‘Your teen is likely to lie to you’

Drug education expert Paul Dillon presented a seminar for Independent school parents in 2017 on teens and alcohol. Here he confronts the fact that parents have to be prepared for their child to sometimes do the wrong thing.

I’ve talked so much about trust and the importance of remembering that during adolescence, your child is likely to lie to you to get what they want. There are certainly those parents who don’t agree with me, choosing to believe that if you trust your teenager they will ‘repay’ that trust with being open and honest about their behaviour, whatever that may entail … As I have said, I believe strongly in the following: most young people will do the ‘right thing’ most of the time, however, all young people will do the ‘wrong thing’ at least some of the time.

Parents need to be prepared for their child to ‘let them down’ at some time or another. Of course, don’t ‘expect’ them to do the wrong thing, but it is important to ‘accept’ that they are likely to slip up now and then; that’s just what adolescents do. Every parenting expert will tell you that you have to trust your child at some point, but as I have said time and time again, blind trust is dangerous

A couple of weeks ago I had this comment posted onto one of my blog entries:

‘I heard you speak a number of years ago and remember feeling quite confronted when you said that my son would lie to me at some point. He was 12 at the time and I am ashamed to say that my husband and I completely ignored almost all of the advice you gave that night about boundaries and rules.

‘We really believed that if we trusted our son he would repay that trust by being honest with us. He is now 16-years-old and has recently been arrested for the third time for drug use.

‘He is a good kid but we let him down by not providing the boundaries we should have when he was younger. We didn’t call other parents – he told us we didn’t need to! It took a police officer knocking at our door for us to finally realise what had been going on for over 2 years! I wish we’d listened …’

I have since had contact with this mother (let’s call her Jill) who is really struggling at the moment. Jill and her husband are desperately trying to work out how to deal with their son who has well and truly ‘gone off the rails’. He successfully manipulated his parents from the age of 14 (and possibly even younger) and had them totally convinced that they had an open and honest relationship.

Even though they never took him to where he was meant to be going, never spoke to the parents who were supposedly hosting parties he was apparently attending or did any other type of checking up on what he was doing on a Saturday night, he had them convinced that all was fine. As she said to me over the phone, ‘He was doing well at school, the friends of his that we had met seemed nice and we had no reason to believe that anything was amiss.’

Now, apart from his third brush with the law, their Year 11 son is now facing expulsion for bringing cannabis to school, his grades have fallen dramatically and their family is crumbling. I feel so sorry for these parents – they sound like really good people who were trying to do the right thing but just found themselves being well and truly played by an extremely manipulative teen.

The very real problem they face now is how to deal with placing rules and boundaries around a young man who simply has never had any before. Trying to change the way you parent when they are 16-years-old is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Realistically, the only thing Jill and her husband are going to be able to do at this point is to try to build and maintain some sort of positive relationship with him, keep him as safe as possible and work in partnership with his school in an effort to get him through to his final exams. They have a very tough 18 months ahead of them …

Teens need our help

When I look at a group of students, particularly Year 10s, I can certainly see the problem that many parents face. Many of these teens are well and truly becoming young adults – they are physically changing, they are developing their own attitudes and values around so many things, particularly social issues, and they want to be treated like adults. This means that they want to make their own decisions about where they go and what they do and they want to be trusted.

Of course, parents need to respect how they feel and the changes their child is going through, but at the same time we must remember that they are adolescents and they need our help to get safely through this stage of their life … The truth is that they are not able to make good decisions at this time – their brains are not fully developed and are ‘programmed’ to weigh risk in a very different way to an adult. In fact, their brains actually push them to take risks – this is an evolutionary feature that we are never going to change. We need to keep them safe …

I am in the middle of reading an amazing book at the moment – I don’t think I have ever seen such a perfectly written explanation of adolescence and why effective parenting and boundary setting is still so vital at this stage of life. The book is called Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Teen by Robert J. MacKenzie and he writes the following in his summary of a chapter dealing with a parent’s changing role in adolescence:

‘When children enter adolescence they want and need us to shift from a direct and active role as primary authority figure to a seemingly less involved background figure that coaches from the sidelines. The role they want us to play is full of contradictions. Most teens want, and still need, us to be the central authority figures in their lives, but they don’t want to think of us as such. They prefer to think of themselves as free agents who can manage their own affairs.

‘But the vast majority of teens are not ready to be the “free agents” or to manage their own affairs. They still need our firm limits to guide their testing and exploration, our encouragement, our assistance with problem solving, and our instructive consequences when they choose to learn their lessons the hard way …’

MacKenzie then goes on to talk more about ‘coaching from the sidelines’ (really another way of saying that during adolescence you move from a ‘managing role’ [parent-child] to a ‘consulting role’, which I have talked about many times). Where this book is quite different is that it really focuses on parental behaviour and responses to teen behaviour.

When we spoke on the phone, I asked Jill whether she would permit me to include her comment in a blog entry. Her response was heartbreaking. She burst into tears and said,

‘Please let other parents know that this can happen to them. No-one wants to go through what we're going through at the moment. We feel like we've lost our son and it's all our fault!’

Now, as I said to her at the time, I don’t agree that it’s all their fault – when you hear some of the things their son was doing from the age of 14, this was not ‘normal’ behaviour. He was clever and knew how to shut them down when they asked questions. Certainly, things may not be so bad if they had set boundaries and did some basic checking, but realistically, he sounds like a young man with some issues that would have always caused them problems, no matter what parenting style they had used. Only you can make decisions around how you parent, nobody else can tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

As I said to Jill, you can only do the best you can do at the time and, if things go wrong, you can’t waste time beating yourself up about it. You’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and work out what you’re going to do next. You’re going to be no good to your teen if you sit around saying ‘What if?’…

I think the most important thing that I got Jill and her husband to do was to go and seek professional counselling – not for their son but for them. They are so beaten up and so convinced that everything is their fault that they are going to be no help for their son at all. The next 18 months is going to be tough for their family, they need to be strong and supported – professional help is vital.

References: MacKenzie, R.J. (2015). Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Teen. Harmony Books: New York.

This is an edited version of a recent post by Paul Dillon on his blog.

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