Teenagers sometimes scare the wits out of their parents. Because adolescents are inexperienced (too young to have enough experience to know better), they can make poor decisions. Someone who has loaned an acquaintance a thousand dollars because “he promised to pay it back tomorrow” is more cautious after that experience. Unfortunately, he may have to actually lose a thousand dollars before he learns that caution is in order. That’s why older people are so much wiser: they’ve pretty well covered every mistake in the book and of course, they now know better! The teenage sense of invincibility can also lead to compromised judgment. Someone who has already learned about his fragility through an unfortunate car accident often slows down and looks both ways before going through intersections. And the teenage quality of impulsiveness (a.k.a. enthusiasm combined with reckless abandon) is perhaps the worst offender in hasty, poorly thought-out plans that turn out badly. The aging process corrects this trait, but meanwhile, parents of teenagers can be in for quite a (scary) ride. What can parents do to help their kids minimize risk?
Don’t Carry Their Fear
Let’s start with what not to do. Don’t carry your child’s fear. Are you afraid when your 17-year-old daughter walks home alone through a deserted park at midnight? You and your spouse may be the only ones experiencing that fear. Ask the daughter about it and she may say, “I was totally safe. There was no one there. I do it all the time. No one ever gets attacked there.” Why doesn’t she feel afraid? Because of the three characteristics of teenagers described below:
1. She’s inexperienced (thankfully). She has never been attacked in a park or dark alley or anywhere else. She can’t relate to the idea.
2. She thinks she’s invincible. She can’t imagine anything bad happening to her. She believes she’s in control of her world and if she wants the park to be safe, then it is safe.
3. She’s impulsive. She is making a decision based on her feelings. She wants to walk through the park at midnight, so it must be fine to do so. She’s not slowing down to think, to analyze the possible dangers and to make an alternative plan.
So it’s not her fault that she makes such a poor decision. However, if YOU are the one to feel the fear and express that fear, SHE will never feel it until she learns about it the hard way. Therefore, you must be careful to minimize your reaction. The more drama you engage in, the more ridiculous your teen will think you are and the less credibility your message will carry. Don’t be loud or emotional. Don’t throw out big threats or fancy consequences. In fact, don’t use discipline at all. These strategies will derail your mission; your child will focus on your lack of rationality, your lack of understanding, and your lack of fairness. She will not focus on the issue at hand: her dangerous behavior.
Hand Over the Fear
You want your teenager to experience his or her own fear. That’s what will keep the child safe. Do you walk alone in bad areas of town at midnight? Why not? Nobody is stopping you! You decide not to do that because you are afraid. Your fear keeps you safe.
You have to help your child feel his or her own fear. You can do this by downplaying your reaction to dangerous behavior. For example, when you learn that the child has walked through an unsafe area late at night, alone, you can say, in a quiet, calm voice, something like this: “Oh. Well, I myself wouldn’t walk there alone at night—I’d be afraid for my life. But now that you’re practically an adult, you have to make those calls for yourself; I can’t follow you around to make sure you don’t do anything foolish. Of course, if you were to ask for my advice, I’d tell you not to ever walk in risky places alone in the dark, but that’s just my opinion. You really have to decide for yourself whether you’re comfortable risking your life or coming to some traumatic harm. That’s your decision.”
A speech like that one cuts the umbilical cord sharply. It says to the child: “You better use your brains better Honey because I can’t do all your thinking for you.” When teens hear words like these from their parents, they feel real fear—often for the first time in their lives. And that’s just what’s needed, in order to help them stay safe. A teenager who worries about his or her own safety can override the characteristics of inexperience, invincibility and impulsivity. Fear is a powerful motivator. When it is in the vehicle, it always takes the driver’s wheel.
It’s scary handing the wheel over to your teen, but you don’t really have a choice. The truth is that you can’t follow youngsters around and make their brains work right. The next best thing you can do is tenderly abandon them. This immediately increases their fear. If it increases yours as well, this is only temporary. You will soon see evidence that your child is taking more precautions and trying to be safer. And this is what will help reduce your fear eventually.