The Top Questions and Most Pressing Issues Teens Want Answered Today
Originally published on JewishFamily.com
“It’s not the size of the step that matters, but that you take it. Things happen. It’s what we do when they happen that’s key.” What can you do as a parent, how do you make a real difference in your teen’s life? How do you transmit your core Jewish life values to your teen today? Do you feel prepared to discuss all your kids’ questions and issues? Do you know what your teen’s top-of-the-line pressing questions really are?
As a parent, are you ready to tackle some of the more regular questions and issues that are on your teenager’s mind?
Ones like these:
“How can I tell if my friend is serious when they talk about suicide?”
“Did you get drunk in high school or college?”
“Why is sex considered the most important part of a relationship?”
“I’m pretty sure I’m gay. Should I tell my parents?”
“I hate my mom and dad and want to run away from home. What should I do?”
“Is religion important? Does it make a difference in someone’s life?”
“Why is religion taught with all these rules and regulations?”
“What about spirituality and learning to daven?”
“My best friend told me a secret that she was raped. How can I help her?”
“What’s wrong with doping and drinking at a party?”
“I feel really sad all the time. How can I tell my parents when I don’t even understand?”
“What’s wrong with using a fake ID? Everyone does it.”
“How do I know if I’m truly in love?”
“What age is the right time to start having sex?”
Questions like these are every day questions for teens. Time and time again at my seminars across America, teens tell me how they need, and want, to talk with you, their parents.
What parent doesn’t pause and wonder, “Will my kids be able to make good choices when faced with decisions regarding drugs, sex, and other conflicted values?
The good news is that how your teen meets and resolves their ethical dilemmas depends on their connection with you. Remember, research has clearly shown that teens resolve big issues not through logic or analytical reasoning, but with their heart. A parent who manages to keep an open heart through the wild swings of adolescence is more likely, at its end, to see their child loaded up with the best of your values.
Sound simple? Well, not quite. Hitting the connection bulls-eye from parent to teen and vice versa can, and most likely will, have a number of misses. In the book of parents and teens, one inevitably finds the daunting chapter called, “Tough Times”.
The questions addressed in this column come directly from my talks and seminars with over 4,000 Jewish high school students throughout the United States and Canada. At each of my talks, I hand out 3x5 cards asking each teen to anonymously write the question or issue they would most like their parents to address.
During the past year, I took all these cards that lay piled high in a corner of my office and remarkably was able to collate them into categories. Written on these cards are the most personal and provocative questions and issues that Jewish teenagers are concerned about today. Finally, after hours of work, I came up with the most commonly asked questions.
Any parent who wants to know the issues of their children can check-in at this column as well as ask me a question through writing a post on the bulletin board at this site. Personally, it has been astounding to see how forthcoming, open and willing teens are to discuss the important issues in their lives. Equally remarkable are the great similarities in their questions. It doesn’t matter whether I was speaking at a Hebrew High, Day School, Yeshiva or NCSY, USY, NIFTY or BBYO event, our teens’ questions always fall into 7 basic categories:
- Communication problems- School, peer pressure, and friends
- Family -secrets, fighting, and divorce
- Spirituality and social consciousness- the quest for ethics and values
- Sex and relationships
- Violence and abusive relationships
- Drugs and alcohol
- Suicide and depression
I want to provide you with some guidance that will help create an atmosphere where your relationship with your teen can be improved, strengthened, or even healed.
This column will help you tackle the top questions your teenager has today. It will also provide you with some basic steps and information designed to help you get tough discussions going. Even the “how-to’s” on those really embarrassing topics like ‘sex’ will be covered.
This week’s column will focus on Drugs and Alcohol.
Some Key Points to Remember when Discussing Drugs and Alcohol.
You don’t have to be an Expert, you simply have to care.
