Talking with Your Teen -- David Elkind, PhD

From the WebMD Archives

By David Elkind

What's the matter? Nothing. Where are you going? Out. Do you want to talk? No. Does this sound like typical communication between you and your teen? If so, explore these tips for starting an open and frank discussion about drugs, sex, self-esteem, and other vital issues. David Elkind, PhD, was our guest.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Elkind. Why do parents have such difficulty talking with their teens?

Elkind: Well, a lot of reasons. I think that young people, for the first time, can realize that they can think one thing and say another, that their thoughts are private. It's a whole new level of thinking. They have a certain concern about privacy, because they realize that what they're thinking no one else is thinking. They can now think about their own thinking, and they develop a sense of privacy. So when adults ask them, it's an intrusion on their newfound privacy, on their thinking. That's one reason adolescents are more reluctant to talk than children might be. They may not be ready to share their thoughts right away.

Moderator: Given their newfound sense of privacy, how do we engage them in conversation?

Elkind: One way is to listen. I think sometimes we're so eager to talk we're not willing to ask. Sometimes it's more important to share. We sometimes ask questions like an interrogator. If we share some of our experiences with them, what happened in your day, adolescents might be more willing to share their thoughts. They see us as being private and not willing to share ours, so if we share ours, they may be more willing to share theirs. That's one strategy.

Ideally we begin preparing for adolescence when our children are very young, when we listen and respond, giving them opportunities for them to respond. Sharing in this way, by starting when children are small, listening to them and involving them in decision-making, we prepare the way for better communication once they become adolescents.

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Member question: I have four kids, the oldest being 13. When should I talk to her about sex and peer pressure into having sex, doing drugs, foul language, etc.? How do I approach these subjects and still get her to listen and understand?

Elkind: It's very important to talk to young people about sex, not just sexual relations but also about their bodies and maturation. Young people often don't know about the changes going on in their bodies, and the information is very useful; a book like Our Bodies Ourselves is an excellent one for this age group.

Talking about sexual relations is difficult but often parents can use a vehicle such as a movie or book; for example, the movie American Beauty talks about issues that come up and you can address them as long as you make it clear every time you watch a movie you won't be talking about sex. But it makes it a little easier than talking about it in the abstract.

As far as drugs and alcohol use, certainly kids hear a lot at school and with their friends and so on. Probably the best way is by example.

A child may learn about not smoking at school and then throw his mother/father's cigarettes in the garbage. When they become a teen, they are more likely to smoke than not to smoke. The same is true with drug and alcohol abuse. The best way to teach young people about responsible alcohol use and not smoking is by parental example. That is the most important determinant of whether children will abuse these things when they become adults.

Member question: I think kids learn a lot about the biology of sex, but very little about the emotions involved. I want to talk with them about the feelings involved, but they are embarrassed. I think the biology is only one part. And in school they can't talk about emotions and values. Do you think I'm on the right track?

Elkind: Yes. That's what I was talking about with the use of a fiction story, play, or movie. There are a lot of feelings involved. It's about the human relations, and that's what we have to stress. It's not just plumbing, it's respect and consideration for the other's feelings. And that is so important in any relationship, not just a sexual relationship.

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Member question: With that new sense of "privacy" also comes a new sense of "independence" and feeling like they don't have to listen to you anymore. How do you deal with that?

Elkind: That's part of adolescence, the sense of independence and freedom. To a certain extent, to the respect the young people are feeling that they can make their own decisions, it's important to set rules and limits. Even though they will fight against limits, it's important that we set them.

It's also important not to make rules that we can't enforce. That is, you can't stop a young person from taking a drink or smoking when you are not around. So it makes little sense to prohibit them from doing it. It is important to say, "I don't want you to do these things for whatever reason, but if I do catch you doing things, there will be consequences."

They need their independence to make decisions, but they still need limits. They have to be clear, and penalties need to be announced in advance.

Member question: I've found that teenagers generally don't think adults have any clue what they are going through. I remember thinking my parents grew up in such a different time they couldn't possibly understand my concerns. How do we adults convey empathy to teens without outright saying, "I remember, back in my day..."?

Elkind: They have what I call a personal fable, which is the belief that they are different, special, and other people will grow old and die but not them, they are the only one who have felt this way, so on. That sense of uniqueness makes them feel that their parents are living in a different time, and that their parents don't understand or appreciate them.

