It’s every parent’s nightmare. Your teen has confessed that they are tempted by sex, drugs, underage drinking or any other vice. You are terrified for your teen. What if they give in to those temptations? What if they get pregnant, become an addict or drive drunk? You feel guilty, like this is your fault. After all, no good parent would raise a teen who was considering using drugs. What did you do wrong? How do you fix this? Can you fix this? You are also absolutely furious. You taught your teen better than this! How could they even consider anything so reckless? Don’t they realize they are throwing away their life?
None of those emotions, however, help a parent handle their teen. Plenty of parents lash out either due to panic or rage. The terrified ones often end up grilling their teen for hours about the situation and “whose tempting you? Who’s hurting my innocent baby?!”. Others turn on their teen like an angry wolverine and yell at their teen, ban them from prom or any other punishment. Neither of these reactions, however, are helpful. Most parents even realize that their reactions are counterproductive or, at the very least unhelpful. Many parents, however, do not have any idea what to do in that nightmare scenario. Here are a couple tips on what to do if your teen tells you they are tempted.
Do Not Panic
Panicking is arguably the worst thing you can do if your teen tells you they are tempted. Handling teens can be difficult anyway, and temptation is an issue where even the most level headed teen can become irrational or unpredictable. To calmly handle the possible confusion, dismissal or defensive anger you might face from your teen, you desperately need your brain engaged, not silently screaming in parental terror. In fact, most bungled handlings of a tempted teen have their root in a panicking parent.
Regardless of whether your teen confessed because you found dirty magazines in his room, or she told you out of the blue, your teen was honest with you. They admitted their temptation to their parent. In your teen’s eyes, they admitted to weakness and disobedience to a person that most teens, whether they admit it or not, love and want to impress. Plenty of teens would have lied, obfuscated, hidden their temptation or claimed that they weren’t tempted. It was just a passing curiosity from ages ago, seriously chill out! Take a deep breath, and do not let any of those panicked questions or rebukes past your lips. If you cannot get control of yourself in a few moments, buy yourself some time by suggesting that the discussion take place in another room or later in the day. Use the extra time to calm down and remind yourself that your teen told you about their temptations when they could have hidden it. You have not lost your child to temptation yet.
Praise Them For Not Giving In
Truth time: even adults struggle with temptation. Even though they have fully developed brains, decades of practice with impulse control and have likely seen the consequences of drugs, alcohol, teen sex and other vices that wreaked havoc on friends or family, adults still give in to temptation. You probably know people who gave in and paid the price. You know the dangers. You’ve seen them first hand.
For your teen, however, this is all new. Drug addiction is a vague boogeyman parroted by teachers in the health classes that bore your teen. Pregnancy is an adult thing. Alcohol poisoning only happens to people who are stupid. Your teen has not seen friends arrested for drug possession or watched the valedictorian drop out of school to raise her child. The consequences are not real to them yet.
Despite this, your teen has not given in to their temptations. They have held themselves back by force of will or morality, not fear of the consequences. Praise that decision. Do not gush, and do not ignore the danger your teen is still facing, but recognize that your teen was faced with a choice and chose correctly. Make sure that your teen recognizes that as well.
Find Their “Why”
While being tempted by life-ruiners like drugs may seem baffling to a parent, your teen has a reason that they are interested in such things and, to them, this reason is perfectly logical and sensible. If you are going to help your teen deal with temptation, you need to know why they are interested in the first place. A teen that is considering underage drinking because “everyone does it” requires a very different approach than a teen who thinks “it’s not hurting anyone. What’s the big deal?” If you assume your teen has a different reason than they do, your arguments will mean nothing to them. Telling a teen who thinks that there is no harm in sex as long as they use protection that not everyone is having sex does not address the problem in the slightest. Your teen, however, is unlikely to offer their actual reason and get a second lecture. The onus is on you to reach out and understand your teen’s perspective.
When you are finding your teen’s “why,” you have to actually listen to their reasoning. For just a few moments, set aside judgment, fear and your very adult perspective. Try and see the situation through your teen’s eyes, instead of exploding if your teen says their friends are drinking. Keep your mouth shut, engage your brain and listen. You will have your time to talk soon enough, but first truly listen to your teen. Seek to understand their perspective instead of counting down to the time when you can tear a dozen holes in their reasoning. Your teen is likely uneasy talking about temptation with you anyway. Do not give them a reason to shut down by only half listening to what they are saying. They will notice, and they will not take it well. The last thing you need to do is give your teen a reason to ignore your words or rebel.
Conversation, Not Interrogation
As a parent, you desperately need your teen to understand why giving into temptation is a terrible idea. This can easily manifest itself as a parent hurling increasingly frantic questions at their teen. Where did you get the alcohol? Who told you it was a good idea? When did this happen? How did you hide it? Was this the only time? Who were you with? Where did you go after? Why why why why why? The anxious parent thinks they are trying to get to the bottom of a very serious matter. The cornered teen feels like they are a murder suspect in a courtroom drama.
