If you're a parent of a new high schooler, you've probably spent many nights staring at the ceiling, worrying about what he or she will be exposed to in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Drugs, sex, alcohol, peer pressure; you remember what high school was like, so you have no doubt there will be many challenges as your teen embarks upon the journey from freshmen to senior.
Now is the time to offer advice on how to handle common high school hurdles, or else you risk losing control, says Dr. Aaron Krasner, director of the Adolescent Transitional Living Program at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn.
"When parents struggle to connect with their kids about important topics, like sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol, they run the risk of empowering alternative value systems [from peers] in the minds of their kids," he told Parenting.com. "By not addressing important issues, you may lose a valuable opportunity to link your own spiritual, ethical, moral wisdom and parenting style to the challenges that your kids will inevitably face in making difficult decisions as young adults."
Dr. Krasner suggests these seven tips for tackling tough topics now:
1. Address awkwardness
Talking about sex and drugs can be uncomfortable both for new high schoolers and parents—or maybe just parents.
"Often, what makes us uncomfortable as parents may not actually make our kids uncomfortable, so an important thing to do is check in with yourself—are you okay to talk about sex and relationships? Drugs? Alcohol? Finding a way to come to terms with your thoughts and feelings about these hot button topics will go a long way in meaningfully connecting with your kids," says Dr. Krasner.
2. Don't mix messages
Parents must present a united front about tough topics.
"Before talking to their kids, [parents] need to talk to each other!" says Dr. Krasner.
If your new high schooler is more comfortable talking to one parent versus another, he advises honoring that preference.
3. Keep it casual
Find a gentle way to impart your wisdom to your new high schooler. Whatever you do, don't plot a sneak attack, which may be poorly received (just think how you would have felt about being cornered by your parents when you were a teen!).
"Talking meaningfully to kids about tough topics has to happen on their terms, on their turf, and in a way that they can manage," Dr. Krasner says.
Try allowing your child to pick the venue. Then, listen.
"Listening to your child, observing their response and responding appropriately is just as important as the content," advises Dr. Krasner.
That means no iPhones! And even though you want to keep things casual, maintain a position of parental power.
"In trying to connect to your teen, you don't have to be their friend—you aren't," he says.
4. Communicate directly
Given the delicate nature of topics like alcohol usage and sex, you may be tempted to communicate with your teen via text of email to cut down on the awkwardness. But Dr. Krasner says, "There is no substitute for direct communication. I strongly encourage parents to skip electronic initial communications about these sensitive topics." Once you establish your commitment and seriousness on an issue, follow-ups via text or email may allow tech-saavy teens to talk more openly about their feelings.
5. Have patience
You may do your best to pick the right place and tone for the talk, but your teen can still look for the quickest escape route, something you should be cognizant of if you want to keep your audience.
"Watch for nonverbal cues—looking away, fidgeting, taking out their phone. These are reliable indications that the child is uncomfortable, and when you see this, take a time out and ask your son or daughter how they are doing. Come back around at another time by saying 'Hey, last time we tried to talk about [something] you seemed a little uncomfortable, can we try again?' This demonstrates respect, attentiveness and empathy, which are the cornerstones of successful communication with teens," suggests Dr. Krasner.
He adds, "Casually and over time, teens will tell you, on their terms if they're comfortable, what they want to tell you, and more importantly, they will ask for advice when they need it."
6. Don't get too personal
"Parents have to use good judgment in assessing how much or how little of their own personal past should be disclosed and when," says Dr. Krasner.
In other words, if you tried drugs as a teen, it isn't incumbent upon you to tell your teen.
"The danger of disclosing too much information is flooding the child with emotions that he or she may not be equipped to manage. When in doubt, less is more," he says.
7. Stay connected
The importance of maintaining a strong home connection can't be understated.
"When we have strong relationships with our kids and we are able to impart to them our values, they will have a basic schema to understand the kinds of peer pressures that impact them. When there is anger at home, when kids devalue their parents' opinions for whatever reason, they are essentially beholden to peer pressure because there is no alternative. Peer pressure is most potent when kids feel disconnected from their home lives," Dr. Krasner says.
That means kids are more susceptible to trying drugs and alcohol and being pressured into sex. They may even fall victim to bullying without an advocate on their side.
It all boils down to being there for your kids when they need you.
"If you are an ally, with clearly communicated values that have been discussed by the parents (or co-parents), you're ahead of the curve," Dr. Krasner says.
And remember, it's the effort itself that truly matters. "The effort conveys a parent's love, commitment to, and advocacy for their child," he says.