Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Power Of Being Understood

When I was 13 my father died. It was 1964. It happened just before the end of 8th grade. It was sudden, and without warning. My dad dropped me off at school that morning and then was heading off to the hospital for a routine hernia operation. He had assured me it was no biggie, and that he’d be home the next day. By the time I arrived home after hanging out with my best friend Patty at the local tennis courts after school, my father had gone into cardiac arrest, was in a coma, and died a week later.
People often ask me why I became a parenting expert, and where the inspiration came for writing my books. It was losing my dad at 13. Honestly I can remember those feelings of loneliness, embarrassment, and loss like it was yesterday. The loneliness was not because I didn’t have friends or family to comfort me. I had many wonderful people in my life. But I was comforted from the outside not from within. Friends distracted me with activities, family with meals and company, but my feelings were locked away. My mom was bereft. She had lost the love of her life, and with only a week to mourn she was forced to take over my dad’s busy medical laboratory, and went from being a stay at home mom like everybody else’s mom to a working mom, like nobody else’s mom. More embarrassment came from being the girl with the “dead dad". Seriously, no one else was dying. No cancers, heart attacks, or car accidents, I was the only kid I knew whose parent had died. I felt different and unique, but definitely not in a good way. I did everything in my power to look and be normal, because the biggest curse for a teenager is to be different. My worry about how people would think about me or act around me forced me to send my emotional self underground.
When I was with my friends or family I was chirpy, bubbly Joani. The person I had always been. But after school, alone in my house, under a blanket, eating a bag of Oreo cookies for comfort, I was the real me; the girl who felt completely alone. This was 1964, and the days of having a therapist on speed dial had yet to come. Since I acted and seemed like I was OK, everybody assumed I was OK. But I was not OK. Oreo cookies as a diet staple made me fat. Report cards were a humiliation, D’s and C’s. And the final insult was that all my friends had boyfriends, I did not. I was grieving, and I was depressed, and no one knew.
Fast forward to adulthood and becoming a therapist. I was on a mission; I would leave no teenager misunderstood! But I realized as time went on, and then when I became a mother, that teaching parents to understand their children might be a better ambition.
Unfortunately for parents, we often find ourselves so focused on our kid’s futures, that we sometimes forget to live in the moment with them. We worry that if they don’t do their homework, get good grades, get involved in activities, clean their room, come home on time, stay away from drugs/alcohol/sex, etc., they might unknowingly shoot themselves in the foot and screw up their chances for getting into the best schools, getting the best jobs, and becoming the best people they can be.Teens, however, have a completely different perspective on the future. They are not looking ahead, one year, three years, five years; in fact, they can barely make to the next minute. And when parents don’t get that, don’t understand that the small, seemingly insignificant events which teens experience on a daily basis constantly distract them, there is a huge disconnect and a common refrain from kids: “you just don’t understand.”
Amazingly in the years after my father died, not one person said to me: “ You must be feeling so sad. You’ve lost your dad, and you kind of lost your mom too. You have so much more responsibility than any of your other friends, taking care of running the household while your mom is working and grieving. Your life really sucks right now, doesn’t it?” Just knowing that someone got me…and got it, would have given me so much relief, and helped me to move forward.
So take a minute and think about your kids. Are you just focusing on the behavior? Is it just that they are lazy, or spend too much time on social networking, or don’t care about school? Could there be some other things going on beneath the surface? What might be the issues that are causing their distraction or change in attitude towards you? Perhaps they worry about feeling accepted by their friends, or worry about their own competence when it comes to school or sports, or whatever interests they have. Are they sensing and picking up on tensions and issues that are going on in the family, and find it hard to focus on school? Give them the gift of understanding. “ You know honey, I get keeping up with all this social networking stuff is actually really hard. I know how important it is to feel accepted by your friends,” rather than just getting mad at them for being on their phone 24/7. Or, “you know honey, I know things have been stressful around here, with (fill in the blank with family stressors) and we are all pretty quick to get angry at each other. I know that must make it hard for you to concentrate sometimes.” Rather than, you are missing a million homework assignments, and your grades are going down the tubes!”
There is nothing more powerful and comforting than being understood. It’s not easy to get out of our own way sometimes and give this simple gift to our kids. Just ask me, I have been a mother for 33 years, and I am still working on it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Summer After Graduation

