It’s one of the hardest things parents deal with: even if you’re trying to raise your child the right way, as soon as he walks out the door, you know he’s going to be exposed to all sorts of negative—even dangerous—influences. From dress to attitude to a popular culture that says it’s cool to drink and do drugs, parents have every right to be concerned. Are you afraid to send your child out the door? In this insightful one–on–one interview, James Lehman gives you some honest advice.
In this case, you are the outside influence your child is resisting. Get ready, because if you don’t like something, he’s going to like it even more.
James, why do teens tend to do the very things we tell them not to do?
JL: Like it or not, adolescents often gravitate toward the very things you fear and dislike. Your child doesn’t do this to annoy you; he’s doing it because his friends are doing it and because that’s the developmental stage he’s in. It’s a simple fact that even before your child hits the pre–teen years, he begins to pull away from you. Unfortunately, one of the primary ways he may do this is by engaging in behaviors you dislike. Suddenly, you see your 13–year–old daughter’s clothing and style morph into something age–inappropriate—or you notice that your shy 15–year–old son has started listening to music with violent or rude lyrics.
It’s important to remember that, as an adolescent, your child is learning how to be part of a group—and he’s terrified of not fitting in. Kids learn that to go along with others, you either enjoy what they’re doing or learn to hide your true feelings as a way to get by. And don’t forget, functionally, adolescents don’t want to just “get by” with their friends; they want to be popular and well–liked. In fact, the drive to be popular is probably the core value of most adolescents—and they often simply don’t realize what shaky ground they’re standing on when they take on that value.
Fitting into a group drives your teen’s development and defines who he is. Resisting authority makes him feel like an individual because he’s reaffirming who he is by resisting an outside influence. And in this case, you are the outside influence your child is resisting. Get ready, because if you don’t like something, he’s going to like it even more. Listening to music you don’t like feeds into his feeling of individuation—his sense of wanting to become his own individual. It’s not necessarily that he wants you to dislike his music, but if you do, that’s fine with him. The same thing happens with clothes, movies, and pop culture. The downside to that is that in our culture today, adolescents have access to very dangerous things—like drugs and alcohol—to a much greater degree than teens did 50 years ago. And that access gets easier as time goes on. Every year, younger and younger children can get drugs and alcohol. In my years of working with kids in high school, they would brag to me that they could get anything they wanted. And I’d question them. I’d say, “You mean like sleeping pills and barbiturates? Pain pills?” And they would answer, “Yeah, and heroin, crystal meth and coke.” Needless to say, these are very dangerous drugs—drugs where if you slip up and use too much, you die. Not only are they highly addictive, they’re fatal.
I think that children aren’t ready for that kind of temptation, and if their friends are doing it, they’re very much at risk. Now, in most areas, the peer pressure is not about hard drugs. In fact, I believe some of the peer pressure is against hard drugs. But certainly there’s a lot of pressure to use the drugs that kids see as “soft”: pot, ecstasy, and pharmaceuticals. And I want to clarify that I personally don’t see those substances as soft drugs—this is just how kids have presented the information to me.
So what’s going on in your child’s head? He thinks that nobody understands him but his peers. He thinks his parents are old–fashioned. He doesn’t like parental authority at this stage in his life. It’s an age where he’s actively looking for reasons to reject adults. Many times he’ll think, “If my parents believe something or like it, it’s automatically wrong.” Or he shrugs off whatever you say. All of these things factor into his readiness to test you, push the limits, and discard the opinions and insights of adults. You’ll find that you can hardly even give your adolescent child compliments—much less constructive criticism—without getting a defiant retort.
If you notice that your child is changing and you don’t like it, how should you handle it?
JL: Understand that any criticism you give to the way your daughter dresses or uses makeup, or your son’s taste in music, only emboldens them further. In other words, any criticism you give makes it more urgent that they pursue these things. They may even be polite and not attack you for those opinions, and they may even consider them. But the effects of adult opinions are usually insufficient to cause kids to change. I believe this is because of the stress that’s on them socially. Don’t ever underestimate the power of peer pressure. When you hear the word “nerd,” think “parent.” The truth is, you can tell your child something every day and just get an argument. Then one day, his best friend tells him the exact same thing, and now it’s gospel. That understandably drives parents crazy. You want to say, “I told you that!” But if you do, your child just says, “No, you didn’t.” He just doesn’t want to hear it.
