had experimented with alcohol, and recently her marks had dropped and she’d become rude and unco-operative. Butler was worried she was witnessing the first step of a downward spiral for her daughter. “I found myself ranting: ‘I’ve had enough of this. You’re in trouble all the time and you’re not listening, blah, blah, blah,’” Butler recalls. She finished up by grounding Lizzie for a month.

Translation Teens are drawn to the adult aura around marijuana and alcohol, says Bow. “Kids are beginning to see themselves as independent adults and feel they should have the opportunity to do adult things.” According to a 2004 Statistics Canada study, the average age for adolescents to take a first drink is 12 and the average age to first get drunk — as well as to try marijuana — is 13.

Your move Talk often — and early. It can be easier to speak to 10-year-olds about drugs and alcohol than to 15-year-olds, says Bow. “Tell them what you expect,” she counsels. If you feel strongly that nary a drop of alcohol should cross their lips until they’re of age, say so — and explain why. If you’re OK with them sharing a drink with friends or family as long as they don’t overdo it, let them know — and be specific about what “overdoing it” means. It doesn’t hurt to emphasize that underage drinking is illegal, as are drugs.

Regardless of your views, says Bow, you can expect a certain amount of experimentation. But if you have a good relationship with your child and all goes well, they’ll likely stay close to the standard you’ve set. “Being completely permissive leaves the risk wide open,” says Bow.

When faced with evidence that your child has been using drugs or alcohol, says Bow, “try to maintain some perspective — even though you may be churning inside. Sometimes the best thing to say is: ‘Come in. Go to bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.’”

Do a little research, suggests Bow. What was going through your teen’s mind? Perhaps she gulped down a couple of drinks without realizing that alcohol takes time to absorb and has a cumulative effect. Talk about it. Although your purpose shouldn’t be to frighten the bejesus out of your kids, you can also raise other issues, such as alcohol poisoning, unwanted sexual contact and the dangers of drunk driving.

The point is: You’re in discussion mode, not raving lunatic mode. If you fly off the handle, you lose negotiating power, says Bow. And much as you’d like to, grounding your child until he’s 19 isn’t going to work. “For a teenager, one weekend is probably enough.” In retrospect, Butler agrees. When she and her husband took a purely punitive approach to Lizzie’s transgression, “the home became a battlefield.” Finally, Butler took Lizzie to see a psychologist, who pointed out that it wasn’t just the alcohol that Lizzie’s parents were “freaking out” over. “You have to be mature enough to handle it,” the psychologist told the teen. “If you’re blowing off school and you have this hateful attitude, that’s not a sign of maturity.” For their part, the Butlers tried to tone down their reactions and keep their own anger in check.

There was no overnight transformation, but Lizzie slowly began to come around. “Once we stopped getting really upset and started being a little more low-key, she trusted us more,” says Butler. In fact, Lizzie recently told her mom that she hadn’t had a drop of alcohol for months. “I’d tell you if I had [been drinking] because I know you’re not going to freak out,” she said. Adds Butler: “I believe her.”

*Names changed by request.

“But I love him!”
This summer at the cottage, Lizzie Butler (now 16) spent a lot of time fielding text messages from Jamie,* the boyfriend she left back in town. “Where RU? What RU doing?” was the constant refrain. Part of the reason was that Lizzie’s former boyfriend was at a nearby cottage and Jamie was jealous. “I know first loves can be powerful,” says Butler. “But I want Lizzie to feel free to do what she wants and not feel guilty about it.”

Translation Sexual attraction and romantic interest are huge during the teen years, says Bow. Teenagers’ emotional development — combined with the onslaught of hormones — can take most of the blame for this obsession.

Your move Butler would never say anything against Lizzie’s boyfriend. “He’s a nice kid,” she says. But she did bring up the role that jealousy can play in relationships. “It’s hard for teenagers,” she told her daughter. “They often feel insecure. But I think relationships have to be based on trust.” She also pointed out that when people truly love each other, they want the best for each other.

When Lizzie got back to town after the vacation, Jamie seemed more relaxed and they kept seeing each other. “I didn’t expect her to break it off with him,” says Butler. “I just want her to know what a good relationship is all about.” Still, she admits, it took her years to learn those lessons herself. “I think about how many mistakes I made as a teenager,” she says. “You’re trying to teach your kids these grown-up concepts. But, in the end, they figure things out for themselves.”

Some kids are more worried about how to strike up a relationship in the first place. In this case, Bow suggests focusing on the fact that romance is a process that takes time and usually begins with friendship. It may also help to talk about your own experiences as a teen, suggests Alex McKay, research coordinator with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN). “Often kids are quite similar to their parents,” he says.

*Names changed by request.

“Everyone else watches it!”
Two years ago, Lenna Richards* launched a search on her computer and an unwelcome surprise popped up: the name of a pornographic website. She confronted her 13-year-old son, and he admitted he’d been checking out the pictures and videos.

The Toronto mother of two was shaken, but told herself, “What straight teenage boy isn’t drawn to pictures of naked women?” Richards explains, “When I was a kid, it was the underwear ads in the Sears catalogue. The problem now is that some of the material on the Internet is pretty hard-core and it’s so accessible.” Indeed, when the company Symantec tracked 3.5 million searches by registered users of its software (which allows parents to monitor kids online), the words “sex” and “porn” were among the top 10 search terms. That doesn’t surprise SIECCAN’s McKay. “We have to face the fact that youth have access to the Internet,” he says. “And they’re curious.”

Translation Need we say it again? Hormones. Just keep in mind that an interest in sex is both healthy and normal.

Your move You can install software such as Net Nanny or OnlineFamily.norton, but trying to keep kids away from sex-related material on the Internet is pretty much futile, says McKay. “If they don’t have unsupervised access in your home, they’ll get it somewhere else.”

Probably the most important thing you can do, says McKay, is talk openly with your teen about what he might see online. And you can make the point that pornography is not a realistic portrayal of healthy human sexuality. “It looks like sex happens spontaneously, without any thought, and involves only the exchange of physical pleasure,” he says. “And in most porn, it’s a very lopsided exchange — usually all about the man.”

Richards talked to her son. “You have to understand that real women don’t act that way,” she told him. “If that’s what you expect, you’re going to be seriously disappointed.” She also directed him to a chapter in the book The Brain That Changes Itself, which talks about the insidious effects that porn can have on the mind.

“Do you still look at that stuff?” she asked him recently. “Not really,” he said. Then he flipped the TV channel to Hannah Montana, an obsession that secretly pleases his mom. “You gotta love that she’s on the Disney Channel,” she says. “And let’s face it, she’s a much healthier sex symbol than the ones you’ll find on any of those nasty Internet sites.”

*Names changed by request.