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One day every parent realizes not only that his child is capable of getting into real trouble but that Mom and Dad are powerless to stop it. We adults have excellent imaginations and can visualize every manner of catastrophe that a kid can get into. Never are our imaginative powers stronger than during our children’s teen years.

Many parents’ first instinct when a child reaches her teens is to clamp down on the rules. Suddenly, we want to run background checks on all her friends, accompany her on every trip to the mall, and listen in on her phone calls. But far from keeping a teen safe, turning up the Strict Meter only drives behavior underground. Stuff is still going on – you just no longer see it.

So what do you do? First, let’s take a reality check then look at some strategies for keeping the lines of communication open and your values front and center.

Reality Check
First, you do want your teen to grow up and make his own decisions. Every parent wants her child someday to become a self-sufficient adult and move out on his own.  So your teen’s growing independence is a good thing. The teen years are the time when kids gain the practice they need in making decisions and it’s the time when they develop a personal code of ethics. But this development has to come from the kid. It’s not development if it’s something you impose or insist on. So your teen’s eventual ability to stand on his own two feet and make solid choices is the outcome of some trial-and-error.  Mistakes will be made.

Second, remember that you haven’t exactly been just sitting on your hands as a parent all these years. You’ve been active in letting your child learn right from wrong, you’ve supported her good decisions in the past and you’ve helped her learn from her bad decisions. So there’s no need to panic. There’s just a need to not drop the ball now, when the stakes are suddenly higher.

You’re still the parent. Your child is still the kid. But your relationship is shifting and the way to have the kind of influence you want to have now and on into the future is to balance attention to values with your child’s increasing ability to fend for himself.

Some Strategies

  1. Talk with (not to) your teen.  Open a conversation about an issue that worries you. Ask her opinion. Don’t preach and don’t make her the focus of the conversation. Keep things general. Say, “I was reading the other day that it’s really easy to get pot at the high school. What do you think?”
  2. Listen to your teen. The more frequently and casually you talk together, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the more connected the two of you will be. But the key to talking with teens is to listen to them – without arguing, without contradicting them, and without offering unsolicited advice. Practice asking neutral questions that keep the conversation going: “What happened then?” “How did you feel about that?” “Tell me more.”
  3. When you have a concern, get right to the point. Don’t try to trap your child in a lie. Say, “I’m worried that you’ve been drinking. Tell me about that.” Notice that this requires a child, not to deny drinking, but to explain drinking. Your child may answer with a question: “What makes you think that?” but even so, you have a conversation going. Remember to listen. Remember not to preach.
  4. Make your expectations clear. If you want your child home by 11, say so, long before she leaves the house. If there are rules about using the car, take time to discuss these at a time when she’s not rushing out to a movie. Your child is not a mind-reader and important issues can’t be discussed reasonably at the last minute. Establish ground rules well in advance. (And keep in mind that your child may welcome your rules. “My mother would kill me!” is a great face-saving reason not to go along with the crowd when the child would rather not go along anyway.)
  5. Have the conversations you’ve been avoiding. Every parent knows you don’t talk about how to safely cross the street only once, after children are old enough to understand traffic. And talking with kids about sex shouldn’t wait for one, embarrassed conversation long after children have picked up the basics from their friends. The same goes for talking about drugs or whatever else that’s been in the back of your mind. If you’ve been putting something off, put it off no longer.

Take the Long View
There’s a lot of growing up that happens during the teen years and lots of opportunities for mistakes. But if kids are going to grow up, they need those opportunities. The wise parent is supportive of his children, is clear about his values, but understands that learning to find one’s own way is part of the process kids must go through.

If you’ve been strict in the past, if you’ve threatened draconian punishment in the future, you can bet you’ll be lied to. Expect it. If you want honesty, make honesty comfortable in your home. Accept your child as she is, right now. Keep the door open. Treat your child with respect. Be patient. Listen.

There’s a lot of living to share, long after the teen years are behind you both. The good relationship you forge now will be the good relationship you keep.