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My 12-Year-Old is Engaging in Risky Behavior. What Now?

Dear Your Teen,

I don’t know what to do about what I found on my 12-year-old daughter’s iPod. She’s uploaded an app on her iPod without my knowledge and has been discussing drinking and getting drunk and having sex. Yesterday evening I left her home alone for the first time for about two hours. When I got home there was a bottle of alcohol on the stove counter. I don’t drink and the alcohol is kept in a cabinet above the stove. The liquor bottles are dusty! So when I asked she said she was looking for a glass. Lies. We have cups and glasses throughout the kitchen.

Then I read her texts and saw her app. She doesn’t even own a phone. All this was on her iPod. When I asked her about the sex, she swore she hadn’t done anything, that it was all talk.

I’m at a loss and heartbroken. I don’t believe a word she says to me. I need help on how to deal with this.

EXPERT | Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Here are three things you can do:

1.    Try to let go of your sense of personal betrayal.

Your daughter is breaking some rules and experimenting with issues that are terrifying. But remember that risky behavior is entirely normal in her peer group.

2.   Address the issues.

There are a few different risky behaviors  that are concerning. Pulling them apart and addressing them each separately will give both you and your daughter clarity.

  • BREAKING HER DEVICE “CONTRACT”

Even if you don’t have a list of rules written (though it’s a great idea to do that), presumably you’ve made it verbally clear that your daughter needs your permission to download apps. Furthermore, she’s talking on those apps about content that you deem inappropriate. If you haven’t spelled out what you expect from her online, this is the time. If she knew clearly what the rules are, then impose whatever consequence makes sense to you – most likely you’re going to keep that device for a time and then start again with more restrictions than she had in terms of monitoring and check ins.

  • ALCOHOL EXPERIMENTATION

First, keep in mind that it’s entirely possible she did not drink at all. More likely she took out the bottle in order to upload a picture of it to impress her friends. Or was “dared” into it when someone online realized she was home alone. Either way, she’s experimenting with something that is dangerous and beyond her years. Ask her what happened, and more importantly, why.

Encourage her to talk about what the benefits were – socially – to taking such a risk of getting in trouble. Ask her what the downsides are to a 12 year old who other people believe is drinking. Ask her the risks of drinking for tweens and teens. Do some research with her on responsibility.org – a great resource that also will give you more confidence in this conversation.

  • TALKING ABOUT SEX

This is entirely normal. Please encourage your daughter’s healthy curiosity without shame. Of course you want her to talk to you primarily, and it’s clear that you want her conversation to be “age appropriate.” This topic is age appropriate, so it’s up to you to make your values about this really clear to her without shutting her down. If she believes she can’t discuss this with you, that will push her to ask questions and discuss ideas only with her peers. That’s not good for anyone.

If you want to welcome the conversation but forbid her to talk to her friends about this… well, it’s possible she’ll comply but unlikely. You might consider asking her opinion about the advantages and disadvantages of these conversations in her group, and what guidelines she thinks would help keep her safe.

  • LYING

When it comes to lying, it’s great that she’s so bad at it, but this is really the most hurtful thing that happened. While it’s also developmentally normal, it’s not acceptable. She poked a hole in the bucket that held your trust and some drained out. She needs a consequence for lying. One suggestion is to limit her activities for a while because you can’t be sure she’s doing what she says she’ll do. Another is that she probably has to come with you on errands and other trips out of the house because she abused the privilege of being home alone.

3.    Show all the empathy and love you can.

You and your daughter need the chance to reconcile from this. Reconciliation is a crucial part of the bad behavior/consequences pattern. Allow her to feel your love along with your hurt and displeasure. Talk about what she can do to rebuild your trust. Ask how you can be more approachable regarding scary or adult topics. And use some of her “extra” time at home (while she’s experiencing the consequences of her poor behavior) to do things you both enjoy doing together. It doesn’t all have to be awful—remind her what she likes about being a part of your family. This deepens your connection. That connection will help protect her through the teen years.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Deborah Gilboa, M.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. G”), is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior Your Want  . . . Without Being the Parent You Hate. Follow her on Twitter @AskDocG or learn more at AskDoctorG.com.