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You've devoted more than a decade to raising your children, investing untold time and energy. You've warned them about drugs and alcohol, and explained not only the facts of life but also the facts of love. You've watched their soccer games and driven them to dances. You've curbed your own behavior to set a good example for them. By all rights, adolescence should be the time when you begin to see the rewards of your efforts.
But just when your kids give every impression of being well on the way to productive adulthood, they pitch you a curve ball. You catch your golden girl, now 13, sneaking out her window after curfew to meet that scruffy-looking boy with all the piercings and tattoos. Your incurably adventurous little Huck Finn has, at 14, discovered a grown-up kind of mischief, as evidenced by the drug paraphernalia in his room. You thought you'd be basking in the glow of a job well done; instead, you're feeling betrayed, confused and, above all, disappointed.
The reality, though, is that some fate-tempting behavior is developmentally appropriate. Teens discover what they really think and often try to take charge of their lives by defying or sidestepping our rules and values. "If you think your teen is perfect, either she's hiding her activities because she knows they're wrong and she'll be punished — or you're in deep denial," says Brad Sachs, PhD, author of The Good Enough Teen (HarperCollins). So forget the where-did-I-go-wrongs and the grounded-for-life sentences. Stuff happens. It may even strike you as amusing one day. For now, here are eight situations that may challenge your unsuspecting household, with strategies to help you cope.
Challenge #1: Lying
The situation: Your 16-year-old son says he's going to David's house to work on a social studies project, but he'll be home by 11. An hour later David calls and asks to speak to him.
What to do: Once you've tracked him down, prepare your greeting. Not "I'll never trust you again" (too abstract) or "Where the hell have you been?" (too controlling). Instead, say calmly, "Why did you think you had to deceive me about your plans?" Have him restate your rules and the reasons for them. Then ground him for the weekend. Violation of a privilege means the loss of it. But realize that kids sometimes rebel this way because they truly are ready for more independence. It may be time to loosen house policies, on a case-by-case basis, after he has regained your trust by behaving responsibly.
How to cope: Your son sees this as one little lie; you envision him lying and cheating his way through life. Both of you are wrong. "Lying and deceiving is one of the ways adolescents experiment with gaining independence from their parents," says Sachs.
How to move on: Realize it could have been worse: If he were really incorrigible, he would have called David to work out the plan.
Challenge #2: College
The situation: Your son, a junior in high school, tells you that he has no intention of going to college.
What to do: First, bite your tongue. This may not be as disastrous as it seems. Second, calm down and try to determine whether he really doesn't want to go to college or is just having a tough time facing this terrifying life transition. "It will be easier to help him once you sort out whether he means what he's saying," says Joshua Sparrow, MD, coauthor of Discipline: The Brazelton Way (Da Capo Press).
How to cope: Ask yourself whether you've been too pushy. "Often this is a reaction to pressure — from parents and society — to get into a name-brand school," says Mary Muscari, PhD, author of Let Kids Be Kids (University of Scranton Press). If your son is serious about skipping college, ask what alternatives he has in mind. Have the school guidance counselor talk to him about careers that don't require a degree. Another option: Suggest that he work for a year after high school before making this momentous decision.
How to move on: Accept the fact that despite society's messages, our degrees and careers don't define who we are. "There are many pathways to a productive adulthood," says Sachs.
Challenge #3: Shoplifting
The situation: Your 13-year-old daughter was caught shoplifting.
What to do: When you get her home, have the first of what may be a series of conversations aimed at finding whether she was thrill-seeking, giving in to peer pressure, jonesing for a $200 pair of sneakers, or it was something more. Meanwhile, says Dr. Sparrow, "Don't protect her from the consequences of her actions." If the store is pressing charges, get a lawyer (she should contribute to the legal fees) to help you navigate the system but impose your own consequences as well. "Thirty hours of community service would be appropriate," suggests Heather Krell, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neuropsychiatric Institute, "perhaps at a homeless shelter, where your daughter can gain a sense of perspective about real needs." A pattern of shoplifting may be a mask for a deeper problem; ask your pediatrician for a referral to a therapist.
How to cope: "Let her know you'll be checking up — for example, with random dumps of her backpack or handbag — and accompany her on shopping trips for the next few months," says Dr. Krell.
How to move on: Step back and let your teen shoulder responsibility for her actions. She's learned the hard way that society has boundaries she can't cross.
Challenge #4: Disrespect for Women
The situation: Driving your son and a friend to a dance, you overhear them laughing and talking about the "sluts" who might be there.
