Part and parcel of parenthood is talking to your teenagers about tricky topics. Perhaps you remember your own parent’s disastrous attempt at the old birds-and-the-bees talk. Or maybe your parents just skipped that conversation all together — and you wish they hadn’t.
You might be one of those people who experimented with everything as a teen and survived. Those experiences may make you less comfortable broaching related subjects with your own kid. The “do-what-I-say-not-what-I-did” approach to parenting might not be the best choice.
Teens today know about things some parents weren’t aware of until they were well into adulthood. That’s one reason why it’s so important for parents to talk to their kids about uncomfortable topics. They’re growing up too fast for you not to.
There is no handbook with step-by-step instructions and a script for having difficult conversations. A lot of them will have you and your teen squirming in your respective chairs, so be prepared. Here are five tips that can help when you tackle some of those tough topics with your teen.
1. Think It Through and Be Thorough
If you’re going to take the conversational plunge, don’t take a hit-and-miss approach. Contemplate a topic, take notes if necessary, and be thorough when you’re ready to talk.
If you’re going to talk about sex, for example, be ready for the full boat. That means talking about what constitutes sex, so you’ll need to utter words like “manual,” “oral,” “vaginal,” and “anal.” You’ll also need to talk about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
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Just mentioning a topic like STIs and moving on can be scary to a teen. Full disclosure means discussing how they’re transmitted, avoided, and treated. So don’t forget to talk about things like effective HPV vaccines, condoms, and genital herpes treatment.
If you don’t feel like you can address these issues thoroughly, that’s OK. Schedule an appointment with a clinician who can. Just take your notes with you to make sure they do a thorough job as well.
2. Get Comfortable With the Uncomfortable Pause
When people ask you a question, you may feel the need to answer immediately. Otherwise, there’s a pause that can make you feel uncomfortable. It is acceptable (and perhaps preferable) to take time to formulate a response.
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Attempts to avoid an awkward pause often lead to an uninformed or incomplete answer. Savvy people interviewed by the media, for example, pause before answering a question. A thoughtful response can save the need for significant damage control later.
Don’t feel compelled to have the answer to everything right away. It’s fine to tell your teen you aren’t sure, or you don’t know, so you’ll get back to them on that. Of course, make sure you take the time to find the answer and follow up.
Make peace with the awkward moment of silence until it’s no longer awkward. After all, your teen already knows you don’t have all the answers. They will respect your acknowledgment that sometimes, silence is golden.
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3. Talk With Them, Not at Them
There’s a time and place for the parental lecture. Addressing tough topics with your kids isn’t one of them. These occasions call for open dialogue where both of you are asking and answering questions.
A discussion about the harms of drugs and alcohol should be done early. Kids have a tendency to experiment, and if you have alcohol or drugs in your home, access is easy. If you don’t address the topic with them, they may view it as an open invitation to try them.
The response to “Why can’t I drink beer? You do!” should not be “Because I’m old enough, and you’re not.” At least it shouldn’t be your only response. You should instead talk about the greater risk of substance abuse and dependency among children and teens. Let them ask questions and respond honestly.
Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to tell you how they would handle a particular situation. Avoid traps like making value judgments or uttering the dreaded “Because I said so.” If you do more listening than talking, you might find your teen is wiser than you knew.
4. Learn Together
The need to address tough topics with your teen is an opportunity for you both to learn something. With all the technology you likely have at your fingertips, learning together should be easy. Frankly, you might learn a thing or two from your child.
Take the topic of sexting, for example, which 15% of teens have done. You may have only a vague idea of what it is, while your teen may be totally aware of it. But neither of you may fully understand the harm of sexting, so learn together.
Use your browser to search for descriptions of sexting and the dangers it poses for teens. Read the information together and discuss it in real time. If you can’t find answers for everything, assign homework for yourself or your teen and schedule a time to discuss your findings.
Interactive learning is a proven way to resolve problems and internalize concepts. The internet makes it simple to access information, publications, and videos on every topic imaginable. You and your teen might be surprised to discover how smart the two of you are.
5. Keep Your Cool
There are all sorts of reasons you might lose your cool while broaching these subjects with your teen. There are also all sorts of reasons why you need to keep your temper in check. You need to find a way to keep calm and carry on.
Check criticism, judgment, and superiority at the door, but remember you’re still the parent. You need to strike a balance somewhere between parental authority and best friend advice. What you must avoid is visible shock should your teen admit to knowing or having done certain things.
Take a deep breath and count to 10 before you respond, preferably without anger or disbelief. If you can’t, tell them you need to think about their news, and you’ll talk again later. Remember that if they do admit to certain thoughts or actions, your teen is probably looking for guidance.
Accept that invitation with a gentle nudge in the right direction, not a shove. A heated response will cause your teen to either clam up or yell back. Keeping calm will signal to them that they can trust you when they’re being completely honest.
Parenting is tough from day one, and doesn’t get any easier. Talking to your teen about the merits of abstinence is far more difficult than warning them about a hot stove. In both instances, though, you’re giving them the guidance they need to make good decisions.
In the end, that’s what parenting is all about.