Don’t Let Summer Start Without Having These Convos With Your Kids

If you think you can take a deep breath at the end of a long school year, I’ve got some news for you: There’s more work to do. Sorry! Because no matter where your kids spend the summer, hanging out in the neighborhood or camping in the woods, riding the bus downtown or a first job, there are many, many conversations you need to have to prepare them for independence.

Adolescence is when kids start to strike out on their own, seeking out independence and charting their own course (and sometimes being really snarky in the process). That’s all developmentally appropriate. But at the same time, they don’t innately have the tools to move around on their own in the most thoughtful or mature ways. As we probably all know very well from our own teenage years.

Really, as you prepare kids for self-sufficiency, you’re fighting an uphill battle with their stage of brain development. In the middle school years, their limbic system, the risk/reward-meets-pleasure center, is fully mature, but their prefrontal cortex, the CEO/good decision-making part of the brain, won’t be mature for another 15-20 years! Imbalance is an understatement here; pleasure-seeking and risk-taking win the day at this point.

Even more, you know who lights up a kid’s limbic system? Their peers. You know who doesn’t light up a kid’s limbic system? Their parents. So when kids are with each other their limbic systems are pinging with the stimulation and adult advice is a distant echo.

But don’t panic. There is actually a lot we can do to support our kids’ independence-seeking and give them the skills to make good, safe decisions (most of the time). Hold onto some underlying principles as you enter the summer months allowing your kid to strike out on their own:

Parent the kid you have.

If your kid is more impulsive or has lower baseline executive functioning skills, then when they’re in free-range mode, they will likely need more support to meet your expectations.

I remember a particular weekend when my teenager was late to a family dinner. I was furious and asked him: “Didn’t you get my calendar invite?!” He looked at me utterly confused and said: “What’s a calendar invite?” We have to scaffold for kids by yes, establishing parameters and limits, but also offering some practical tools like check-ins, and reminders to meet adult expectations.

For instance, have a conversation and elicit from your kid what would be a fair curfew and ways they’re likely to stick to it; help them set up a reminder on their phone to alert them when they need to be heading home to make curfew; and brainstorm which friends can help remind them as well.

Don’t throw them in at the deep end.

By the time kids reach adolescence, parents are tired and tempted to hand over the reins to independence in one fell swoop. And while that might work for some kids, lots of kids need to baby-step into self-sufficiency, building on small skill after small skill until they reach a bigger milestone.

I was irate the first time my kid spent the day at the beach with friends and didn’t answer my texts or calls. I was frustrated, angry, and ultimately afraid, but once I cooled down, I realized I did a crappy job helping him prepare for a long day on his own.

So if your kid wants to spend the day at the beach with friends, there are lots of small wins along the way: making sure they research how much the entrance fee costs and bring cash to have it on hand, having them pack a lunch or bring money to buy it, toting sunscreen and water in their bag, ensuring they have enough battery on their phone at the end of the day to call you to get a ride home. I know these sound insignificant, but planning ahead in order to stay safe is majorly significant, and will have reverberations for the rest of their lives, not to mention make your life easier.

Talk about the big stuff.

Things like vaping, drinking, and hooking-up feel like dark, looming issues when kids gain more independence (cue flashback to the things you were up to at that age). I hear from parents all the time who worry that talking about these tricky topics, whether it’s drugs or sex, make kids more likely to try them, but in fact the opposite is true. Being in conversation with kids helps them make better decisions in the face of novel (and potentially unsafe) experiences. And helping them develop language and refusal skills authentic to them is a great place to start:

  • Substances. You can be totally matter of fact on this one. Research shows that adolescents who begin experimenting with substances when they’re younger have a much higher chance of developing an addiction when they’re older. So practice refusal skills with your kid when someone offers them a substance they want to avoid. Try a simple prompt like: What would you say if you’re at the town pool, and someone offers you a vape? What would you do if people were passing around a beer in the park? And then sit quietly and see what they say.
  • Sex. The goal is that one day, if your kid chooses, they will be physically intimate with someone in a respectful, consensual, pleasurable, and loving way. The pathway toward that goal involves many small conversations and building many skills as kids mature. So, for example, when my kids and I went on school-wide camping trips with lots of late-night running around and little adult supervision, I wanted to put some things on their radar: If someone asks you to go into the woods in the dark, what might you say? If the kid you like invites you into their tent alone, how do you gauge if that feels like a comfortable thing to you? You’re helping them find language that works for them and even more, you’re letting them know you’re a trusted resource.

Supporting kids as they gain independence requires patience of a saint and the sense of humor of Mel Brooks, but it is totally worth it in the end. They will screw up, but we’re playing a long game here: building them up to safely function in the world without us. Lots of small conversations (and large frustrations) must be had before kids can move from the shallow end to deeper waters. It doesn’t mean don’t give them the freedom, it means help them to build the skills to succeed with that freedom.

And remember, the most important sentence you will ever say to your kid as they ride off in the sunset this summer is: You can always call me, no matter what.

Vanessa is the co-author of the bestselling This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained, co-host of This Is So Awkward Podcast and President of Content atLess Awkward, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive.

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