It seems that whether the issue is drugs, alcohol, bullying, risky driving, media consumption, or sex, studies are showing that parents consistently underestimate their own kids interest or participation in these behaviors. Two examples: In one recent study, researchers found that parents severely underestimate their teen's drug and alcohol use. And, in a 2010 study, researchers found that many parents don't believe their kids are interested in sex while holding to the notion that everyone else's kids are.
What drives the NMK ("Not My Kid") Syndrome held by so many parents? I think there are several primary factors at play:
1) Some parents have a hard time letting go of seeing their kids as innocent children. They've invested years in protecting their kids, controlling and monitoring activities, and trying to instill values. Parents want to believe that they've done a good job at parenting - and many have! But, when kids hit adolescence and begin the transition to adulthood, it can be tough for parents to begin viewing their kids as ready to meet the challenge. They have a hard time coming to terms with their kids leaving childhood behind and starting to experience new levels of adult thinking, emerging emotions, peer pressures, and the physical and hormonal changes that every adolescent experiences. Most of us have seen commercials where a parent is having a discussion with their teenager in one scene and then suddenly, the parent is talking to a small child (the younger version of the teenager). This teenager-as-child portrayal captures the concept well.
2) Kids mature differently. Because there is no normal when it comes to adolescent development; no fixed template that all kids follow on the pathway to adulthood, parents aren't always aware of when adolescent changes are taking place. One kid may be interested in sexuality and his or her parents know it, while another may be interested but keep his or her interest hidden from the parents. Or one kid may be interested in sexuality very early in adolescence while another shows no interest well into her or his high school years. Kids who have expressed disapproval of alcohol or drug use to parents may choose to experiment at a party when friends are drinking and/or drugging. The development process, unique to each adolescent, can make it easier for parents to believe that their kid isn't "there yet" when it comes to typical adolescent interests and behaviors.
3) Not all kids engage in at-risk behaviors. The simple fact is that not every teen has sex, drinks alcohol, takes drugs, drives like a maniac, texts 100 times a day, or is addicted to the Internet. These facts make it easy for parents to make a simple assumption that their kids are in the "NMK" category, whether they are or not. But, in reality, while not all kids engage in at-risk behaviors, all kids think about them and are susceptible to temptations and peer pressure.
4) Parents are uncomfortable talking about tough issues. Most parent don't relish discussions with their teenagers on tough issues like dealing with peer pressure, sexuality, or drugs and alcohol. The hesitance to talk about these topics make it easier for parents to rationalize that their kids aren't ready or interested in these issues.
Rather than being a "NMK" parent, the wise course of action is to prepare kids for the inevitable process of adolescence and the pressures, challenges and temptations that accompany it. Talking to kids about these issues in an atmosphere of acceptance and openness will help kids face challenges when they arise. Certainly, even with parent-teen discussions, not all kids will emerge into adulthood having avoided all teenage at-risk behaviors. There will be wounds along the way. And hopefully, there will be some good lessons learned from their mistakes with few long-term consequences. But, parents who live this season of life with a "Not My Kid" attitude actually put their kids at greater risk of being hurt along the way. It's far better for parents to live with a preventative "Why Not My Kid?" point of view.