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Teen Minds: What Are They Thinking?

(continued)

Scene 2: A teen is thinking about experimenting with marijuana.

What the parent may be thinking: Marijuana can be a "gateway" drug. We don't want her making the same mistakes we made.

What the teen may be thinking: They smoked pot when they were my age. Why can't I?

Honesty is the best policy here, says Elkind. "If parents did smoke, they should say so: 'I did that when I was kid, at a time when we were all experimenting.'"

But parents also have to realize that their children aren't under their guidance all the time, and should not make limits that they can't enforce. They can, however, let the teen know what the consequences will be if they discover it after the fact.

If nothing else, the teen is likely to think, "Well, at least they're being honest with me and aren't trying to deny it." Adolescents have highly refined lie detectors, and are pretty good at sensing when parents are hesitating or beating around the bush, Elkind says.

And if the kid counters with "Well you did it, why can't I?" the parents' best comeback might be, "We all learn from mistakes and we're hoping that you can benefit from ours. We didn't know as much about it then or about how harmful its long-term effects can be as we know now."

Scene 3: A boy wants to go on an overnight bike trip with some friends. The parent is reluctant to grant approval.

What the parent may be thinking: Are there any adults going along? Who are these people? What will they be doing? What if someone gets hurt?

What the teen may be thinking: These are my friends. We know what we're doing. I'm not a baby. Don't they trust me?

Teenagers are on the cusp of adulthood, and they're often torn between wanting to be treated like an adult and not wanting to take on the responsibility that entails. Here the parents' response should be, "It's not that I don't trust you, I just want to make sure that a responsible person will be along in case there's an emergency."

Elkind said that when his son, then 16 or so, wanted to take a bike trip from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, his father first called the organizer to gauge whether he was up to the challenge, found him to be responsible and willing to describe in detail what they intended to do and how they planned to keep in touch. "I let them do it, and they had a great time," he says.

But if the trip is just going to be "a bunch of kids sleeping over with no adult supervision, particularly today I think I'd be hesitant to allow that," Elkind says.

And if, after the parent refuses to grant permission, the kid comes back with something like "What is this, a prison camp?" The parent might say, "Yes, if you need to look at it that way. You'll be free in a few years, but right now you have to live in this house and under these rules."

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