To tell or not to tell

If you haven’t yet fielded questions like these from your tweens, you will. Invest some time now in thinking about how you’ll respond. A gaping jaw or “deer in the headlights” look probably won’t cut it.

Imagine driving your daughter home from soccer practice. Hey Mom, did you use birth control when you were a teenager? This is not the time for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, according to Tempe social worker Marcie Lee, M.S.W., M.A. Nor is it time for a quick change of subject or an abrupt refusal to tackle the question.

Let your child know it’s okay to ask about these things, but that you need some time to consider how you’d like to respond. If you’d feel more comfortable chatting later that day, when you have a quiet moment at home, say so. A hurried reply won’t do much good. But don’t put it off. Your tween needs to feel you are “emotionally available” and responsive to questions and concerns, says Lee.

When deciding what to share — and how much to share — consider the real reason your tween is asking the question. Has a similar issue come up in his or her own life? Is your tween trying to affirm your human foibles or keep you on a pedestal?

Consider your child’s maturity level and any privacy issues involved. Be honest with your tween if you feel an open answer would violate another person’s right to privacy. Set ground rules as needed, letting your tween know if your conversation needs to remain private.

“I don’t think you should ever lie to your children,” says psychologist Marci Harris, Ph.D., of Scottsdale. “But it’s a parent’s judgment call.” If there’s information you’d rather not share, say so. Try something like, “I’m not comfortable talking about this in detail.”

Turn awkward moments into opportunities to discuss important values, suggests Harris. Cut the lecture. Stick to conversation. Dialog back and forth about what you each value: true friendships, supportive family, independent thinking.

Admit your mistakes, adds Harris. Temper things you share with something like, “I didn’t always have the best judgment, but this is what I want you to know.” It’s okay to tell them you want them to learn from your mistakes, but don’t imply that your adolescent choices — good or bad — should be the sole basis for your tween’s own tough judgment calls.

Never use your own tween tales for shock value, or as a scare tactic, cautions Lee. What you share, and how you share it, will impact how your tween grapples with issues of identity, trust and self-esteem. Use information only if it illustrates a point and helps your tween wrestle with his or her own real life challenges.

You’re bound to get questions like, “Why can’t I experiment with drugs if you smoked pot in the ’60s?” It’s a great chance to dialog about the cultural factors that influenced tweens of decades past and the pressures facing tweens today.

Help your tween understand how times have changed, and how the world is in some ways a more dangerous place for children now than it was just a few generations ago. There are new health risks — like AIDS — and a wider variety of readily available street drugs.

Remind your tween that what you see isn’t always what you get. What one person peddles as a harmless joint or innocent-looking drink may be laced with something infinitely more dangerous. The stakes are high, and kids need to know it.

Help tweens discover that there are plenty of ways besides experimenting with sex or drugs to establish their own personal space and identity.

Only you can decide how much of your own past to share with your tween, and on what terms. It’s natural to worry that sharing our own mistakes will make our tweens think less of us, says Lee. Still she remembers the words a friend once shared on the topic: “When it comes to kids, you can pay now or pay later.” They’ll discover soon enough that parents are people, imperfections and all. Opening up rather than shutting down when the questions get tough — and personal — gives us an opportunity to “be real in the present,” says Lee. It helps us model accepting oneself and others, reflecting thoughtfully on the consequences of one’s actions and moving forward to overcome past hurdles and mistakes.

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