A whopping 82 percent of parents say it's important to talk to teens about sex, for example, but admit they have no clue when or how to do it, reported a 2007 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. But here's an incentive to figure out a way to talk to your teen about condoms and keg parties: "Kids really want their parents to talk to them about issues like this," says Richard M. Lerner, Ph.D., professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Good Teen: Rescuing Adolescence from the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years. "Research shows that most adolescents share their parents' values and want to know what they think." That's reassuring but you may need some help navigating past the eye-rolling stage. Read on for experts' and parents' best advice on getting these crucial conversations going.
Drugs & Alcohol
In theory, this conversation should last all of 10 seconds. You say, "Don't drink, and don't use drugs that weren't prescribed for you," and your kid says, "OK, Mom."
In real life, however, every teen in America has heard repeatedly about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, and yet, by eighth grade, 32.9 percent have tried alcohol, 22.1 percent have smoked cigarettes, and 14.2 percent have used marijuana. But teens whose parents talk with them about drugs are half as likely to use them as those whose parents don't, says Steve Pasierb, president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Talking tips: The world, sadly, provides conversation starters for this subject almost daily: a rock star's overdose, a classmate's DUI. These tragic episodes can be teachable moments, says Lee Ann Davidson, a mom of three in Birmingham, AL. "We've had relatives who became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and I've never hidden these things from my kids," says Davidson. "I wanted them to see firsthand the harmful consequences of the bad choices these people made."
Lecturing doesn't help kids internalize this kind of lesson, says Pasierb, but give-and-take does. Start a real back-and-forth discussion by saying, "How sad about Amy Winehouse. Seriously, have any kids at your school gotten into a tough spot with drugs?" Or, "I heard your school's starting quarterback is sidelined because he broke his leg driving stoned. Does that mean the scouts won't see him now?" Inviting a dialogue keeps the conversation away from confrontation, so your kid can hear what you say, even when you focus on your expectations of him.
Also know that this generation of kids responds best when you warn them what a threat drugs and alcohol present to their health and future, according to Partnership research. So rather than say "Drinking is illegal" or "Using drugs is bad," try, "I love you, and I want you to be healthy and happy." Then drop a relevant fact "Wine and beer can impair driving as much as hard liquor."
Pasierb suggests a "water-torture approach" many short conversations (less than five minutes each) from ages 9 to 19. The repetition reduces the pressure by giving you many chances to make your points.
Keep in mind, too, that your kid may want help finding a way to get off the hook when peers encourage him to chug a beer or try a joint, says Lerner. I've armed Sam with a diplomatic exit strategy: Don't make a fuss, apologize, or explain. A simple "No, thanks," may be all it takes. But if he's pressed, he and I have colluded on this excuse, "Dude, my mom's a German shepherd. She can smell anything illegal from a mile away."
Next: What to cover and how; plus advice for talking about money
What to cover: Parents need to be informed about issues like which prescription drugs kids target, what huffing involves, and exactly how alcohol impairs judgment, as well as the latest developments. To get up-to-date facts, visit Partnership's site at drugfree.org.
Getting around the roadblocks: Fear of hypocrisy frequently hinders parents from tackling this topic, says Pasierb. Very few of us these days can honestly claim we always just said no. There's no right answer about whether to fess up or not: Tell as much as you're comfortable with, recommends Pasierb, and remember the conversation isn't ultimately about you; it's about keeping your kid safe. Lerner adds that when parents admit that they've made mistakes, that it hasn't always been easy to live up to their own values, kids are actually more likely to believe them. With her own children, Lerner said, "I did some dumb things in college, and I regret them, and here's why."
Dollars and cents may not sound like life and death, but kids find plenty of ways to mess up seriously with money. Only a quarter of teens have any clue how credit card interest works which may explain why the average college student carries nearly $3,000 in credit card debt. And a bad credit rating can affect a kid's ability to buy a car or a house, or even to get a job.
But too often parents don't address these issues while kids are still at home. "Many parents are insecure about their own financial knowledge, so they don't know how to frame their advice, or where to begin," says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.
Talking tips: To get the conversation going, start involving your teen in the family's financial life. That doesn't require revealing the nitty-gritty details of your income and debt load, but you can, for instance, let your kid see you paying bills on Saturday morning, and invite her input on budgeting decisions. Say, "Money's tight, but we might be able to go to the beach for a few days if we're careful. How could we save up a bit?" Just realizing the trade-offs involved in saving and spending is a big step toward financial savvy.
And take advantage of the openings your kids are sure to give you. They may not be curious about the stock market, but they're very interested in what it would take to get the latest-model iPod. To teach your teen, capitalize on the power of desire, rather than just handing over the big-ticket item du jour. Sally Jo Davis of Media, PA, couldn't afford the cost more than $2,200 of a foreign exchange program her daughter wanted to attend in Europe this spring. "I told her we didn't have the money for that, but we would allow her to go if she got a job and paid for it herself. She stuck with it and met her goal," says Davis. "The financial lessons she learned were as great as the cultural ones."
