If parents of teenagers need a real-life cautionary tale to sum up all their warnings and fears, surely the crash of a stolen car in Warren, Ohio that killed six teenagers is it.
"You heard about that story?" Daniel Flannery, an Ohio father of three teens, asked his kids as news of the tragedy filtered out. "This could happen to you. It's horrible. These kids are not coming home. I don't want you to be that person."
Mario Almonte of Queens, N.Y., said he and his wife talked to their teenage son — who's on the verge of getting his driver's license — about it, too. "We pointed to this tragedy and mentioned that he shouldn't think something like this can never happen to him," said Almonte. "Sometimes it just takes one bad decision to end in tragedy."
Unfortunately, car crashes with multiple teen deaths are not uncommon. Five teens died in a Texas crash Tuesday; three died in Indiana last week, and four died in a California crash last month. But one aspect of the Ohio story may be especially compelling to parents involved in the usual battles with teens about where they're going, who they're with, and when they're coming home: Some of the kids misled their parents as to their whereabouts.
The father of one of the dead said the teenagers were coming home from a sleepover at a friend's house, but the mother of another boy killed said that her son and his best friend had lied about staying over at each other's homes that evening. She said she thinks they went to a party. "If only he had listened," said Lisa Williamson, mother of 14-year-old Brandon Murray.
"It's an age-old thing for teens to tell their folks they're going to do one thing and they're doing another," said Daniel Flannery, a psychologist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He even admits that his own children, "while very good kids and excellent students, sometimes do things they know we won't approve of and they mislead us." And he notes that like most parents of teens, he's gotten his share of calls from other parents asking, "Is my son at your house?"
But while teenagers lying to parents is nothing new, the deadly outcome in this case is drawing attention.
"Any time a tragedy like this occurs, while you don't want to go overboard on the sensationalism, it is a teachable moment. It has to be," said Flannery, who also runs Case Western's Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education.
Emily Cappo, a mom in suburban Westchester, N.Y., who writes a blog about raising three sons at OhBoyMom.com, says she's just starting to deal with teen issues among her older boys' peers. "All these high school parties are going on now," she said. "And parents really don't know what's going on. You don't want to think that your own child is involved in it."
Older parents may think it was worse before the era of cellphones, because if your kid was out of touch, you had no way to reach them. But Cappo thinks cellphones may "give a false sense of security that you can contact your kid at any time. That probably contributes to things like this happening."
And some teens are expert at cellphone subterfuge. They turn phones off, ignore them or let them run out of juice. When they do call home, a cell provides less information about location than landlines at physical addresses. Sure, you can put a GPS locator on a cell, but kids can disable those, or leave their phones in an approved location and head off.
While it's not easy to stay on top of what teens are up to, the one thing parents shouldn't do is back off, says Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, a professor at New York University's Silver School of Social Work. He says research shows that "at the very point when adolescents are most likely to get involved in risk-taking behaviours, many parents monitor less than they had previously. It's at this point where young people are trying to develop a level of healthy independence that they most need parental guidance."
He said monitoring is different from the controls associated with overly protective "helicopter parenting"; this is more about "parents weighing in on important decisions." Knowing the activities and whereabouts of teens is key, along with making expectations clear and following through with discipline when rules aren't honoured, he said.
Guilamos-Ramos co-authored a book called "Parental Monitoring of Adolescents" that has been adapted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as an online resource for parents, and he says the research shows that most parents overestimate how much they're supervising. "It's pretty classic for parents to say, 'I did check on my teen, I feel like I was clear about the rules' and for teens to say, 'We never talked about that,'" he said.
And while teens may complain about parents checking on them, "parents don't realize that teens actually want that structure — they actually feel comforted by it," he said.
Cappo likes the policy some parents have of telling kids they can always call home for a ride, no matter what, so they're not tempted to lie: "If you're at a party, I never want you to get in a car with someone who's been drinking; if you've been drinking, call me, I won't ask questions, I just want you safe." But not all parents "want to go that far because they don't want to give their kids permission to drink. The kid feels like they can't make that call because 'my parents will kill me.' It's hard because we don't want to sit there and give them the green light," Cappo said.
Whatever rules parents come up with, Guilamos-Ramos said, they need to emphasize "there is only one goal: We want to make sure you are safe."
U.S. Centers for Disease Control advice on parental monitoring: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/adolescenthealth/pdf/parental_monitoring_factsheet.pdf