"Do not videotape yourself naked and post it on the Internet" is not a message most parents believe they need to deliver to their teenagers. But a chat with any high school student, or an Internet search, will prove that teenage video voyeurism happens in all kinds of communities across America.
It's every parent's worst-case-scenario nighmare: a teenager makes the wrong decision and lives are forever changed -- for the worse. The choices about sex that face teens today -- from group hookups to Web-based relationships -- are increasingly ones their parents can't imagine.
Parents can't be with their teenagers every waking moment and can't possibly anticipate every situation they will encounter. But there are ways to help protect them from making that One Big Mistake that can destroy their lives. Here are three suggestions -- I call them Real-Truth Conversation Starters that will help teenagers start to think in a different way so they act smart and stay safe.
"I saw something on television that I want to talk to you about ..." Teenagers feel confident that nothing bad will ever happen to them, and simply telling them "bad things happen" won't have any impact. What will get their attention is using concrete, real-life examples that show that you are concerned for a real reason and not just "freaking out about nothing."
"What's the worst thing that can happen?" Teens have a hard time anticipating consequences. They believe that's your job as parents. Yet as they increasingly find themselves in adult situations, teens need help figuring out how to plan for the future. Ask them what's the worst thing that could happen in various situations, as in: "If you have too much to drink at a party and no one can drive you home" or "You leave a party early and one of your girlfriends gets left behind." These scenarios will provoke teenagers to think about the consequences of their decisions.
"I trust you." Teenagers are starting to hone their gut instincts, and those instincts, especially when they are screaming "Don't do this" are often correct. The trouble comes when teens face decisions that require them to tune in to their gut feelings and ignore all the noise around them -- yet might be influenced by people who may not share your values or your concern for your child. Tell them, "If you're ever not sure about what the group is doing, try to think of what you'd do if you were alone. Then do that."
In helping teenagers to stay out of trouble, the goal is to get them to make decisions as if they're with you, even when they're not. You're vastly reducing the chances that "the worst possible thing" will happen to your family and vastly increasing the odds that your teenager will make smart choices about sex.
Sabrina Weill is the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine and the author of "The Real Truth about Teens and Sex" (Penguin, 2005). She is currently traveling around the country speaking to groups of parents about how to have better communication with their teens on this topic. You can find out more at www.SabrinaWeill.com.