What Do You Tell Your Teen About Your Past?
We all have things we’re not so proud of that we did when we were young, impressionable and seemingly invincible. I know I have several, including the time I dove into a swimming hole because everyone else was doing it, only to learn two weeks later that someone drowned after diving off the same cliff. Somehow, we lived through it all — maybe not unscathed, but a bit wiser. Once your child enters the teen years, you think back to those things you would do differently now, and you fear your teen will make the same kinds of mistakes, only with more severe consequences.
Parents are often unsure how much to disclose. Should you spill all when your teen decides to ask questions about your past? Your teen might take your drop-dead honesty to heart and believe that since you lived through it, it must not be so bad. On the other hand, she might learn from your mistakes and take the opposite path. Parents are divided on this issue: Some feel honesty is the best policy while others think secrets are best kept in the closet.
Don’t have selective recall
Try to reflect on your own teen years through clear glasses, not the rose-colored kind. This helps you connect with your teen because you’ll empathize with his occasional … um … lapses in good judgment. However, keep in mind that your role as parent is one where you guide and provide limits, not behave like one of his friends; he has plenty of those!
Mary Muscari, Ph.D, co-author of The Everything Guide to Raising Adolescent Girls and The Everything Guide to Raising Adolescent Boys (Adams Media, 2008), advises, “Being a positive role model is critical for parents since children learn by modeling behavior, not by simply being told what to do. However, being a positive role model is not the same as qualifying for canonization.”
The angel myth
Chances are you weren’t an absolute angel. Guess what? Your teen probably suspects this. So will she think you’re hypocritical if you pretend you were? Some parents fear that if their teen knows they weren’t completely virtuous, their teen’s perspective of them might change, and she might scoff at future parental advice.
“Children learn how we handle mistakes and how we grow from them,” Muscari explains. “Talking to your teens about your own stumbles through adolescence shows them that anyone can easily take the wrong path but that it takes courage to get back on the right one.”
Is complete honesty the best policy?
Studies show that teens are less likely to use drugs or dabble in other risky behaviors when their parents have talked to them about the risks. However, personal details parents choose to share with their teen should depend on their teen’s personality, history and maturity level. Teens are smart enough to know that their parents weren’t perfect and likely made mistakes of their own. Even so, there are certain topics which parents might feel are better kept private, particularly if they suspect a “well-you-did-it-why-can’t-I” attitude.
If your teen asks about your past, consider this an opportunity to open up communication with him. Total disclosure is not necessary to gain the trust of your teen. Find out why he’s asking questions. What is going on in his world? Discuss how peer pressure affected you. If you choose to talk about your past mistakes, don’t glorify risky behavior. Instead, share how poor choices resulted in negative consequences.
“It’s a judgment call,” Muscari says. “There are just too many variations among parents and teens to have a one-size-fits-all framework for anything. If you fear that disclosure will result in dangerous risk-taking, don’t tell. We don’t need to clean everything out of our closets!”
Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and children’s development. She is the mother of two teenagers.
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