Today was a heavy-hearted day.
I was invited to speak to a few hundred year 11 and 12’s about consent. After my presentation a student asked to speak with me, alone, in the school administration building. With door shut, and through floods of tears, she relived memories of being sexually abused at a party only weeks earlier.
It was a messy situation, full of regret and fear. Her now x-boyfriend had taken advantage of the fact that she had been drinking. She’d never drunk before and had limited experience with boys. Things didn’t go as she had intended.
Sadly, as many girls do, she blamed herself.
She hadn’t told her family because she was scared they would react badly or be angry at her for putting herself in a risky situation. Shame had gripped her capacity to connect with those who loved her. I was privileged to be let into her world during such an important time.
I couldn’t help but think about how to further prevent incidents like these. And perhaps more importantly, how we could improve the way teenagers communicate with adults when faced with them.
I got the strong sense that she belonged to a loving family. How could I reassure this girl that family is with you during all of life’s problems?
So often our children hide little mistakes and failures from us (a bad mark on an exam, a detention, stealing food or tuckshop money). They may be afraid that we will judge, misunderstand, freak out, condemn or lock them up. It’s a fair assumption. Transparency does come with potential risks.
Over the years I have sat with many teens and young adults who have struggled to talk to adults when faced with a crisis. I have also sat with parents who have desperately wanted a road “in”, regardless of the heartache, the cost or the risks.
We don’t choose vulnerability in the big moments unless we have experienced safety in the little moments. This type of deep trust is created, intentionally, over time.
One way we can practically build trust is to have conversations that aim to predict our response in the event of a crisis. We need us to create safe, predictable pathways for our children. They need to know exactly how we would respond and where our priorities would be.
Try asking “How do you think I’d react” if…..
- You were caught sexting
- I found out you took drugs
- You told me something you know would break my heart
- You went out with someone I didn’t like
Parents often ask me a few questions after hearing my thoughts about this.
Question Number 1: Won’t having these discussions encourage bad behaviour?
Not if they are real potential scenarios. These conversations have to be relevant for your teen or young adult’s life, at that given time. If they are, they won’t seem inappropriate. For example, your teenager just gained their driver’s license you could talk to them how you’d react if they lost their license. The conversation may encompass how you would respond if one of their friend’s experienced or did something unexpected behind the wheel.
Question Number 2: Isn’t fear a deterrent of poor behaviour?
Fear of natural consequences is perhaps a healthy deterrent, but fear of parent’s withdrawing their love or approve is not. If we control our children using fear we forfeit connection with them. The more we control; the less children will be free to be wholly themselves.
Common Question Number 3: Does this mean I need to let go of my values and expectations?
Not a chance! In fact, I wouldn’t sugar coat how deeply it would affect you, and the real consequences. But we also need to highlight that mistakes are acceptable, assumed and part of life’s journey that we tackle together. That’s the biggest take home – together. No one is an island, and no one works through life’s challenges alone. That’s the importance of family.
“How do you think I’d react” conversations aim to dispel assumptions, and reassure our children that regardless of the circumstances, we will always put our hand up to be the biggest, stronger and safest person in their lives.
A parent’s challenge is to continually lift the shame associated with making mistakes, while reinforcing wise choices. Words like these will go a long way in reassuring teenagers that your response will be safe and predictable:
- My heart would break for you, but my job would be to…
- You need to know that there is nothing we couldn’t work through together…
- If something unexpected happened, don’t think for a second I wouldn’t want to be a part of it…
- If that happened I expect you’d need us more than ever…
- We always stick together, no matter what…
Back to the girl at the party story.
When I asked her why she hadn’t spoken to her parents she said, “Mum would kill me. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking.”
“Yeah I get that,” I said. “She might kill you.”
She smiled for the first time in our conversation.
“I’d expect a parent who loved you a lot to have a big reaction. A parent’s love is strong and real and fiercely protective. But once mum “kills you”, she will love you a lot. That’s what good parents do. She’s on your team. She’s got your back.”
None of us like to think we would do something that would constitute “killing” our kids, but we might. And even if we react in the most perfect way, our children often fear that we won’t. Perception is everything.
I wish this girl’s mum had had the “How do you think I’d react conversation…” with her daughter prior to this event. It could have been a game changed. Whether the issue be viewing pornography, sending a nude, bullying, trying drugs or driving recklessly, we have to reassure our children that we will always with them, and our response will always be predictable.
Growing up is full of less than perfect moments.
Our job is to love and guide them.
They can count on that.
RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up”.