Q.I’m in shock! I thought I taught my child right and wrong. I give a good example of morality and integrity. I told her about this! Yet, my 12-year-old was one of several middle school children caught sharing nude pictures on cellphones. I went over the rules for cellphones over and over before I gave her a phone. I monitored her texts, or so I thought. I didn’t know about the apps she was using. I never heard of Snapchat. Evidently one of the kids did a screenshot of my daughter and other teens and their pictures, both boys and girls, and posted them somewhere. I was called into school, along with other parents. Some parents denied their kids were involved, even though the school had evidence. I’m not that naïve or stupid. I know she was part of this. What’s making me crazy is how could this have happened to my kid? She’s always been such a good kid. We moved this year, and I know sixth grade can be tough, but I thought she was smarter than this. I took her phone and grounded her, but I’m worried. How can I ever trust her again?
Mary Jo’s response: Parenting is an amazing job, with highs and lows like few other roles in life. One of the tenets I strive to share with my students deals with mistakes. Failure is part of life; the key is how we get back up and learn.
I’m certain you did teach your daughter how to handle the temptations of cellphone use. I’m glad you didn’t deny her involvement or make excuses for her behavior. Her intelligence, sadly, was probably not a factor in her poor decision. New schools bring new pressures.
I hear your dismay in your words. You are disappointed in your child and in yourself. You blame yourself and her. In truth, her life is complicated. I hope to ease your angst by sharing why.
Emerging research tells us peer pressure is a key component in teen participation in activities like sexting. In a recent study, researchers looked at four aspects of peer group dynamics in young people ages 11 to 20 who used cellphone autonomy to engage in risky behavior: same-sex popularity, other-sex popularity, perceived peer pressure and the need for popularity in the peer group. Your child is human and growing and eager to fit in. Teens are susceptible to peer influence, typically starting at age 11, peaking at around age 14, and continuing as a young person reaches for adulthood. Peers matter to teens; they are a huge factor in decision-making. As a teen in a situation like your daughter’s once told me, “I knew better. I thought I’d never send a nude. Then all my friend group did, and it seemed right.” We don’t raise our children in a vacuum. Studies show teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior when with same-aged friends.
Another factor in teen risk behavior is adolescent brain development. One of the real challenges in prevention education involves the developing teen brain. Some adolescents are more distressed than adults when excluded by peers, since the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) is used more heavily by adults when being socially excluded than by teens. Teen brains are still developing. Another region of the brain, the lateral prefrontal cortex, is responsible for self-regulation, and is slowly developing during adolescence.
Adolescence is a perfect storm of challenges. Along with brains that are still under construction, teens experience enormous hormonal changes. These hormones affect social behavior and add to teen stress. Factors like sleep deprivation and alcohol use can further lower impulse control.
Yet, teens need peer interaction to develop socially. Parents can design an environment where safe activities focusing on a young teen’s desire for sensation-seeking and peer connection can be supervised. A foundation of our Common Ground Teen Center is creating a safe, respectful place where social relationships can grow and teens can interact within peer-imposed rules for behavior. In other words, listen to your teen and include her in family decision-making. Help her get a good night’s sleep. Be aware of her friends.
Your child is still a “good kid.” Your teaching isn’t lost and wasn’t in vain. She needs your support and unconditional love. You’re at a pivotal point in your relationship. Whatever consequence you impose for her behavior must not only be fair, it must be conveyed with love and respect. Communicate your concern but avoid judgment. Articulate the obvious: she is still your great kid, you’ll stand by her, you know she can rebound from this mistake. Tell her she needs to earn your trust, and assure her you are confident she can. Give her tasks to empower her to make better decisions. You can and must trust her again. Just as her task is to get back up and learn from this mistake, your task is to show empathy for the reasons for her behavior and stand with her.
Often early teen behavior and parent reaction to it drives a wedge between adult and child. Instead, use this experience to grow together. Try not to reflect your self-disappointment on her. Give her a chance to get back up and learn. I hope this is the biggest challenge you both face during her teen years.
Contact Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.