My observation of children and teens spending more time in unsupervised situation with friends in search of a “family environment” leads to several questions. Why parents are allowing such activities was answered in a previous article, Creating Balance for Family. But it is also important to look at why our children and teens prefer friends and unsupervised activities to “family time.” This is possibly the most obvious and easiest question to answer when addressing this current trend.
When our children and teens spend most of their time with friends in unsupervised situations, expectations are very different and are much lower than if they were spending time in parentally supervised situations or with family. In their eyes, this allows children and teens to “be themselves” – even when they do not truly know who that may be. “Rules” cease to exist and they can express themselves openly and in different ways than they can with parents. There are no consequences to voicing thoughts, ideas or perspectives that may differ from those of their parents. While they do have to deal with “acceptance issues” and peer pressure, these expectations are much different than those of parents and family. In a group of friends, everyone is searching for acceptance, independence and the exploration of the social environment. This being said, within a group of childhood or teenage friends, there is little discouragement when our children and teens want to explore risky behaviors and do not completely think out the consequences of their actions. Drugs and alcohol, sex, and many other risky behaviors go unquestioned. If this environment is the only type of “family” that our children and teens experience, then their growth into healthy, well-adjusted adults is severely impeded. Sometimes permanently.
Some very specific examples of how this “new” form of “family” fails our children and teens provide an essential reality check. In one recent situation where a young girl and her friends were allowed to “walk the neighborhood” without providing any type of destination, information as to who they would be with, or a time when they would return home, the individuals with whom they were spending time were supplying them with drugs in exchange for sex. In addition to the fact that the young lady was in a drug treatment center at the age of 14, she was also being treated for a sexually transmitted disease that she had allowed to progress for such a length of time that she is now sterile. In another case, young boys, over-hearing conversations of older boys who were discussing the “pleasures” of auto-asphyxiation, decided to try out this form of “getting high” themselves. One continued his experimentation in private and accidentally hung himself in his closet. He was found by his younger brother.
We would like to think that these types of situations are exceptions to the rule; however, they are becoming more and more commonplace. Without parental guidance, our children and teens are not receiving the proper information, education, and direction they need. They are depending upon those their own age – or only slightly older – and most of the time these individuals have also lacked the guidance of parents.
The primary “fix” for such situations is for parents to encourage time spent with family and for families to maintain open lines of communications. Parents also must open the communication lines between other parents. It is absolutely necessary to talk with the parents of your child’s friends when he or she will be spending time with these friends. Find out the location, the time, the attendees, and the supervision that will be available at all events. Learn about the families of your child’s friends. Do they work? Where? Are there grown siblings in the house? Do they stress the value of family? Do they insist on knowing the particulars when their own children are visiting others? If you feel like the answers to these questions border on “being nosey” or are “none of your business”, you are quite wrong. If the parents of your child’s friends feels like you are being nosey or the answers are none of your business, then you may want to re-think your child’s association with these children. You are not asking anything that infringes upon personal information. You are simply assessing the environment in which your own child will be spending time.
Recently, when I was temporarily housing the teenage daughter of family friends, I found myself in the position where I needed to talk to parents of her friends to assess visiting situations. What I was told by most of the parents with whom I talked was that they were glad that I had called, they wished more parents would call, and that it was good to hear that there were parents still out there who cared where their children were and who they were with. With the exception of one family, information sharing was accommodated easily and truthfully.
When we do not supply parental guidance, encouragement, discipline, and information within the family setting, our children and teens will seek out this information and support in other areas. Unfortunately, they will not ask us if their alternate suppliers of information and support are in compliance with our values. They will simply see that they are receiving the attention and information they crave, whether or not it is steering them in the wrong direction. We, as parents, must take the initiative to reclaim our roles in the lives of our children and teens. We must reclaim our roles as parents.