Every parent's dilemma: Knowing when to allow 'kids to be kids' and take some risks and knowing when to draw the line to ensure they stay safe

Oprah Winfrey has been quoted as saying "I believe that one of life's greatest risks is never daring to risk." Although it can be scary, all parents have to let their kids put themselves 'out there', to try new things and to push limits and boundaries - that's full of risk but important if they are to become fully-functioning adults. At the same time, parents want their children to be safe. As with most things, we want to edge our bets and have it both ways and that's not always possible.

We give young people very mixed messages when it comes to 'risk taking' behaviour. From a very early age we encourage children to get out there and push themselves out of their comfort zone (e.g., taking their first steps unassisted, riding a bike without training wheels, swimming across a pool) and think nothing of it. In fact, parents take great pride in this type of behaviour. We know that's how kids learn, by taking risks and doing things they have never done before - that's simply a part of child development. Now of course, for so many of these type of activities, someone is there to catch them if they stumble, to ensure that they don't hit their head, scrape their knees or swallow too much water, but as they get older, that's not always going to be possible.

One of the greatest challenges parents of adolescents face is knowing when to allow their teen to take a risk (e.g., saying 'yes' to them attending a party where you know some of their friends will be drinking alcohol) and when to draw the line and say 'no' to ensure their safety. It's a constant juggling act and there are no easy answers but before I share my thoughts on the issue, here is an edited version of a message I recently received from Rena, a 16-year-old young woman:

"You've presented at my school a couple of times and my Mum has heard you speak as well and she always talks about the things you have said ... Our relationship is getting so bad because she just won't let me do anything. She thinks all the parties I get invited to are full of drunk people and that I am going to drink and terrible things will happen to me. I'm not going to lie and say that none of my friends drink alcohol but I haven't and I don't think I really want to but Mum won't believe me. I haven't been allowed to go to a party since Year 9 and she wouldn't even let me go on the school camp because she had heard that last year some people smuggled alcohol onto the site. I just want her to trust me a little …"

I ended up speaking to Rena's mother, a delightful woman, who was simply terrified about her daughter's safety. Alcohol and parties were of great concern to her but it went much further than that, with the girl not even being able to use public transport to school or go to a shopping centre without one of her parents present. In an attempt to protect her from any risks, she was actually 'suffocating' her daughter and potentially irreparably damaging their relationship.

When your child hits adolescence, they are more likely to take part in a wider range of risk taking behaviours and the possibility of something going wrong becomes a much greater concern. Parents suddenly find themselves dealing with complex issues such as sex, alcohol and other drugs, driving and so much more, with many having little idea of how best to respond. Some choose to 'clamp down' and be restrictive in an effort to protect their child the best they can (like Rena's mother), while others find it all too difficult, throwing their hands into the air and letting their teen do whatever they want. As with most things, the most effective response is likely to be somewhere in the middle …

When it comes to parties and gatherings and making a decision about whether your child can attend or not (i.e., allowing them to take that risk and 'be a teenager'), the image above says it all. If you're going to allow your child to take a risk, make sure it's an 'intelligent risk'. As far as a parent is concerned, make sure you know as much as possible about the event your child wants to attend. I've written many times about the four questions I believe parents need to have answered to ensure they can make an informed decision about the relative safety of a party and they are as follows:
  • whose party is it and do you know them and/or their parents?
  • where will the party be held?
  • will the parents be there and will they be actively supervising the party?
  • what time does it start and what time does it finish?
When it comes to your teen, the party they want to attend is more likely to be an intelligent risk when they are armed with information and skills that can help ensure their safety (note the helmet on the mouse's head - if you're going to allow your child to put themselves out-there, make sure they're as protected as possible, e.g., they know what to do if something goes wrong). Some of the things you should talk through with your child could include the following:
  • decide on a code word or the like just in case they want to leave but want to save face. They can then call you or send a text secretly and then 5 minutes later you call them (when they're now in front of everyone) and tell them that they have to come home for whatever reason
  • download the 'Emergency +' app onto their smartphone. When opened it provides key emergency numbers, as well as activating their GPS, providing not only their latitude and longitude but also their street address of where they are
  • ensure they know that 000 can be accessed even if the phone does not have any credit or the phone is locked, i.e., you can pick up anyone's mobile and call 000 even if it locked. Show them that when the keypad is locked the option for 'emergency call' is always there
  • make sure they understand that they have your permission to call an ambulance if anything goes wrong. They can call for help and then call you straight afterwards – they need to know they have your 100% support in this area
  • make it clear to them that they can call you at anytime and you will be available on the other end of the phone to pick them up, give advice or whatever. If they're going to call anyone for help, you want it to be you. They need to understand that there will be no judgment made when they call and no questions will be asked ... then! There may be lots of questions the next day - but at the time they call, you won't ask any! You just want them to be safe, no matter what ...
Every parent wants their child to become a fully-functioning adult, capable of standing on their own feet and thriving. For that to happen, they need to be able to be a teenager and allowed to take some risks. Encouraging intelligent risk taking is the key. Don't get me wrong - they'll still bound to make mistakes and undoubtedly get themselves into trouble at times but hopefully because you've done your homework as a parent and your child is armed and ready, those risks won't be as great.

Of course, there are those times where the risks are just too great and you are going to have to just say 'no'. As far as parties are concerned, if you have a good relationship with your child and you're able to arm them well, there are few scenarios where I believe parents have no choice. If you can find a way of letting them go, I believe you should. If you have made your rules clear and what the consequences are should those rules be broken, at some point you have to trust them to do the right thing. However, here is a classic example of a situation that there is just no way that you could possibly come close to ensuring your child's safety:
  • your 14-year-old daughter wants to go to a party where you know there will be 18-year-old young men drinking alcohol present
This is just plain dangerous and there's really nothing you can do to reduce that risk. Now I have highlighted young women here but realistically, the same applies to 14-year-old boys. It's just that in my experience it's the parents of girls of this age who are more likely to face this issue. Girls mature faster and they're more likely to want to hang out with older guys. Year 9 girls at a party with drunk boys of their own age is risky enough, but when those guys are able to drive and have greater access to alcohol and entry into licensed venues, it's a disaster waiting to happen. I believe, in this case, you have to say 'no'! Now, how you decide to enforce your decision and, whether you are able to, is another issue (the number of parents who contact me who are struggling with enforcing rules around parties with their Year 9 son or daughter amazes me) but it's vital that you know where your 'line in the sand' is and stick to it.

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