Thursday, April 2, 2015

Talking About The Hard Stuff With Teenagers (Secret Tacos Help)

I am working on writing this parenting book, and this is one of the topics that people have asked me to write about the most frequently.

I won't claim to be an expert at this teenage parenting stuff, especially given that I'm in the earlier stages of it, but I've found already that my general approach to parenting seems to be paying off so far.

That, and the wonder of secret tacos.

Secret tacos is not some code phrase. I really mean secret tacos, as in sometimes after school I take the older two to get secret tacos before we pick up the rest of the kids. Shhhh. You can't tell anyone about the secret tacos or they won't be secret tacos anymore.


My general approach is a blunt, realistic one. We use the real words for things, we don't shy away from uncomfortable topics, we ask questions, we let them know they can ask us anything.

As I picked up my older two kids from middle school yesterday, I knew that they were likely to have discussed some of the "hard stuff" at school that day. Late start days have been designated for the health lessons this year.

They both climbed in the car and started talking about what they'd covered in class today. In front of each other. With no hesitation.

There isn't much to be embarrassed about in our house, unless you confuse the powers of a superhero or forget which universe someone belongs to...then you bring shame upon our family. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

One of them had talked about birth control (FINALLY) and sexually transmitted diseases. The other had talked about drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.

I was far too excited about all this, both that they'd finally started to discuss these things at school, and that they were both so eager to talk about it.

I tried to suppress my excitement.

I probably failed. In an epic fashion.

In the half hour or so that followed, the three of us talked about everything they'd gone over and I told them some things they need to know about our family.

1. There is a history of addiction and alcoholism on both sides of the family. They absolutely need to be aware of that truth, of their genetic predisposition to it, and will need to be more conscious of this reality as they get older.

2. I told them (for the first time) that I used to smoke. Briefly, and when I wasn't much older than they are now. I quit because I loved it, because I knew it was terrible for me, because I KNEW that I was getting addicted to it. I quit because I'd spent my entire childhood trying to convince my parents to quit and I knew that I was being reckless with my own health.

3. We talked about the fact that cigarettes killed their grandfather and contributed to their grandmother's death. Harsh?? Maybe. The truth tends to be that way.

4. We talked about the reality of growing up in a state where marijuana is legal. It will be readily available and accessible to them here. Just because something is legal for people over the age of 21 doesn't mean that it is legal (or a good idea necessarily) for anyone under that age, and it doesn't mean that using it is without consequences. Employers can still refuse to hire people and fire employees for violating drug use rules, even though it is legal. We talked extensively about the particular dangers of edibles.

5. We talked about the fact that marijuana has legitimate medical uses and the fact that their grandfather used it to help alleviate the side effects of his cancer treatment.

6. We talked about the different types of herpes, how they are transmitted, the fact that there is no cure for them, although there are treatments now that can help with flare ups.

7. We talked about which of the forms of birth control are protective against STDs and which aren't.

8. We talked about how prevalent HPV is, about the fact that there is a vaccine for it and about cervical cancer.

Some of the things that they brought up were pleasant surprises, things that assure me that they really are paying attention.

The Oldest mused aloud about why our society allows kids to drive at 16 but not drink until 21. He thinks that we are doing it backwards, and I'd tend to agree with him. Many European countries in particular have lower drinking ages but don't allow driving until later on. Those countries tend to be set up with better mass transit, though, which is certainly a part of the larger issue.

They both asked a lot of questions about marijuana, and about the names of other drugs. I told them the truth - that drugs come in different forms and the street names change frequently.

They asked me a lot of questions about IV drug use and HIV transmission, knowing that I spent years working for an AIDS clinic.

It may seem strange to some people out there reading that I was actually excited as a parent to have this conversation, but it's the truth. I'm glad that my kids are willing to talk to me about all these things, that they ask me the questions, that no one is ever embarrassed.

These conversations don't need to be awkward. They don't need to be uncomfortable.

And they can absolutely happen inside a minivan that smells like secret tacos.

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