Many parents go through their children's teenage years with trepidation, fearing that danger is lurking around every corner. They struggle with letting go, learning by trial and error when is the right time to trust a teen to make a sound decision on the spur of the moment. Daily parents are reminded that maturity ebbs and flows in an adolescent. One moment their son or daughter acts goofy and childlike, the next he or she shows remarkable rationality and restraint. And because parents understand the power of negative peer pressure, most are never completely confident that their kid will behave properly in the company of friends. As a result, they clamp down hard when it comes to setting rules on curfews, parties and dating, driving, money, even music and friends.
“You're ruining my life!” and “You just don't understand!” are familiar outcries to anyone who has tried to enforce a curfew or set rules with a rebellious adolescent. On the one hand, we feel we must establish clear boundaries and educate our children about the consequences of high-risk behavior. On the other hand, we constantly encourage them to grow up, try new things, and take responsibility for their actions.
Given these realities, it's no wonder that parents and teens struggle over rule setting. It's always been that way and maybe it always will be.
When the topic of rule setting and rulebreaking was put to the eight high school
seniors who make up the Corner House Student Board, they had a lot to say.
Adults will be reassured to know that they acknowledged that sometimes parents' fears are legitimate, that a teen's demands for total autonomy can be unreasonable and excessive, and that parents are right in setting limits and imposing rules. But they had some gripes, too. And they had plenty of practical advice for parents on how to minimize the tensions that can make the teen years a constant battle of wills.
Thoughtfully and candidly, they discussed their individual experiences and those of their friends. All board members quoted here gave us permission to use their names with their statements.
Trust Me, or Learn It On Your Own?
The question was on the table: Is experience the best teacher, or is it a parent's responsibility to do everything possible to prevent teens from making serious mistakes or indulging in behaviors that threaten their health, safety, and welfare?
On this question, teens, like their parents, are searching for the right balance. The group agreed that open communication was at the heart of the issue. All felt it is the parents' responsibility to talk to their children, teach them about controlled substances, and tell them to steer clear of drugs.
“Ultimately experience is the best teacher,” offered Carol Ventura, PHS. “It's far better to experience something yourself and know exactly what the consequences are than to take someone else's word for it. Still, it's the parents' responsibility to make sure they are not putting their children in harm's way. Parents need to decide which experiences they will protect their children from and which they'll let their kids feel their way though on their own. In the beginning, when kids are just starting to go to parties, it's the parents' job to make sure that the party is safe and that there's no drinking or smoking there. Eventually, the parents should let the kid go to these parties, but with a set of rules to abide by.”
Rafael Costa, PHS, concurred. “If parents don't show any concern, then the child might feel they can do whatever they want. Parents should talk to their children and tell them what things are okay and not okay. Explain what could happen if they don't do the right thing. But then trust your children to do the right thing. Never exaggerate the consequences,” he warned, inferring that such tactics only erode trust.
“Parents sometimes have this idea that if their kids are friends with the ‘nice' and ‘smart' kids at school, then nothing bad will happen,” added Lauren Murphy, PHS. “But every child, whether they're at a ‘jock' party or a ‘smart' party will be around alcohol and other drugs. They're out there. Parents need to let their kids be around stuff and hope that, on the basis of their talks, the kid will make responsible decisions. If the child indulges, it's best for a parent to talk with her appropriately and rationally and work from there.”
“If you don't have your parents' trust from the get-go it may be difficult to get it at all,” according to Andrew Maisel, Hun School . “I find that the parents of some of my friends read articles about high school parties gone bad and feel as though every gathering is a huge drinking binge. This is obviously not the case.”
Guidelines for Rule Setting
Some experts suggest that if you haven't started having frank, frequent discussions with your kids about sex, tobacco, alcohol and drugs, and other highly charged topics by age 12, you're in for trouble. At that point, an unguided child is less likely to turn to you for advice and more likely to model behavior on whichever group at school seems “cool.”
This reference group can vary for every child, but a drive past any high school will convince you that there are probably some kids you'd rather he not copy.
“The earlier you start setting rules, the better,” Andrew feels. He believes the best way to do this is to talk about the issues and come up with reasonable guidelines together.
This may be easier said than done. The time to set rules, or modify them, is not in the heat of an argument, or in front of friends, or just before your child leaves the house on a Friday evening, but at a neutral time when all involved can be calm, reasonable, and less emotional. Discuss the issues at stake and restate family standards and community practices. Talk about how and when your teen has, or has not, demonstrated maturity, dependability, trustworthiness, and good decision-making skills.
“In 7th grade, the child must be home at a certain time,” Andrew said, “but as he gets older, he can have more privileges as long as he doesn't screw up.”
Andrew's advice didn't sit right with Rafael. “Parents make the mistake of talking too much when they set rules,” Rafael said. “There shouldn't be a lot of explanation, because the more a parent explains, the more a child can protest. If you just set the rules and act like you know what you're talking about, then your child will follow you on it.”
“A common mistake a parent makes is making rules too unreasonable or undeserved,” Carol felt. “For instance, if you're doing well in school and are balancing your activities well, and your parent gives you a 9 p.m. curfew, it hardly seems fair. Parents need to make sure their kids get the rules they deserve. If they've demonstrated they are capable of making responsible decisions, the rules should be more lenient. Teens earn their parents' trust by acting consistently and responsibly.”
Rafael had some advice for kids: “Earning your parents' trust has a lot to do with hanging out with them more often, not just following all their rules exactly. Keeping a close relationship with your parents is far more important than just being a perfect child. Happy parents don't ground their children; therefore, keep your parents happy.”
