With freedom gained from both active and passive resistance, your son or daughter is now curious to experience the world beyond childhood and to see what illicit freedoms he or she can get away with. At this phase, both you and your child are asking the same question, but you each have very different viewpoints attached to what you want to know.
The common question is, “What if?” For you, this is a worry question: “What if my child tried something dangerous and got hurt?” For your early adolescent, this is an excitement question: “What if I tried something scary to see what it was like?” You want to prevent the risks your son or daughter wants to take. Where he or she sees the possibility for adventure, you see the potential for harm.
But when, for example, you share your concerns about the dangers of experimenting with substances at this age (a time when trying cigarettes and inhalants often begins), your early adolescent either denies any interest or denies that it can cause the harm you say it can. “I've got friends who do it some, and they say they don't get hurt.”
Remember, you're not out to change your child's mind; you're out to add your own, more mature perspective.
When it comes to a lot of early substance experimentation, you can't actually control your child's choice, but you can definitely inform it, and you should. Weigh in with an adult perspective to counter the untruths that your child's peers are all too willing to share. “Your aunt, my sister, smoked cigarettes and got lung cancer. So when your friends tell you smoking is safe, you need to know they are mistaken.”
All growth requires taking risks, and all risk taking is enabled by denial: “Bad things won't happen to me because I'm too smart and I'll be careful.” What is frustrating for parents is trying to argue this with denial. So don't do it. Denial is part of this experimental age. Accept it. And then feel free to speak up with all of your concerns about various kinds of risk taking so your son or daughter can enter what you have to say into what they decide to think.
Early experimentation is about gathering the experience needed to change. To this end, your adolescent's interest in seeing what he or she can get away with can cause a major set of discipline problems, all involving testing limits, at this time.
Testing limits should be treated seriously and not discounted by parents who just chalk it up to “innocent mischief.” Let “small” violations go and larger ones will follow. If you don't take your stands for acceptable behavior early, it may soon prove too late.
Three common kinds of limit testing at this age are prank calling, vandalizing, and shoplifting. In each case, your early adolescent, usually in the company of friends, victimizes someone. When he and his friends make a threatening late-night prank call to the old man down the block, they think it's fun to hear his frightened response. When they spray paint the outside of the school, they think it's cool to leave their mark on a public place. When they take items from a store, they think they've beaten the system by getting goods cost-free.
In each case, they're testing social limits to see if they are real, to see if they will hold. As parents, your job is to show your son or daughter that when you break a social limit and are caught, you pay a social price. Your job is to close the loop of responsibility on these occasions.
Closing the Loop of Responsibility
For every major violation, a consequence will follow — that's the law of enforcement parents have to mandate at this early experimental age. Confrontation with the victim, responding to the victim, and restitution to the victim must all occur. Of these consequences, the first is the one your son or daughter will dread the most.
He has to face the old man he prank called and listen to him tell what it felt like to receive a threatening call. She has to face the principal and listen as she describes what it is like to have the school defaced. He has to face the store manager and listen to her say what it was like to be stolen from. This is how the loop of responsibility begins to be closed.
Next, the boy or girl has to respond to what he or she has heard in a way that recognizes the hurt that he or she has inflicted. And finally, some form of restitution to the injured party must be made. By connecting bad choice with unwelcome consequence, parents encourage the early adolescent to rethink testing limits and learn a lesson of responsibility from his or her misdeed.
Now you know what to expect as adolescence begins. Next up: mid-adolescence, which brings a whole host of new disciplinary issues to confront.