#TalkEarly: the difference between kids & teens

mom and jacob

15-year-old Jacob and I at Epcot late last year

I love being around my teenage sons. They are truly nice, interesting people. And maybe, because I still have plenty of littler kids in the house, I mourn the loss of their little-boy-ness less than I will when Owen, my 7-year-old, becomes an adolescent.

But make no mistake: they are not the same children they were four or five or six years ago.

anatomy of a teen

When psychologist Anthony Wolf talked at the #TalkEarly summit I attended last month, he shared some things that I’d been noticing on an anecdotal level, but didn’t realize had been actually studied and proven true.

At first, I thought some of them (illustrated in the infographic above) didn’t apply to us.

My teen boys are still ready with hugs and “I love you’s”, and they’re actually quite chatty at the dinner table. As long as they get to choose the topic of discussion. Which is usually themselves.

But after further research I wasn’t so sure my boys are exceptions to the ‘rule’. During Dr. Wolf’s presentation he shared that research has shown that teenage kids have a physical anxiety response when their parents walk in the room (“parent allergy.”)

I simply couldn’t believe it applied to my boys, so I asked Isaac if he thought it was true. “No…of course not…” he said, his eyes roving back and forth as he inched slowly out of the room. Hmm.

However allergic to me they may feel, they definitely aren’t as receptive to talking about Tough Issues as they were when they were nine or ten. I think that’s partly because that youthful conviction – that THEY won’t ever smoke, or drink, or try drugs, or do anything risky or illegal or stupid or that might disappoint Mom and Dad – is a lot shakier than it was when they were younger.

My son Jacob and I have danced around this topic a lot over the last four or five years, mostly because he’s always been exceptionally curious and asks a LOT of questions. With him, I think I’ve done a pretty good job: I am just as honest as I need to be about my teenage experiences with alcohol, while being very clear that regardless -and in many cases because – of my experiences, it’s not OK for him to drink.

Isaac, on the other hand, is a lot more reserved. He never brought it up, so I…never talked. I guess I always figured I had plenty of time.

Hearing Dr. Wolf’s presentation has me reconsidering. It’s not like I think Isaac is doomed or anything – even teenagers are listening, though they may not seem to be, and I still have plenty of influence.

But it inspired me to be more proactive with the younger kids, as uncomfortable as having those discussions can be…and to continue talking to my teens, instead of just assuming the messages have sunk in.

#talkearly about alcohol

And that’s the entire point of #TalkEarly. If we start talking about issues like drinking when kids are younger, they aren’t such a big deal. We can make a big impression on little kids, and we can return to the topics again and again as our kids grow and change.

Their ability to control impulses might change, and their convictions will waver, but they won’t forget what they learned by talking to – and more importantly, watching – us.

My teenage kids don’t like to talk with me about sex and drugs and alcohol. I get it – I can still remember several very awkward conversations with my dad, and having the distinct sensation that almost anything, up to and including opening the car door and rolling out on the highway at 70 MPH – would be better than having to endure them.

So when I bring up drinking, they might get grumpy, or distant, or try to avoid the discussion, or try to argue with me, or do anything they can to deflect and avoid.

And with the younger kids, it might seem pointless. They’re so SURE they aren’t going to drink as teenagers. They don’t need convincing!

But I need to bring it up anyway.

They’re listening, and watching. And I have a lot more influence than I might think.

Do you have a plan for talking to your kids about underage drinking? Are you feeling inspired to #talkearly?


Look for more posts about talking early to kids about drinking over the next few months as part of the #TalkEarly program sponsored by the Century Council. 

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  1. Diane Cabrera