“You’re wrong. That’s not why we didn’t use a condom.”

Scary words for any parent to hear from their daughter, right? Well, I learned of a story recently that started in just this way.

Two parents, let’s call them Michelle and Eric, learned that their daughter was having sex with her boyfriend. After their initial freak out, they started a conversation with her about protecting herself from disease and pregnancy. During the conversation, their daughter revealed that she and her boyfriend weren’t using condoms.

Shock. Then rants about irresponsibility. These are natural reactions to this revelation, right? And that’s just what Michelle and Eric did. Finally, their daughter interrupted them:

“You’re wrong,” she said. “I was thinking. My boyfriend told me that if I insisted we use a condom, it meant I didn’t trust him or love him. I wanted to prove to him that I did trust and love him, so we didn’t use the condom.”

Frightening stuff. If you’re a parent, you’re probably holding your breath right now just thinking about this. However, I need you let that breath out so we can unpack this a bit.

The most important thing to focus on is how Michelle and Eric came to the conclusion that their daughter was being led by her hormones rather than her intellect. Where did their assumptions come from?

There are lots of stereotypes about teens , many of which are backed up by scientific data about brain development and decision-making in the adolescent brain. So when Michelle and Eric heard that their daughter wasn’t using condoms, they immediately “went there” and accused her of letting her hormones lead the way.

Besides that, remember that they were reacting to a situation while in shock. When our default is to react instinctively rather than respond thoughtfully, we go with what is top of mind. With teenagers, that’s usually a combination of stereotypes and generalizations and some distorted memory of our own past.

Thing is, instinctive reactions and scientific data aren’t the only reasons Michelle and Eric reacted this way. This also came from something that lives inside all of our brains, and that’s “negativity bias.” Because of this bias, our brains are constantly looking for potential threats, (over)reacting to them, and then storing those reactions in ways that make them the default settings in our minds.

As you can imagine, negativity bias was important for our ancestors, as they had to be vigilant about predators and other threats to their survival. But times are different now. While we still encounter plenty of challenges daily, most of them require a more nuanced thought process. And having our brains default to fear and basic survival instincts is very bad for our relationships with other people.

Nowadays, we need to see shades of gray, not just black and white. We need to learn from our positive experiences and store those in our brains, not just the negative ones. However, in order to do this, we need to train our brains to think differently. And we need to stop ourselves when our brains immediately assume the worst – almost without a conscious thought on our part. Everything in our lives depends upon our ability to make this change – especially our relationships with our kids.

Now let’s get back to Michelle and Eric. Their negativity bias threatened to wreck their relationship with their daughter – not just in the moment, but in the future. If she couldn’t trust them to hear her out and trust her, then she wouldn’t be inclined to talk with them about serious subjects moving forward.

Right or wrong, Emma made a conscious decision to go without protection because she wanted to prove her loyalty and love to her boyfriend. Far from being thoughtless, she considered her options carefully and weighed the loss of her relationship against the potential consequences for her health. In the end she chose the relationship.

As an adult, this probably sounds crazy. But remember, teens have a way of feeling invincible to dangers to their health and safety. Rather than have a fight about being irresponsible or not, what she needed in that moment was parents who could level with her. If they could walk in her shoes and understand how high the stakes felt to her, then then could reframe the conversation.

Imagine if the conversation were about teaching their daughter how to put her own health needs above an ultimatum given to her by someone else, even someone she loves. Imagine if they could teach her to understand that true love means making sure both parties feel protected and cared for. Imagine if they could help her come to the conclusion they desired, rather than demanding that she do what they say by shaming her and her ability to make decisions? That would be a win-win for all of them.

Negativity bias is powerful, no question. But so are you. Now that you know it exists, what can you do in your life to make sure it doesn’t take control?

Want to learn more about negativity bias? Read all about it here.

Image Credit: Brage Neslein Korsnes