What should you expect from your graduating senior the summer before they are off to college?NOTHING!!!! No really, I mean nothing! Here you are, feeling all warm and fuzzy after graduation last weekend. Nostalgic for your little girl or boy, all grown up and off on a new post-high school adventure. You pull out all the old photo albums and gaze longingly at the years that have whizzed by, and try to prepare yourself for life's next stage, having a child move away from home. You find yourself welling up with tears, as you do your son's/daughter's laundry, or pick up the dirty dishes they have left on the floor of their room or in the family room, knowing that in just a few months their room will no longer have that whiff of dirty laundry as you walk by. Everything annoying and maddening your graduate did before graduation, now seems sweeter and memorable.

OK, so maybe that only lasts a few days. Because, the expectation that your now high school graduate will suddenly become equally as nostalgic as you is blown to pieces by the seemingly instant sense of entitlement he/she seems to be exhibiting. Where is the thanks for the wonderful party and gift you gave to him/her?  Where are the thank you notes for the generous gifts given by the cast of thousands that came to your graduation party and includes their friend's parents, your friends, family, neighbors, and anyone else who has ever known them. Suddenly, your graduate is nowhere to be found. You are left in the dust, with "bye, won't be home for dinner, maybe sleeping out, don't know when I'll be home!"

You are dumbfounded, thinking that their last summer home will be filled with family dinners, cozy family movie nights, a family vacation,  and shopping trips to Bed Bath and Beyond. If only they would stay home long enough to make some plans. Well, kiss those plans goodbye, because all their nostalgic moments are being saved up for and with their friends. The friends they will be leaving in only a few short months, maybe never to be heard from again, or at least until Thanksgiving. Prepare yourself.  Your graduate will be glued to their friends this summer. They will take top priority over everyone and everything. And if you don't understand the importance of "the last summer before college," your feelings will be hurt over and over again. My advice, don't take it personally. The drama of and the process of saying goodbye to high school friends takes a good two months. Of course they will miss you too, but you never really go away, and truly, many of their friends will. How many of you still have close relationships with high school friends, that is before facebook brought everyone right back to you.

Your teen's absence this summer will feel like a betrayal. Don't let it become a source of anger between you and your teen. Use "I Get It" conversations to help them to understand what you are feeling by understanding what they are feeling. " I get saying goodbye to your friends is hard. I know how much you will miss them, and probably worry that you won't find anyone as wonderful as (fill in the blank with some real names) I get you want to spend as much time as you can with them this summer, and I want you to do just that. But honey, your old ma/pa is gonna miss you too. I hope that we can find some time together as well before you go. Let's figure out how best to do that"

Your teen is also hiding away a lot of anxiety and worry. Worry that they will not be happy, worry that they will be homesick (yes they really do worry about that even if they aren't saying it), worry about keeping up with all the school work without you around to keep them on task, worry they won't know how to deal with money issues, laundry issues, and all the other millions of things they know they can depend on you for. And you know how your graduate will deal with all this worry? By being a big pain in the ass! They will seem like they are irritated with you, bothered by you and will set up all sorts of fights with you. Don't bite! Rather than looking and feeling like a needy little child, they will behave "as if" they don't need you at all, and will set up all kinds of arguments to prove that point. It's easier to leave angry than sad.

