You've heard through the parent grapevine that a student in your 15-year-old daughter's school has been making violent threats. Over dinner you eye your daughter speculatively, wondering how to bring it up. "I hear some scary things have been happening at school," you begin. Your daughter rolls her eyes and says, "That's so not true... I'm not even going to talk to you about it, Mom. You always make such a big deal." She pushes her plate back abruptly and says, "I gotta study."
It can be hard to talk with your teenager about anything, let alone something as dicey as school violence. In addition to hormonal swings and growth spurts, adolescents are coping with the overwhelming developmental task of establishing an identity that is separate from yours.
Disobedience, disdain, disbelief, and just plain "dissing" may all be part of a teenager's repertoire of responses to your attempts to keep the lines of communication open. Still, teenagers need your active parenting whether they know it or not. Here's how to keep them talking.
The Words You Need
The Words: Sam's mother called and said a lot of the parents are talking about some trouble with a kid at school.
The Reason: Letting your teen know the context of your questions is helpful. It's also helpful not to make value judgements too early in a conversation. Many adolescents are extremely sensitive to judgements and may think you're trying to tell them what to think or feel, even if you aren't.
Also, teenagers' ongoing struggle for independence may cause them to disagree with you about practically everything: If you think something's frightening, then they may need to believe it isn't.
Finally, by attributing the information to another parent, you're letting your teen know that other parents, besides you, are concerned and involved in their kids' lives.
The Words: Sam's mom said that she heard someone at school got a threatening note, but I don't know if that's true.
The Reason: Sharing what you know, and inviting your child to "be the expert" is a way of encouraging him to share information without being put on the spot.
The Words: I love you and I want you to be safe.
The Reason: Working so hard to be independent can make some teens feel threatened by overt displays of parental affection, or "gushiness." At the same time, it's important for them to hear how much they mean to you, and why you are concerned.
The Words: I know I've said this to you before -- and I'll probably say it again 'cause it's so important: If someone threatens to hurt you, someone else, or themselves, you need to tell an adult you trust about it -- even if telling makes you feel like you're betraying a friend.
The Reason: Kids need to hear this repeatedly as they grow up. Loyalty to peers is of utmost importance to many teenagers. Usually it's okay to keep each other's secrets, but sometimes secrets can be deadly and need to be told.
The Words: If you feel like you can't tell me something, let's think of some adults who you can tell.
The Reason: Teens may feel at times that it's not safe to confide in their parents. Acknowledge that this may be the case occasionally, and help them remember who their other adult supports are. These can be teachers, neighbors, relatives, youth group leaders, or any adult family friend who takes a special interest in your children.
The Words: Here's what I want to do about what you told me.
The Reason: If you're going to take action on information your child gives you, then share your plan with her. If she protests, think carefully about the potential consequences of not taking action before you agree to her concerns. If you feel strongly that taking action is the right thing to do, acknowledge the validity of her feelings, but let her know that her safety and the safety of other kids has to come first.
The Words: This is complicated. Let's keep talking about it.
The Reason: Your teenager might roll his eyes and groan at this, but it's important for him to hear you acknowledge that life can be complex sometimes and that some problems can't be addressed in a single conversation.
Beyond the Conversation
Keep your child posted on the outcome of any actions you take. Remind her frequently that you love her and care about her. Remember that being the parent of a teenager can be lonely -- talk with other parents about how they discuss difficult issues with their adolescents.
If your child does come to you with safety fears about school, you'll need to talk with her about how you plan to address them. You'll also need to keep her informed of the outcome. You may want to talk with the other parents and school personnel, such as the teacher, principal, or guidance counselor. If threats or threatening behavior continue even after you've worked with the school, you may even need to go to the police.
Five Things You Can Do to Keep Talking
The roots of good communication between you and your teen begin to grow in early childhood. It's that much harder to talk openly and honestly with teenagers if you have no history of in-depth conversation. Here's how you can help your teen feel comfortable about sharing fears and worries:
- Listen carefully. Everyone, especially teenagers, likes to feel heard. When adolescents voice their opinions and views of the world, take time to listen respectfully to what they're saying.
- Don't jump to conclusions. Sometimes kids -- especially teens -- can take a long time to get to the point of a story. Try not to respond until you actually hear the end of a story.
- Praise kids when they ask for help. "I'm really glad you told me that" is a good way to encourage your teenagers to come to you again with their fears and worries.
- Respect their worries and concerns even if they're different from your own. Repeatedly teasing your daughter about her fears is a sure way to stop her from telling you about the bully she's afraid of at school.
- Remind your teens periodically that they should come to you if someone is threatening them or intimidating them at school, or anywhere else.
Most children attending school in this country won't find themselves in life-threatening situations and kids need to be reassured that they will most likely be safe in the classroom. However, it is useful to establish some ground rules for communicating about safety issues before problems arise.