Last week, I invited readers to suggest topics for future posts. Be careful what you wish for, right? One of my readers suggested that I address the following topic:
parenting high school/college age with regards to casual dating, sex, alcohol and drugs, especially in college where there is no longer parental supervision – reader Mary
This is a tough, but very important, topic and I thank Mary for proposing it. I spent a lot of time over the past week thinking about what I can offer parents to help them navigate these rocky waters. I kept coming back to two themes.
First, all of the good parenting that moms and dads do from the time their children are born is really about preparing the children for the time when they jump ship into those rocky waters called adulthood. For more on this, see The Biggest Parenting Question and Ready or Not, Let Them Go. To belabor this metaphor further, as parents, you cannot keep your young adult children tethered to the boat, but you have already provided them with some form of flotation device. You have discussed books, movies, and television programs where difficult life situations were addressed, you have talked with them over countless meals about right and wrong, about peer pressure, about consequences of their choices. You have lived your values and served as a very powerful positive role model by doing so. By the time your children reach adulthood, the vast majority of your hands-on parenting is done. Now, as hard as it may be, you have to sit back and watch them swim, and struggle against the waves, and float, and get pulled under, and then swim again. At times, you will be able to re-inflate their flotation device or tread water alongside them for brief moments, but for the most part, they will have to figure out how to stay above water.
The second theme I kept revisiting during the week is what makes these particular issues tough for parents to address well. Why is it that I can have really great conversations with teens and young adults about these topics when parents’ attempts often go nowhere. In large part, it is simply because, in the confines of my office, I am not a parent. I am, when I am at my best, a trusted adult/mentor/therapist/confidante. Simply because I am not Mom or Dad, my office is a safe place to talk about these issues.
I believe there is something else that I do, both as a parent and as a psychologist, that not all parents feel comfortable doing. For each of the issues in Mary’s suggested topic, I have considered and am prepared to talk openly about all of the reasons young people might choose to engage or not to engage in a risky behavior.
This idea can best be explained with an illustration. Take drinking alcohol, for example. How would you complete each of the cells in the table below?
Think about what might go into each of the four cells. Below is an example from a client of mine who had recently been sent home from his sophomore year of college following his fourth infraction of the school’s rules about alcohol on campus.
Benefits of drinking: I have more fun at parties when I drink; I fit in better since everyone else is drinking; Alcohol takes away my shyness; I can talk to girls more.
Benefits of not drinking: I won’t get into as much trouble at home or at school; It’s probably healthier for me; Save money; Improve grades; Generally less likely to do something stupid.
Costs of drinking: It’s expensive; Probably get into more trouble; Parents may never trust me again; There are several alcoholics in my family; Risk of addiction; I keep disappointing my parents.
Costs of not drinking: People think you’re weird in college if you don’t drink; Sometimes when I don’t drink, I worry about what others are thinking of me and have no fun.
While there is a lot of redundancy in this exercise, I prefer to help young people look at the costs of drinking/not drinking and the benefits of drinking/not drinking because this approach highlights two important points I want them to take away from the exercise. First this approach emphasizes the fact that I am aware that there are, in fact, benefits to the riskier choice (drinking or having casual sex, for example). It also emphasizes the element of choice; if you only talk about the costs and benefits of drinking, you are not giving enough attention to the other choice – not drinking. Sometimes, I even add a third column which highlights a less all-or-nothing way of approaching the decision. The middle column might be headed, for example, “drinking only on weekends” or “only sleeping with guys I’ve dated for six months or more.”
You can prepare yourself for these essential conversations by thinking about how you and your child would complete the table. Once you have spent some time thinking about all the reasons your child might choose to engage in a risky behavior so that you are prepared to bring them up if your child doesn’t, then you are set to go. Watch how your child reacts when you acknowledge that drinking/getting high does make parties more fun sometimes. Pay close attention to your child’s face when you acknowledge that sex feels good and creates a sense of being loved and special. Your credibility rises sharply once it becomes clear that you are willing to look at the issue from all angles. Once you know that your child is doing so as well, then let him know you trust that he can make a wise decision. Offer to talk further if needed. Encourage her to talk to other trusted adults if it would be helpful. In the case of truly reckless and/or addictive behavior, offer to seek professional help. Then allow your child the time and space to struggle through the decision-making process. This is rarely a one-and-done conversation; it is likely you will revisit it over time. Be open and frank every time you do.
If your child is expecting a “just say no” conversation, your awareness of how complex these issues are for young people will go a long way in moving the conversation, and hopefully the decision, in a good direction.