Also your graduating teen may now feel that rules no longer apply to them. After all they are 18 and all grown up. In some ways, they are right. In only a few short months they really will be on their own. So rather than having a bunch of rules this summer that they will flaunt. Take it day by day. Let them know that you "get" that they want to be independent this summer, but you still need to know that they are safe. Set up a system (not rules) so that they can keep you posted and in the loop so that you won't need to be checking up on them. The rules they will resent, but a system seems less controlling. They are teaching you to let go. Let them!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Three P's: Learning To Deal with Loss and Disappointment

This past weekend I cried.... a lot. Not for anything bad...all good things. I was faclempt, yiddish for full up with emotion. My nephew graduating from medical school, being chosen as the class speaker, and watching him streaming live from graduation.  My niece had a beautiful baby girl, Daisy,the first new generation in our family, and finally I watched the commencement speech that Sheryl Sandberg gave for the Berkeley commencement. The first two were about new beginnings, and Sheryl's was what she learned from the loss of her husband exactly 1 year and 11 days ago. It was a weekend for me about all life has to offer. Below is Sheryl's speech and I encourage you to set aside the twenty of so minutes to listen to this speech rather than read it. Seeing someone's face and articulation of the words is so much more powerful, than reading them

She talked about what she has learned from this great loss, things that all of us can learn from. She talked about the three P's; personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. As she so beautifully explained these words can apply to not just loss, but to life's disappointments and frustrations as well. As she spoked I thought of parenting and of teens. Big surprise!!!

A little explanation first.

PERSONALIZATION:

So often as a parent out kids suffer whether from losing a friend, not getting a grade they wanted, losing a game, being bullied, breaking up with a boy or girlfriend, and so on. When this happens, parents often wonder, what could I have done??? How could I have helped them, or protected them so they didn't have to feel so bad. We personalize, taking responsibility for something that is not ours to take. Or your kids do the same thing, feeling failure or disappointment in something that happened to them or someone they know, that was truly out of their control. Learning how to let go of the guilt, that is what personalizing is all about.

PERVASIVENESS

This refers to the idea that when we are confronted by those powerful feeling of disappointment, or loss, it can sometimes feel as though those feelings will never ever go away. As adults we have experience dealing with these uncomfortable feelings and though in the moment they can overwhelm, we know somewhere inside that it will get better...eventually. Your teens though do not have that experience, and they have a brain built for emotional tornadoes. And when the tornado hits, it can take anything and anyone in its path and throw them around. Nothing and no one can make it better...in that moment. You, their friends, whatever in their life that might have given them joy or comfort in the past, gets all twisted up together. Their life loses all sense of joy. But we know it will get better, and it does.

PERMANENCE

When we suffer from loss or disappointment, it sometimes feels as though out life has been permanently damaged, beyond repair. What we learn about ourselves during these challenging times, and how we change,  can also be a positive experience.

Listen to Sheryl, and you will be inspired.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqm-XEqpayc

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On Privilege

Remember when you were little kids and you wanted to stay up later, or you wanted to get your ears pierced, or get a bigger, fancier bike, or wear certain kinds of clothes or see certain kinds of movies, your  parents would say: "When your older you will be able to ........"  As children we looked forward to those "markers" that would signify a move towards "being old enough". Rites of passage, and markers that suggest maturity are important to growth. These markers are becoming fewer and fewer. Just 10 years ago, buying your child their own computer was the high school graduation going to college present. It was a gift that signified achievement and moving forward. It was an important psychological marker. When a teen got their license, it used to be that getting the first car was a symbol of this new move into independence. Just happy to be driving something of their own, the clunkier the better, Grandma's old car was perfect. Now I am still surprised as I drive around the college campus where I teach to see kids driving around in cars I still aspire too, the hottest, newest models on the market. See I am a fuddy duddy, maybe I'm just jealous. Will you be my mother??

We have left few things for our kids to aspire too. We used to have clothing markers, privilege markers, music markers, etc. Now sex and music, clothes and technology, alcohol and drugs all start with kids too young too appreciate and understand their significance. We are raising a generation of youth who expect and feel entitled to the newest and the best. There is value in understanding that we don't get everything we want when we want it. Somethings are worth waiting for and when they do come are more appreciated and valued. Remember teens live in the moment. It is the adults in their life that need to help them to look towards the future. That old-fashioned work ethic that our forefathers and foremothers taught our parents that nothing is just given to you, if you want something you have to work hard for it, seems to have gotten lost in translation. It is OK to say no to your kids. It is OK to say these things cost a lot of money, and that is not how we choose to spend it. It is OK to say, what you have is enough!