I think rather than argue with them we need to simply acknowledge that their experiences are unique and different, but nonetheless there are things we have in common. That's their reality, and we shouldn't argue with a young person's reality. Just accept they feel this way. We shouldn't try to say that we went through the same thing. In early adolescents, they almost take a pride in their uniqueness from their parents. It's not really possible to talk them out of that. We need to be sensitive to it, and appreciate their privacy and the uniqueness of their experience. It's partly this temporary sense of being special and unique from anybody else that makes him or her feel their parents can't understand them, and they are having experiences that no one else has ever had.

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It's the same idea as, "Other kids will get hooked on drugs, other kids will get pregnant, not me." That's how kids can get into trouble at this age of 13 or 14 because they think they're special. That's when kids can really get into trouble.

Member question: I find myself frequently asking my 15-year-old son if there were drugs and alcohol present at the home where he has just spent time. I'm concerned that I am placing too great an influence on the subject and don't know how to keep in touch with him and his life without constantly questioning him about it.

Elkind: If we have done our job well, and communicated our values, most kids find other people that share the same values that they do. It's sometimes the kids that are not well-parented that get into trouble. If you feel you have communicated your values, and you've set good examples, I would trust him to find friends with the same values. Communicate that you trust him to handle these things if they come up. If he senses you don't trust him that can undo things you've taught in the past. So be careful in overdoing the questioning.

We know our kids well, and we know whether or not they are responsive to pressure. If we think our kids are basically responsible young people, we should communicate that rather than questioning whether they do or not. Leave it at that rather than interrogating him after the fact.

Member question: I have a 14-year-old (15 in November) who is ADHD. We have a lot of trouble communicating. He lies about little things (not so much the bigger/important things). Every conversation we have is an argument -- he has to be right and has to have the last word. It is hard to differentiate between what is normal teenage years, typical boy, and ADHD. HELP!

Elkind: It is difficult because sometimes being diagnosed and on medication, there can be a lot of resentment from being treated special, and so on, that can come out in other ways. Sometimes it's a personality trait. I often find that when kids behave this way, often someone in the family has the same characteristic.

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Sometimes kids argue for the sake of arguing simply because they are able to do it. Because of new mental abilities that emerge in adolescence, they are able to argue for the sake of arguing, much like children babble to practice verbal skills.

The need to be right all the time can be a personal thing; it may be one way to express anger and resentment of the whole issue of taking medication or being treated specially, or again it may be a personality feature of someone else in the family.

Member question: My 16-year-old daughter is an excellent student and has never given me a reason to be concerned until recently. Last March 2002, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was very difficult for my daughter to accept and understand. She has become somewhat distant and communication between us has dropped off. Could she be doing this as a defense mechanism and distancing herself from me because she is afraid that I am going to die? She can't understand why I am not as energetic as I was and she resents that. I am a single parent with only my daughter and I want to remain as close and as honest as possible. How can I get her to tell me what she is felling about my disease?

Elkind: Clearly, a difficult situation, and I think you are right. Her distance is a defense. She's terribly anxious and frightened about losing you and that this might mean she might have breast cancer herself at some point. She has a lot going on. One way for her to deal with it is the distancing.

If she's willing maybe she can talk to a therapist. It may be difficult for her to show you her emotions right now because they are so conflicted. She's both afraid and angry, and doesn't know how to deal with those. Rather than deal with the emotions, she's distancing herself. It may be useful for her to see someone to help her deal with those.

Between the two of you it's difficult -- you can say to her, "I know you are frightened, and angry too, but we have to deal with it." Verbalizing may help. We have to deal with reality, but sometimes at that age, they may be able to really listen. So see if it is possible for her to see someone, even a close friend who can talk to her without the emotional overlay that's there between you.

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Member question: My 15-year-old son has recently begun hanging out with a group that he knows I don't like. What can I do?

Elkind: Usually what happens in those situations is that we need to establish credibility. Often our judgment of not liking peers is based on how they dress, talk, and so on. One way to handle it is to have those kids over for dinner or a party or ice cream or something, so that you have an opportunity to talk with them a little and learn about them.

If, after that, you still have a negative attitude, you then have facts to base your judgments on. So you gain credibility if your son or daughter sees you invite them over, talk with them, try to get to know them a little, and get to know them on that. Kids are more willing to listen if you have taken the time to know them a little better.

Member question: Could you give me advice on raising a teen boy without the help of his father?

Elkind: It's difficult. Certainly, one wants to be careful not to put him in the role of the parent or partner. He's still a teen and needs to be parented. If there is a uncle or friend to not be a father, but a male role to be related to, that he relates to and can do things with, who can play surrogate father role, that is probably the best solution. But it's also important not to have him play the partner role, "you're the man of the house" kind of thing. That puts a little too much responsibility on the young man, and he needs to be treated like the son.

