Is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old? Do parents use the 'extra half' to justify behaviour they don't feel comfortable with?

I am considering writing another book at the moment (it's been almost 8 years since the last one was published!) and so have been taking special note of the questions I am being asked by those attending my seminars. As regular readers would know, sometimes a particular question just comes right out and hits me between the eyes, screaming to be written up as a blog entry. Over the last couple of weeks, however, I have been noticing a particular way that questions have been asked by some of the parents after my talks that I find fascinating and I thought was worth discussing ...

Recently a mother came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and asked me the following question:

"My 15⅟₂-year-old daughter is going to parties and I know she is drinking. She knows our rules around this issue and we have never caught her with alcohol but we know it is happening. My husband and I don't like her going behind our backs and we're frightened other things are going to start being done and pushed underground if we don't do something quickly. She's 15⅟₂ and we're wondering whether it's time to relax the rules before she goes ahead and breaks them anyway ..."

That same night a couple asked me how to deal with their 16⅟₂-year-old son who was asking if he could start taking a couple of drinks to take to a party because 'everybody else does'. Last week a similar thing happened, again with two separate queries from parents both beginning their questions by referring to their teen not as 15 but as 15⅟₂! After the second mother asked her question I asked her why she had referred to her daughter as 15⅟₂ and not as a 15-year-old or a Year 10. She was a little taken aback at first and then replied by saying that 'she was almost 16' ... I then said that I didn't mean to be rude but when was her actual birthday? It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that her daughter wasn't even close to 15⅟₂, in fact, she had only recently had her 15th birthday! I then told her why I had asked the question and my recent observations in this area. We then had quite a lengthy talk about why she (and other parents) were using this 'extra half' when they talked about their teens. After the discussion we came to the conclusion that it often appears to be used by parents to justify one or both of the following:
  • changes to their parenting that they didn't necessarily feel comfortable with but felt they had been 'forced' or coerced into doing because of their child's behaviour
  • changes in their teen's behaviour that was beginning to cause concern but they felt powerless to control
I'm not a psychologist but I'm sure there's some other stuff going on there as well but for the purposes of this piece, let's stick to these. What is particularly interesting is that in my dealings with adolescents I can't recall any young person refer to themselves as 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂. I'm sure it's happened (and I am sure many parents reading this will say that their teens throw the extra six months at them all the time, particularly when they want to push set boundaries or rules) but in my experience, it's certainly not the norm. Lots of them may say "I'm almost 16" but adding the 'extra half' appears to be much more a parent thing ...

So is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old (or a 16 and a 16⅟₂-year-old for that matter) and does that six months difference justify sacrificing your values around potentially dangerous teen behaviour?

Of course there can be a chasm of difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old. During adolescence dramatic changes can occur overnight, let alone over a six-month period. This is why it is so important that as far as rules and boundaries are concerned they keep changing and are re-negotiated where appropriate. I believe, a good rule of thumb around parties and gatherings is to reassess the limits that have been set in this area at least once every six months, ensuring that you reward good behaviour. Remember, if you want your household to survive adolescence, rules for teenagers need to be fair and age-appropriate ... That said, there need to be rules! No 15 or 16-year-old is going to like having any restrictions put on them when it comes to their socialising but it is a parent's job to keep their teen safe, so there have to be boundaries put into place to help ensure things don't go wrong ...

Taking a closer look at the questions the parents were asking where they referred to their teens as either 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂, it's clear that none of them felt at all comfortable with what was happening but they all felt totally powerless when it came to trying to stop what was going on. One of the couples had recently found alcohol in their Year 10 daughter's room and she had now admitted to regularly drinking at parties. Her response to them had been that now she had been caught she was going to continue to drink and there was nothing they could do about it. I asked them what they had done about the situation and they looked blankly at me and said 'nothing'! She was 15 (or 15⅟₂ as they said!), of course there are consequences a parent can impose for breaking rules at that age. It's not going to be easy, there could be some shouting and screaming and slamming of doors, but if nothing is done, you lose all your credibility and your teen is then going to walk all over you. More importantly, you'll be leaving them open to risks and dangers they simply don't have the capacity to comprehend or deal with at their age.

All the parents that I have mentioned above were feeling forced in some way to accept behaviour around alcohol from their teens that they did not feel comfortable with (i.e., they were threatened with "I'll go behind your back if you don't let me", "There is nothing you can do about it" and "Everybody else does"). I don't think one of them wanted me to turn around and say "Yes, let them do what they want" - all of them were desperate for someone to tell them to stand resolute and be a parent! Of course, rules need to change over time but when it comes to keeping your teen safe, these need to negotiated carefully and, as a parent, you should never feel forced into making changes you don't feel comfortable with ... If your teen's behaviour starts to become really challenging and you feel as if they are at real risk, get professional help, don't try to justify it by saying "Oh, they're getting older, they're 16⅟₂!" 

The most important thing you can do as a parent when it comes to alcohol, parties and gatherings and the like is stay true to yourself and your values. I have met too many parents over the years who have lost their children due to alcohol or other drug use - the vast majority being terrible accidents that should never have happened. When a parent loses a child after being forced or coerced into doing something they didn't feel comfortable with, however, it is particularly devastating. If you feel like it's time to relax your rules in this area, for whatever reason, go ahead and change them accordingly and own your decision. But never feel forced into making changes that don't feel right for you or your family - for as I always say to young people - 'If it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'

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