Below is an essay written by a college senior that was chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 best college essays this year. She articulates quite meaningfully how she sees a sense of entitlement and privilege that her classmates seem to have. Not everyone comes from monetary privilege, as this young woman describes. Some teens come from what I call emotional privilege. Lucky enough to have parents who love them and want to do everything they can to assure their success in the world. Unfortunately, like monetary privilege, emotional privilege gives teens the idea that someone will alway be their ally. Do you find yourself getting your older teens internships or summer jobs with your connections. Do you speak on their behalf to coaches or teachers or principals? Do you "over help" with homework and special projects? When kids don't have to do the work themselves to get what they want, then they never figure out how to do that.... ever. And that is why we have so many young adults suffering from the "failure to launch" syndrome. Make your kids do the hard stuff, put themselves in the position to take responsibility, learn the social skills and the good kind of risk-taking that they will need in the future. If you always do that for them now, they will never learn to do it for themselves in the future!


Erica Meister
High School: Northville High School
College Plans: Stanford University


In 2015, Northville, the place I consider to be my hometown, was named the snobbiest city in Michigan. I prefer to describe Northville as reckless. 
The more enterprising students of Northville High School specialize in the selling of three goods: marijuana, Adderall and test answers, all goods many of my peers don’t think twice about using. We’re from Northville. Most of us know nothing of consequences or responsibility for our actions, because our fathers can cover for us with cash and connections. We’ve been raised in such privilege that we feel enabled to say and do whatever we want, thoughtlessly. 
Several years back, when the rap aesthetic was particularly prominent, most of the males came to school in ill-fitting jeans that sagged below their designer boxers, sporting T-shirts and necklaces that likely cost more than the weekly income for the average person, in imitation of their favorite rapper. They carried themselves like Eminem and spewed out Jay Z verses about being raised in extreme urban poverty and racism, before parroting their parents’ views on the “communist” welfare programs. 
Derogatory terms for gays, the disabled and people of color are shouted in the hallway, right over the heads of people to whom those refer. From experience, I can certify that the administration does little besides halfheartedly admonish reported bullies and send them on their way to continue their reign of terror. 
To my chagrin, I have occasionally fallen into a similar mindset. I once asked a friend, whose family I knew was struggling, what AP tests she planned to take. She replied that her family couldn’t afford any. I had forgotten how bad her circumstances were and had asked my question without thinking. I found myself victim to the disease that infiltrates Northville, the same carelessness I despise. Northville’s gilded bubble caused me to forget that some don’t have the luxury of affording even the reduced price of standardized tests. 
Aside from being potentially harmful, this recklessness creates a sense of emptiness for me. Superficial, materialistic and shallow, we’re all too busy going on to the next thing, focusing on getting an A and not about learning the material, and getting our rib into a conversation without listening to what was actually said. Our sole aim is to keep moving. Where, how and at what cost are irrelevant questions to us, and thus we manage to remove all trace of purpose from our actions. 
My most prominent goal has always been to leave Northville behind, to find a world in which people act consciously, aware that their actions affect others, and choose to delve deeper by asking questions and seeking legitimate answers that may differ from their limited understanding. In the meantime, I aspire to prepare myself by being more thoughtful, informed and, most of all, careful.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fighting With Your Teen Is Not A Bad Thing

More often than not, your teen knows exactly how to push your buttons, and can take you from 0-100 in a nano second. Or maybe you are a bit of a control freak and like to have the last word, in any argument, not just one with your teen. In both cases an argument with your teen gets way out of control. In these situations both parties tend to forget what actually started the fight and have moved onto what a bad parent you are from you teen's point of view or, what an ungrateful, rude disrespectful teen he/she is from your perspective!  There are no winners in this fight, and no resolution.

One of your most important jobs as a parent is to teach your teen crisis resolution skills. The model that you practice in your family, whether duking it out until everybody is either slamming doors or in tears, or avoiding conflict altogether are not productive or healthy ways to resolve conflict. Remember that however your family deals with hot tempers is what your kids will take with them into their relationships outside of your family, with their friends, their lovers, their bosses, their neighbors. So take a good hard look at what you have been modeling and teaching your children about fair fighting.

