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Lectures, Confessions and Life Lessons

What Should Parents Tell Their Teens About Their Past?

To tell one’s story to another person is a way of making it last. Tucking the tale into someone else’s memories validates our existence. It preserves proof that we have lived and that we have made a difference. For parents, children are a captive audience. If we describe the events of our life to our children, then they take all of that into the future with them, to a place and time that we mortally cannot go to ourselves. This is the romantic version.

Why Parents Share Their History

Parents share their past with their teens because it’s a way of communicating. “Parents want to have an open relationship with their children,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. The expectation is that by talking about their own teen years they will create an atmosphere of trust that leads to mutual exchange of information.

Sometimes, the goal is to teach a lesson or to deter the teenager from a particular behavior. Of course, this brand of reminiscing generally sounds like a lecture. Cheryl Carswell, a licensed professional counselor and the director of Georgia Family Crisis Solutions Counseling Center, points out the absurdity of expecting the child to respond with, “You’re exactly right mom, and I’m not going to do that.”

“Some parents share their past experiences hoping their kids will see that they’re cool and with it,” notes Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “That is hopeless.”

It Falls on Deaf Ears

Dr. Kennedy-Moore notes that parents’ monologues about their youth primarily arise out of a desire to connect. There’s an overriding drive to teach their teens through tales of their own personal struggle, daring, heartache, perseverance and triumph. “Most parents have a fantasy of sharing wisdom and passing it on,” she says. “This is the most unreceptive age.”

“They live in the here and now,” Carswell observes of adolescents. What was true for a parent is considered irrelevant by the child and does not increase the parent’s credibility in the teen’s mind. “They’re not you, and they’ll tell you real quick they’re not you,” she adds.

As teens search for identity and sense of belonging outside of the family, they believe their experience is unique and individual and unrelated to anyone else’s, particularly a parent’s. “They think of us as adults,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore, “and to them we’ve always been adults. Tales of our glory days are not interesting to them.”

To Tell or Not to Tell

Though the teen brain is not fully developed (the frontal lobe area, which is responsible for problem solving and logic, does not mature until the mid to late twenties depending on gender), it is awfully good at both tuning parents out and turning their words around on them. A parent divulging a past that includes underage alcohol use, pre-marital sex, illegal acts or other negative behaviors, may unknowingly extend implicit permission for his child to engage in these activities. Dr. Kennedy-Moore says, “One danger of telling kids about our past experiences is that it gives kids the message that this is what is normal or acceptable.” The teen may take the attitude that the parent did it and everything turned out fine so it’s not a big deal for the teen to do it, too.

On the other hand, parents who compare their past to the teen’s present, particularly in terms of how the parent’s activities were superior to the child’s, may put the teen on the defensive or cause him to quit listening. Saying, “When I was your age, I never would have (fill in the blank),” does not impress an adolescent or inspire him to be more like the parent. “Teens tend to think that was a long time ago and that things are different now,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

Dr. Kennedy-Moore stands staunchly in the court of less-is-more when it comes to parents talking to teens about their past. That said, she does believe that a child in the throes of a struggle similar to one with which a parent also dealt can be bolstered by a parent’s recount of how he felt and how he got through it. Finding out that the parent has been there, done that and survived can be validating and motivating to the teen. Deliver the story with humility and encouragement. Take cues from the child, however. If she’s attentive to your story about your conflict with your best friend in 10th grade, continue. If she’s rolling her eyes, stop. It’s not necessary to tell all.

Any disclosure, for whatever reason, should be directly related to what is currently happening in the child’s life and have the purpose of helping the child through it. “We don’t want to tell our children what we did in the past for absolution,” says Carswell, warning parents away from making confessions to their teens. She also discourages parents from confiding in their teens as if they’re friends.

Nonetheless, a parent’s sewing-of-the-oats does imbue him with certain wisdom. Though he can’t simply hand over that wisdom by telling a story or two, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says, “We use our own experience to guide us and to empathize with our children and to set expectations.” It aids a parent in predicting what his child may have to deal with in a particular situation, knowing what questions he should ask his teen about an event or activity and keeping his radar up for signs of trouble.

Parental Right to Privacy

What parents probably fear most is direct questioning about their past from their teenager. In reality, this scenario rarely happens. Kids aren’t really all that interested in what their parents did in adolescence. But if your teen does ask specifically about your history with drugs, alcohol, sex, etc., it’s okay to say you prefer not to discuss it. “Parents have a right to keep their private lives private,” asserts Carswell.

Avoid lying about past exploits. It’s better to straightforwardly express discomfort with discussing the subject than for the parent to outright deny doing something she actually did. Getting caught in a lie puts the parent-teen relationship on the line. If a parent chooses to admit having participated in a particular activity, it doesn’t mean she must describe every gory detail. Carswell explains, “Honesty does not mean complete disclosure.”

Overall, the best way for parents to bond with their teens isn’t by boring them to death with tales of days and deeds gone by. It’s by listening to them talk about their here and now. Our expertise as parents expresses itself when we ask our teen how she would handle a situation, when we empathize with her frustrations and fears and dreams for her future and when we give her the compliment of enjoying her company. “Try to remember how you felt at 13,” advises Carswell. “Now let your child be 13.”

Lucy Adams is the author of  Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children.
 

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