What to cover: Before leaving home, a teen needs to know both the big picture of finance (how to sync up spending with earning, the importance of saving) and the details (how to balance a checkbook, how to stick to a budget). For more information, visit the National Endowment for Financial Education's Website at nefe.org or the Schwab MoneyWise site at schwabmoneywise.com.
Getting around the roadblocks: As recipients of the family entitlement program, teens are unlikely to go gladly into employment without a push. Nonetheless, making your kid earn his goals is the only way to instill both a work ethic and an ability to delay gratification. A minimum-wage job, however, may not be the answer or, in today's economy, a realistic option. My husband and I regard school as Sam's full-time job nine months of the year, but when he's saving for a big goal, we give him the opportunity to take on some of the tasks we typically hire out window washing and leaf mulching, say that he can do on weekends.
Next: Talking about sex
Of all the awkward subjects that parents and teens need to discuss, sex is probably the most embarrassing. And yet getting it right is crucial because unprotected intercourse can lead not just to pregnancy but also to dangerous or fatal STDs. In 2004 alone, roughly 750,000 teenage girls became pregnant, and one in four teen girls already has an STD.
"Whatever your family's values, you want your child to have the information she needs to protect herself when she does become sexually active, even if that's not until marriage," says Paula Braverman, M.D., a member of the National Committee on Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics. For parents who worry that telling teens about sex will encourage them to experiment, the research is reassuring: Giving kids accurate information about contraception and STDs actually delays when they have their first sexual experience, found a recent study from the CDC.
Talking tips: In the olden days back when you and I were hitting junior high moms had The Talk with their daughters, and dads stammered a few sentences out to their sons, but that's ancient history. "The serious, planned conversations make my kids feel like they're in trouble or being preached at," says Anna Davis, a mother of three in Huntsville, AL. "Casual chats in the kitchen while supper is cooking tend to be the most open and effective." When her 16-year-old daughter recently learned that a friend had become pregnant, Davis used the event to reinforce the risks of unprotected sex in terms that would resonate with her daughter: "I emphasized that instead of having a carefree college experience, this girl will either live with her parents or she'll marry a guy she doesn't even really know."
If your teen is in a relationship, and things seem to be heating up, it's important to take an honest, adult-to-adult tone, says Ann Tiberghien, a mom of two in Atlanta. When she noticed that her then-16-year-old son was falling seriously in love for the first time, she was tempted to scream, "Don't you dare make me a grandmother!" Instead, she took an opportunity, when they were both in the car, to suggest calmly that the couple have their own talk together before they got too hot and heavy about how far sexually they were really prepared to go at that stage and the implications of that. "After our talk," Tiberghien says, "I realized that I no longer had a child on my hands. I had a young adult."
And help your teen rehearse ways to get out of sexually pressured situations. For girls, the best response to the classic arm-twisting line "If you love me, you'll have sex with me" is a firm, "I'm not ready, and if you care about me, you'll respect my wishes." For boys, who may worry that they're less experienced than their friends, point out that, no matter what they tell you, many, many other guys their age are not having sex yet, so there's no shame in holding off.
What to cover: Be clear about what you believe and the behavior you expect, says Dr. Braverman, but in a way that recognizes your child may not or may not always share your view. Say, "I think you're too young for the risks and the responsibilities of sex, and I want you to wait. And if and when you think you are ready to be sexually active, I want to be sure that you know you need to use birth control and protect yourself from diseases by using a condom." Reassuringly, research shows that two-thirds of teens agree with their parents' values about sexuality, but acknowledging that sexual activity is a teen's own choice leaves the door open to continued dialogue. For more information, visit the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's Website: thenationalcampaign.org.
Getting around the roadblocks: With kids drawing conclusions from unreliable sources their clueless friends, unrealistic TV shows you need to give them the real facts, even if they say they've heard it all before. "I hear 'I know, I know,' a lot," says Donna Frost, a mom of three in Hoover, AL. "My response: 'Guess what? You're hearing it again.'"
And if you couch it as a dialogue an opportunity to exchange thoughts, and not just a chance to convey information you'll have an easier time getting past the blow-off, says Lerner. Just say, "I know you've heard this stuff before, but I just want to be sure you understand my views about it, and I want to know your views. I love you, and I just want to be confident we're on the same page."
This kind of communication is what kids want, too. You are still your kids' major role model, says Lerner and you are up for the challenge.
Mom-Tested: 5 Smart Times to Talk
- 'Round midnight. Teens are frequently nocturnal, and a kid just coming in for the evening is often jazzed and ready to chat
- On deadline. Use teen procrastination to your advantage carefully. There's nothing like a paper due the next day to prime a teen for a heart-to-heart. Just don't let him blow off the assignment
- Snack time. Ever met a teen who wouldn't trade five minutes of conversation for a fresh-baked chocolate cookie or two?
- While driving. It's a lot easier to discuss embarrassing topics when you don't have to do it eye to eye, which can feel confrontational
- Chore time. Shared work, like planting seeds or painting the garage, keeps hands busy and puts you on the same team