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Awkward Conversations

(How to talk to other parents about the tough stuff
and why your kids are at risk if you don’t.)

We live in a quiet, affluent, suburban town, with a prestigious, blue-ribbon, school system, but unfortunately, that didn’t prevent several teens from needing hospitalization when they showed up dangerously drunk at a high school dance; it didn’t stop a date-rape at an unsupervised house party, or a fatal car crash (two sophomore athletes) with a stolen family car. Our community has suffered from all of this in the past year alone, but we’re not unique.
Many experts view destructive teen behaviors as the byproduct of an increasingly cruel, intolerant--and disconnected culture. Yet as a writer and therapist in private practice (and the mother of two teens) what I see is a generation of kids who are instantaneously connected to each other by cell phone, text-messaging and the Internet--a supreme advantage if you want to lie or sneak around…and let’s face it, what teenager doesn’t?
Look who’s not talking:
If we had as much connection with other parents as our kids do with each other we might be able to circumvent some of these dangerous behaviors. For example, a phone call to a few responsible adults can quickly extinguish the most intricate (and risky) of plans. Unfortunately, the older our kids become the more difficult it is for us to maintain strong networks with the parents of their peer group. When asked about this phenomenon, a parent states, “We don’t talk about what may be wrong with our family, because it’s kind of like a competition. It’s as if we’re all just watching and waiting to see whose kid will be the next one to fall.” Even if we do have information that can help, many of us feel paralyzed and unsure about whom we should tell. As Ron Taffell, parenting expert, says in his book, The Second Family, “We absolutely don’t know when or how to talk to other parents. We’re often afraid to take action.”
Why do we keep quiet?
There are many times when we may fall privy to information that can actually help our kids stay out of trouble. For example, perhaps you’re home one Friday night and notice a large number of teens descending upon the house next door. Or maybe your daughter tells you her friend has been cutting herself, or you hear that the hockey team gets high before every practice. A part of you may feel you should do something, but a “none of my business” mentality, coupled with a fear of being seen as judging (or being judged), competitiveness (will your child be excluded if you tell), sheer exhaustion from working or over-scheduling (and some teens work hard to prevent us from talking) and just plain awkwardness, are a few of the factors that keep parents silent--sometimes with tragic results.
I believe when we don’t tell other responsible adults what we know (or suspect) that we support a culture of secret-keeping which causes kids to feel empowered in ways that actually encourage greater risk-taking--almost daring us to stop them if we can. Even if we think a parent already knows--or we worry that they will slam the phone down in our ear--I believe we have a moral obligation to tell. An effective way to stop at least some of these dangerous behaviors is to reach out of our comfort zones and begin to have these awkward conversations with other parents.
When? When you think your teen is trying to pull one over on you with a last minute change of plans. When they get angry if you begin to question where they are going and with whom. When you feel yourself ready to give in because of manipulation, temper tantrums or tears…trust your gut and make the call. An easy, non-threatening script? “Hi. I’m wondering if I can help transport (or bring snacks) over to the party at your house tonight.“ Or “I’m probably overreacting but do you know anything about this?” You’ll find out quickly whether or not there’s a legitimate, supervised activity going on or a risk-taking scenario about to take place. Your teen might get angry, but remember: your primary job is to help keep them safe.
When else? When a teen that you or your child knows is in trouble. Maybe the kid has been selling drugs or has been sneaking out at night, maybe he or she has been experimenting sexually in ways that you know aren’t age appropriate or healthy. You may not be positive that the information is accurate…it may have come to you through gossip, or directly or indirectly through your own teen. If your own child told you, he or she may beg (or bully) you not to tell…but you still need to make the call.
How will you know it’s important enough? That’s easy. Whenever someone could be harmed by not telling. The more uncomfortable you feel, probably the more you need to tell. When you can’t let it go, when your intentions are good…trust your gut and call another parent.
How to talk about the tough stuff
Take a deep breath, and tell yourself that you’d want to know if it was your child (yes, gulp, you would!), because even though we want to believe the best about our kids, sometimes we need to hear the worst. (P.S. Early intervention is always preferable to waiting till it’s too late.)
• An easy script to follow: ”Hi. I have some information about your teen.” Tell them what you know, but not how you came by the information, then follow with: “I’m not sure it’s true, but I would want to know if you ever found out something about my son/daughter that might help me.”
• Remember to acknowledge how difficult it can be to hear bad things about our kids, and to stress that it could happen to any of us. “Thanks for listening. I know that might have been hard to hear. We need to be there for our kids when they make mistakes. I hope you’d do the same for me.”
• And most importantly ask them to keep the call confidential. “Please don’t mention to anyone, especially your son/daughter that it was me who called. My teen needs to trust that I’d never do anything to put them at risk for being singled out as ratting out their peers.” Remember: kids have lots of secrets from us--it’s perfectly okay for us to have some secrets from them.
• And finally, if you’re ever on the receiving end of such a call (like I have been…several times) remember to breathe, listen carefully without defensiveness, and thank that courageous parent for calling you. Then, thank them again.

I think we need to always keep in mind that the main reason it’s so difficult to make (or receive) these kinds of calls is because on a primal level we worry that we are questioning someone else’s parenting ability--or that someone is questioning our ability to be a “good” parent. What could be more awkward than that? Yet I believe that those of us who take the risk and talk about the tough stuff with other parents are the true heroes of any community, helping us keep our teens a whole lot safer.
So the next time you come by some information that might help another parent (or your own teen) pick up the phone and be brave enough to have that conversation. I promise you won’t be sorry you did.

 A current school directory can help busy parents connect with one another. Giving parents options to list cell-phones and email addresses is even more ideal so that kids can’t intercept or run interference on our calls.
 Hosting events that encourage parent-to-parent connection: before PTA meeting coffees, new parent brunches, parent/child book clubs, and expert guest speakers.
 Supporting the formation of task groups within the PTA that can brainstorm action plans for specific issues impacting teens in your community.
 Fostering parent/school relationships that open dialogue about social concerns. Teachers and school counselors are on the front line with new and disturbing trends. A group of concerned parents in our town met monthly with our student assistance counselors to brainstorm and keep abreast of current issues.
 Supporting anti-bullying programs and substance abuse prevention efforts that are comprehensive and district-wide.
 Pairing with community resources like the police, town recreation department, local libraries and YMCA’s to promote safe and substance free activities for teens

Pamela Lowell is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the East Bay, Rhode Island. Her first novel, RETURNABLE GIRL (Marshall Cavendish, 2006) is about a teen in foster care who must choose between the woman who wants to adopt her and the mother who abandoned her, all amidst the perils of middle school. Available wherever books are sold. For more information contact Ms. Lowell at web site www.pamelalowell.com