Question Dear Dr. JPL, My daughter is a graduating senior…
Think back to your own teen days. Do you remember feeling on top of the world, invincible, as if you could take on anything? Such thoughts, along with the belief that bad things only happen to other people, are actually developmental. Known as the ‘illusion of invulnerability,’ this type of thinking helps explain why teenagers have a propensity toward engaging in high-risk behaviors.
As a parent, it can be difficult to understand how your son can comprehend calculus, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the true perils involved in underage drinking. The alternative thought, of course, is that he does understand, but, despite this, still engages in this behavior. This reality may seem even more perplexing. It is, however, the illusion of invulnerability that helps explain why teens are so often willing to throw caution to the wind, especially when it comes to drinking.
Your teen may tell you (and himself) “I understand that drinking can be dangerous, but I know how to handle myself. I know what and how much I can drink.” A teen will often respond to re-direction in such conversations with indignation, insulted that you think he can’t take care of himself.
How you respond to your teen can be the difference between delivering a message to open or closed ears.
The most obvious rule is to avoid lectures. Interactive discussions empower teens. When you talk and listen, you send the message that, while you may not agree, at least you are willing to hear what your teen has to say. Clearly explain your concerns, as well as the consequences you will enforce for engaging in underage drinking. Make sure your teen is well aware that you are monitoring his behavior. It is important to be consistent with consequences; don’t set limits you will not enforce. These situations send the message that you don’t really mean what you say. When it comes to underage drinking, it can also be perceived by your teen as an affirmation that this behavior is really not so concerning. This is why it is important to let him know that you are aware of what he is up to, watching over his behavior, and willing to take necessary action.
Always keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to talk about the perils of underage drinking. Make sure you are in the loop about any peer-related alcohol incidents. Get the conversation going by asking your teen what he knows and what he thinks. Keep in mind that he may re-state his belief that he would not end up in a similar situation.
The illusion of invulnerability may be strong, however, consistent communication and discussion about the consequences of underage drinking will help him reach his own conclusions about the serious risks involved. Few feelings rival the exhilaration of believing you are ready and able to conquer the world. The illusion of invulnerability encourages your teen to take on new adventures.
A parent’s role is to clarify boundaries and set needed limits so that a teen can take on the world safely. It is a satisfying experience to watch your teen move forward in life. Although he must walk much of the journey alone, when a parent walks alongside setting limits, offering good judgment and support, he is sure to succeed.