Know Your Limits: A Prom Primer for Parents
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
According to the National Institute of Health, drinking - the drug of choice among youth - plays a major role in death from injuries, and injuries are the leading cause of death for kids under 21. Alcohol also significantly increases the likelihood of risky sexual behavior - including unprotected sex, multiple sex partners, and physical and sexual assault. As prom approaches we’re confronted with the familiar challenge of protecting our teens.
Some of the psychological issues, pitfalls, and possibilities involved are illustrated through the story below given from the separate viewpoints of Dylan, 17, and his parents.
Dylan’s parents are exasperated. “This year was a roller coaster. Dylan had always been a perfect kid - no trouble. Then he started rebelling - trying to get away with as much as possible. Our house is often a screaming match. We yell and try to discipline him. There’s no other way to get through…we can’t just let him get away with whatever he wants. We understand he’s a teenager but he’s selfish. He doesn’t care about anyone else…he says outrageous things, like announcing he’s going to do things he knows we disapprove of. Is he trying to defy and disrespect us? We’ve always taught him what’s right…he says he’s fine. We’re sure it’s just a case of being 17.”
Dylan talks excitedly about drinking and acting crazy… “It’s better than being boring.” He’s frightened and confused by how drawn he is to this but says he doesn’t care. In the next breath he says “I used to be good. I was the perfect kid. Now I’m a disappointment…The last thing I want is to worry my parents…I constantly feel guilty…They’re always yelling…I hate my life.” He describes enjoying the relief he gets from drinking. It helps him feel sad, cry, and get loose - do stupid things. As he talks he has a mischievous look on his face, which quickly turns to shame. “I can’t tell if the sadness when I drink is real or not. Maybe I’m just bad - I’m probably not really sad…maybe I want to be messed up for attention. I CAN’T BELIEVE my parents are so out of touch and don’t know what’s going on half the time. They don’t get it - they caught me once - in a way I was glad because I thought, now it’s all out, things will be ok. But nothing changed. I know I could stop this stuff myself. I’ve been pretty good lately but with prom coming up…there’s no way…”
How we react is determined by how we interpret others’ motives and intentions - and the meaning these intentions have to us. Here, Dylan’s parents believe he’s scheming to get away with as much as possible and doesn’t care about them anymore. This framework understandably leads them to feel angry, insulted, and dismayed. Though Dylan comes across as angry and apathetic to his parents, inside he feels torn, ashamed and alone. As he and his parents battle, shame and aloneness are reinforced. Compelled to escape, he ends up involved in dangerous and degrading activities, perpetuating a self-destructive cycle which unconsciously speaks to how he feels about himself.
In the throes of impulsive risk-taking, Dylan is uncontrollably drawn to the “rush” - and possibly developing a drinking problem. Through his behavior and by essentially telling on himself, he “informs” his parents that he’s lacking restraint and judgment and needs help. Provoked, his parents misread the clues, respond to the static “noise,” and fail to notice the picture behind it.
Contrary to popular belief, recent studies show that teens can accurately evaluate risk, but believe the rewards outweigh the risks. Teenagers have also been found to be particularly sensitive to the pleasurable effects of drinking - and have the capacity to drink greater quantities of alcohol than adults before experiencing negative physical effects. Complicating issues further, research on brain development shows that teens are limited in their ability to use judgment under stress and restraint in the face of reward’s temptation. These findings remind us that kids who seem to have adult capacities in other areas may still need us to operate as a stand-in to supplement the missing pieces.
Kids who are typically “good” often feel the need to be perfect and present a particular risk. Their disguised distress - usually invisible to parents - paints a confusing picture which, along with family dynamics, contributes to parents minimizing or overlooking danger - and failing to take protective measures.
It’s also easy to take teens’ behavior personally and react with punitive measures, anger, panic, guilt-tripping, lecture, or blame. When such feelings are the driving force behind parents’ responses, communication breaks down and measures to control teenagers’ behavior backfire. Similar to their kids, at these times parents are reacting reflexively instead of thoughtfully - losing sight of their child. These reactions, instead of fostering communication, pull teens deeper into a control struggle, leaving them with nowhere to turn. Following punishment, force, or admonishment, it’s prudent to think about what “lesson” was actually learned. Though teens can be forced to outwardly comply, they inevitably find a way to “win” these battles - for example through secret rebellion or, more tragically, by hurting themselves, directly or indirectly, until it is clear to them that parents “get” the message.
Research has shown that a close, supportive relationship with parents (as perceived by teenagers) is the most protective measure against underage drinking, sexual activity, and violence.
Intent and motive (easily sensed by teens) is what differentiates consequences and limits from punishment and control. Honest self-reflection - including noticing one’s tone, feelings and demeanor - will help parents be onto themselves as well as their kids. Some teens want limits imposed by parents so they can restrict themselves and still save face. But limits should be informed by understanding the teen’s particular unspoken needs and vulnerabilities - and tempered by a calm tone, uncritical language, and positive message.
Guidelines for Parents:
• Calm• Ask• Listen• Model• Be pro-active. Don’t attempt to set limits or talk to your teen when either of you is angry. • If you’re in a struggle with your teen leading up to the prom or any important conversation, consider attempting repair by owning up to your part. Set an example by taking responsibility in this way. • When talking to teens, consider what your goal is and hold that in mind. Stay Calm. Once the alliance is ruptured, it’s difficult to have the impact needed to protect. • Decide beforehand on your approach, and consider what effect, knowing your teenager, your approach is likely to have. Consider modifying it if necessary. Ask questions in a curious, not leading or accusatory way. It’s more important to Listen and understand than to talk. • Be informed. Ask your teens their views on alcohol and find out how educated they are. • Explain in a forthright way what you are worried about and why. • Find out whether your teen is worried, what they want of themselves for that night, and where the risks lie for them. (This can guide the limits you ultimately set.) Think through together what situations present risk and ways to manage them. • Make rules, consequences and expectations clear and consistent and not punitively based. Explain in a direct and non-judgmental way why you are enforcing them. Assume they are doing the best they can, rather than seeing them as bad. • Stay informed about the details of where your teen will be, who will be transporting them, and what adults will be present. • Be aware of your power as a Role Model. Teens unconsciously internalize values about alcohol, and managing frustration and anger, etc. from observing your behavior, not from what you tell them to do.