You have to ask questions in this sort of situation, or you will never understand what is going on in your teen’s head and never know if the problem has really been addressed. You also might be in the unenviable position of trying to get answers out of a sullen teen who devolves into communicating solely with shrugs or monosyllables. Turning the conversation into an interrogation will only make matters worse. If you ask questions calmly and truly listen to your teen’s answers, you are much more likely to get honest answers that are composed of a full sentence.
When you talk with your teen, resist the urge to grill them about who tried to get them to give in to temptation. Yes, you are correct to want your teen away from bad influences. This, however, may not be the best time to deal with it. Get your teen to understand why giving into temptation is a bad idea before you try and to uncover the names of those who are tempting your teen. If your teen really understands why giving in to temptation is a mistake, they might distance themselves from bad influences on their own. At the very least, you need to be careful in how you handle the topic of bad influences. Teens are notorious for guarding even the most casual social relationship like a particularly ornery dragon guards its gold. Furthermore, make sure you talk to your teen in a way that does not make them feel like a tattle-tale for giving you names. The absolute last thing a teen wants to be seen as is a snitch.
Put It in Terms They Understand
You are the adult, the one with the experience. You have seen the horrors of drug addiction, the lives ruined by unplanned pregnancies and the dreams cut short by a drunken car crash. Your teen has not. The very adult consequences of giving in to temptation are nothing but vague, threatening stories. To many teens “drug addiction,” “STI’s” or “alcohol poisoning” are on par with “if you are naughty, a giant will come out of the woods and eat you.” Teens give well-meaning health teachers and parents a look of wide-eyed innocence and profess to understand. Then, they roll their eyes with their friends. Parents and teachers know that they are speaking realistically about the genuine consequences of drugs or sex. Teens hear the sex-ed teacher from “Mean Girls.” (LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5xkxTfVLSA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcZ-jg670bE).
If you want your teen to understand the dangers of yielding to temptation, you need to put it in terms they understand. Resist the urge to go for the biggest, most terrible consequences in an effort to impress the dangers of vices on your teen. Do not tell them about the risk of developing alcoholism. Alcoholism is a vague, distant, shadowy threat. It won’t happen to them! They are young and strong and smart. Alcoholism is for old, stupid people. Instead, talk about spending all weekend hungover and missing the game on Saturday. Talk about how drinking makes people gain weight. Talk about how a single DUI can ruin an entire life. Those dreams of being a teacher? Gone.
There is a time and place for the more severe consequences of drugs, sex or alcohol, but they may not be the things that a teen needs to hear now. Teens tend to think they are invincible, and the future is still a distant possibility. Anchor the consequences in their present reality: homework, friends, crushes and the hope for a driver’s license. Those will hit home.
Help Them Avoid Future Temptation
Your teen has managed to say “no” to temptation this time. That is encouraging for their future, but anyone can eventually be worn down. If your teen continually encounters the same temptation, they might eventually say “yes” instead. This might be because they cave to peer pressure, or it might be that seeing the temptation constantly has normalized it. It is no longer scary, dangerous or forbidden. It is just part of life.
How you can help your teen avoid future temptations will depend on both your teen, their temptations and their situation. A teen surrounded by friends who are telling him to “stop being a baby and have a drink” needs a very different sort of help avoiding temptation than a teen whose boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex with him because “he loves her.” Distancing themselves from friends who are bad influences is easy for a parent to say but not always for a teen to do. Beyond the pain of losing friends, teens will see those friends regularly at school, sports practice or through other friends. Cutting your teen off entirely from their peers can be tempting, but completely isolating them will likely do more harm than good. Pulling them from a basketball team filled with underage drinkers might sound like a good idea to a concerned parent, but the teen will see themselves as being punished for a crime they did not commit.
One thing to do to help your teen is to give them a temptation-free alternative. If the problem is their sports team, get them involved in a church youth group. If the problem is friends from church, help them get closer to the neighbors’ teens. Finding an alternative may not be easy, but it will make it very clear to a teen that there are other options.
Strengthen Your Relationship
The reality is that your teen is going to continue to face temptation, and they are going to continue to have questions about it. How dangerous are drugs really? Can you really get pregnant the first time you have sex? A DUI results in how much community service? If you keep your relationship with your teen strong, or develop a strong relationship with them, they will come to you with these questions instead of taking them to misinformed friends or, worse, trawling the depths of the internet for answers. If you cultivate a good relationship with your teen, you can act as one of the first defenses against temptation. You can be their sounding board, their confidant and, yes, a bit of an external conscious. A good relationship will also keep your teen from developing one of the main reasons teens rebel: “getting back at” or “showing” their parents.
Helping a teen deal with temptation is terrifying and can feel a lot like trying to cross a pond covered in thin ice. One wrong move could destroy everything. Engage your brain, avoid panic and have an honest conversation with your teen instead of an interrogation, and you might be surprised at how easily your teen turns away from temptation the next time they encounter it.