What to do: Don't overreact, but do nip the conversation in the bud by saying, "Hey guys, how about showing some respect? That's a derogatory term. Let's change the subject." As soon as you can, explain to your son the importance of having healthy attitudes toward women.
How to cope: Don't assume these comments reflect your son's deeply held beliefs about women. They're probably a misguided attempt to keep up with and impress his buddy.
How to move on: Look deeper, beyond your son's impulsive remarks, to his behavior. If he has friendships with girls, if he treats you and his sisters with respect, he's fine.
Challenge #5: Quitting
The situation: Your 16-year-old, a star football player, quits his team.
What to do: Ultimately, this is his choice, but sound him out to make sure it's a carefully reasoned decision rather than a reaction to some difficulty on the team or fear of not measuring up.
How to cope: Remember that this isn't about you. "We all get gratification from our kids' talents," says Dr. Sparrow, "but it may be time to face the fact that most kids are going to give up sports before they reach the Olympics."
How to move on: Understand that disengaging from the activities of the past is an important way for teens to figure out what they value. Says Muscari: "This is what you've raised him for — to make decisions for himself."
Challenge #6: Sexual Activity
The situation: The principal calls to say your 15-year-old daughter was among several girls caught giving oral sex to guys at a school dance.
What to do: Take some time — maybe even overnight — to deal with your shock and outrage before you talk to your daughter. "Keep the emotional temperature down," says Dr. Krell. If you convey disgust or contempt now, when she's no doubt feeling humiliated already, she'll absorb that into her self-image, making change much more difficult. Begin with something like, "I'd like to hear your version of what went on at the dance." Then find out what she knows about sexually transmitted diseases; kids are largely unaware that STDs can be passed on via oral sex.
From there you can move to bigger issues about sexuality, values, intimacy, and self-esteem. "There's no logical consequence for this, but grounding her for a couple of weeks is obligatory," says Dr. Krell. "This behavior is all too common, which signals that our teens need more supervision — not only at dances." Talk to the school about extra vigilance, and volunteer to chaperone future dances.
How to cope: Know that you are not alone: This is a huge, baffling issue for parents and experts alike. Somewhere along the way in recent years, young people have gotten the idea that oral sex isn't real sex. According to the CDC, more than half of kids between 15 and 19 have engaged in it.
How to move on: Remind yourself that your daughter crossed the line, but she can come back. What will make the difference is your faith in her. Focus on her good traits and keep giving her support when she seems to be pulling away — your opinion matters more than she lets on.
Challenge #7: Drugs
The situation: You give your 16-year-old daughter a good-night kiss and her clothes absolutely reek of pot.
What to do: Forget the lecture. Instead, send her to bed with a promise that you'll discuss this tomorrow. Then, says Sachs, "engage her curiosity about her behavior — why she does it, what she sees as the benefits and the risks." She needs to know that exposure to drugs and alcohol during adolescence is dangerous. "Teens are neurologically much more vulnerable," says Dr. Sparrow. "Some people can experiment and move on, but many drug addicts actually started when they were teenagers." Consequences might include two weeks' grounding and arranging random drug tests.
How to cope: Level with her: "I can't follow you around 24-7. But I love you too much to let you hurt yourself, and I will impose tough consequences — and so will the law — if you're caught." If you suspect serious involvement — if you see extreme moodiness, apathy, or slipping grades — ask your pediatrician for a treatment referral.
How to move on: Keep addressing the issue with persistence and firmness. Stay well informed about teens and drug use. And keep that bedtime kiss part of the evening routine. It helps you remain close, and it's a signal to your daughter that you're paying attention.
Challenge #8: Pornography
The situation: You borrow your son's computer and notice that the browser's log of "recent places" includes several porn sites.
What to do: As soon as possible, make a time when the two of you can talk, a time when neither of you is rushed or overtired. Then tell him what you've discovered and say, "Your curiosity is perfectly natural, but this isn't the best place to satisfy it. Porn shows you a very distorted picture of sexuality and intimacy, and it's degrading to women." Curb further adventures: Use filters and porn blocks, keep the computer in a public place, limit online and messaging time, and explain that you'll be monitoring the sites he visits. If you need some help figuring out how, see Parental Guidelines at asacp.org.
Finally, check who he corresponds with by e-mail for any names you don't recognize to make sure he's not the victim of an online pedophile who's feeding him porn. If you fear this is the case, call the police.
How to cope: Most likely this is normal curiosity, not the high road to perversion. While you can't make explicit sex totally unavailable — it's everywhere — you can certainly keep the hard-core stuff out of your house.
How to move on: Remember that your child absorbs your values more from what he sees you doing than from what you say he ought to do. If you keep living what you believe, he will too.