- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

The '70s were a long time ago, but the memories are fresh for Jackie Jones. She remembers smoking pot and trying other drugs. She remembers drinking in high school and hoping her Army officer father would not find out. She remembers what it was like to be a teenager in love and deciding you were ready to have sex.

"When I look back on it, my mom and dad were so naive," says Mrs. Jones, a pseudonym for a 42-year-old Northern Virginia woman who did not want her name used for privacy reasons. "I drank; I did drugs. I was a total pothead. Somehow I pulled myself out of it."

Mrs. Jones has a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. She is trying to explain to her children that she remembers the drama of teen rebellion. However, she does not want to share all the details of her past.

"I tell them I am not naive, that I know things," Mrs. Jones says. "I've been very vague about pot smoking. I have told them I know drugs are dangerous, that you can't really do them just once."

Mrs. Jones is in a situation common to many adults who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, says Michael Riera, a California psychologist and author of the new book "Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying." Do you tell all and hope it opens up a new level of communication? Do you lie? Do you lay down ultimatums about how you won't tolerate sex/drinking/smoking in your home?

It depends on many factors, including what your past indeed includes, the age of your child and what experimenting you think he or she may be doing, Mr. Riera says.

"There are a few parameters to consider," he says. "What you would choose to share with a 13-year-old is very different from what you would share with a 17-year-old. I don't think you should ever lie, either. That doesn't mean you should tell them the truth, though. A good rule to follow is this: If your son or daughter asks you, 'When did you first have sex?' or 'Did you smoke pot?' think of everything you would be comfortable telling them, then tell them 10 percent."

Parents need to be thinking about handling sticky subjects before the topic arises, says Peter Sheras, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has studied teens and peer pressure. That way parents are not caught off-guard, which can lead to their being on the defensive or sharing more than they anticipated.

"You have to reflect on your own experiences and see what you have learned," Mr. Sheras says. "So when they ask, say, 'I'm glad you asked me that,' and provide some information without saying everything. Tell them what you have learned and if your mind has changed since then. You can encourage your child by saying, 'What do you think?' You can admit humanity. At some point, children will learn we are not perfect."

Still, telling too much may imply permission. It also will harm a parent's position as a role model, says Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of several books about parents and teens, including "Trust Me, Mom Everyone Else Is Going."

"Many parents want to disclose information for the wrong reasons," she says. "They want to come clean, thinking if they are honest with their teens, then their child will be honest, too. But you really should think long and hard about this. Kids do not think, 'My parents did it and learned from it.' They think, 'They did it, so it is OK.' "

Mrs. Jones recently was in this very situation. Her 15-year-old, Shelly, has a serious boyfriend. Shelly told her mom she has not yet had sex but is thinking about it. Mrs. Jones' ex-husband was talking to Shelly about sex, and he admitted he had had sex for the first time at age 13.

"So, now Shelly is going around saying, 'Dad did it at 13,' " Mrs. Jones says. "As if that makes it OK. I think he made a big mistake."

To counteract that information, Mrs. Jones sent Shelly on a church retreat, where teens and adults talked about the consequences of teenage sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Parents also should think about why their teen wants this information, Ms. Cohen-Sandler says.

"I think it is very rare for kids to come out and ask directly," she says. "Usually, it comes up and parents feel like they need to tell more. If a child brings up a subject, think about why they are asking."

For instance, a 13-year-old who raises these topics more than likely is testing you to see if he or she really can talk to you, Mr. Riera says. A 17-year-old, however, may need to know more details because he or she is being confronted with the choice of whether to get involved.

Being more honest can be framed with the message "I don't want you to do this, and there will be consequences," Mr. Riera says.

However, avoid throwing it back to them by saying, "Why do you want to know?" says Debra W. Haffner, author of "Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens From Middle School to High School and Beyond."

" 'Why do you ask?' is a bad question," Ms. Haffner says. "It puts them on the defensive, such as assuming they are about to have sex. You can use a proactive stance, such as saying, 'It sounds like you are asking me when is the right time?' Then you can say, 'In our home, our value is this.' If you are caught off-guard, you can say, 'I am not ready to share the past with you.' "

Whether mom went to a Led Zeppelin concert, who she went with and what she did there isn't necessarily what children want to know. Asking questions about the past can be a way to measure parents' values, Ms. Haffner says.

"Yes, kids are curious about what you did," she says, "but asking is more a request for help, which you can respond to by explaining your values. You can also give them the message of, 'You may not listen to my values. In that case, take appropriate precautions.' "

In families where parents and children have good, ongoing communication, these topics won't be as big a deal, both Mr. Sheras and Ms. Haffner say.

"In homes where parents and children talk to one another, children are less likely to engage in risky behavior," Ms. Haffner says.

It's how you say it

Some parents' natural reaction to probing teens may be to lecture their adolescents or threaten to lock them in the house until they are 21. Neither works, Ms. Cohen-Sandler says.

"The truth is that a teenager is going to be confronted with many temptations," says Ms. Cohen-Sandler, who has two teenagers of her own. "You can never totally protect them. Your job as a parent is to figure out when your teen is ready to take the next step. You can give them more freedom and independence, then test it out to see if they can make the right decision. It is a slow process."

Responding with an ultimatum will backfire, says Ms. Haffner, who has a 17-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.

"Authoritarian parents have children who rebel," she says. "Kids do best with parents who are authority figures, but who allow them some freedoms. The goal is to enable them to make good decisions, not to make decisions for them. Parents should feel good if a child is coming to them for guidance."

If children do approach parents for advice, parents should do their best to keep things brief, Ms. Cohen-Sandler says.

"I call it the twenty-second rule," she says. "Say what you have to say in twenty seconds. Kids get overwhelmed by a long lecture."

Mr. Sheras says teens will listen more if you talk to them like young adults.

"Assume adulthood, and work backward," he says. "Start by talking to them like an adult, rather than saying, 'You are going to hell if you do this.' "

Mr. Sheras also says to take into consideration the personality of your child. Some teens are talkers even arguers and some don't say anything. That doesn't mean the message isn't getting across.

"There may be a certain kind of contention, but don't let it get in the way," he says. "Don't go into it saying, 'I want to talk to you about sex,' because your daughter will only roll her eyes. You can say, 'When I was your age, I felt. …' Kids are really sensitive to not being trusted, so if you stonewall them, they are not going to listen. We need to convey 'I have to trust you, because I can't really stop you.' "

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