Sex, Alcohol and Your Teen

How do you suggest I deal with my 16-year-old son's experimentation with alcohol and sex? He is our oldest child, a good student and cooperative in general. I don't think he drinks frequently, or to excess. We keep pretty close tabs on him. We also suspect that he and his girlfriend may be sexually active. We don't want to quiz him about these behaviors; just let our values be known, and to tell him that we would rather he hold off until older. We have also talked about moderation, respect and all those other things that go with drinking and sex. We have a good relationship with him and I don't want to drive him away. Should we try to find out more or lay low?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

It is natural to have anxiety about your son's burgeoning independence. Your son is less than two years away from the definition of adulthood. This period of adolescence is fleeting and it is his job to separate from the family, but this does not mean that he doesn't need your guidance. It sounds like your son has benefited from your good parenting and because of this he will begin to explore life on his own. Still it is helpful if he can feel that you are available to him when he has cause to review his choices, including mistakes. Perhaps he senses your fears and maintains privacy in order to separate your anxieties from his own. Sex, in particular may be a sensitive topic that he would shy away from if he sensed your trepidation.

Your tendency to "lay low" gives your son space to develop his own life. However, your wish for him to wait to explore until he is older, may be partly motivated by your own anxiety about your ability to talk about these issues with him if he does explore. The first step in being able to help our children with the anxieties they face in life is to be able to face our own.

Your husband is right to believe in the values you have taught him, and you are right to want to open up discussions about sex and drugs. Talking with him about your concerns for safe sex and experimentation with alcohol are fine, but do not take the place of discussions about relationships and the various responsibilities entailed. Telling him that you hope he will wait to engage in such activities is honest on your part, but naive. And more importantly does not invite him to share with you, or come to you for help if he needs it.

Demonstrate your availability to talk through any questions he may have but don't be pushy. Let him know that if he does experiment with alcohol that you are available to him if he was in a situation that spelled any danger, including driving or being driven by someone who was drinking. Many parents make "contracts for life" with their teenagers that parents and teenagers sign, indicating the fact that the parents are available to be called at any time in the case of danger, with no questions asked until the following day. This gives the teenager the message that their life is of utmost importance, and their parents are there for them (unquestioning allies) if they make a mistake along the way, either through their own or someone else's actions. And let's face it. Mistakes can happen during exploration. Contracting like this does not change any of the values you have taught to your child. Nor does it change the fact that you would prefer he wait to explore these areas. It does however show him that your head is not in the sand, and that your relationship with him is durable and reflects his reality.

Teenagers are not adults nor are they children. As parents, we are also beginners at this period of our children's development. Forging a relationship with your teenager is new territory. Parents often feel at a loss in how to change their relationship to include talk about personal topics which cause us discomfort. Especially since he is your firstborn, you may not yet have developed a comfort zone for personal and intimate questions about sexuality. Parents and adolescents must find ways to create a safe space for such adult dialogue. Take it slow, respect boundaries, but make some time to spend with him one on one. Fathers can develop a new kind of closeness in their relationships with their sons at this time by being accessible to talk about girls, dating and sex.

It may be your husband's job to take the lead now. Your son may need to separate from you in defining his male identity. Father-son activities could provide an avenue for your son to share what is happening in his life, particularly relating to sexuality and relationships. Taking walks, playing basketball or other activities may provide a framework for interaction between father and son. Bringing up sensitive topics in a more adult to adult conversation may prove awkward at first, but your son will appreciate it if you make the effort to express your desire to be helpful rather than judgmental. Let him know you respect and admire him and that you want to open up dialogue, not preach to him. Perhaps your husband's stories about his adolescence can provide a turning point in the parent-child relationship for sharing rather than teaching. Find the words to express your belief in him to make decisions in his best interest, while showing him that you remain available for bouncing ideas around. This connection will go a long way towards his coming to you in the future if he is on a precipice of danger or uncertainty.

It is also important to observe that your son is developing a relationship (going steady) with his girlfriend. While this may or may not include sex, it may be a very important relationship based on mutual support and sharing which is the beginning of learning to relate intimately. Focusing only on the sexual part of this relationship may make him feel misunderstood by you and even disrespected. Perhaps developing a safe atmosphere for sharing feelings about the importance of this relationship in his life will allow you to know more of what is going on.

It is normal to feel anxious when our children are encroaching on adulthood. However, it is possible to develop a new kind of relationship with your son which will gradually include you in his world. Some of his quietness is boundaries and a need for greater separation to develop his independence. However some of his silence about what is going on in his life may be his way of protecting you from anxieties he feels you cannot handle about his development. It is up to you to assure him that you are willing to talk, not just at him but with him in a realistic manner.

Reflect on your own adolescence. What things could you talk about with your parents? What topics were "off limits"? Were you able to have respectful dialogue with your parents as a teenager about philosophy of life, career and relationships? Or did your parents lecture and judge you during your adolescence? These are different times and you will need to make your own decisions about how to address the reality in which our children live.

It takes courage to be the parent of a teenager! But it is good role modeling to handle the challenges that face us in this phase of parenthood. Forging an increasingly adult-to-adult connection with your son over the next two years is the inevitable next step in your evolving family relationships. By doing so, you will not only be available through his period of transition to adulthood, but you will be likely to make a friend!

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