Fifty or sixty years ago, there were still a lot of taboos about being rebellious or defiant to your parents. You could be a little rebellious, but you didn’t curse in front of them, much less call them names. You didn’t attack teachers or act disrespectfully toward them. But nowadays, kids say anything to their parents. They treat them any way they want to, and in many cases, they get away with it.
I also believe there is too much propaganda on TV, in the movies, and in music that convinces kids that they’ve got all the answers deep inside of them. I think it’s a mistake to tell kids that “The answers are inside you—you just have to search for them.” In my opinion, that’s a lot of garbage. It’s misleading for kids who may feel confused, overwhelmed, and as if there’s something wrong with them because they aren’t able to dig deep enough.
Even so, I think it’s the message kids want to hear so our culture pounds it into them. Adolescents like hearing, “You’re in charge; you’re in control; your time has come.” Unfortunately, for many teens, it couldn’t be further from the truth. And when a situation comes up where they truly need guidance or help, it makes them more likely to feel as if they can handle it on their own—and as if they’re in control—when they really aren’t.
Can you say anything to your kids when they start behaving in ways that bother you?
JL: Personally, I look for ways not to fight with kids and to avoid power struggles. Again, I’m big on letting kids make decisions and on letting them be independent on the soft stuff that’s in the middle. If you picture decision–making as a room, imagine that in the middle of the room are all the “soft” decisions—including what kind of music your child likes, what kind of clothes your son wears, who your daughter’s favorite movie star is. The walls of the room are the hard decisions around things like health, safety and academic performance. In my opinion, anything in the middle of the room is fine for them to decide for themselves, but if your child starts pushing on the walls, I think you should push back. And state the rules very clearly: “No, you can’t use drugs. No, you can’t drink. No, you can’t stay out all night.” Don’t change your story line. Things like drugs and alcohol, shoplifting, damaging people’s property and assault are easy to define—this type of behavior is very black and white. Doing any of these things is wrong, and there are laws to prove it.
On the other hand, generally I think kids should be able to pick their own music, clothes and makeup. Unless there’s some moral problem with the way they’re dressing, this is a fight you don’t want to have—and you want to pick your fights carefully. I know that sexuality and clothing is a particularly sensitive area. While I think clothing shouldn’t be a big argument, I think kids, particularly adolescent girls, often dress in a very sexualized way today. If it becomes problematic for a parent, I think they need to set limits on it. This is something I believe that each family has to decide for themselves.
When it comes to music, the only thing I would say is “Keep the music down”—or have your child get a set of ear buds if you don’t want to hear it. Certainly, just because they’re teenagers doesn’t mean you have to listen to them blasting their music; they don’t have the right to disturb anybody else in the house. And if their choice in music is offensive or violent, I also think you can say, “You don’t have a right to listen to this music in my house,” and many parents do say that. I don’t think that’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s always effective either, because it doesn’t change anything. Kids who aren’t allowed to listen to certain kinds of music aren’t any less affected by pop culture. Ultimately, though, I believe it’s the parent’s choice.
Don’t forget, your child may not do the stuff you want him to do—and he may do things you don’t want him to do. But you have to make your family’s values and positions very, very clear so that when your child looks to find solid ground later, he’ll have something to revert back to. In other words, if the day comes when your child wants to follow his family’s values, the model will be there—no matter what those values were.
James, is there any way you can protect your kids, so to speak, when they leave for the day?
JL: In my opinion, you can’t insulate your children from the world. There’s nothing you can do about that. You might try to protect them morally, spiritually or mentally, but you can’t isolate them from the world physically. And when they go out into the world, if they’re attracted to something, the bottom line is that you are not going to be able to stop them. If they want to do something, you have no control and you can’t change that.
