When young children want information and advice, they go to their parents first. Once they reach their teenage years, they tend to rely more on friends, the media, and others people for information. As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to reach your children before anyone else. You have the opportunity to shape their minds and teach them values and traditions that are important to you.
Remember it’s never too late
Older children still need accurate information, guidance, and support. They are more likely to come to their parents for help if the parent-child bond is strong. There are ways to build this relationship with older children, for example:
- Let them know you understand that as they get older, they might think about or feel pressured to date or have sex, have questions about their bodies, or feel like people expect certain things of them because of their gender.
- Don’t be afraid to share examples from your own life – this can be an effective, relatable way to express concern and teach from experience. For example, “One night I tried to drive home drunk from a party and crashed into the guardrail. The paramedics told me I was lucky to survive. I was just lucky I didn’t hit another car. Even so, it took me a few years to straighten myself out. That’s what alcohol and painkillers did to me. I hope you’ll be a lot smarter than I was, and realize how quickly that stuff can control you, rather than the other way around.” Remember, however, that the point of this kind of disclosure is to raise your child’s awareness of the risks and how decisions have consequences, not to bond by sharing personal stories. Parents or adult caregivers who tell their stories to build relationships or trust (rather than by acting in ways that are trustworthy) risk their messages being lost and undermining their authority.
- You may feel nervous or uncomfortable, especially if these are new conversations. You can admit this to your children to show you will be open and honest with them (it might even help ease some of the tension).
- Ask yourself why you feel nervous:
- Is it because you never had these conversations with your own parents?
- Is it because you do not have all the answers?
- Is it because you are worried that your relationship will be impacted?
- Consider sharing the reasons for your feelings with your children. Most important, however, is to improve the things you can – educate yourself, practice saying out loud the words that make you uncomfortable, and keep communicating with your children – so that these conversations can become more natural.
Take the initiative
Your children might not always come to you with questions or concerns, so it’s also appropriate for you to begin the conversation. Current events, TV and other media, and recent events in your child’s life are good tools for this.1 Just one or two questions that come from everyday events can help start excellent conversations. For example, if you and your pre-teen are watching a show that has a fight between friends as part of the plot, after the show is over, ask what they thought about how the characters behaved.
Be the kind of person you want your child to become
Use language and actions that are respectful, empathetic, positive, and appropriate in your own conversations and relationships with family, friends, and community members. For example, if you are using slang or derogatory terms to describe women and girls, your children will likely believe what you say and model your behavior and vocabulary. Your children are always watching and learning from you because they respect you and look up to you. One child development expert said, “Kids hear about 1% of what we say and 100% of what we do.”
Remember that teens want mutually respectful conversations
Avoid dictating and lecturing. Share your feelings, values and learn about those of your children. Questions, debates, and even challenges are signs you are doing things well; it means your children are listening and value your experience, insight, and opinions. But remember that you cannot dictate another person’s feelings, values, or decisions — the best you can do is to love and support your children, even when they choose differently than you would or make mistakes.