Stunned. Worried. Guilty.
These were just a few of the emotions I felt when I got the call telling me I needed to pick up my daughter from school. It was 9:30 p.m., and she was being suspended for drinking at the school dance. She was just a sophomore!
Up until that moment, I’d always thought of my daughter as the poster child of a “good kid” - AP classes, varsity sports, excellent grades, volunteering, lots of friends.
She had not exhibited the signs of a teen abusing alcohol (which I later learned she’d been doing for several months), and the changes I did observe, I chalked up to her being a teenager.
Don’t get me wrong. She was still a “good kid.” But getting suspended for drinking?
I was wracked with worry about what this meant for her. I also felt guilty for not knowing that she was drinking in the first place. I kept asking myself, “How could I have missed it?!”
Finding the answers consumed me. I researched online, read books, consulted with experts, family and friends. And what I found in my research can be summed up in one short phrase: parcel your trust.
This is can feel counter-intuitive and wrong, I know, but there are scientific reasons for doing so—specifically, brain development that occurs from ages 12 - 25.
New science research shows that the portions of the brain that drive risk-taking and impulsiveness develop before those that allow for cause-and-effect-type reasoning skills (the brakes). This developmental sequencing represents an important, hardwired function in the human species - namely that which creates the impetus to take risks, turn to your peers for direction and support, explore, seek and find. Unfortunately, it is this developmental sequencing that is very tough to parent.
So it becomes our job, then, to parcel our trust by helping to structure our teens’ lives so they have the kinds of boundaries that will help them grow until eventually their brains have matured enough to take full control of their own lives. Here are three of several boundaries I set for my daughter:
1. Stop the sleepovers. I found out that this is often when substance use occurs—AFTER the hosting parents go to sleep. In the case of my daughter and her friends, it was between the hours of midnight and early morning.
2. Set your alarm, get up and be reading a book, in the living room, before curfew rolls around. If teens cannot get away with calling out, “I’m home,” as they pass your bedroom door, they have an excuse to give their friends as to why they are not going to partake. “My mom/dad is a stalker—always up, grilling me when I get home.”
3. Use the science about brain development and risk factors as an entree to early conversations that will establish you as the expert and nudge their restraint thinking when problematic situations arise. Check out A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain and Why Do Some People Become Addicted?
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