Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Kid Would Never....

A study by the University of Michigan found that most parents look at  their teen through rose colored glasses, as in "my kid would never." Only 10% of the parents polled nationwide believed that their teens had used alcohol in the last year, and only 5% of parents thought that their teen had smoked pot. Here is the fun part, when the teens were polled through a study by the National Institutes of Health, the results showed that 52%of teens admitted to drinking and 28% admitted to smoking pot. Someones....not....paying.... attention. And what is even more telling is that these same parents polled believed that 60% of other teens (but not mine) were drinking alcohol and 40% were smoking pot.

Some examples of not my kid:
 Last week a parent told me this story. He had taken his 15 year old teen to a small, maybe 10 kids "get together" at a friends house on a Saturday night. Not only were the parents home, but this dad knew the parents and felt completely fine about the supervision. Dad shows up to pick up his son at the appointed hour and finds  50-60 teens milling about the yard as they had all been thrown out of the house. Why had they been thrown out? Because the "supervising parents,"who must have been deaf, dumb and blind not to have heard or seen the party numbers growing by leaps and bounds finally heard something that sparked their interest and when they joined the party saw 60 kids, tons of boos and pipes(for pot for those who don't know) scattered outside and in their basement. "What a surprise???? How could all these kids come uninvited to our house??? These are all such good kids, I don't understand, lamented the host parents." How could my son think this was OK?" Ah, hello, this is what most kids do when given the opportunity, the space,and the clueless parent!!!!

Story 2:
This mom shared this story with me during a coaching session. Mom has a 14 year old, straight A, quiet studious daughter who has a few best friends but is definitely not a party girl, preferring to stay in with friends on weekends and watch movies. Parents of this small group of teens always felt very comfortable leaving these girls "home alone". One day after school, on a half-day, this mom's daughter and a friend went back to the other girl's house. The parents both work, but these are the "good"girls so of course they were fine at home. Apparently because these girls are not the party girls they have been very curious about what the whole "drinking" deal is all about. So they planned an afternoon of drinking to find out. Getting the alcohol was easy, because it was right where the vodka always is, in the cabinet. Short story, one girl, kept drinking more and more vodka cause she wasn't feeling anything...until she did.  But by that point she passed out, was rushed to the hospital with a blood alcohol of .18 and had her stomach pumped. Moral of this story, it's the "good girls/boys, and the "party boys/girls" .

Parent's job is to anticipate, expect and do as much as they can to protect!  The only way you can do that is to predict that yes indeed, at some point, your kid too will want to experiment, take risks, do things you would never expect of them. It doesn't make them a bad kid or you a bad parent, just a realistic one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Tale Of Two Brains

Are there some days you feel like you and your teen speak different languages? You say something simple and maybe even nice to your teen (at least you think it's nice) but the response you get is completely incomprehensible. Let me explain how that might happen.

The first disconnect is that adults live in a thinking brain, and teens live in a feeling brain. And I mean that literally. Brain research has shown that when teens and adults are shown the exact same photo of a human face expressing an emotion, their brains respond in very different ways. An adult brain uses the frontal cortex (the thinking brain) to interpret the emotion, and the the teen brain uses the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) to interpret emotion. This is a set-up for constant miscommunication between teens and parents. Teens literally see things in the human face that adults don't see, and hear things in human voices that adults don't hear. It's kind of like dogs that hear the high pitch sounds that no human can hear. Dogs...teens..

I am sure you have had the experience of saying something to your teen in a neutral voice and with a neutral expression. It may be something very inconsequential. But the reaction you get from your teen is crazy! Maybe something like "are you mad at me? They have heard something in your voice or saw something in your face that no one else apparently can see or hear...just like the dog.

A compounding problem is that teens carry every teeny tiny emotional experience that has happened to them over the course of their day in that amygdala of theirs. Perhaps they said something embarrassing in class and their fellow students laughed at them. Park it! Maybe they tripped in the hallway at school and felt like everyone saw it. Park it! Maybe they saw their crush talk to another boy/girl and feel dejected. A thousand things may have happened that day, or in the morning between when they woke up and you pass each other in the kitchen before school. Basically their parking lot of a brain is always full. You know how frustrated you get when there is no place to park. Times that by a hundred, and that is your teen.

