A girls sitting

The series “13 Reasons Why” brings up hard conversations for parents. In it’s second round, it shows shocking themes in graphic detail, including rape and suicide. In NZ where high rates of youth suicide exist, experts warn that the program will do more harm than good. The advice is  that teens should only watch with a parent and that some shouldn’t watch it at all. So when the question What do I say when my teen wants to watch 13 reasons why?” was raised by a parent in a class recently we all agreed that it was really important for parents  to know how to have hard conversations with teens.

This is a massive topic and raises complex issues that can’t be answered in one post. I’m going to concentrate on how to get started talking about hard conversations in a way that encourages communication and aims for a relationship where this is ongoing.

  • Get comfortable with having conversations about things that you aren’t comfortable with

When kids ask about where babies come from or our tween wants to know what oral sex is parents can be embarrassed and avoid answering. When we turn bright red  and change the subject kids learn that certain things are not ok to talk to Mum or Dad about. Unless we find a way to get comfortable raising these hard conversations, kids won’t come to us for advice when they might really need it.

Instead of kids thinking we’re the last ones they will go to for help we want them to know we’re their first port of call  – especially when it’s about hard conversations.

It might be counterintuitive but kids who get a lot of information about sex and relationships are likely to delay sexual activity.  This fact can help focus the mind and help overcome embarrassment parents may have.

The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” comes in here too. Set up an environment where a number of trusted people are available to have these hard conversations. A kid might think when Dad/Mum/ Aunty can talk to me about rape, maybe I can bring up this other problem that I have and they will know what to do.

Helping our own family is important and what about a wider responsibility to counteract rape culture? Kids have been watching us for years so they already know what our values are. Just to make sure I would like my kids to know that I think rape is an appalling violent and dehumanising act.

  • Avoid judging and do more listening

Creating an atmosphere where teens trust us enough to talk about their experiences requires some thoughtful planning and an investment in relationship. Build trust and connection over time by being a good listener. This is not a one-off “serious”  talk where we do all the talking but a gradual process over time. Ideally you’ll be doing more listening and your teen will be doing more talking.

Approaching discussions from a side angle, like when they come up in the media, can be helpful. We can choose words carefully when we hear about a violent crime on the news or when we see a billboard with a nearly naked woman.

It helps to get into a habit of avoiding judgment. It’s so easy for phrases like these to pop out! “In my day…..”and “The trouble with young people now is…”.

Teens are super-sensitive to judgment and so watching our language will help to keep communication channels open.

  • Keep our emotions in check

Our teens can say shocking things. We may assume that just because they have said something outrageous that they believe it. Teens are trying out different ideas and reflecting back youth culture, this clash of culture happens sooner than we think.

A parent shared a story about her young daughter who asked:

”Mum how do you suggest I get rid of some of this fat on the top of my thighs?”.

Feeling bewildered that her daughter (9) was talking about her body in a negative way she reacted strongly and not in the way she would have liked. It’s natural to feel upset and angry when these statements show that our child is being influenced by views contrary to our own. We can react strongly because we have their best intentions at heart.

Keeping calm in the moment and listening to them allows teens to talk about the reasons for their opinions. Keep encouraging them to talk about their opinions, even if you don’t agree. A form of words that can keep communication going:

“I’m glad you told me your feelings about this. I really want to hear more and I hope you keep talking to me about it.”

Think creatively about how to get these messages across –  “there’s more to a person than how they look” and “beauty comes in all shapes and sizes” . To counter the harsh view promoted by the media and their peers, focus on the inner qualities and characteristics of your unique child. Is your child a curious person, a good friend or a problem solver? These attributes, which they have some control over, are way more interesting than whether they have long legs or curly hair.

For more ways to praise in a descriptive or authentic way see https://bit.ly/2pPb3Pr

  • Accept teen’s feelings as we redirect unacceptable behaviour

Another area where your teen may have different opinions from you is screen choices. Let’s assume your teen wants to watch something you don’t want them to watch. The mum in our group who asked What do I say when my teen wants to watch 13 reasons why?” expected that when she said no that she would get push back. It’s a fair assumption, as research conducted in 2017 found 40% of teens in NZ and Australia had watched the first series. (this is in line with the global average https://bit.ly/2sy6qvo).

We’re the experts on our own kids. A parent may decide it is just not suitable for a particular teen to watch and that “no” is the best option. How can we communicate our rules (values) in a way that keeps the relationship with our teen strong?

Our group had already learned about different parenting styles. The aim was to adopt a firm and fair approach when setting out rules, while being respectful and understanding of the teen’s point of view.

These parents were of the view that simply issuing an ultimatum or empty threat would not be effective and that teens would find it easier to accept firm limits when we show empathy for their predicament.

Here’s an excerpt of the role play we did  which gives a feel for how this sort of conversation could play out:

Teen girl: Mum I am not watching the 13 reasons why, seriously!  I am not an idiot. Why do you have to know every detail of my life?

Mum:  I actually wish we didn’t have to talk about it. I am worried that you might be watching it and that you don’t want me and Dad to know. I wish I could say just go ahead and watch it and give you your freedom. The problem is that the show is very upsetting for a lot of kids your age (as well as parents). There’s some very shocking material in it.

Teen girl: Honestly mum it’s a program – I know it’s not real and all my friends have seen it. Their parents are cool with it.

Mum: That’s rough. I get it. And it’s hard when your friends are all talking about it and you haven’t seen it yet. Some parents just let kids watch and I am concerned about that.

Teen girl: And I missed out on going over to Sienna’s house for the sleepover.

Mum : That’s hard – I imagine you’re really feeling left out.

Teen girl: You treat me like a baby.

Mum: I’m sorry you’re feeling like we don’t trust you. Dad and I want to keep you safe. Right now I am not comfortable with you watching it. I’d like to watch an episode and have a talk to you about it. So until Dad and I have discussed what will happen we’re going to need you to wait until we’re sure it’s ok.

It takes dedication, commitment and support from others around us to get the relationship right with teens. Investing in relationship skills like the ones I’ve mentioned can help to keep communication channels open. There’s no one way to keep communication going  though it can help to think of it as a marathon and not a sprint. If you found this post helpful feel free to give it a like and a share.

If you or someone in your family is affected by these issues here are the details for help here in New Zealand. You can call a helpline at any time, they’re free and confidential.

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