Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
My 15-year-old tells me he has never tried drugs or alcohol, and I’m inclined to believe him. Recently, however, a friend of mine, who is the mother of a friend of my son, told me that her son identified only two kids in their group who have never tried anything, and my son wasn’t one of the two. Should I ask him about this?
Stick with your inclination to believe your son — but don’t wriggle your head into the sand about the information you’re getting, which is that his friend group is experimenting. Your son will likely, at the very least, be tempted to join them.
A friend of mine has this mantra: “Delay, delay, delay.” Her feeling is not that you can swaddle your kids in a blanket of innocence and keep them there forever, but that the more time you can buy, the better off they’ll be: greater development of the brain’s decision-making faculties and of the brain in general, better impulse control, more experience under their belt, more security in their peer group. The longer you can stretch their substance-free time, the better, and I’m inclined to agree.
My 17-year-old son has this mantra: “Trust, trust, trust.” Building it, recognizing it, maintaining it. For him, this means not accusing your son of lying or withholding information — not even indirectly. He thinks you should say something along the lines of, “You’re getting to be that age where your friends might be trying things and starting to experiment. Here’s what I want you to know.” Then you can say what your concerns are (addiction, your fried-egg brain on drugs, peer pressure, etc.) and that you will hope always to be a trusted resource for your child — a person he can always talk to without fear of recrimination.
You might be transparent during this conversation about your hope that he delays experimentation, and I think it’s wise to cite studies of teenager brain development just so the kids understand what’s at stake and don’t imagine that you’re being a moralizing priss for no especial reason. Also, even if you make no other rules, please do impress upon your son the absolute horror of opioids and explain that they can make your brain addicted to them for the rest of your life, whether or not you’re a good, smart, disciplined, moderate person.
Back to trust and why you should continue to have it despite the unsettling experience of hearing otherwise. The 17-year-old imagines that something got lost in translation in terms of the information you got from your son’s friend’s mom. “There could have been miscommunication somewhere in the three stages of telling and retelling.”
The 14-year-old imagines that the other kid was trying to make it look like everyone was trying stuff — seeking safety in numbers and perhaps exaggerating along the way.
And my husband imagines that in a group of peers confessing their wildest exploits, your son might have felt compelled to make up some of his own — or even that at a party he held an undrunk beer in his hand all night to fend off unwanted pressure. (A perfectly good strategy in an less-than-ideal situation.)
But let’s say your son has tried something and lied to you about it. The 17-year-old doesn’t think any good will come from him feeling bad about this. “You want your child to feel like they don’t have to be super-secretive, and anger or guilt is not the best way to accomplish this. Make your kid feel like a) they can talk to you about anything and b) they don’t have to have this huge horrible internal battle about whether or not they told you.” He said this partly in response to the 14-year-old’s encouragement that you say, “If it ever happens in the future, you can tell me!” to which 17 answered, “But can I tell you if I already did it in the past and lied about it?” Oof.
Ultimately, it’s a courtesy that your child extends you, sharing their secrets and the details of their experience. They don’t have to, and you can’t make them. Remember to appreciate their confidence, however it comes and however after-the-fact it might be. “Thank you,” you should say, every time, even if it’s something you didn’t want to know. “I feel so privileged that you told me.” Then you can strategize about what comes next.