So when you get a response to a simple question or comment that seems crazy and completely incomprehensible, assume that their parking lot is full. Probably best to just walk away with a let's talk later. This is one of those times that it just isn't about you.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why Can't My Kid Be More Like Me!


When your kids were young, they wanted to be just like you.  They followed you around the house mirroring your activities, adopting your mannerisms, maybe you even had your "twin outfits." The boys had matching sweatshirts and caps, and the girls matching T's and sparkly shoes. You would make suggestions of how to do things, and activities you thought they might try, and these 8 and 9 year olds would jump at the chance to please you.  No coincidence that they might also be activities that you enjoy, as you imagine ten years hence playing doubles together on the tennis courts, or skiing down the black diamond trail together, or getting season tickets to the ballet or spending crisp fall afternoons eating chicken wings in front of the tube as you catch your favorite football game.

It all seems so idyllic back them. The future of this relationship between parent and child. And then BANG, they have to get all teenagery on you. Rather than wanting to be just like you, like they used to, now they want to be anything but you. I have met with a number of parents recently who just DON'T get who their teen is these days. One parent I met with described his teen years as studious, and hard-working. He wasn't that social, didn't party much, and now has a daughter who is social, not so much into her school work, as she is into twitter and instagram. He just doesn't get her, and feels constantly disappointed by her. Another parent I met, who has many interests and passions just doesn't "get" that her teen seems not to be interested in anything but her friends. Her grades are good, but from the mom's point of view her daughter's life seems empty and shallow. Another parent who is the coach of his son's soccer team, laments his son wanting to quit the team. The kid has lost interest in the game, embarrasses him during practice and matches by putting little effort into his play.

What does it all mean? Why are they so different now? Why does life have to change? Because first of all, they aren't you! As young children, kids are developmentally driven to please. Their parents are their #1's and school-aged children's primary goal is to love and be loved by their parents. We actually call this the "good girl/ good boy phase. If playing soccer or the violin seems to make you happy, then soccer and violin it is..... until it isn't. It may be that your kid has real talent in an area, and you see a future down the line, college scholarships, concerts and competitions, trophy's and newspaper articles. And just when its all looking so promising, BOOM, your teen wants to quit! And by golly by god no one in this family is a quitter. Well maybe, your teen really doesn't like playing the violin or playing soccer, and now that their teen brain allows them a different perspective they express their distaste.

I once worked with a 16 year teen who had been swimming competitively since she was 7. She was really good, winning many meets for her team. The coach was ecstatic, her parents euphoric. Here is how she saw it.  Early early morning practices, after school practices, weekend meets, she was sick of the whole business and after 9 years was ready to pack it in. The coach was furious, her parents were beyond disappointed, this was the team's star swimmer. How could she bail now? It seems it was never really her dream. She was a pleaser, and swimming seemed to make all the important people in her life happy, so she swam her little heart out. But the sad truth of it was she actually didn't like swimming all that much, and now as a teen, and thinking with this new brain of hers, she was sorting that all out for herself and speaking up. It wasn't pretty. It actually was a courageous decision she made, but unfortunately the adults in her life didn't see it that way. She was a disappointment to them, and made that quite clear to her. A divide as wide as the Grand Canyon occured between this teen and her parents. No happy ending here.

