Why A Safe Word And NO Questions Are The Keys To Your Teen Asking YOU For Help
This was the series of heart-stopping texts that appeared on my phone one afternoon.
Needless to say, as soon as I saw those from my young teen, I went into ‘Momma Bear’ mode ASAP. (foxey is one of our dogs).
Let me back up a bit … I had dropped my teen off at a friend’s house in a small comfortable neighborhood in the middle of a winter weekend day. I had met the friend before and she seemed nice, pleasant. One of her parents was home, the other working. The plan was for the girls to hang out at the house for the afternoon and maybe go over some homework. Really just being teens. One of the parents was going to drop my daughter off later in the afternoon.
After dropping her off, I went about my day. About 4 hours later, I called my teen to check in. I was out running errands and wondered if she was ready for me to pick her up, or if she wanted to stay longer and get a ride home. Everything was going fine … I could hear her friend giggling in the background. I had no worries.
About 30 min later is when I got the ‘I forgot the safe word thingy’ text. As I said above, I went into mama bear mode – dropped what I was doing, made sure the stove was off, the dogs were in, and got in the car to go get her. On my way I let her know that if she needed to get out asap, she could walk to the nearby park and I would find her. It was still daylight out, albeit cold.
I had no idea what had happened in those 30 minutes to cause her to reach out to me. All I knew is that she needed to get out.
I found her very easily as she was walking towards the park. She got in the car, her eyes big and wide, and quietly said ‘thanks’.
I simply and tightly held her hand as we drove away. No questions.
For real. No questions asked. Ever.
Even if … she had snuck out. Even if … she had gone against my wishes. Even if …. Whatever the circumstances are or will be, if my teen feels unsafe and she needs or wants a way out, our rule is that I will NOT ASK ANY Questions. EVER.
My ONLY priority is to get her home safe and sound.
In time she will tell me the story. When she’s ready. When she feels safe. Then she will share.
In this instance, she did tell me what made her feel unsafe and why she wanted to get out. It ultimately boiled down to her not wanting to do something and her repeated ‘No’ was not being heard or respected.
She knows what it feels like to be heard. To have her opinion respected. To be acknowledged. To be believed and trusted. So when she was in a situation where none of that was happening, she felt unsafe and wanted to get out.
Ultimately that is what we want for our teens, right? For them to be safe. To feel safe. To be heard. To be respected. To be trusted. Especially when they are around other teens and behaviors they don’t want to do. We don’t want them to give in to peer pressure, right? We want them to feel strong enough to say NO. Even to their own friends.
The reality is that we can’t be around our teens forever. We can’t protect them always. We can’t mother them for the rest of their lives. As much as we may want to watch over them forever, we can’t and we shouldn’t. They are supposed to grow up and away from us – that is their job. For younger teens, their job is also to be able to make mistakes while they are still within our safety net.
So … what is our job in this? Our job is to prepare them to be on their own without us. To be there to catch them if, and when, they need support while they are growing away from us. To allow them the freedom to experience their newfound independence. To give them a lifeline when they get in over their heads. Without repercussions.
Let me amend that … Without [immediate] repercussions. Once they share with you what happened and the choices they made, together you can decide if there should be any repercussions.
The key here is to talk. To have open communication. For them to figure out what different choices could have been made along the way for a different outcome. So they didn’t have to use their safe word. Use this opportunity to learn from each other. You might be really surprised by their future decisions. Ultimately, you want them to feel comfortable coming to you for help as they naturally grow up and away from you.
After this experience, I realized my teen and I needed to come up with a better safe word than ‘I forgot our safe word thingy’ – which was a dead giveaway had her friend looked at my teen’s phone, before she had erased that message to me.
Our teens need to be able to communicate with us in code so that their friends won’t know what’s going on. My teen, like so many teens nowadays, communicates in emojis and acronyms. When I shared this experience with some other moms of teens, many use ‘XO’. Considering my teen would normally send me 💖😘 or something along those lines, a simple ‘XO’ would let me know I need to get her asap.
Whatever safe word or secret code you and your teen decide to use, I strongly urge you to clearly include the ‘No questions asked’ part – this is what makes this plan workable and safe for your teen. After all, that is the ultimate goal, right? To get them back home safely.
This is not my idea, by the way. It’s an idea that’s been shared previously. Simply modify this idea for how it will work best for you and your teen.
There were some other thoughts that occurred to me after I got my teen home safely. What if, next time, I can’t get the text right away? What if, next time, I can’t get to her quickly? We then came up with some contingency plans that I’ll share.
- Know your surroundings and the area:
- Is there a police station, a fire station, a library close by?
- Or even a mini-mart of sorts that can be a safe haven?
- Or a big box store?
- A friend’s house close by? (see Note below)
- Is there another family friend or adult that they can call or text that will know the safe word?
- If they’re in a city, do they always have bus or cab fare? Please be aware that Uber and Lifts can’t pick anyone up unless they are 18 or accompanied by an adult – so that’s not an option.
Note: In our neighborhood, I have made it very clear to the young teens that if they ever feel unsafe, they can come to our house. If I am not home, they can come into our protected fenced backyard to hide and wait for their parents, or me, to get them. This is a known fact and my house and yard have been used in times of need.
To recap: come up with a safe word or secret code that your teen will use to text you and Do Not Ask Any Questions when you do pick them up.
Think about it … what if they’re out with some friends and somehow end up at a party where they don’t know most of the people and there is some questionable partying happening? Or where they just don’t feel safe? You want them to reach out to you. Even if they snuck out. Even if they are hanging out with friends that you’ve said ‘no’ to. Even if … whatever the circumstances are.
Start this conversation with your teen today. Come up with a plan. And an alternative plan. Build that trust with your teen now. Let them know that you do trust them. They may roll their eyes at you but deep down they will be relieved. My teen and I talked about this at least 2 years ago when she was a tween and if I recall correctly, she did roll her eyes at me then. But she remembered!
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