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What Your Teen Doesn’t Tell You

There was a girl in my class in school that I was pretty tight with. She wasn’t my bestest-in-the-world friend but I liked her and spent a good deal of time in her house at weekends and such. Especially when I started smoking.  I know, I know…

teen-secrets-what-teens-dont-say

Her mother would allow me to smoke in their house which was great. Sort of. I knew it wasn’t really OK, at (an immature) 14/15 years of age, to be allowed to smoke by an adult. I thought it was a little odd that her mother would give me a light, and smoke with me, and we’d all chat about boys and stuff. It was a weird situation for me at the time. I just wasn’t sure why. It was very much unprocessed and remained at instinct level.

Your Teen’s Friends May Have Questionable Parenting Styles

As we got a little older I realised it was also OK to drink alcohol in this house. I was conflicted. I mean, it’s cool right? What teenager doesn’t want to ‘get away’ with underage drinking. Right?? But I suppose, if you’re ‘allowed’ , then you’re not ‘getting away’ with it… Hmmm.. Confusing stuff.

Then things got more tricky for me. As her parents’ reputation for being ‘cool’ spread, I started feeling pressure to be more sophisticated than I was, or wanted to be. I had become one of those kids, lingering on the edge of darkness, bereaved of a father, grades slipping a little, ripe for making a mess of everything. I needed a different set of role models and I knew it. But where to find them?

I figured that perhaps if I told my mother some of what was allowed in this house (but not that I was participating of course) then maybe I wouldn’t be allowed go there so often. This was a risk, I feared her disappointment and disapproval, and I feared that she’d confront my friend’s parents.

#cringe

But I did it, and it worked. I was banned from going to this girl’s house. And when the ban was lifted, I pretended to my friends that it wasn’t, so that I’d feel safe. I now had the perfect excuse. For everything! It was Mom’s fault. What a total drag she is. (What a great role model she was!!)

Parent Pressure

Last year a teenage client asked me if there was such a thing as “Parent Pressure”. We’ve all heard of peer pressure, we know what that is, most of us know how it feels. But Parent Pressure? – that’s a whole other thing.

This client had a birthday gift of a slab of beer presented to her for her birthday, by her parents, so that she and her friends could celebrate and go ‘prinking’ before going out (to adult venues). These girls, children legally, young women physically, met up, binge drank, got into arguments with each other, danced as much as they could in their 49 inch heels, some of them vomited and then they all went home – some with not entirely accurate recollections of what happened the night before. All got home safe, no one was assaulted, arrested or hospitalised. This time.

I’ve heard worse.

Anyway, the thing is, this lovely wise young girl was bitterly disappointed by her parents. Did they know that at the time? Absolutely not, she didn’t even really know herself. She figured it out in the therapy room. Because her parents facilitated and normalised her drinking she felt pressurised to drink. She heard the (unintended) message loud and clear:

Drink = celebrate. Drink = fun. Parents= OK with it. Me = not entirely safe.

Her own plan was to have a couple of beers, or not, outdoors somewhere secretly before heading to an indoor venue. But having her night mapped out for her by her parents, drink included, she felt foolish and faulty somehow that it wasn’t what she wanted. She would have preferred to get a lecture, some stern warnings and then break the rules herself and feel liberated and bold in doing so. Then, she figured, her friends would think she was cool, not her mom.

What she got instead felt dull, yes,  but worse: unsafe. Definitely not cool.

Discussing this with her parents I learned that her mother had come from a super strict background. Dad’s family had addiction issues and so both parents naturally felt they wanted to be more open and level with their daughter. They wanted to be better parents than their own. Makes sense right? Mom wanted her daughter to be able to talk with her about alcohol, drugs, sex.  She didn’t want to alienate her by not allowing her to have ‘fun’ and by being strict and dull. Her behaviour had context and was understandable.

They are not bad parents.

Many parents are utterly at a loss as to how to deal with the binge drinking culture. Particularly if there are addiction issues in their own family of origin.

And I applaud parents wanting to be able to talk to their children. Most of my working week is concerned with parent-teen communication, one way or another. And we will all make mistakes along this journey.

