Dear Dr Justin,
"My 15-year-old son was hanging out in his bedroom with one of his friends. When I walked by, I saw my son’s friend frantically trying to stash a packet of cigarettes into his bag! I was horrified, but since he isn’t my child, I wasn’t sure how or if I should intervene (I did talk to my son later). What should I have done?"
Most parents love having their children and their children’s friends at their home. When it comes to our teens especially, it gives us the chance to keep an eye on things, without invading our teen’s privacy.
But whenever you open your home to someone else, you invite in variables (such as smuggling in cigarettes!). Your kid’s friends won’t always follow your rules. And when they overstep your boundaries you have to decide whether you should step in or stay out.
Step in, or stay out?
Naturally parents worry about the consequences of their reactions. We worry that if we step in, we’ll alienate our child or our child’s friend. Or that we’ll push unwanted behaviours underground, away from our watchful eye. After all, if our kids want to smoke, they could just do it somewhere else.
On the other hand, we worry that if we say nothing we condone the behaviour. And what if it were your child who had a pack of cigarettes? Would you want the parent to step in?
Using the right kind of communication can help you work through this situation in a way that preserves relationships and helps everyone be comfortable and safe at the same time.
Involve your child
Bringing cigarettes into your home and into your teen’s bedroom is clearly against the rules. Not only is it illegal, it’s also unhealthy.
The teen years are a time when our kids are learning to make sound decisions guided by personal values . This is an opportunity for your child to learn to speak with his friends about what he thinks is the right way to behave. Ask him to speak with his friend directly. The message will be better received and your son will have a chance to practice standing up for his values.
Have a Quiet Word
If it is too awkward for your child to say something, you might wish to say something to your son’s friend yourself. This is the time to be gentle and kind (I spoke about this approach here). As a parent, we need to tread lightly, mindfully and carefully with our child’s friend.
When I was a teen, a friend’s parent took me aside for a quiet word when I had unknowingly broken one of their rules. This father called me into the kitchen and told me that I was always welcome to be in his home, but under the condition that I follow some rules. He shared them with me, gave me the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging that I probably didn’t know they had those rules, shook my hand and led me out to my friend.
I was shocked and embarrassed. But I valued my friendship with his children, and I wanted to do the right thing. He never had problems with me again. Most teens will respond to a respectful and gentle, but firm, word from you.
Talk to His Parents
In most cases, there’s no need to tell the parents of your children’s friends when they’ve broken the rules in your home. This will only put the parent on the defensive, put your child in an awkward position or harm your relationship with your child’s friend.
Discovering cigarettes (or alcohol or other drugs) is a big deal, however. Most parents would not only want to know about this, but also expect to be told. In this case it is important to first explain to your son’s friend what you are aware of, and indicate that you feel obliged to share it with his parents. Then have a quiet chat with his parents. Make sure you are not angry or judgemental, but understanding, After all, our kids are still learning, and next time it could be your child doing the wrong thing.
Talking to his parents may bring short-term pain. It may impact on the relationship your child has with this friend. But sometimes the best people to deal with serious rule infractions are the parents of that child.
Debrief with Your Child
Just like you’ve done, it is important to have a debrief with your son after an event like this happens in your home. Studies show that teens are highly influenced by consistent, quality communication with their parents, especially when it comes to things like smoking. Communicating openly about smoking (the problems as well as your teen’s experiences), decreases the probability that your child will have problems with smoking later in life.
It can be challenging when our kids bring different variables into the family home. But with gentle, kind and thoughtful communication even the most difficult challenge can be worked through in a way that preserves our relationships and those of our children.