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When it comes to discussing difficult topics with your kids, your natural inclination may be to avoid the discomfort altogether. But remember, your children will pay for your hesitancy or embarrassment with a lack of awareness they will need to make good decisions. You don’t want your child making emotion-fueled, spur-of-the-moment choices about alcohol, sex or peer pressure to try and prove something to their friends. You want them to be in the know and prepared—and to have thought about in advance where they stand on crucial decisions before they get caught in a slippery situation.
While sweet, innocent naiveté might be a preferable fantasy to parents in the short run, protecting kids too much can cost them as they progress through rites of passage. How soon do your kids need to be ready to make good choices? Earlier than you may think — according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 40 percent of adolescents report drinking by eighth grade, and 55 percent report being drunk at least once by twelfth grade. Kids who head off to middle school with a solid understanding of how to make good choices about alcohol, sex and peer pressure can worry less and thrive more.
According to the Mayo Clinic, sex education is a parent’s responsibility. By reinforcing and supplementing what kids learn in school, parents can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy sexuality. Kids rely on parents to help them make good choices. Eighty percent of teens feel that parents should have a say in whether they drink or not. Be optimistic about the positive impact you can have. Information is power. It is uncommon for tweens to start having consensual sex before the age of 12, therefore conversations about sex need to start early—likely long before you think your child is considering the option. Ideally, you want to start presenting your child with basic information on alcohol, sex and peer pressure from a young age.
The Mayo Clinic also reports that peer pressure, curiosity and loneliness can steer teenagers into early sexual activity. Therefore, do not delay. Start talking to your kids about the big three today. Here’s how:
Start Early. Don’t wait until your child is facing challenges to start talking about tough topics. As soon as your child begins to read, arm her with books that tackle important topics. Girls start puberty between the ages of 8 and 13 and boys start between the ages of 9 and 15. This means that to get a jump on teaching kids about puberty, you will need to begin around the time they enter kindergarten. A little bit of information delivered gradually each year will seem much less intimidating than a lot of information dumped all at once in middle school.
Get the information you need first, so you won’t be thrown by questions your child dreams up about alcohol, sex and peer pressure. These sites can help:
Books About Puberty
“The Care And Keeping Of You, The Body Book For Younger Girls, Revised Edition” by Valorie Schaefer
“The Care And Keeping Of You, The Body Book For Older Girls” by Carla Natterson
“The Girl’s Body Book, Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU” by Kelli Dunham
“What’s Happening To My Body? A Girl’s Guide” by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras
“Period. A Girl’s Guide” by JoAnn Loulan and Bonnie Worthen
“The Period Book, Updated Edition: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know)” by Karen Gravelle
“The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU” by Kelli Dunham
“What’s Happening To My Body? A Boy’s Guide” by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras
“What’s Going On Down There? Answers To Questions Boys Find Hard To Ask” by Karen Gravelle
Watch Media Together
TV Shows That Tackle Tween/Teen Issues:
“The Wonder Years”
“Freaks and Geeks”
“My So-Called Life”
Movies about peer pressure:
“Stand By Me”
“Now And Then”
“Pretty In Pink”
“The Man In The Moon”
“The Breakfast Club”
“Perks Of Being A Wallflower”
Movies about pregnancy:
“Riding In Cars With Boys”
“Where The Heart Is”
“American Teen” (documentary)
“Secret Life of the American Teenager”
Cover The Basics. How well do you understand biology, chemistry and sociology? When your child hits puberty, he is going to be affected physically, emotionally and within his peer group. This is especially true if your child is the first or the last in a group of friends to hit puberty. You might need a refresher course before you feel confident holding your own in conversations with your child about challenging topics. When he or she starts watching health and wellness videos in school, be sure you watch them, too. You can even watch them together if you think this will spark questions and discussion. Check in with your kids’ teachers for more information on their plans.
