The Good of Being up to "No Good"

Many teens today are up to “no good.”  With time on their hands, the wrong crowd, sexting, texting, living in the shadow of anxiety or fear, peer pressure, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or any other combination of amazing distractions, teens today are immersed in a potential mother-ship of mindlessness.  Yet, I believe with these ‘no good’ experiences comes the exquisite potential of American ingenuity, expedience, and resilience.  The defiant teen who struggles so valiantly to define her self, may become the innovative adult discovering a new cure or an exquisite artist touching the hearts of many.

What would our leading CEO’s and Politicians say about their teenage years?   Were they ever up to no good?   Success happens for many reasons, and often in spite of or as a result of, our being, on occasion, up to no good.  Indeed, being up to no good in varying degrees is a normal part of being a teenager.  The challenge is how to guide and steer these potential teenage pitfalls with the semblance of skillfulness.

To find the “good” within the “no good” let us broaden our definition of the “normal” teen from a moral construct to one of existential searching and parental stewardship.   It is no longer enough or even reasonable to expect our teens to live the moral life we project upon them.  Try as we may, sooner or later, teens will experiment.  And, this is normal.  From a developmental point of view, teenage mishaps are in the same garden as seeds of maturity, self awareness, and  accountability.  Is it possible there are seeds of good in the ‘no good’ actions of our teens?   Depends on your point of view.  Whatever good you cultivate from the realities of teen experimentation depends on your point of view.   Whether your adolescent knows it or not, you are the conductor of an ever changing teenage orchestral masterpiece.  And the orchestra has a mind of its own.  Are you up for the task of listening and guiding the sometimes dissonant sounds of your kid?  Interestingly, I have noticed parents who are in recovery themselves, seems to be extremely reactionary to accepting the idea of flexibility and healthy communication around teenage experimentation.  This makes sense, as they have seen the worst of an addiction.

It is  possible for both parents and teens to navigate the perils of adolescence with an outlook for reducing harm.  Known as the theory of harm reduction in counseling circles, the challenge is to carefully look at how you approach and respond to the “difficult” behavior of your teens and what they in turn learn from you.  While there are infinite variations in parenting styles, it is safe to conclude if parents are extremely intense or controlling, the results are often counter productive.  This is not to say there is a time for complete lock down and control of your teen, when needed.  But, hopefully you are not having to run your home like a prison.  There is a balance point which produces optimal effectiveness and by which you can honestly say, “I am mindful of my parenting style.”   Ideally, this leads to an interaction with your child based on mutual respect and impulse control.

Take teens who smoke marijuana, for example.  Can teens be smart about smoking pot, if they choose to smoke pot?   By smart, I mean making choices that reduce harm and increase personal success. The answer is a resounding yes!  In my book:  ONE TOKE:  A Survival Guide for Teens we explore this question in detail.  Studies have shown how teens smoke pot, the choices they make, (i.e., when and where they smoke), influences their risk for failure.[1]  Parents can be smart also in how they respond versus react to their teen’s pot smoking behavior.  Another way of saying ‘being smart’ is practicing ‘harm reduction’—which are actions and choices that reduce the chance of problems like getting poor grades at school or developing low self esteem.

While our teens may appear to be up to no good this is often (not always) the tenets of 2014’s teenage “normal” – a discovery process whereby adolescent’s explore their strengths and weaknesses, defining personal style, and laying the ground work for the ability to learn from mistakes, reframe, and renew. For teens, I imagine it is like learning how to emotionally walk in a hail storm of conflicting urges.  The theory of harm reduction postulates: there will be some normal range of adolescent struggles, errors and conflicts, however, with proper choices, the mistakes will be mitigated.  I am not talking about teens who are in so much  habitual “trouble” they are spiraling out of control.  That is another subject, another blog and requires significant intervention.

Regarding the potential of your teenager smoking pot, your communication style, authenticity, and directness are opportunities for harm reduction.  Utilizing a reasonable, cogent voice and having a two way (if possible) conversation when addressing the topic of teen pot smoking is a  communication style apt to reduce anxiety and fear while acknowledging the essential being of your child.  Teaching and practicing harm reduction exists on multiple levels and acts like emotional dental floss.  There is your verbal message:  sincere words and choice of language will ideally communicate a healthy respect for the shadow, difficult side of life, which in turn normalizes the adolescent’s feelings of potential shame and reinforces positive self esteem.   There is the non verbal message: (about 70% of all you communicate)- body language, tone of voice, whereupon you see, validate, and respect your teenager’s being through deep listening, eye contact, and validation.  Being may be defined as the essential nature of a human.  Acknowledging your teens being is quite different than acknowledging his or her actions. 

Sometimes I wonder if American teens lack a sense of “being” understood for their inherent goodness or “thusness” versus being constantly judged based on externals, like what is accomplished.  Certainly, teens need to “get the job done” when tasked.  However, the typical teen may be asked, “How are you?” countless times during a given day without any interest on the askers part for a sincere answer.  I have heard this phenomena described as “emotional junk food.”

Truth is, many adults are scared for the well being of their teens.  And, rightly so. Teens are prone to take risks more often than we want to admit.  Yet, once you perceive that your teen is up to “no good” it is your challenge to proceed decisively yet flexibly.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but restraining impulsive moral judgments while instead conveying safe and reasonable boundaries, choosing your words, tone, and body language, actually leads to improved mutual understanding and respect. This is practicing harm reduction.

So we see there is a certain “good” to teenage experimenting and testing of limits if and when parents meet the equation with soluble amounts of healthy communication, resolve, boundaries, and empathy.   One thing is for sure:  If  your teen wants to smoke pot, they will no matter what you say or do.

The issue may boil down to this:  How do you act if you catch your teen out at a party drinking or smoking pot; or if you catch your teen shop lifting or lying?  What is your style of communication by which you respond, react, or freak out at your teen’s shenanigans?  A theory of harm reduction proposes smart choices coupled with clear boundaries and guidelines reduces the potential for harm to self or others.  Harm reduction involves strategy and awareness.  Sometimes it is passive, sometimes active.  You as a parent are choosing when to step forward, when to back-off, and when to teach by example.   Certainly, if your words do not match your behavior, you may have a bigger problem than you realize.    

It is not easy to practice or teach harm reduction.  Harm reduction begins with understanding you play an instrumental role in the success of your teen because what you say and do, and what you believe is communicated unequivocally in a linear (verbal) and non – linear (non-verbal) fashion.  After doing your best, there comes a time when letting go is the next step.  In that moment of letting go (i.e. your teen is off to a party and you wonder if there may be some drinking or pot) parents are often in need of controlling their own worry and anxiety long enough to remember, “I have done my best.”  And in that moment of letting go, you communicate to your teen, loudly and clearly, with and without words, “I trust you will be okay…Even if you are up to no good, temporarily!”   This is the dance of life: there is always light near to the shadow.

I believe William Blake sums this paradox up succinctly:

Joy and Woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

It is right, it should be so

We were made for joy and woe

And when this we rightly know

Through the world we safely go.

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1  Van Der Pol, Peggy. “Cross-sectional and Prospective Relation of Cannabis Potency, Dosing and Smoking Behavior with Cannabis Dependence: An Ecological Study.” Addiction 109.7 (2014): 1101-109. Web.

Marc Aronoff