One night during my teens, after I thought I had cleverly deceived my father about my whereabouts, he shocked me by saying, “I know where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Remember, I was also 16 once!” Actually, he probably had no idea what I had been doing (and my behaviour was quite innocent, I’m sure!). But I remember that even the threat that he might have known was utterly terrifying.
The truth is that we would like to trust our children, and most of us probably feel fairly sure that they’re honest and open with us. But are we being naive, and would we really be able to tell if our teenagers weren’t telling us the truth?
One of the key benefits of bringing up children in Hong Kong is the safe, relatively crime-free environment that affords our children freedom and independence at an earlier age than they would enjoy in some other countries. However, this can tempt parents to fall into a false sense of security.
It’s a little-known fact that underage alcohol use and teenage drug use in Hong Kong is on the increase. In 2010, there were reportedly approximately 2,800 new drug abusers, and teenagers aged 16 to 20 were the biggest culprits.
There are no definitive figures for underage sexual activity or pregnancy in Hong Kong; however, as parents we are very aware that, irrespective of how protective we are, our children are exposed to grown-up media and influences much earlier than we were. A quick view of the latest music videos confirms this.
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that the trend towards earlier onset of puberty in girls is generally accepted and supported by extensive research. And a new study shows that boys in the US are experiencing the onset of puberty six months to two years earlier than reported in previous research. This sexual maturity means that teens are more likely to be influenced by psychological and hormonal influences at earlier ages than we were.
So how can you strike a balance between encouraging your teen’s independence and choice, whilst safeguarding against their exposure to risks and disruptive influences? It’s certainly not easy. Is it even possible without being a constant killjoy?
Let’s say your 16-year-old son says he spent the entire evening at a friend’s house watching movies, but you hear rumours that his friends were spotted drinking in Lan Kwai Fong on the same night. How should you react? How do you predict whether your child will bend to peer pressure and make bad choices?
While every family is different, there are some steps you can take to lay the groundwork for a more open and communicative relationship with your teen, with the aim of encouraging them to make sensible choices and to understand that they can tell you the truth.
The fact is, teens engage in behaviours such as using drugs, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and experimenting with sex, sometimes as early as 11 or 12 years old.
Although most parents would rather do just about anything than initiate a conversation about sex or illegal activities with their teens, the earlier the lines of communication are opened, the easier subsequent conversations will become. Don’t wait for your child to come to you to talk about it; if you initiate discussions, you can be sure that you are teaching your child the messages, facts and values that you hope to instil in them. Otherwise, know that they will take their cues from their friends or the internet.
Another benefit of talking to your children openly and honestly is that you can clearly lay out what you expect of them and what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the rules. None of us enjoys admitting that we’ve done something wrong, and teens are no different. But they will be even more resistant if they are unsure of the punishment they can expect. If you make a clear rule that you don’t allow your 16-year-old son to drink alcohol, but suspect that he may have done so, he’s more likely to admit his crime if he knows that a likely consequence is being grounded for two weeks, rather than there being uncertainty – in his mind, he may conjure up a far worse sentence and opt to lie instead of risking it.
“Don’t wait for your child to come to you to talk about it; if you initiate discussions, you can be sure that you are teaching your child the messages, facts and values that you hope to instil in them.”
When this type of scenario happens with your child, it’s important to follow up with a frank, open discussion about why he chose to participate in the behaviour despite knowing it was strictly forbidden. Did he feel pressure from his friends? Was he simply curious about what it would feel like? Was he testing your limits because he feels your rules are too strict? The earlier and more frequently you can have these discussions with your teen, the more likely you are to find some common understanding and build trust.
Model good behaviour
If you want your child to wear her seatbelt consistently, you should make sure you always wear yours – especially when you’re with her. The same goes for telling the truth: if you want your teenager to know that honesty is important to you and your family, then it’s best to model that behaviour. Don’t lie to them, in front of them, or on their behalf. Also, don’t let them lie to someone else with your consent. If you lie and tell the school staff that your child is sick so that she can have the day off for your family to go on holiday, you are sending the message that it’s OK to lie when it suits you. It’s better to let her see you telling the truth to the school staff and then accepting whatever consequences occur from that decision, even if it means she’ll have an unexcused absence on her record. You will have demonstrated your values through your behaviour, which is infinitely more powerful than anything you could preach to her.
It’s important to remember that it’s highly likely that your teenager will lie to you at some point. They are human beings, and all human beings tell lies occasionally for many, often benign, reasons. Lying to their parents is actually a normative part of teenagers’ development; it’s part of the process where they begin to make themselves feel separate and independent from you. What’s important is what they choose to lie about. For example, if your teenager tells you a “white” lie about having completed her homework so she can go out with her friends on a school night, that might be cause for a gentle discussion about discipline and priorities, but not for a severe scolding. She might simply be testing the waters and trying to assert her independence, sending you the message that she thinks she can manage her own time and priorities as she sees fit. However, if you come to find out that your teenager is lying to hide dangerous behaviour like drug use or risky sexual behaviour, then it’s time to take action and get to the root of the problem.
Through all of this, do your best to keep your cool. Your teenager is much less likely to speak to you honestly if she thinks you are going to fly off the handle and become irrational. If you find that your teen has indeed told you a white lie, maybe she doesn’t need to be punished; rather, perhaps a short, pointed conversation about responsibility, freedom and consequences will make your point.
If you find out that your teenager is lying to cover up dangerous behaviour, then further action is definitely warranted, but it, too, should be delivered calmly and rationally. If you find that you are simply too angry to manage the situation with composure, then it’s fine to walk away and take a time out for yourself until you feel calmer. In fact, that’s advisable since you would be modelling productive anger management. Go to your room, take time to clear your head, and get ready to discuss the situation. When you’re ready, sit down with your child to discuss and understand how she came to make the decisions she did, and then implement the pre-determined consequences. Let her know clearly that you are speaking to her from a place of love and concern, not control.
If you feel that the situation you are in is beyond your control or understanding, it’s OK to seek help from a professional who can help guide you and your child to a place where you both feel listened to and respected.
By regularly opening the lines of communication and showing your teenager that you care and are interested in them and their well-being, you may not receive any immediate response, but it will make your child feel reassured that they can come to you freely should they have any real problems at any time in the future.