Let’s not kid ourselves, drugs and alcohol are everywhere. Teens have easy access to drugs and booze. Every teen knows of someone who has a drug or alcohol problem. Drug Free School Zones are more or less a myth. It is a serious problem. However, this does not mean that an entire generation of teens is growing up drug or alcohol dependent. There are critical things every parent needs to understand surrounding this issue. The operant word, of course, is to discuss these issues, not lecture your kids.
- Never be surprised that your teen experiments with drugs or alcohol.
- Remember experimenting with drugs or alcohol does not necessarily lead to dependency. There is little scientific evidence that suggests that trying one drug will lead to trying another drug or that getting drunk leads to alcoholism.
- Adopt a realistic attitude towards drugs and , realizing your kids may experiment. Explain abstinence. There is a difference between being ‘dumb with drugs and alcohol’ and ‘being in trouble’. Remember, binge drinkers and kids who have a drug and alcohol dependency are easy to spot. Every student at any small- to medium-sized high school knows the kids who have a drinking or doping problem. The earlier this is faced, the more chance there will be for success in treatment. This is why you need to have an open line of communication with your child.
- Please re-frame the definitions of an addict or alcoholic. There are kids who simply experiment with drugs and booze.Those teens do not have a drug problem. They have a legal problem. However, kids who are regular users and use drugs to self-medicate themselves against their anxiety are the next generation of junkies and drunks. Both the alcoholic and drug addict are most desperately seeking ways to reduce their anxiety. Since they are terrified of going to their parents to get help, they turn to illegal substances to take away the gnawing pressure of their anxiety. If not treated, the anxiety can turn to anger and a very sad situation can develop.
As a parent, the message you need to give your teen is that no matter what the circumstance, they should be on the lookout for signs of trouble. If, or when, they discover that the reason they are taking a drug or getting drunk is to help them “feel” better or “to make their anxiety go away,” that is when they need to get some help. Explain to them that there are better ways to treat anxiety and you are there to help them.
- Discuss the ethical and legal consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Do some quick research on your own to get some basic facts. An excellent starting point will be the literature provided by M.A.D.D. Help them think about the consequences that can happen if they drink and drive or get stoned and drive. People die. Kids die. Drinking and driving is not something that happens somewhere else, or in someone else’s headlines.
THE TOP TWO QUESTIONS
- Didn’t You Use Drugs In College?”
Odds are that you are going to be asked that question, or asked if you did drugs in high school, at some point. This is one of the most common questions kids want to ask their parents. Here is how to approach it.
Let me divide this question into two categories.
If You Used Drugs:
This applies to me. I tried drugs when I was in college. I have been clear and open about this with my own kids and with the students at my seminars-even though it was almost 35 years ago. I tell them what drug taking was like in college, but never in great detail. It is important to clue them in on the struggles and challenges you went through in life. There’s no class your kid can take that can ever approach what they can get from you. No teacher can replace you.
Many of the toughest questions that teens ask fall into the category of “learning life lessons.” While life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards. Backwards means discussing your mistakes and what you learned from them with your teenager. When you admit the truth and discuss your failures, you will form a closer connection with your child. This is the essence of Teshuvah in action. This is clearly forgiveness being worked out in the midst of your family ties.
Don’t avoid dealing with this question and above all, don’t lie. Again, you don’t have to go through all the details, but don’t fake it. Your teen can read your emotions like an open book so get right to the point.
The bottom line is that more real talk helps to de-mystify the entire topic. De-mystified information is information that loses its allure. That is one reason why knowledge is power.
The reason factual educational information is so often ineffective is because it keeps the subject impersonal. It just sticks to the facts and leaves no room for personal self disclosure. The key to effective drug prevention and education is providing useful AND personal information. For parents, that includes telling your personal stories. It is, after all, part of your family’s history. I’ve told my kids what it was like ‘smoking weed’, about who gave it to me, what the environment was like back then, as well as what information I had about drugs (which wasn’t much and wasn’t accurate), and why I chose to stop doing drugs.
Talk to your kids about the drugs you used. Explain to them what motivated you to experiment with drugs. And, of course, remind them how the same kind of information that was hard to discover back then is accessible today.