Getting the balance right is extremely difficult and a struggle that millions of parents face every day – especially now when we are competing with the entire internet for our childrens’ attention.

We all like to be liked and to feel we have a connection with our kids. But how much of that is from our own old need to feel popular?  To feel approved of and liked? Our own old need to not be overpowered by overkill rules?

Teenagers haven’t changed since you and I were 14. They’ll push and push and push and you’ll feel like you’re going crazy and OMG if they slam that door ONE. MORE. TIME!! But here’s the thing they hide so well from us and will not tell us: They want us to push back. Firmly, with certainty and confidence. They want us to have limits, to impose those limits and to not waver. Because then they know they are safe, and they can use us as shields. They want parents, they already have friends. And if they don’t have friends, you’re not a suitable candidate, no matter how lovely and entertaining and up to date you are. But you can support, mind, care for, laugh with, cry with, be angry with and love. It’s all good.

Boundary setting does not have to be done sternly or crossly – calm and consistent is good enough, better actually. And it’s never too late to start making new rules. Expect resistance, it’s normal, a sign that you are doing the right thing.

Resistance is your teenager’s job!

Recently that client had a party coming up that she had been anticipating for months. The other invitees were a couple of years older than her, there would be drink, drugs, boys and fancy dress (i.e. stripper outfits). Her mother intervened and told her she wasn’t allowed to go.

She was disappointed, but relieved. She begged me not to tell her mother about the relief bit. For that session though she was far more interested in telling me about her latest crush and how she was going to win him – exciting stuff! The mood was good.

Her mother came to the door of my office when our time was up. She asked how the session went – “good I suppoooooose” said the teen. I marvel at how quickly she transformed into a hunched fed-up looking kid. I say “I guess it’s a big deal she’s been grounded for the party..”  Teen looks dolefully at me and shoots a well practiced fierce look at Mom.

Mom is in her new role as steadfast, she’s doing her best and she’s doing great. Do I see a flash of amusement in her eyes? I certainly see warmth and compassion. No shock, no taking it personally. They turn to leave, teen puts up hoodie, she sighs wearily and walks slowly to the car.

Just before she gets in she turns to me, smiles, and winks.

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly twenty years of professional experience. Her particular area of expertise and interest is work with teenagers. She enjoys a busy full-time private practice and has developed and facilitated a personal development, substance misuse and sexual health programme for teenagers for over 15 years. She is a regular contributor to national print and radio media.
Sally is also the co-author of Two Wise Chicks.
Feel free to follow Sally on: Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin

46 comments

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  • Hi Sally,

    This is a great blog as you consider respectfully the world experience of both the teenager and parent(s)!
    Good work,
    Pat.

  • My youngest sisters saw me in more of a parental role than sibling, which was entirely different for my other sisters when we were teens together. I’ve noticed that they are just as secretive with me as they are with my parents and don’t open up as much as I would want them too.

    • Hi Sophie, that’s an interesting one and one that I see often in “age split” families where there are significant age gaps between siblings, or indeed half siblings. I hope as you all age you grow closer and you connect in a way that’s more fulfilling for you. Thanks for reading, warmly, Sally.

  • My approach to raising my kids is lots of prayer and being the best mother I can be. If feel with those two things I will have no regrets and my kids will be covered by the greater of the universe. Will they make mistakes. Sure they will, but that is part of life, growing, learning and being a better individual.

  • We all try to be great parents to our kids. Of course, we want our kids to be open to us, but there are things that they just won’t tell us. This is okay with me, so long as I know that they are safe and they are not doing anything bad like heavy drinking or drugs.

  • My dad always said if I wanted to “try” anything I could but only at his house. I didn’t like that he condoned the behavior. I did not feel comfortable with it. I took his advice on what not to get into. I hope that I can come up with a better plan for my boys.

