One of the biggest challenges of parenting a teen is giving him or her the freedom to make their own decisions and learn from mistakes, while still doing your best to ensure their safety. As a parent, it is your responsibility to set behavioral guidelines and expectations for your teen, but lecturing your teen about sex, alcohol, drugs, and other risky behavior may not be the best approach. Most of the time, lectures do not help your teen make the right decision in the stress and emotions of the moment. Instead, try this four-step approach:
Rather than lecturing your teen about sex, drugs, alcohol, and other topics, start by asking questions and seek to understand your teen’s knowledge and feelings about a given topic. Seeking to understand has two significant benefits. First, it lets your teen feel acknowledged. We build trust when we are genuinely interested in what the other person thinks. Second, listening to your teen will help you better understand how to address any given topic. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to get more information about what your teen thinks, believes, and feels.
Broaching these topics can be difficult. Try approaching the conversation as a discussion about values, rather than a “sex talk” or “alcohol lecture.” Ask questions like:
- What does respect and caring look like in a romantic relationship?
- What decisions do you have to make to build trust with parents, friends, coaches, teachers, employers, etc., and what decisions tear down trust?
- How do you want to be described? What decisions do you/can you make that show you are the person you just described?
Once you have a better understanding of what your teen thinks about a topic, you can help him or her create guidelines for making decisions. It is much better to help them create boundaries before they are faced with a difficult decision rather than expect “they will know what to do” in the midst of an emotional or stressful decision. Creating a plan helps your teen feel prepared and confident.
Again, frame these guidelines around their values. “In order to be a responsible, caring, dedicated, respected individual (or whatever values matter most to you and your teen), here is the best decision in this circumstance.”
Making the right decision in the heat of the moment is hard. That’s why helping your teen practice good decision making is so important. The more opportunities you create to practice putting their values-based guidelines into action, the more likely it is your teen will make the right decision in the moment. Potential opportunities for practicing decision making are below.
- Use scenes from television shows or movies to ask your teen what decision they would make in that situation, why they would make that decision, the consequences of their decision, and the consequences of other possible choices.
- News stories from the television, newspaper, or internet often present real-life examples of people making the right or wrong decision. Use these examples to help your teen think about what choice they would make.
- Examples from your own life can be an effective way to get your teen to think about real choices they may face.
- Pro-actively practice for situations you know your teen will face like peer pressure to drink after a high school dance, pressure from a romantic partner to engage in unsafe sex, or even taking performance enhancing drugs for a sport.
A single conversation or lecture on any topic is ineffective. Follow up with your student by asking about tough decisions he or she has had to make in the last several weeks. Find out what decision they made and ask what they would do better or differently if faced with the same decision again. Remember, your goal is to help them learn to make decisions, not judge their decisions.