How to Wrap Advice as a Gift a Teenager Might Open

Our teenagers care what we think about them. Which accounts for how injured they tell me they feel when, out of the blue, their parents approach them with a lecture on the dangers of pain pills, perhaps after watching a frightening documentary about the opioid epidemic.

While the adults may feel they are checking a critical parenting box, the adolescent might be wondering, “What have I done to make you think I’m headed toward life as an addict?” or “Don’t you know me at all? I’m your kid who’s reluctant to take Advil.”

We can keep these interactions on track by talking about teenagers in general, instead of putting our own child on the spot. Dr. Olutoyin Fayemi, a pediatrician near Boston, has very direct conversations with adolescents in his practice but notes that, “it’s a whole different story” when he gets home to his own daughter and son, who are 14 and 17.

There, he looks for teachable moments that arise “in the paper, with one of my kid’s friends or at school.” When watching a TV news story about an accident involving a car packed with teenagers, for example, Dr. Fayemi chose to make only a general comment that things are much more likely to go wrong when adolescents drive with distractions.

When teenagers seek out our advice, it can be hard to resist voicing an opinion. But an opinion may not be the most helpful response. As Vanessa, the Seattle teenager, explains, “It’s best when I have choices, when my parents don’t say there is only one way to go.” She appreciates when they ask what she thinks or when they say, “Here are some of the things you could try, but it’s up to you how you might solve it.”

As much as we might want to simply tell our teenagers what to do, we equally know that doing so won’t serve them well in the long run. Our aim, of course, should be to help them learn to make good decisions on their own. And when we do have hard-won perspective that we’re longing to share, let’s package it so that our teenagers are most likely to be receptive — both during this gift-giving season and all year round.

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