Be Authoritative. Parents who have the best results getting through to teens are authoritative rather than authoritarian, permissive or neglectful. So have thoughtful limits for your kids and express them frequently. Don’t imagine they will know what you expect unless you tell them. Studies show that a permissive parental attitude towards drinking, combined with poor communication and unhealthy modeling, can lead teens into unhealthy relationships with alcohol. Parents who provide a healthy and consistent balance of discipline and support are more likely to have teens respect their boundaries on drinking and other behaviors.
Cover New Angles. Kids grow up and as they do, you will become aware of important details that you failed to cover. You talked about biological sex, but did you discuss when to have sex? Kids who know their parents discourage sex are more likely to wait. You broached the topic of alcohol, but did you get into the dangers of drugs? You don’t want your child thinking drugs are any less dangerous than alcohol. You talked about peer pressure on the playground, but what about when there is a car involved? Make sure your child will call you rather than get in a car with a drunk driver. The older kids get, the more social situations they will encounter. Keep reviewing possible scenarios with your kids so they will not be caught off guard. Teach them that it’s not only okay to say no, but that life requires us to say no sometimes in order to make the best choices for ourselves.
Keep Circling Back. You are never done discussing delicate topics. For example, 80 percent of kids will try alcohol in high school but even if your child starts drinking in college or later, keep talking. She needs to know that you are consistently focused on her well-being no matter what her age. Late elementary school and middle school are important times to talk about the negative effects of overindulging in alcohol. By the time kids become teens, they should have an in-depth understanding of the negative effects of alcohol, and should know you are willing to talk more at any time.
Restrict Media Images of Partying. A 2010 Dartmouth Medical School study concluded that parents who steered kids clear of R-rated movies helped their children stay strong against peer pressure to drink alcohol. According to James A. Sargent, M.D., “The research to date suggests that keeping kids from R-rated movies can help keep them from drinking, smoking and doing a lot of other things that parents don’t want them to do.” In another study conducted the same year, Dr. Sargent concluded that children who watch R-rated movies become more prone to sensation-seeking and risk-taking. Make sure your kids are mature enough for what they watch. If you are unsure, watch with them and set clear guidelines.
Create Opportunities for Discussion. Whatever you do, don’t become so fanatical about your child making good choices that he or she will want to avoid these topics with you altogether. A relaxed, age-appropriate, multimedia approach can help keep the conversation going without you having to constantly bring up topics yourself. For family movie night, choose a film that sparks discussion, or take your child to see a movie in the theatre and then discuss it over dinner afterward. Studies have shown that parents who are concerned, engaged and speak openly about expectations help their kids make more responsible choices. You want kids to know you care, but you don’t want to drive them nuts. So don’t ban films and media altogether, just try to take an active role.
Encourage Questions. If your kids come to you with questions about alcohol, sex and peer pressure, then you know you are doing a good job keeping the doors to communication open. Thank your child for asking questions. Resist the urge to make jokes or brush off your child’s feelings. Respond to inquiries as thoughtfully as you can. You want to make sure the questions keep coming to you. Cast your vote in every potentially confusing situation. Better yet, turn the tables and ask your teens what they think is the best choice in a situation. This is a good way to find out if they are listening or tuning you out.
Look in the Mirror. Your child is going to pick up on the way you relate to your own body. Are you constantly on a diet? Typically complaining about weight you want to lose but not exercising? Do you drink soda, eat junk food, and hit the fast food drive-through when you are upset? Do you drink often or excessively on occasion? Kids are imitators. They will do what you do. They will act the way you act. If you say yes to every request for your time and don’t take time to take care of yourself, then your children will not learn to say no, either. How’s your sex life? How’s your drinking? How’s your ability to say no? If the answer is not good, get to work on make better choices yourself, since this is what you expect of your kids.
When is your job as a choice coach done? Never. The goal for both you and your children is thoughtful responsiveness. Make sure they have all the information they need to get to the place where they can make conscious choices, and you will sleep better every night.
Christina Katz was a tween and a teen once. She draws on her memories — both happy and humiliating — to stay as far ahead of her tween daughter as she can. Her latest book is “The Art of Making Time for Yourself, A Collection of Advice for Moms.”