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What to do when your teen asks tough questions

awolf@globeandmail.com

Fifteen-year-old Alexis and her mother are in the car.

"Mom, do condoms work?"

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"What?"

"Do condoms work?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Mom, I'm just asking a question. Do condoms work?"

"Well, yes. No. I guess so. Sort of. I don't know. Usually. Work against what? Why are you asking?"

Meanwhile, this is what's going through her mom's mind: "Is she having sex? Is she planning to have sex? Omigod, did she have sex and use a condom, but now she thinks she might be pregnant? Is she playing games with me to see how I'll answer? Trying to shock me? If I give her a simple answer will she think I'm being casual and giving her permission to have sex?"

Sometimes, out of nowhere, seemingly innocently, your teen will ask a question that is so loaded and so fraught with implications that it feels impossible to answer. It's an instant dilemma. The question demands an answer, yet you feel any response you offer will either be insufficient or send the wrong message.

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What not to do

Not answer, but instead counter with a question

"Alexis, is there something I should be worried about?"

"I'm not having sex with Austin, if that's what you mean."

"No, no, I wasn't asking you that. I was just wondering if there was something I should know."

"I just wanted your opinion. Is that so difficult?"

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The problem with a question is that it is evasive, and will be felt as a counterattack - setting a negative tone to the conversation. Not what you want.

Give too much of an answer

"Alexis, as you know, condoms are used as protection against pregnancy and STDs. You have to understand that this is a serious subject and that whatever I'm going to say to you about condoms - not that I claim to know everything about condoms because I don't - does not mean that I am saying that having sex is in any way okay. But I do think that it is important that. ..."

"Thanks for giving me this information, Mom. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I promised Candace ..." and Alexis swiftly pulls out her cellphone and starts calling her friend.

Alexis wanted an answer, not a lecture. This is a frequent teen complaint about parents, and a significant impediment to future discussion.

Not answer the question, but instead give an opinion.

"It's not a question of whether condoms work or not. You're too young to have sex. What happens with condoms shouldn't have anything to do with you."

"Thanks a lot, Mom. I was looking for some info, but all I get instead is a chastity lecture."

Alexis's mother misses a chance to convey important information and, again, lessens the chance of future useful conversations.

So what do you do?

Answer as straightforwardly, simply and honestly as you can.

"Mom, do condoms work?"

"Yes, but they are not always 100-per-cent effective. Also they need to be used correctly. I don't know all about condoms. We could try and learn more and get a better answer, maybe check a good source on the Internet."

I offer the above only as an example. It may or may not express what you want to say. The point is that it's straightforward, honest and brief.

The problem, of course, is that there is so much that is left unsaid.

Perhaps it implies something you're not comfortable with: giving her permission - teaching her - to have sex.

You have two aims, and they're not totally compatible. You want to convey exactly the right information and message, but you also want to establish the best possible format so as to encourage future discussion on all topics.

Of the two, I think that keeping good communication is more important. And if you feel there is more that needs to be said, you always have the option of coming back at a later time with additional comments.

The hard part is having to decide, on the spot, how to proceed.

You have to be willing to say what you think is best on very short notice, take your chances that it is good enough, and then - hardest of all - shut up.

Impart some wisdom, say no more and listen. That, with any luck, will keep the line of communication going.

"Thanks for that answer, Mom. That was good. You were straightforward, honest and brief.

"I've got another question: Is it true that being high on pot gives you the munchies?"

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.

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