Member question: My daughter is 13 years old. A girl in her class is her best friend and they are inseparable. She doesn't enjoy anything if her friend is not involved. They always want to hang around together, either in her house or in ours. They both are real cute, but I just want to have your opinion whether this is unhealthy and what I should do about this.

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Elkind: It's a very common relationship, one psychiatrists call a "chumship" -- a very close relationship between the two of the same sex, developing a heterosexual relationship, learning social skills, and so on. This is part of the new sense of self, the need for privacy, separation from adults, and the need to share with someone who is in somewhat the same position.

These friendships are quite common. It's also likely they will find other friends and break off and then come back. I wouldn't worry. It's quite common at this stage.

Member question: Our 12-year-old has developed the most awful language possible. No one has a working concrete answer.

Elkind: Sometimes young people learn this from peers and it becomes a sign of status. The best way is to simply say, "I can't control how you talk with your friends, but in this house you can't use that language. I don't like it, it makes me uncomfortable, and I don't want to hear it." I'd be direct.

Member question: My daughter is 15 years old; she has a boyfriend who is 17 years old. I feel she is obsessed with her boyfriend. She wants to see him and be with him 24/7. Is this behavior normal at her age? She's been talking about marriage and other serious topics. Please help.

Elkind: This is a little overdone. Certainly girls get crushes, but this sounds a little over the top, especially talking about marriage. I might have a talk with this young man, in her presence, to see what is going on and involve his parents as well, perhaps, and begin to get a sense of what his idea of what is going on. Then tell the two of them that this is really inappropriate for a girl this age. They may be having sexual relations. Something has to be done. She has her education and other things to focus in, and it may simply need to be broken off. This may be risky, but this is not a healthy development.

Member question: How do we overcome the media message that young girls have to be sexual beings? It's difficult at a time when bodies are changing so rapidly and the MTV videos show so much sex, along with ads for clothes and makeup (I can't believe the Victoria's Secret TV ads).

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Elkind: That's a real problem. Sexuality in the media is overwhelming. There is this need to appear sexy and so on. It is part of culture now. It's a delicate kind of edge to tread. At this age, girls want, and in some ways need, to be wearing and doing what their friends are wearing. If you are not, you are different and strange. So there are some concessions you have to make for peer acceptance. That only goes so far. If it becomes too lewd it has to have limits.

That said, it's much more copying what adults are doing. Many girls at 13 are not terribly interested in boys; it's a lot of imitation of models and so on. So one has to be thoughtful about not coming down too hard. It's a balancing act between allowing her to do what she needs to do to be accepted and setting limits on what goes beyond acceptable behavior.

Kids are exposed to this all the time, but despite the sexuality, they're still naive about sexuality and it's mostly show. It should be regulated because sometimes girls can, by dressing too provocatively, can create responses that they are not ready to deal with. But you must accept the needs of the young person wanting to be accepted by peers.

Member question: Where do we draw the privacy line? Do you think it is OK to check our teen's email? To check which sites he goes to on the computer? See what files he's downloaded?

Elkind: Important question. Freedom is not an absolute; it's relative. Children get freedom when they show they are responsible with that. If children have a magic marker and they mark on the walls, they don't get to use the marker anymore. The same is true with drugs. If young people are responsible, we don't go into their rooms. If they give us evidence that they are using drugs, they give that up.

Children should have the freedom of privacy with computers as long as they are being responsible. We make that statement that freedom and privacy is not an absolute. It's very important if we do check out their web sites and so on that we have some reason to feel that they are abusing the right. If we have no reason, it is an intrusion to privacy. Freedom on the Internet is like any other freedom; it is dependent on responsible use.

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Member question: What are some of the biggest mistakes parents of teenagers make?

Elkind: Making rules that you can't enforce. I think criticizing young people in front of others, and not recognizing that even though they may be big, they still need a hug -- In private, of course.

Respect them as growing adults, and set limits at the same time. Balancing freedom and responsibility is a big one. Allowing them freedom but demanding responsibility is a delicate thing. Have a willingness to listen and say, "You may not be willing to talk right now, but I'll be here when you want to talk." And be there when they want to talk.

Moderator: Thanks to David Elkind, PhD, for sharing his expertise with us. For more information please read The Hurried Child, Reinventing Childhood, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance, all by David Elkind, PhD.

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