But let’s talk about what you do have control over. Many kids have cell phones, video games, and computers at their disposal. All of these things are capable of introducing concepts, ideas, and behaviors to your child that you don’t agree with. I think it’s very important for you to exercise whatever control you can over what happens in your home—and that includes all the information that comes into your home, including TV and the Internet.
Do you think parents are justified in spying on their kids’ activities?
JL: I’m not against parents spying on their kids, but I am against parents searching their kids’ rooms unless they tell them ahead of time. I think it’s reasonable to say, “I’m going to look in your room sometimes.” But again, I do think kids have to be told.
You can get computer programs to track the websites your children have visited. If you want, you can see every text message your child has sent or received. I support that, as long as you say to your child, “I’m going to check your text messages sometimes; I’m going to check your Facebook account.” You can also screen video games, but tell your child, “Don’t buy it before I screen it, because if I don’t like it, I’m getting rid of it. You can return it to the store or sell it.” Remember, you have the right to screen anything that comes into your home.
Parents can do anything they want, but I don’t think we should be sneaky about it—I think we have to be up front. And if you tell your child that you’ll be checking up on him and he gets angry about that, that’s too bad. The main thing is that you want your child to know how important this is to you. You can say, “Your safety and health is important to me, so this is what I’m going to do. And if you don’t like it, I understand. But this is still what I’m going to do.”
I think that it’s good to respect boundaries, and I support parents who do that. But I also support parents who say, “Hey, I can’t worry about a concept like boundaries when my son or daughter is using drugs; this is life and death.” If you saw somebody falling onto the subway tracks or the railroad tracks, you wouldn’t think about boundaries, you’d grab them and save them. So I understand and support parents when the situation is too critical to worry about boundaries.
How much control do you have over the things to which your child is exposed?
JL: I think it’s important to understand that you have no control over what your children are exposed to when they leave for the day. I mean, if you drive them to school during the school year, then they won’t be exposed to stuff on the school bus. But make no mistake, they’re exposed to whatever happens once they get there. If they go to an all–boys or an all–girls school, then they won’t be exposed to the opposite sex there, and that’s a choice many parents make. There are some things you can manage, but basically if your child lives in the world, your child will be exposed to the world. And unfortunately, it’s the same world you and I are exposed to, even though kids don’t have the mental capacity or maturity level that we have to deal with it. It’s a risky proposition, and I understand that.
So the only secondary control you have is through the beliefs, values, and morals that you teach to your kids. As a parent, you hope they’re going to make good decisions and that those values will exert some force opposing the negative influences out there. But each child is different, just like each adult is different, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Personally, I think parents expect too much of themselves if they think their own behavior in the home will prevent their child from making any mistakes in life.
Listen, I understand that it’s the most vulnerable thing in the world to know that your child is out there alone making decisions, some of which may be life–threatening. I’m not only talking about drug and alcohol use, but also decisions about shoplifting, risky sexual behavior, and who your child talks to online. And make no bones about it, if your child is committing crimes, he’s going to be arrested for them, and when he turns 18, he will be tried as an adult. Believe me, that’s going to affect him for the rest of his life.
So parents have every reason to be concerned and worried, and to feel vulnerable. There’s nothing you can do except run a home where values are promoted and talked about. Don’t get into fights about it with your child—just keep your values clear. Values like “If you cop out with drugs and alcohol, you’ll miss the things you need to learn.”
So is there any hope for kids out there today?
JL: You can hope, but you can also plan for things. I think parents need to plan their response to certain behaviors and actions before their kids undertake them. So discuss ahead of time, “What are we going to do if Jake smokes pot? What are we going to do if we find drugs under his bed? What are we going to do if he gets arrested or brought home by the cops? What is our response going to be? What is our tone going to be? What are our words going to be?” Really think about what is going to be the most effective way to respond. Just because somebody uses drugs once doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. Certainly you want to have a way of responding to the situation that’s not hysterical, and nothing promotes that like parents talking about it ahead of time.
