One in five high school freshman are sexually active, and by senior year, that triples to nearly three in five, the same ratio as seniors that have, at minimum, experimented with alcohol or drugs, according to the CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. While most parents are aware of these growing trends, they also tend to assume that “it must be the other kids at their school.” But, there are the things you know about your kids - such as how they’re doing in school, the things they talk to you about, what you know about their friends and social circle, and so on - and then, there are the things you don’t know, like what they really talk about with their friends, how much they have already experimented with drugs and sexual behavior, what they watch and text to each other on their phones, their ways of getting around your security measures, how they’re being treated by their peers or how they’re treating their peers, if they’ve ever had thoughts of self harm or harming others, etc. From their point of view, this system works well for both - the kids don’t want the parents to know and the parents are happier when they don’t know. This is especially true for families that come from conservative cultures and backgrounds.
When I was a teen, my parents were very comfortable with my circle of friends because they were the “good, wholesome and polite” girls that didn’t set off any alarm bells as bad influences. This actually was accurate of my friends, they really were the good girls, particularly in comparison to most of the other cliques from my upper-middle class suburban school, but even in our group, by age 13, the first of my girlfriends had lost her virginity to her 18 year old boyfriend, and none of our parents had a clue. That was in the early 2000s.
Nowadays, our social culture is much more toxic and even more in their face, not to mention easier to hide. At least when I was that age, there seemed to be somewhat more of a baseline standard of “we have to be in a relationship first,” but we are now living in the age of the “hook-up culture” where it’s perfectly normal to engage in sexual activities without ever even kissing, because apparently that is only reserved for people you actually like. These skewed perceptions are translating into a shockingly low self esteem, especially for girls. Kids are valuing their feelings so incredibly low that they are hardly even seeing each other as humans anymore - just objects that are meant to be used for validation and acceptance, and ultimately, this devaluing of emotions is culminating into the major contributing factors associated with the rising rates of teenage depression and anxiety and other serious mental illnesses, as well as the highest ever teenage suicide and school shootings rates.
This is not meant to scare you, but rather, to make you aware that it’s highly likely that the problems that you might be having with your kids are not your biggest problems with your kids, and that your biggest problems are the problems you probably don’t even know about. By the time issues like low academic performance or motivation, or their defiant attitude and lack of respect for authority come to your attention, the hidden problems that you know nothing about are liable to be the far greater danger. Of course, it is possible that your perception is actually accurate and that your kids truly aren’t participating in any high risk activities, but that doesn’t mean that they are not constantly surrounded by them, and won’t eventually become influenced by them. Consider things like humanity’s history with slavery, or the holocaust, as proof that any behavior can become normalized if everyone else is doing it.
For many parents, especially those that become forcibly aware of the “other problems,” the common approaches that they instinctively reach for to handle these situations are usually met with even more conflict and retaliation. That’s because, in the same way that the things we think are the problems are not the real problems, the solutions we tend to jump to are also not the real solutions. Limitations, restrictions and punishments not only add more stress to the problems we don’t know about, but they also subliminally communicate to them that we are not reliable resources for them to come to with their deeper problems because we will likely be even more intolerable of those issues, and we inadvertently end up reinforcing the overall root problem - their misguided beliefs that their feelings don’t matter.
Additionally, these forceful tactics actually make our own issues with them worse, because they don’t encourage the idea of self accountability, since they don’t offer the freedom for them to hold themselves accountable. They can’t choose to not be on their phones in favor of studying if that choice is made for them, and if that choice is made for them, then their focus will likely shift to the oppression of their choice, rather than actually studying. The same is also true for the more subtle methods of influencing, like the silent treatment or time-out, because even though these are more indirect forms of punishment, and often not even intended to be punishments but rather just a natural response by the parent in order to save their energy, from the perspective of the kids, there is still a psychological consequence to their actions. They are, once again, indirectly told that their parents are not a source to share their problems with, because it is in the realm of all possibilities that they will be perceived as intolerable. In other words, their parents are judges, not allies.
There are a few reasons why we tend to automatically reach for these more forceful and restrictive tactics:
1. They seem to be the only rational way for us to guide them to do the right things,
2. Many parents are in a state of emotional and mental burnout, without even realizing this is the case, and unless they have an outlet to revitalize that energy, coming up with alternative tactics can be very draining, and lastly,
3. These tactics are also somewhat familiar for many of us because often, they were the same methods used on us by our parents when we were growing up.
Obviously, we are living in a different time and those same strategies can very well backfire on us. According to another Youth Survey conducted by the CDC in 2017, an average of over 3069 high school teens attempt suicide daily, and 4 out of 5 of them give clear warning signs. Although their signaling indicates that they want and seek help before the attempt, for any teen that fears the judgment of their parent, their signs are likely to be very subtle and may even go undetected or regretfully undermined, if the parent is preoccupied with their own impressions of what they believe the problems are.
By now, you might be wondering if I’m suggesting that you should leave your kids alone completely and impose no rules and restrictions. Not worries, that is not my point at all. They are children and obviously lack the life experience for which they absolutely need guidance. What I am really trying to address here are the approaches we resort to in order to guide them - our influencing tactics. Fortunately, there are quite a few effective methods of influencing and accountability that parents can apply to avoid the pitfalls of the faulty tactics, which I go over in my online course, Motivate Your Kids, as well as give more personalized assistance and strategies with private and group life coaching for parents.
In general, the most important thing to keep in mind is the possibility of there being bigger fish to fry than just the ones you know about, and if you’re lucky enough that there aren’t, there may very well be conversations happening all around them that are negatively influencing their thinking. You’ll need to be an even greater influence in their life, so it’s wise to keep the possibility of the “bigger problems” at the forefront of your mind before reacting, when you’re in conflict with your kids.