Do you remember when your children were younger and they would go to play at their friends’ house? From time to time they might come home and tell you about how different the ‘rules’ were for their friends. Your kids would moan and complain about how hard done by they were in your home, and how cool their friends’ parents were because they let their kids do ‘whatever they want’.
The moment we realise that we can’t be everywhere, and we won’t be the only influence in our children’s lives can be challenging. We want to protect our children from all those influences that worry us: movies, tv shows, games and media that promote values we don’t like, too much sugar, late nights! And ‘those other parents’ are seemingly oblivious to the ‘problem’!
How did you deal with that realisation? What did you do?
Chances are that you talked to your kids about how every family has different rules, and you spoke about your rules. And you probably asked your child to obey your rules, even at other people’s homes.
Once your children become teenagers, it seems the stakes are higher. If your teen visits a friend’s home where the rules are different, they may not simply come home tired or on a sugar high. Here’s a sampling of a few things your adolescent kids may be confronted with when they visit the homes of their friends:
- Alcohol and other drugs
- Late curfews
- Going out on the town – which may or may not be ok, depending on when and where
- Who they get into a car with
- Who is allowed to stay overnight
The game has changed and the consequences of our teens’ decisions are weightier.
Continuing the process
Because you have most likely been setting standards and expectations about boundaries at friends’ homes from the time your children were young, adolescence is simply a continuation of that process. But there are a few differences.
When the kids were young you’d say:
- Don’t stay up later than 9 o’clock
- Don’t go to the park without a parent
- I don’t want you watching things on the tv or internet that are against our rules
- Don’t go into anyone’s bedroom unless you’re in your friend’s bedroom with your friend
- I’ll drop you off at 2pm and pick you up at 8am
- Don’t eat too many lollies
- Call me if you have any problems.
Now the kids are older you might say:
- What time do you think it’s ok to be home?
- I’m uncomfortable about you going into that part of the city after 11pm
- You’re old enough to make up your own mind about what you watch, but please think about how it might affect you
- If you’re staying over for the night, how will you keep yourself safe? Who else is staying? What are the sleeping arrangements?
- Who will you be driving with? How long have they had their licence. What will you do if they’ve been drinking or taking something?
- What are their rules about alcohol? What will you do if you’re offered alcohol or drugs?
- Call me if you have any problems – and keep your phone on so I can check in if I’m worried.
The difference is clear. When the kids are young, we generally dictate terms, even when we do it softly and kindly. As our children become adolescents, their increasing independence and freedom changes the game. We can rarely dictate terms, and when we try we’ll find it will generally backfire. “You can’t tell me what to do anymore mum” becomes the standard, angry retort if we try – and research clearly shows that when we try to force our teens to do something (or anything) they generally resist. Power struggles are best avoided unless absolutely necessary.
Instead of making demands on our teens, research indicates a shift to a more democratic style of interaction will promote the best results. And the best way to create this kind of interaction is by asking questions as conversation starters. This has a couple of key advantages:
- When we dictate terms, we shut our children down. They don’t want to talk. By asking questions, we get them thinking about an issue, and (hopefully) talking it through.
- When we ask questions, we get a sense of where our son or daughter sits on a particular issue.
- As we gain understanding of how our children feel about alcohol, or sleepovers with members of the opposite sex, or he media they consume when we’re not around, we can begin the process (and it is a long process) of sharing our values and knowledge in a gentle bid to help them understand the issues we are concerned about.
A couple of pointers:
- Every family your kids visit will likely have ‘different’ standards to yours. They may be stricter than you in some things, and more relaxed in others.
- Pick your battles. Demanding compliance in everything will only push your teen away. Instead (for argument’s sake), agree that you’ll relax about movies (but no porn), but you won’t be ok with alcohol, or sleepovers with members of the opposite sex. You’re ok with them driving with a P-plater, but you’re not ok with them driving with anyone in the car under the influence of anything. Choose the issues that matter most to you and stand firm on them, and relax a little on the other issues.
- Let your kids know that they can call you anytime, from anywhere, and you’ll be there to help them if they’re in danger.
Some parents think that the best way to manage their teens is to come down hard on them, tell them who’s boss, and make them do what is expected. The reality is that by the time our kids are into adolescence, we are no longer their primary socialiser. Our influence has dropped off. The best way we can influence them is not with anger, power, and force, but rather with kindness, gentleness, and caring conversations.
Yes, it sounds all rosy and airy-fairy… it might not even sound ‘real world’. But it’s how we make things go right, so that when correction is required, we still have a relationship of trust and respect with our teens – and they really will listen to us, regardless of which friend’s home they’ve been visiting.