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What Can I Say to My Teen About Self-Control Issues and Spring Break?

By Jim Rein

My 19-year-old, who has self-control issues, is planning to go on a spring break trip with his college buddies. He’s saved up enough money, and I think he’d be really crushed if I tried to keep him from going. So how can I talk to him about how to control himself on this trip?

Jim Rein

Former Dean, Vocational Independence Program, New York Institute of Technology

The key is not to lecture your son. Look for ways to make him an active partner in the conversation. Solicit his ideas and respect them.

To help get the conversation flowing, I suggest the two of you start by talking about basic preparation for his trip. For example, identify what information he needs to carry around with him. That might include things like his health insurance card, the phone number and address of where he’ll be staying and the name of the nearest hospital.

Brainstorm about where he can put his phone and other important items when he goes swimming. Help him think about what he can do if he gets separated from his friends and loses his phone or it runs out of juice.

Talking about these kinds of practical details can be a good warm-up for heavier topics. Bring up the risk areas that you see and ask him if he can think of any others. Ask him what strategies he can think of to avoid engaging in risky behavior.

Peer pressure is really important to discuss. Here are some suggestions on what you might want to say about it:

  • “I know you consider Bob a really good friend. Would you encourage him to do something that could possibly have a negative effect on the rest of his life? If someone tries to make you do something that could put you at serious risk, I would question what type of a friend this person really is.”
  • “Take some time to evaluate the situation. I’m confident that if you do, you’ll come up with an answer that’s in your best interest long term. Count to 10 before you answer. Or look at your phone or even say you have to go to the bathroom. Remember: When in doubt, stay out.”
  • “If someone wants you to take a drink or do drugs, it’s OK to say no. You can say that you want to have a clear head, that you’re willing to be the designated driver or simply that you’re not comfortable breaking the law.”
  • “I guarantee that if you present yourself as your own man, as someone who cares about the welfare of others and is mature enough to be concerned about his future, you will appeal to the type of people you want to attract. Have fun.”

Another important topic to cover is sex. Make sure your son has condoms. Get him to think about where he can keep them during the trip so he’ll always have one if he needs it.

Talk openly about some legal issues your son needs to consider before he has sex with anyone. For example, encourage him to think about a few key questions:

  • “Is the person you’re about to sleep with a willing participant? If your sex partner is drunk, let alone unconscious, you could be setting yourself up for a rape charge.”
  • “Is this person 18 or older? Some people lie about their age. How will you determine if a person you’ve just met is telling you the truth? Keep in mind that you could be charged with statutory rape even if you are given inaccurate information.”
  • “Are you somewhere that people could take pictures or video of you while you’re having sex? If your sex partner is underage, those images can get you into a lot of trouble.”

One topic that parents sometimes overlook is sunburn. Your son might not pay much attention to warnings that the long-term effects can include skin cancer. But it will be harder for him to tune out what you say about the short-term effects of too much sun: “You’ll look like a lobster. The peeling and the blisters won’t make you very attractive.”

Keep in mind that even though your son may not need your permission to go on this trip, it is still appropriate for you to express some clear expectations. These might include communicating with you on a regular basis. Stress that you are not checking up on him. Tell him that as a caring and anxious parent, you will feel better if you get a text from him every day.

Emphasize that you want him to have a great time and be safe. Point out that no one on spring break ever had fun in a jail cell or a hospital room. Your son needs to understand that poor judgment can not only ruin his trip, but also affect the rest of his life.

This is a subject that hits close to home for me. I once worked with a college student who had been rated the No. 2 basketball recruit in his state when he was a senior in high school. He was an excellent student who had been accepted to Princeton University. Then he got in a car with a driver who had been drinking. They got into a wreck, and he was in a coma for several weeks.

By the time I met him as part of a college program for students with disabilities, he shuffled his feet when he walked and had gotten himself up to a ninth-grade reading level.

I don’t say this to scare anyone, but to reinforce just how real the risks are.

About the Author

Portrait of Jim Rein

Jim Rein

Jim Rein, M.A., has lectured around the country on postsecondary options and summer programs for children and young adults with learning and attention issues.

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