By the way, I see the plan as a set of guidelines that you come up with ahead of time. Talk about what you want to communicate as opposed to what you’re going to say. This is because when you are faced with this moment, you may not say what you thought you were going to say.
What kind of conversations should you have with your child about what they’re seeing or experiencing?
JL: Again, you should tell your child how risky some of these things are. Ideally, you’ve been talking about this with him for five years already. At the age of eight, nine, and ten, you want to start introducing these topics. You might use smoking as an example. “See that guy smoking? That’s so bad for you. I don’t think people should do that. It makes you sick and it costs a lot of money.” Your child might answer, “Why does he do it, then?” You can say, “Because he didn’t listen to his parents.” Make that clear. Always throw in that his parents didn’t want him to do it, or that his parents told him not to smoke. It’s very important that your child has a sense of, “If I don’t listen to my parents, I could get into trouble.” In my opinion, that’s a really healthy thing for kids to fear.
Is there anything else you would recommend to parents?
JL: Yes, I think one of the most important things for parents to do is avoid name–calling. Don’t make character references about your child because of some mistake in judgment that he made. In other words, let’s say you catch your child smoking pot. I think it’s one thing to tell him that the choice was wrong, that he’s accountable for what he did, and that there will be consequences. But parents shouldn’t be calling their kids “losers” or judging their character because they screwed up. That’s not healthy.
As parents, sometimes we think that somehow we have to hurt our kids in order for the behavior to stop. That’s the mentality behind smacking your child on his butt—that somehow he won’t stop misbehaving until it hurts. Personally, I don’t buy that. I think you can use consequences to make people uncomfortable. So in that sense, your child not being able to use his cell phone should hurt. I think when parents start viciously attacking or calling names, they’re really being ineffective. It doesn’t change the behavior, and it negatively affects your relationship, in addition to being hurtful and mean.
So let’s say your child is smoking pot, and you say, “You little scum bag, you really disappoint me, you lied to me you little jerk.” If you’re saying this to him now, what are you going to say to him when he’s 30? Remember, just because you have the power to say something doesn’t mean you should say it. What good is calling your child names ever going to do? Do you think he’s not going to shoot heroin because you called him a bum? Do you think he’ll say, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you felt that way, Dad.” No way. Calling names doesn’t help—it just creates more bad feelings. If you’re disappointed, certainly say so. But saying hurtful things just takes away any influence you might have had on your child’s drug use.
I always tell parents “If being mean or angry helped, therapists would be out of business.” I state that very clearly and honestly. The fact is, therapists are in business because being hurtful, mean and angry doesn’t help and probably makes the problem worse.
James, in your opinion is there anything about which a parent can be certain?
JL: I don’t think you can truly make sure of anything. Part of the sweet sadness of being a parent is that you do the best you can with your kids and then they go off on their own. They have tastes of their own and dreams of their own from a very early age, whether or not they let you in on it. As your kids individuate more, you’ll see them liking things you don’t like, and not liking things you do like; they just might not talk about it because they’re afraid to upset you. I know it’s a very hard thing to do, but I pity the parent who can’t let go. I believe that’s part of the reason why there’s so much fighting between parents and adolescents, because neither party is comfortable with what’s happening. The parents are not comfortable with their child becoming more independent and the adolescent is not comfortable dealing with his parent’s disapproval, so they fight. Remember, for the first years of your child’s life, all he wanted was your approval. He feels a reaction when he’s pushing you away, but he can’t help it. And that’s where the frustration and anger comes in. It can be such an unhappy time in a family’s life.
There really are no easy answers. The idea of letting a child out into the world filled with dangers is a parent’s worst nightmare. One of the reasons it’s so hard is because you’re powerless over your kids. You spend all these years protecting your kids; you’re ready to jump in front of a bus to save them, but when the day comes when they do something risky, you’re powerless over it. It’s awful, but parenting is not for sissies. I think the best thing you can do as a parent is to recognize your own limitations and learn how to be more effective if you can. And then really put a lot into those areas where it matters and keep role modeling.
By James Lehman, MSW