Trusting Your Teen
Picture this: You've just discovered a condom in the pocket of your 17-year-old son's jeans. What do you do? Is your immediate reaction one of anger, fear or is it one of utter surprise and amazement? Each parent has their own unique reaction to these types of delicate situations.
For many parents, it seems that the first reaction has been a feeling that they have failed in dealing with the issue of sex. This feeling of inadequacy has some parents riddled with incredible feelings of guilt. Annette Pearl of Pittsburgh, Pa. was devastated to learn that her 14-year-old daughter was sexually active. "I felt very guilty, and I don't think I ever really got over it," she says. "I felt that I hadn't been strict enough, or loving enough, or something I had done wasn't enough to keep my little girl safe."
Pearl says she believes that her daughter, who is now 25 years old, is disappointed with the choices she has made, and even blames her mom. This compounds the feelings of guilt that Pearl feels as a mother. "I don't believe that all children who have sex as teenagers will go on to have such a turbulent life," she says. "I do believe that it's the families that have a solid foundation who can make it through and live a moral, healthy life unburdened with the guilt and shame."
Guilt is such a huge burden for any parent to carry. Margaret Paul, Ph.D., co-author of Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved By You? and Healing Your Aloneness, believes that parents need to let go of that overwhelming feeling of guilt and failure. "Guilt comes from telling oneself that we have done something wrong," she says. "Yet if we have been there for our children and have been loving role models of personal responsibility, we have done nothing wrong. We can be perfect parents and our children will still make their own choices, and we have to accept this."
Heather Kent of Ontario, Canada recalls her feelings at discovering that her girls were engaged in sexual activity at the ages of 15 and 16. "I felt bad in that they were no longer little girls but I was happy that they had come to me right away and not tried to hide anything," she says. "We have always been a very close-knit family and have no secrets."
We raise our children to be independent thinkers, and then when they make a decision we don't like, we feel bad about it. As parents, we are doing our job if we guide them to make responsible choices, but it is not a guarantee that they will never make a mistake. And it is not a guarantee that they will choose what we want them to. If we are teaching them to make their own decisions, then ultimately the choices they make are theirs alone.
"My son was 15 when he told me he was having sex," says Marilyn Atherley, Ph.D., an educational consultant/counselor and mom from Trinidad. "My reaction was that I didn't feel ready to talk to him about it, but I did not feel guilty. I only worried about him being really ready to handle it." Atherley tells of her great relationship with her son. It was an open relationship where he could come to her with anything – and he did.
"Children lie to you only if they are afraid of being judged," Paul says. "Parents need to make sure they are open to learning and understanding their children's choices, rather than judging them. Parents judge in an attempt to control their children, but all it does is close down the communication."
When our children are young we teach them about morality and values every chance we get. As they get older, they test those boundaries. It seems to be the first step on the quest for adulthood. Some kids will rebel at the very thought that their parents would disapprove, while others wouldn't dare cross the line. All kids are different, as are all families.
When our children are young we feel guilty when they fall. As they get older, we need to learn to let go of that guilt. Though we may still cringe at some of the things they do, we must hope that we have taught them well. It's the best we can do. Let them live and learn – as we all have – through trial and error. They will be more willing to talk to you about things they are doing if they feel you have trusted them with their own choices.