Here is a story with a happy ending. Two wonderful, supportive, loving parents came to see me because they were worried that their relationship with their 15 year old son was deteriorating. They were serious, academic types, and always had been. School was always their priority during their teen years. As teenagers, they each had a few close friends, and a quiet social life. They had two children. Their older daughter was just like them. She was a studious, quiet girl in her teen years. Studying hard, and stayed in most weekend nights with a friend or two watching movies. Aah, life was good for these parents and their daughter. Their son on the other hand was gregarious, and outgoing, had a ton of friends, was on the football team of all things, and couldn't have been more different from his parents. These parents were desperate to find connection with their son. One night I got a phone call from the dad asking for my opinion. It seems his son had come to him asking for a BB gun. "Oh yeah, right, I don't think so," said the dad. The dad asked if he done the right thing. I actually saw an opportunity here for connection. BB guns couldn't have been further outside this dad's comfort zone or interest area. But I encouraged him to go online and find out the laws about how old you had to be to purchase a gun. Dad did the research, and found out that you had to be 18. His son wouldn't have been able to buy it anyway. I told the dad to say to the son: "I get that BB guns are fun,  but the law says you are too young to buy one.  How about if I buy one and the deal is we have to do BB gunning together. The son, only hearing a BB gun was in the mail, agreed. And so began a partnership. The boy and his dad set up a garage shooting gallery, and went out to the woods for target practice. Other boys often joined them, and it became an amazing chance for them to connect. Some weeks later the dad called me to report this event. It had been 10 PM one night, the dad just going off to bed, and his son came and asked if he wanted to play a game of chess. The dad was stunned. This was an activity they had shared when his son was younger, but not for years, as chess became "uncool" and his "dad's thing". Though the dad was ready for bed, he instinctively knew his son was reaching out and he took his hand. 

I love this story. I think this teen "got" that his dad was willing to join his world, even if it wasn't comfortable. He felt respected and accepted. And in turn, wanted to give back to his dad with a game of chess. I don't think this kid thought all this consciously, but I am a therapist and it is my job to  interpret, and so I will.  This teen felt a connection to his dad that felt familiar, and probably hadn't felt for a while. In a moment of whatever, asked his dad to play chess. Thanks Freud!

Accept and embrace your teen's differences. They can be just as rewarding and fun as your sameness!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teaching Your Teen About Life

I saw the movie SELMA this weekend. I was moved beyond words. I realized how much I didn't know about those years of violence and discrimination. I must have gotten the broad strokes of the civil rights movement, because as a teacher in training in college I always chose to do my student teaching and community work in urban areas, understanding there was important work to be done.  But I only grasped a hint of what was really happening outside my home town of Newton Ma; a white, middle-upper class community. When I was 14, the civil rights movement was in full swing. I just didn't know about it. My parents read the newspaper and watched the evening news and I am sure they spent many hours talking about it, but as a teen, I was uninterested. My breaking news was who was dating who, what was up for the weekend, and breaking down the minutia of daily teenage life. The civil rights movement made it's way passively into my consciousness

As I moved out of the theater amongst the crowd of mostly middle aged people, I saw a family of five; parents with their teenage children, engrossed in an intense discussion about the movie. I imagined them moving on to dinner continuing this conversation with each other.

Teens are self-centered, temporarily narcissistic, and mostly unaware of the larger culture. I know I was. Most are not reading the New York Times online, or watching the evening news. But what a gift you could give them by taking them to see SELMA.  Teach them to see a larger world, helping them to connect the dots to their own life. Make this a family affair, an event for all of you. Listen to their shock, their fear, their dismay this kind of discrimination happened, and of course is still happening. They won't choose to see this on their own. At 14 I know I wouldn't have. They might go kicking and screaming, but they will thank you on the way out.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Keeping Your Teen At The "Metaphorical Breast"


Recently I have been meeting with parents of babies. Yes I am an equal opportunity parenting expert! I meet with parents of kids of all ages, and truly, toddlers aren't that much different from teenagers!