There are times that everyone loses it even with the best laid plans. You are tired, overworked, stressed to the max and when your teen pushes your buttons, you lose control. I hope this strategy will help you in those situations.

Your first task is to recognize when you have lost it. Are you screaming? Are your veins pulsing out of your neck? This does require some on the spot self-reflection, but trust me, practicing makes it easier. So you are yelling and out of control as is your teen. You recognize this and say as calmly as humanly possible: " We are both out of control, we need to take a break" And that is what you do. Do not tell your teen to leave the room, YOU LEAVE! And don't make the mistake of just moving into another room, your teen will follow you, because they have not gotten the answer they want, and are very motivated to wear you done. Leave the house if you can, walk the dog, get a coffee, sit in your car! If this doesn't seem possible than at least go to your bedroom and close the door. Some teens are relentless and will follow you to your room and barge in trying to get what they are looking for. If your teen is not respecting your boundaries, rather than getting into a fight about "not respecting your boundaries" turn to them and calmly say" " I am going in to take a shower now, and will be getting naked momentarily, hope you don't mind" and now start to disrobe. Your teen will run for the hills, trust me, no teen wants to even think about their parent naked!

In either case, take whatever time you need to calm yourself. Then go to your teen and say: " I really would like to hear what you have to say. " And now it is your job to just listen. Don't start back in again with the same lecture you left off with. That will just get the fight going again. Now that your teen has calmed down as well, you might not actually hear the crazy impulsive demands you heard in round one. Maybe there will be some room for compromise now that everyone is listening, and then again maybe not. Maybe the request is unsafe or unreasonable. In this case, empathize
 with their disappointment, give a shoulder shrug, and walk away!

Below is a wonderful article research on this topic from the New York Times

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/the-best-way-to-fight-with-a-teenager/

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Teens and Anxiety

Watch this video and then we'll talk.
http://www.today.com/video/today/56063660#56063660

The teens featured in this video articulate beautifully what I think are pretty universal stressors of teens life.

  • Parental pressure and expectations
  • Worries about the future
  • Social Networking and the false self

You may have that teen who has breezed their way through school seemingly effortlessly. Good grades, great behavior, but unbeknownst to you there is a storm brewing. Some kids hit high school with a slam. Perhaps school has been pretty easy, but now the honors classes are piling up, and everyone's expectations are high, this is a star! College acceptances will be plentiful. Life is good. Only now, the work is actually hard, and it isn't coming so easy anymore, maybe they aren't really as smart as everyone thinks. And now there are more distractions. Maybe his/her social life has finally kicked in, and he/she realizes that being with friends is way more fun that reading gobs of books. And with this new social life comes stressors. Who do I like, do they like me, etc etc. Life is not so easy anymore.

If this sounds like your teen, give your teen the permission not to be perfect.  Pre-emptively, before a crisis, ask your teen whether he/she feels pressured by you in any way. Let them know that you get how hard it must feel sometimes to please all the people in his/her life who expect great things from them, ie parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches. Ask them if there is anything you could do differently to take some of the pressure off. Remember it is not your teen's job to meet your expectations and goals for for them. 

I especially was touched by the young woman who talked about social networking and the false self she put online. There is soooooooooo much pressure for teens to use twitter and instagram, and tumblr and facebook, snapchat etc to present a particular persona, which may be completely out of sync with what is really going on inside of them. Giving your teen a social networking nightly sabbatical may at first make them furious with you, but later on will provide them with a much needed break from the superficial chatter. It may take a few days, but parents have told me that their teens eventually felt such relief from the 24/7 relentless need to post. 

Just because your teen doesn't appear to be stressed, don't assume that they aren't. They have become pretty good at giving you what they think you want. And maybe their fear of disappointing you gets in the way of letting them see their messy self. Which by the way, we all have! By the way, watch this video with your teen. Great conversation starter!!