Lauren summed it up this way: “When parents are close with their children, the children are more inclined to respect the rules because they don't want to disappoint their parents.”
Tailor the Rules to the Age and to the Child
“The process of a child becoming an independent adult shouldn't begin the day he leaves for college,” stated Ozzie Crocco, PHS. “It should be a long process beginning at a very young age.”
He continued, “Sometimes parents don't let a child learn how to take care of themselves, so he gets to college and gets involved in stuff he never knew about. Or parents give too much independence at too early an age, and teens get involved in bad things such as substance abuse. Teens need [parentally imposed] structure in their lives, but they also need to learn over a long period how to build that structure into their own lives.”
There was consensus in the group that when it comes to rule setting, one size does not fit all. “Start strict,” advised Rafael, “then loosen up as your child gets older.”
“In middle school, parents need to be really involved in their child's life,” Ozzie suggested. “They need to know who their friends are, who those kids' parents are, what their child is doing on the weekend, what they do when they hang out with friends after school. There needs to be an ongoing dialogue.”
He suggested that earning trust was a two-way process for teenager and parent. Just as the parent was looking for signs of maturity and responsibility in the child, the child was learning to trust the parent to take an interest in his life, guide him, and look out for his welfare.
“Seventh grade is when a child kind of finds his niche in the social scene,” said Carol. “Eleven- and 12-year-olds are really impressionable and will sometimes go to great lengths to make a new group of friends, which could possibly involve drugs and alcohol. Parents should be checking out parties and making sure they're safe and supervised.”
“Watch who your kids are hanging out with in 7th grade,” advised Lauren. “Offer to drive your kids to and from the movies and other activities to supervise a little.”
By 9th grade, most felt that an early curfew was less important and that kids who had thus far earned their parents' trust deserved a little more freedom. “Many teens at this age think they are ready to take on the world,” said Ozzie, “but the dialogue needs to continue. The parents' role is still so very vital in regulating and structuring a teenager's life at this stage.”
“There should still be limitations to privileges,” agreed Carol. “Ninth grade is a hard time because it's the first year of high school, and you're trying to find your niche in a brand new social world. Again, this might result in kids experimenting with drugs. Parents should definitely ask where their kids are going and who they're with, but they shouldn't be overzealous about this. This is a point when kids will rebel.”
“When 11th grade comes around, your ongoing dialogue should have laid the groundwork for two-way trust,” said Ozzie.
“At this point parents should know their child's friends better and should know what kind of person their child is,” said Carol. “They should know if their child is secure enough or strong enough to stand up to peer pressure and not put themselves in danger.”
“Parents should still have rules like curfew and should make sure their child lets them know where she is, but they should trust her to go where she says she is going,” thought Lauren. She felt that in 11th grade it was no longer necessary to drive teens to their destination or call a parent to check up on supervision.
The Role of the Oldest Child
All agreed that rules might need to be a little different for each child, because some kids are ready for more responsibility earlier than others. “The oldest child is usually the one who has to work with the parents to come up with fair rules,” observed Lauren. “They're learning from each other on how things should work since it's the first experience for both.”
Carol expanded on this idea. “The oldest child in the family has the hardest position—essentially to ‘break in' the parents. Since it's the first time the parents have had to deal with anything like this, it's harder to make them bend on certain things. Also, the oldest child has to think about setting an example for the younger ones. If you mess up, not only are you setting a bad example for your younger sibs, but you might also interfere with their privileges. For example, if you go to a party and come back drunk, your parents might not let a younger brother or sister go to a party ever again.”
The situation can be complicated by another factor, the group observed. The oldest knows that he or she is generally idolized by younger siblings and may chafe at always having to set a good example. “It's hard,” said one. “You want your younger brother to look up to you, but you also want to have a special relationship with him that's not defined by your parents. You know he depends on you to tell him how things really are, teach him the ropes. He's watching everything you do and say, depending on you to show him how to act with friends and with mom and dad. You want to be cool in his eyes, and sometimes that means acting defiant.”
When Parents Don't Agree
In some two-parent households, parents don't always see eye-to-eye on the rules. One is lenient, the other is strict. What's a kid to think?
Rafael spoke up. “When parents argue about a rule or a punishment, kids begin to lose some respect for their parents' opinions. They figure if mom and dad can't decide what to do, how do they know what's best for me?”
“The kid would be confused and would be more likely just to do what she wants, which is often more dangerous than just having the parents come to a compromise,” Lauren said.
When Too Tough Is Too Much
When parents are too strict, teenagers will find any way they can to rebel. The group agreed on this point.
“It's exhilarating to teenagers to break the boundaries that are set for them,” Carol stated. “Being too strict often has an adverse effect.”
Lauren supported this. “When these kids finally get to a party they want to rebel. They're the ones who usually get really sick from doing something stupid like drinking way too much or doing a lot of drugs.”
“Whenever my parents have set a rule I consider unfair, I'll break it just to let my parents know it's unfair,” admitted Rafael.
Carol countered, “It's never okay to break rules, even ones you think are unfair. You should talk to your parents and express your disappointment and then try to compromise. But you should never break rules set by your parents because that's a breech of trust.”
Lauren made a distinction between “a rule that asks a kid to come home early and one that asks a kid not to do drugs. The ‘don't do drugs' rule is a fair one and should be enforced. But if a parent makes a rule about coming home early, that might be unfair and should be discussed and possibly compromised.”
Carol put it this way, “The bottom line is that being overly protective of your kids and not letting them experience things for themselves will hurt them in the long run.”
Reprinted with permission of Corner House Counseling Agency, Princeton, NJ, (c) 2003, all rights reserved.