    • Hi Kristi, thats so interesting! I’m sure you’ll come up with some sort of balance that works for you – it only there was a guaranteed perfection route or manual!
      Thanks for reading:) Warmly,
      Sally

    • LOL! Prinking is a term for pre-drinking that teenagers use here in Ireland and UK – I’m not sure if it’s a US thing? Because god forbid that you go out ‘sober’ !! Thanks for reading:)
      Sally

  • I’m so in the middle of this debate. While I’m not close to being a teenager, I’m also not a mom. So right now, I’m thinking “Heck no I didn’t tell my mom about my friends parents parenting skills!” haha But I know when I have kids I will be a nervous wreck every time they leave the house.

  • Its hard balancing the act between being a Mom and being a friend to your child. Sometimes you wanna be cool and sometimes, you need to be the one to be the bad police. We just really have to pray that we are doing what is right.

  • When my daughter was at this age, she knew my boundaries and one of them was that there would be no thing like sleepovers. We never did that as it just was not my culture and I would not have parents who were largely unknown to me be responsible for my daughter. That was my bottom line and it mattered not to me what anyone thought of me.

    • Hey Claudette – how I applaud your mattering not attitude! Your responsibility is to your child and your rules are your boundaries . I’m sure she knows she’s safe:) Thanks for reading, Sally

    • Yes, because we cannot control what other adults do. It is indeed scary – unless we are lucky enough to have shared values with these adult, or better we know them well ourselves and can talk to them. Good luck with it all!! Warmly, Sally

  • I am very thankful that I had a good relationship with my kids but I did however find out later in years there were things that they did not tell me either because they were not sure how I would react or that they were not sure what to do. Either way it shows that being a parent of teens is hard do your best and try to stay in the know

    • Hi Angie – I think that shows you did a great job! They can tell you now and hope you can all laugh about it and maybe sigh a few relief sighs!! Kudos to you:) Thank you for commenting, warmly, Sally.

  • This is awesome information for parents of teens. I love this story and it does remind me of when I took my sisters kids in to raise. My sister was the party mom. I was one that knew there was a fine line between friend and parent. My nephew went back to his mother because I had rules but later to come back to visit and tell me he missed the rules.

  • every parent def does things a little different. I try to be really open with my daughter who is 12 and just hope she will come to me when something happens.

    • This is so so true, everyone has different parenting styles. The best we can hope for in instill in your own child a sense of boundaries that will endure in other houses – knowing of course, that for teens, boundaries are for pushin’! Thank you for reading, Sally.

  • Teenagers are at the stages of their lives where they keep secrets and its up to us as parents to be aware of what our kids are doing. First its important to build trust with our child this make them feel more comfortable.

    • Hi Patrice, and thanks for weighing in. I agree that it is our responsibility to keep a watchful eye as much as we can. And hope that when they are in other homes, with other rules, that they give us a sense of what it’s like – we need to remember though that they may not, and we can not assume that all parents have the same rules and boundaries! Thanks again,
      Sally

  • I have a hard time getting info out of my kids and they aren’t even teens yet. I am dreading when they are older.

    • Hi again Robin,
      I guess the thing is they’ll never tell you everything – that wouldn’t be…’normal’! You can only do your best to communicate and hope that they feel safe to let you make them feel safe, if that makes sense.
      Thanks for reading! Warmly, Sally

  • As a parent of 5 and grandmother of 12, I firmly believe in the saying it takes a village to raise a child. Every parent has their own style and rules, with that being said, just because someone else feels it “okay” for their child to do something… doesn’t me I want my child to participate. We are very firm about getting to know the parents and the rules, etc. Our child always has a cell to call us if they feel uncomfortable.

    • HI Bonnie and thank you for taking the time to read and comment – you’ve been busy! Yes firm is key. And I agree with the village piece. We are not rearing in isolation, ideally. Thank you again,
      Sally

  • As much as possible it would be nice for them to be completely transparent with us, but there really are things that they refuse to tell us. I think keeping a close relationship would help and making them see that you’re open and approachable.

    • Hi Elizabeth – definitely I agree with you there. They will unlikely be entirely transparent, but as long as they are safe and free to rely on us to keep them that way as much as we can, it’s all good! Let’s keep doing our best I think!
      Thank you again,
      Sally



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