When Dr Justin’s 16-year-old daughter is not invited to a party, father and daughter are forced to look at ‘the rules’ – and decide whether something has to change. My 16-year-old daughter was upset. Through her tears she explained to me that “My friends had a party last week and they didn’t invite me.”
I immediately felt for her. We all want our children to have positive relationships. To be deliberately excluded from a party is a painful thing.
I empathised. “You must have felt awful. No wonder you’re feeling horrible.”
“Dad, they didn’t invite me because they said it was the kind of party Dr Justin Coulson wouldn’t approve of.”
It took a few seconds for my daughter’s statement to register. Then it occurred to me. Over the years we have discouraged our children from attending parties where alcohol and other drugs would be consumed. We have talked to our children about the risks of being at parties where kids get up to mischief, or disappear into bedrooms for intimate encounters. Like all parents, we want our children to be safe, and to make good decisions.
“So it sounds as though there was stuff happening at that party that they know you’ve been taught to avoid.”
My daughter’s response surprised me. “Dad, some of the kids were up to stuff. But not all of them. I’m not upset that I wasn’t there. I’m upset that they never gave me the option to decide for myself.”
The tasks of adolescence
One of the central tasks of adolescence is identity development. Tweens and teens ask themselves, “Who am I? What am I about? What do I stand for and what do I value?” Part of this identity development requires that they separate from their parents. And part of this identity development often entails them making their own decisions.
Sometimes, children make decisions rebelliously in order to show that they really are their own person – and that they have separated from their parents. But research tells us that our kids do not have to rebel. Parents can reduce the risk by maintaining a healthy and open relationship with their children.
In fact parents who know what’s going on with their children and their friends can minimise the risks that their children will make poor choices – just by talking with their children.
In one study, a research team observed children in fifth grade and again in seventh grade. For many, this age range is a starting point or baseline for alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. It’s also a time when parents may be caught offguard by changes in their child’s behaviour. As children become moody, irritable, or angry, parents often turn away from their children, shrug their shoulders, and tell them to “figure it out” themselves. Alternatively, they turn against their children – angry at the rebellion. Neither strategy encourages a strong relationship, and involvement drops off.
Nearly 675 children were included in the study. Researchers observed mothers and fathers separately as they interacted with their children. They found that parents can make a difference in influencing their child’s behaviour by having conversations, knowing who their children are with and what they are doing, and setting basic limits around what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is not.
Another study, this time from Brigham Young University, investigated teens’ behaviour based on parenting styles. The researchers found that teenagers who had parents who used a strategy called “reasoned deference” had teens who made better decisions around friends, school participation, alcohol and other drug use, and pro-social behaviour.
Reasoned deference means that parents spent time talking with their teens about expected behaviour. They provided them with a rationale, or clear reasons ‘why’ they had certain rules. And then they deferred to their child. “What do you think you should do? We’ll leave it up to you.”
As I sat in the car with my crest-fallen daughter I heard myself saying something difficult. I began to defer to her.
“Do you think we need to review the rules and talk about why they matter?”
“No Dad. I know why they matter.”
“I think they’re good rules,” I responded. “They keep you safe. It only takes one drunken or drug-affected person to put you in hospital, or to hurt you in other ways.”
I found myself taking it up a notch. “I think they’re good rules. But let me defer to you on this one. Do you think that we need to change the rules? You’re nearly 17.”
My daughter was quiet for a moment. Tentatively and thoughtfully, she replied, “Dad. I don’t like the rules. They make life horrible sometimes.”
I held my breath.
She added, “But Dad, they’re good rules. I don’t like them, but they’re good rules.”
Can you share some of the more positive rules you have set for your children?
See Dr Justin’s chat on Studio 10 below.