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Tricks for Talking to Teens

We've all learned that lectures don't work. Here's what does.


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I should have known my teenage son wouldn’t be enthusiastic about discussing sex with me. When I brought it up to him when he was 16, he stuck his head out the car window and claimed he saw a flying saucer. It was a classic example of a parent feeling pressured to raise hot topics like drugs and unsafe sex, but not knowing what makes kids apt to listen.

Emotional discomfort—theirs and ours—can easily discourage us from initiating conversations, but silence about critical health issues isn’t the answer. Talking successfully depends on creating a dialogue, a process we can learn as we help kids express their views and think more fully about a subject.

Start by asking your children about their ideas. “Do you know why some people take drugs that are bad for them?” my friend Karen asked her then seven-year-old. Her daughter guessed that maybe it was because drugs taste good, so Karen explained that drugs weren’t sweet like children’s medicine. She added that taking them hurts people’s bodies.

Karen has made having respect for our bodies a theme in their communication. When ear piercing came up, Karen focused on health. She asked if her daughter was willing to clean her ears with alcohol daily for the first month. Karen also keeps her communication positive, so she compliments her daughter on the ways she has taken care of herself well, such as flossing every night.

Using a similar nonconfrontational tone, Stephanie talked with her high school daughter about fellow students who smoke pot. A psychotherapist and former chemical dependency counselor, Stephanie asked what her daughter and her friends thought about students who use marijuana. Her daughter talked freely, saying that even though she and her friends don’t smoke it, she was concerned it might be harmful. Stephanie calmly offered her view that drugs could hinder adolescent brain development and could harm the lungs. “I brought up the high risks to kids’ bodies conversationally,” Stephanie says. “I want to hear her perspective first, and I know scare tactics don’t work, because teenagers never think anything bad will happen to them.”

We can’t expect every discussion to go well, of course. Consider my failed sex talk with my son. My tone in that conversation was that of a protective mom rather than an adult open to his perspective. When our monologues fall flat, we can try to learn how to combine open communication with parental guidance. It can be a difficult balancing act, but it’s worth the effort.

Walnut Creek psychotherapist Wendy Ritchey, Ph.D., often works with parents learning new ways to communicate with their kids. She suggests parents think about how they come across and reflect on their own childhoods and what worked well for them, and emphasizes that open communication doesn’t mean parents should be permissive. “We need to enforce family rules,” Ritchey says. “When we get lax about curfew and checking to make sure parties have chaperones, communication gets strained.”

Ritchey says it’s also important to teach kids how to deal with tough situations. “I use the metaphor of a turtle going into his shell when I talk to kids about handling pressure. Going inside means taking a minute to relax and check in with one’s own feelings to avoid acting impulsively.”

We have many resources to help teach kids how to take care of themselves—and to save face when their friends urge them toward self-destructive behavior. For example, the Parent Educator Program at the Center for Human Development in Pleasant Hill trains parents to become volunteer discussion leaders about tobacco, alcohol, and drugs in elementary school classrooms. Parents learn to teach kids such refusal skills as saying, “I can’t smoke because I’m a swimmer.” But the main benefit, according to associate director Kathy Doyle, is the way parents become more effective at talking to their own kids about caring for their bodies.

If kids live with a drug abuser, communication becomes much more difficult. Many families—an estimated one in four—have alcohol or drug abuse in their homes. In families with addiction problems, children are often urged to keep secrets and suppress their feelings. In these painful situations, the nonaddicted parent can help children express their feelings. Support groups like Al-Anon and Alateen provide excellent emotional support for adults and children.

Whatever our family situation, just thinking about self-care can get us in touch with our own lifestyle choices. And the best advice for encouraging children to care for themselves is to set a good example. It’s easy to let the demands of life submerge our body awareness. TV ads promote popping a pill so we can keep going when we might need to rest or make better food choices. Discovering the kind of renewal our bodies need and talking about how we try to care for ourselves is the most basic way to promote healthy choices for our kids.

Susan Isaacs Kohl is the director of the White Pony School in Lafayette and the author of numerous parenting books. Send questions to parenting@maildiablo.com.

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