If you did not use drugs:
Find a time when you will not be interrupted to discuss any of these important questions. Make that time “sacred time” for you and your teen. Be straightforward, and tell them, “I want to let you know why I never used drugs.” Keep it simple and stay on the point. Explain why you didn’t succumb to pressure to do drugs. You also might want to tell them about times when you were at parties where drugs were offered. Tell your teen about how you handled that situation.
Be specific. Explain, do not preach; you are doing more than merely relating your history, you are communicating your standard of values and demonstrating ethics in action. This does not mean your teen will not experiment, but it will give them pause before they do. There is a saying in the Torah that addresses the power of these intimate child-parent talks. It states, “Maaseh avot simon l’bunim-The deeds of the parent are a sign [or visited] on the children.” In other words, we can pass down great values, or we can pass down lousy values. The hope is that this column can help you pass down strong and faithful values to your teen.
Your goal should be to explain how you went about making an important decision and how your hope is that they, too, will make the same choice. Even if they don’t, the core message you should communicate is that if they get into trouble, you want them to speak to you about it. You will be there for them through all the rights and all the wrongs.
You’ll be amazed at how much you and your teenager are going to enjoy talking about your experiences.
- “I am pretty sure my parents tried drugs in college. I am also quite sure they lied to me about it. It is kind of embarrassing to know your parents lied to you. Should I even bring it up?” When I survey kids at my seminars, I ask, “How many of your parents have admitted that they tried marijuana?” 30-40% of the students raise their hands. Then I ask them, “How many of you think your parents have just flat out lied to you about it?” With a loud burst of laughter, sometimes up to another 40% of the kids raise their hands. When I tell parents about this they laugh too. But, the truth is, it isn’t funny at all.
When you lie, it signals to your teenager that sometimes it is okay to lie. If you expect honesty from your children, you have to model honesty. Of course, I am not speaking about coming clean on every secret.
There’s no guarantee that by admitting to your teen that you lied about using drugs that it will keep them from experimenting. Lying about your drug usage can drive a wedge between you and your teen; it can literally keep your teenager from coming to you if they get into trouble. Lying leaves a message that it is okay to keep things like using drugs underground and below the radar. It’s just not the example you want to set.
Perhaps, for those of you reading this who have lied to your teen about your drug usage are right now having a tough time digesting what I am about to ask you do to do. I know it is not easy to come clean, but let me show why you need to have ‘that talk’ and how it will teach your teen some very important lessons. Bottom line, you can now set a new and powerful example for your child.
I know holding onto a lie creates a lot of anxiety. It is not easy living with the tension that comes from lying to children. Living with anxiety is like paying interest on a loan you really don’t owe.
Tell your teen something along the following lines, “Do you remember when you asked me if I ever tried drugs? Well, I suspect you picked up that I was a bit evasive when I answered. Not telling you the truth has really been bothering me, so I have to set the record straight…”
What will this accomplish? Your teen will now know that mistakes can be corrected with dignity. That if they have lied to you, they can come clean and it’s okay. Facing the music takes on real and important meaning. By the way, in case this crossed your mind, there is no correlation or study that ties casual drug use by parents as a prime indicator of drug usage with their children. There are studies that point to families of drug addicts and alcoholics whose children seem to be predisposed to addiction and alcoholism, however this is not the issue being discussed here.
Come clean and tell your teen the truth. Turn the fact that you lied into a life-learning experience. Your truth telling will create respect for you as a parent and it will build more confidence in your teen.
Negatives can be turned into positives; this is definitely a prime example of how that works. Reestablishing the truth strengthens the bond between you and your child. Your teen will carry that lesson into all their relationships later in life. The mind is like a parachute,it works better when open. Return and set a marvelous example for your child, for revealing mistakes can become a positive asset in your teen’s life.
Yehudah Fine, noted lecturer and family therapist, is author of Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids’ Lives (now in second edition, publshed by UP Publishing) and is on the counseling staff at Yeshiva University.