Handling difficult questions

By Diane Stevens.

It’s not often that we look to politics for lessons on parenting, but if there’s one thing that comes out of the recent leadership crisis, it is this: (and I’ll be generous here) attempts at misrepresenting the truth generally end badly.

Like politicians, parents face a constant barrage of difficult questions – many of them directly relating to our past. So, how do we handle them? What do we say when our fifteen year old asks us: “Mum, did you drink alcohol at my age” or “when did you first really kiss” or my personal favourite, “you weren’t always studious at school were you?”  For a moment we might be tongue tied as our past modus operandi flashes in front of us. Maybe we feel our credibility as a parent is on the line. We don’t want to sink in the ratings of our teen’s own private opinion poll.

So, it’s tempting to throw up a diversion or maybe we feel a lie is the best way out: “I didn’t touch a drop until my 18th birthday.”  Perhaps just ‘gilding the lily’ will work.

Here, politics provides an example. As the leadership crisis unfolded and history was rewritten for political expediency, viewers were left to wonder if there was anything true being said. Where truth is sacrificed, a loss of credibility will surely follow. As parents, I think we also risk the same thing happening in our relationship with our teens if we resort to political spin when explaining our own past behaviour.

My experience of bending the truth backfired with my attempt to remember, in a state of muddled confusion, what story I told to which teen.  I found the loss in credibility as a parent was far greater than the risk associated with revealing the truth that I was once young and took ridiculous risks.

So, I decided to take the honesty route, figuring that the tricky question moment was an invaluable opportunity (a captive audience with my teen!) to seriously discuss the pros and cons of my past risky business.

According to Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence at Temple University, teens 14-17 years, can be the biggest risk takers. Steinberg’s research supports the view that teens use the same basic cognitive strategies that adults do and they usually reason their way through problems just as well as adults.   However, he points out that the difference is that teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently particularly when their peers are involved.  (See our story on the Teenage Brain  and Rewards) Moreover, these higher levels of risk-taking among adolescents have been reported in studies of females as well as males (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005) and the fact that the gender gap in real-world risk-taking appears to be narrowing according to studies by Byrnes, Miller, & Schafer, 1999.

Research does suggest that teens do much better in life when parents engage, guide and at times offer some kernels of wisdom –‘ knowledge valued not because it comes from a parental authority but because it comes from a parent’s own struggles to learn how the world turns’ (Laurence Steinberg).  I thought by navigating these difficult questions with honesty and in the context of my own experience, it might possibly alter the outcome of my teens’ future indiscretions or, at the very least, make them stop and think about the consequences before they act.

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