Dear Dr. Wolf,
I've caught my son, who's in Grade 9, smoking pot a few times. I've told him repeatedly that I don't want him smoking marijuana. Here's the kicker: He discovered a small pipe belonging to me - I honestly forgot I had it, as it had been so long since I smoked. Now my credibility is shot.
When he confronted me, I told him that I smoke infrequently and socially. With him, my biggest worry is that his brain is still developing and marijuana could have adverse effects. Also, I am concerned about pot use affecting his daily life - grades, social and extracurricular life, etc.
I feel so hypocritical. I tend to be a pretty controlling mother, so this is likely viewed by him as a real betrayal. How should I handle this going forward?
- Conflicted Mother
Dear Conflicted Mother,
As less than perfect humans, parents of teens often run into problems like yours. We set standards for our teenagers that we ourselves often don't live up to. Do as I say, not as I do. We get speeding tickets or lose our tempers and swear at our kids, or keep them waiting outside a mall because we lost track of time. And when they do the same we tell them it's unacceptable.
"Yeah, what right has she to tell me not to do something when she herself does it? Everybody knows if my mom breaks a rule then that automatically cancels out the same rule for me. Everybody knows that."
What can you do if you're not living up to the standards of behaviour that you require of them?
Fortunately, there is a viable position you can take that does not rely on your exemplary behaviour as the basis of what you expect of your kids.
Admit that you fall short, well short, of perfect behaviour. With teens, especially, that is a much better parent position. Don't forget that teens - only too aware of their own multiple flaws - need to see that adults are flawed, too.
"Yeah, if being an adult means you have to be perfect, then there's no way I'm ever going to make it."
They like seeing adults as flawed, and are fast to discover and point out those flaws, especially to their parents. In dealing with their teenage children, parents constantly make the mistake of thinking they have to come off as a strong, infallible adult, or else their children won't respect them and will run all over them. But rather than gain you respect, all that stance does is make them mad and weaken any positive impact you might have.
"Who the hell does she think she is, acting like she's so perfect?"
In effect, what you want to be saying to your teen is: "I make these requirements of you not because I think I am such a great person, not because I think I am always right, but because as your parent I do have to take stands. And not only that, but - flawed as I am - I am nonetheless comfortable that I am the right person for the job. Who more than me cares as much about what is best for you? I make these rules not because I am certain that I am right, but because I think that I am. And that is what you are stuck with. You could do a lot worse."
This stance is a problem for teenagers, because they know it's true. They would much rather argue with you indefinitely.
What should you do if you want to confront your teenager about a certain behaviour that you are guilty of yourself?
Don't get defensive, don't back down. Simply tell them what you think and why.
"I don't want you smoking marijuana because I genuinely believe that it has an adverse effect on your developing brain and that it can have a negative effect on your day-to-day life."
"You can't tell me that because you did it. Why should I listen to you?"
"Yes, I did, you're right. But this is what I think is best for you."
Your strength is in admitting to being flawed, but also in your unswerving conviction that you believe what you say.
"But you haven't been honest with me."
"That's true. But I am still you parent. And I am telling you what I think."