Dear Dr. Wolf,
My 15-year-old son had been hanging around with older kids and started using serious drugs. Since we went into family counselling, he's no longer using drugs, but he's still doing things I don't feel comfortable with - occasionally drinking and partying late. He says that we should now trust him. We have said that he can drink as long as it's very limited and he tells us. We feel we are doing harm reduction, a compromise we can live with. But I worry about him constantly. At the same time, I was a rebel too and when my parents pushed me too hard I ran away. What should I do?
Afraid to Push
Dear Afraid to Push,
It is one of the classic dilemmas of raising an adolescent: You know that your teen is involved in risky behaviour. But you may also feel that he is a good kid, that he does have reasonably good judgment over all. But he takes risks.
You worry: "I want to do everything I can to keep him safe, but if I come on too strong, too much restrict his freedom, don't I risk pushing him away? Don't I risk losing any kind of useful connection that I might have, my only source of influence? Don't I risk increasing rather than decreasing the chances of dangerous behaviour?"
You worry that he might react. That he might think: "They're not going to trust me. They're not going to let me do anything. Screw them. I'm going to do whatever the hell I want. I might as well: I'm already damned before I do anything anyway."
I have some suggestions.
1) If you worry, tell him. Often. Tell him what it is that you worry about. Tell him as clearly, honestly and succinctly as you can why it is that you worry. And don't be concerned about doing it too often.
"This is so stupid. I don't need the drug lecture again."
Yes, he does.
He hears you. You've certainly said it enough. It does go into his head. Also, it can help with your anxiety, as you are being pro-active, not just passively letting whatever is going to happen run its course.
2) Don't make it too easy for your teen to do whatever he wants. Don't let his comings and goings happen completely out of your purview. Ask where he is going, whom he is with, what they are doing. When you have no clue what is going on, it does give your teen more freedom to do what you don't want him to do.
3) I wouldn't give approval to behaviours that you absolutely do not want him to engage in. Even if it's a form of damage control - even if you think he's going to do these things anyway - I am still not comfortable with the idea of saying that it is okay. When he is out there in the real world, and faced with potentially risky choices, you want him to make those choices with the clear knowledge of where you stand.
You want your apprehensive voice in his head: "I know I can't stop you, but what you may be about to do is not okay. You put yourself at risk. That is what I think. I do not completely trust your judgment. I do worry. You are at risk."
In effect, you want some of your fear and your concern to be inside of him. You do not want him to feel that when he is out there on his own, he is still under that umbrella of parental security. That everything will be okay. That you approve.
You want him to be afraid of his own possibly risky behaviour. Teens are fearless enough as it is.
4) Have ongoing conversations. Weekly chats. Make regular occasions when the two of you are in the same place at the same time. Not his favourite way of spending time? Do it anyway. Make an ongoing line of parent-and-teen communication. He may not participate (that is, talk). That's okay, so long as regularly spending time together does not go away.
5) Don't be too trusting. Even the best teens often sneak and lie. They do this because they know that they are planning to do (or have already done) something you absolutely do not want them to. It is always good to have at least a certain amount of skepticism.
In effect, you want them to have an inner consciousness of you that doesn't make risky behaviour easy. I prefer this to the reverse, where they feel they are truly on their own, with only their judgment.
Does this guarantee their safety? No. Does it make a difference? Definitely.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.