“Why should I?” says the teen (with some attitude). “Because I said so!” glowers the parent (with even more attitude). This exchange is a time-honored example of parents “showing who’s boss.” Dialogues like this one encourage teens to view parents as the enemy rather than as a resource. Parents who avoid authoritarian pronouncements in favor of conversational reasoning can help teens learn to think for themselves.
Here’s an example: Sally wants to quit the swim team in mid-season. Rather than offer her own opinion, Sally’s mother might say: “I am interested in your thinking. How do you think your teammates will react if you don’t show up for the final meet? Do you think they’ll understand and respect your decision? Would anyone be hurt? Might this person hurt your feelings in return? Will you tell the coach in person or by a note? Is there any chance you’ll regret the decision?”
The point is not to prevent teens from making errors in judgment. Instead, the goal is to guide your children to explore the effects of their actions on themselves and others.
Building Emotional Intelligence
Building emotional intelligence is not an easy task. Young adults today face a social world that includes suicide, anorexia, alcohol and drug addiction, and sexual challenges. Teen rules often preclude sharing details of their world with parents. Establishing a conversational pattern in which teens feel comfortable can minimize some of the risks. Instead of pressing a teen to reveal social details, a parent can ask questions that help her consider her decisions.
Lisa, 16 years old, asked her mother, “What would you do if your friend were, like, thinking of having sex with her boyfriend, but you knew that his old girlfriend got a sexually transmitted disease from him? I promised his old girlfriend that I would never tell. I also promised my friend that I wouldn’t tell anyone that she was thinking of having sex for the first time.” A thorny dilemma, even for an adult.
Rather than discuss specifics, Lisa’s mother drew her into a discussion about the limits of confidences when someone’s safety is at risk. What would the parties involved think about Lisa’s decision a year from now, or 15 years from now? Mother and daughter talked about other ways of passing information that involved less risk, and what the social implications might be if Lisa told–or did not tell. Lisa made a decision that was not the one her mother would have made, but a reasonable decision nonetheless.
This coaching approach included Lisa in a reasoning process. It formed a template that she could use in other situations. Many adolescents will not develop the capacity for long-range thinking until the end of the teen years. In the meantime, using parents as coaches helps them to supplement their reasoning with mature perspectives.