If you're a parent and you're on social media, you've probably heard all about the "X-plan" this week.
In a post on his blog, West Virginia-based dad, speaker and lay minister Bert Fulks detailed how he helps his own kids get out of tricky situations at a party or with friends where drugs, alcohol or other dicey behavior is involved.
To help his kids out, Fulks has developed the X-plan. When they are in an uncomfortable situation, they can simply text an "X" to one of their parents, who will call the child and explain that they must get them right away because "something has come up."
A critical piece of the X-plan: Once a parent has extricated their child from a situation, it's up to the teen to tell the parent why they wanted to leave.
"The X-plan comes with the agreement that we will pass no judgments and ask no questions," Fulks writes.
You can read all about it in Fulks' original article.
While the post has essentially "gone viral," Fulks isn't proposing anything new. I've read about in various forms over the years. Here are articles about family code words from KidsintheHouse.com, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and Revved Up Kids.
Here in Raleigh, at the Poe Center for Health Education, code words are recommended as part of the center's Youth Culture program for parents. The next series launches this month.
"We don’t call it the X-plan, but we recommend setting up a code word or emoji that can be sent off with the same goal," said Susan Foster, substance use prevention health educator at the Poe Center.
"We want you safe, we care about your body and brain … our expectation is you make healthy choices. But here are steps to support you. Send an emoji or text. No questions asked," Foster said. "We are encouraging parents have that conversation with a young person. We know, developmentally, it is very hard to stand strong in the face of peer pressure. ... We know when kids have all that support, they are more resilient. They are more protected."
But, for the plan to work, Amy McCready, a Raleigh-based parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, said parents can't just set up a code word and then, if their child ever uses it, lecture their teen on the car ride home.
"It getting out in such a viral way is fabulous," said McCready, whose own Facebook post about the X-plan has been shared more than 660 times since Sunday.
"The one component that some parents will have difficulty with is the no questions asked policy," McCready said. "Sometimes, as parents, we want to have it both ways. We want our kids to come to us and be open to us and tell us everything and then we turn it into a life lesson or, unintentionally, we get preachy or judgmental."
McCready said parents must be focused on short-term goals - to keep their teen safe that particular night - and long-term goals - that their child knows they can go to them to get out of uncomfortable situations and save face with their friends.
If kids think they'll disappoint their parents or get a lecture from them, they are less likely to contact them for help, she said. There is no incentive for them to tell the truth if they think they'll just get punished.
"You make choices that are more dangerous because of that," McCready said.
The better way to teach those lessons, McCready said, is to ask questions and take advantage of teachable moments - from sharing stories from your own life to talking about situations in the news, on TV and in movies, for instance.
"Show them, in little ways, leading up to that situation if it ever happens," she said. "That when they do tell you things in confidence that you don’t get preachy on them. That you ask them maybe how they feel about it, but you don’t give the life lesson."
"That doesn’t mean kids aren't held accountable," she added. "But we handle it in a way where we create that safe environment for the truth."
Still, if you plan on adopting the X-plan, Michelle Icard, an author and Charlotte-based expert on middle schoolers, said parents can't simply adopt the exact plan that Fulks lays out. Icard will bring her popular conference for middle school girls and their moms to Raleigh next month.
"Now that it's so popular, it's over," she said.
The X-plan, Icard said, has lost one of its two main appeals. It might get teens out of a sticky situation, but it won't allow them to save face in front of their friends because everybody knows what that "X" means that they just texted to their mom.
And saving face is especially important for teens.
"You're at an age here where you're separating from your parents and you're trying to figure out who your tribe is," she said. "You need acceptance from these people."
But, she said, she still likes the concept. Parents and teens will just have to come up with their own code word.
"You always have to be one step ahead," she said. "But the intention is really terrific. You just have to get innovative."