New moms often ask the breast feeding questions: When should I stop breast feeding? That question got me to thinking about parents who keep their teens at their metaphorical breasts. The question all parents need to ask, whether as a parent of a 4 year old,  or a parent of a 14 year old is this: "Whose needs am I meeting here? Do I keep my teen dependent on me whether by "helping them," (and by this I mean doing) their homework for them, keeping them close to home, make my opinions from what clothes to wear, what friends to keep, or even something so simple as what to eat at a restaurant, so indispensable that they are terrified to make a decision without me. Do I "help them"and by this I mean, get their summer jobs for them, write their college applications, and don't hold them accountable when they screw up, all in the name of support? Do I solve all their problems and make everything all better so they don't have to feel anxiety or depression?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, let's hope your breast milk dries up soon. The task of all adolescents is to become adept at becoming confident in their ability to take care of themselves. If they rely on you to "feed them" and to anticipate for them when they will be "hungry" they will be completely unprepared for the challenges they face as soon as they walk out the door of your home. And you don't have to wait for college for them to have to face this world. That happens every single day of their life. If your teen is texting you a million times a day asking what he/she should do in this situation, or  in that one, whether with their teacher, their coach, or their friends, they are still hanging on that breast.  That must feel pretty good to you. There is nothing more satisfying than being needed by your teen. And thought they might not like to hear you say, "gee honey, I don't know what you should do. What do you think?" Think they must. Remember this generation likes to get information fast. Don't be their google button. Let them go hungry!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Saga Of The Messy Room

Zits Cartoon for Jan/08/2015


I think that the #1 complaint I hear from parents of teens is "My kid is such a slob!" Opening the door to your teen's room is like going down a black hole. Dirty laundry mixed with the clean, new (expensive) clothes stomped on, turned inside out, and looking unappreciated for the sacrifice you made in purchasing them. You thought it was too expensive, too short, too sexy, too much! You wonder how hard it could be to hang up their clothes, put their laundry away, bring the dirty glasses and plates into the kitchen, and generally live like the civilized human being you thought you have been raising.

 No matter what you suggest, no matter what you threaten (taking away the computer, the phone, their life) it all falls on deaf ears. You make deals, you cajole, you yell, and nothing seems to work. Every time you walk by that closed door, knowing what's inside, you get that pit in your stomach, and the veins in your neck stick out just a little more, and you feel helpless, and wonder how did it all come down to this. What happened to those days of yore, when all you had to do with your kid was ask, or threaten with no TV and the deed was done. Here is the disconnect: First, your kids could care less about their room. Their new developing brain is consumed with thoughts way more interesting, nerve-racking, anxiety producing, and exhilarating than the clothes on their floor. The idea may pop into their head, "Oh I'm supposed to clean my room", but it is fleeting, and a text, a face book post, or a great musical lyric that is pulsing through their IPOD distracts them.

First, take an honest look at their room. I visited a family recently where the room issue had become all consuming. When the dad opened the door to his son's room for an objective assessment, I was expecting the worst, but what I saw was a room that kinda looked like mine at home. Yes there were some clothes on various chairs and tables, and some shoes flung around, and the comforter was askew on the bed, but honestly, it wasn't that bad, and made me feel a little guilty about my own lack of neatness. (I ran home and cleaned my room) 

So first it is all about expectations. Are you a neat freak and want everyone to have the same standards you have for yourself? You may be setting yourself up for a fall. If though, the room really is over the top, crazy making chaos, then here are a few suggestions:  You can start a conversation with: "I get it, I know you are fine with the way your room is,  (try not to judge and be critical here) you and I have different standards, but it does make me crazy, can we figure something out so that we can both be ok? Maybe Sunday nights we do it together so at least the week can start out fresh." If your teen rejects that  approach,try this. " I get that keeping your room more organized is not that important to you, but it does make me crazy, so I just want to let you know that I will be coming in once a week to make sure that the ants, bedbugs, other crawling disgusting insects will be set free by ridding your room of trash, dirty laundry and food stuffs. 

Parents here is the thing about room cleaning, if it really bothers you, do it yourself!! This also makes you look good in your kids eyes since you won't be yelling at them anymore about it. You can now focus on other things to yell about, but the bigger payoff is that it gives you access to your kid's room. Just think that if the parents of the Columbine killers had spent a little more time in their kid's room they might have had a sense that something really bad was happening. Your kid's room holds a lot of clues to their mental health. Its not really just about being messy, but do you get a sense of depression, anxiety, chaos? That is way more important stuff than  the underwear on the floor. I worked with a parent once who made the leap to clean her son's room, and lying on the floor, out in full view was a poem he had written about his family. She sat down and cried. In this poem was a declaration and recognition of the love he had for his parents. In fact the poem was titled "I am from love I am from life" This mom and son had been at it for weeks over his room, his attitude, his everything, and here she  found this nugget of gold, that gave her new perspective on their relationship. Find a way to make the messy room work for you. Try to get them to take responsibility. If you are your teen's banker and chauffeur, you can always use these as bargaining tools. "I would love to give you a ride, as soon as you bring down your laundry or bring down the dishes caked with food" or "I would love to give you twenty bucks for going out with your friends as soon as you do X Y Z.  But if you see that their busy schedule, up at 6 am, work till 3, nap, shower, dinner, and out with friends bed truly doesn't allow much free time, especially to clean their room, than the gift of "I get it, you have a crazy schedule, you have a lot on your plate, I'll take care of this piece for you,"at least makes this power struggle go away. You are not giving in or giving up, but giving to!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

It Is Not What You Say....

I'm sure that many of you could complete that sentence, hearing you parents or elderly aunt's voice in your head..."It's not what you say dear, but how you say it." When you heard it, it was probably because you had talked to your elders in a tone that was unacceptable.

I am sharing this saying with you not so you can teach it to your teens, but to teach to you.  Often as parents,  much of the "feedback" that we share with our teens is said either in a voice of authority as in " I know better than you squirt, so listen up," or in a voice full of exasperation as in "how many times do we have to go over this..," or in a voice full of judgement.."how could you have...." In all of these examples, most likely the response you get from your teen is to either ignore you, get defensive, or give you attitude. None of these pave the way for meaningful communication or closure.

As I have mentioned before, the emotional center of the teen brain is in overdrive most of the time, hence the roller-coaster of emotions you are likely to experience with them just in the course of a single day. Once that Amygdala is in activation and firing, it is pretty hard to shut it down. Think of a stove top burner that has been on high. Once you shut it off, it takes a good amount of time before you can touch it without being burned. Such is the Amygdala of the teenage brain. So one of the goals then, is to not get it activated, especially if you have an end goal in mind for a conversation you want to have with your teen.

If you blame your teen's over-reaction on biology, rather than on something they have much control over, it frees you up to not blame them, thereby avoiding the double whammy of the actual issue you are concerned over + the aforementioned over-reaction.  That is why arguing with your teen is so frustrating. Because you often never really get to discussing the core issue, too busy getting pissed at them for getting pissed at you.

So what to do. Listen to the sound of your own voice. Would this be THE voice that used to piss you off as a teen? If it is, can you work on saying it another way. Of course my suggestion is to use an "I get it" statement. Rather than starting with a lecture or accusation, think ahead of time of what might have motivated the particular behavior you are now needing to talk about with your teen.

For example:

FROM " Get off your damn phone and computer and finish your homework." TO; I get it's important for you to stay in touch with your friends, but we need to figure out a way for you to get work done, and stay in touch with your friends."

FROM: "If you talk to your brother again like that, I am taking away that damn video game. That kind of disrespect is unacceptable in our family." TO; I get how hard and annoying it is to have a younger brother who always wants to hang with you and use your stuff just when you want to use it. I know he pushes all your buttons, let's figure out a way for you to get your privacy."

FROM: "I am sick and tired of the absolute mess in your room, you are a slob and are disrespectful of the money we spend so that you can have all these nice clothes." TO: I get cleaning your room is absolutely the last thing on your mind. I know getting ready in the morning is stressful and finding the right outfit means trying on a bunch of stuff and just discarding what isn't right. We gotta figure out a better system."

At the least, you haven't antagonized your teen to shut down. You are showing him/her that you understand what might be going on, rather than just criticizing them yet again for not doing..x y z. Give it a try, you might be surprised at how well it works!