Monday, February 28, 2011


One of the most painful parts of parenting a teen is missing them. Though they are still very much a presence in the house, probably more a presence than you want, as in dirty dishes, pop tart wrappers, empty soda cans, half full glasses of juice strewn around the house, and dirty laundry decorating their floor. You totally wouldn't miss any of that. But you do miss the regular hugs and 'I love you" that used to roll of their tongue, or the ease with which they plopped down on the couch or in your bed to watch a movie, or the time when they actually on their own accord came to you for advice or to tell you a story about something that happened in school or with a friend. Those moments are fewer and farther between, if at all, as you focus on making sure they do what they need to do and don't unknowingly shoot themselves in the foot. Most communication tends toward interrogation: " Did you talk to your teacher? Did you go after school for help? What did the coach say? How much homework do you have? What did you get on the quiz? Did you make that appointment with your guidance counselor? Have you emptied the trash? Get off that phone, and facebook, or that video game and get to your homework!

Does that sound familiar? The irony is that at this point in their life when they do have a lot on their plate, and they are distracted, forgetful, and full of themselves, and actually really need your help to keep it all together, they are developmentally driven to reject your help. They are engaged in the process called "separation/individuation. They want to stand on their own two feet, and handle the world on their own.  When they show the signs that they aren't handling it, like getting disappointing grades, or missing deadlines for projects and papers, or neglecting family responsibilities like cleaning their room or emptying the dishwasher or taking out the trash parents jump into manager mode. This rarely goes well. Perhaps you are able to bully them to get done what you expect by threatening and yelling but it does come at an expense. Teens see things in black or white. You are either the good guy or the bad guy, it is hard for them to see you as both. They want to feel competent in the world, and your constant questioning and criticizing makes them feel incompetent.

If you feel your relationship with your teen has morphed mostly into the interrogation mode. Take a minute and reflect. Are there some things your teen is doing well at?  Have you told him/her that? Are you balancing the need to stay on top of what they aren't doing with pride in the things that they are doing? Sometimes we worry so much that as parents we have to get all the "lessons" in before they leave and go to college when it feels like our job is done, that we forget to see the good stuff. Maybe you have a teen who is really engaged in life, has a ton of friends, active in a sport or the arts, maybe has a part-time job, but when they come home they are slovenly and sullen. You read that as detached from the family, I read that as exhaustion. Here is your "I get it " moment. "You know honey I know I've been on you about a lot of stuff lately, and I think sometimes I forget to tell you how great I think you are. I know you have a lot on your plate, and probably by the time you get home, you're tired. I hate that we argue so much, is there anything I can do differently so we don't. I love you, and I miss how much fun we used to have, and how easy it was."

Separation is hard. But this is the time for your teen to stand on his/her two feet, and time for you too as well. Make some space, they will stumble, but you have given them a strong foundation, now let them build.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

He/she is just not that into.....anything!

Amazing though it seems, some teens actually prefer spending time with their parents. So who's complaining? The parents!!!! I have had a number of requests to address this issue from parents worried that their teen is using a "too much homework" excuse for avoiding the part of their life that feels overwhelming, stressful and beyond uncomfortable...their social and activity life. Parents say: "He has lost all enthusiasm for activities he did before" or from another parent:"my teen seems to feel so overwhelmed she won't go to school dances or activities, and won't have friends over to hang", and this parent says:"my teen uses academics to hide from social pressure. He says he has too much work to do on weekends, no time for other stuff. He loves hanging with adults, and seems to thrive on the attention they give him."

All of the kids described above are 8th and 9th graders. This can be such a painful and awkward transition time. Perhaps activities they have participated in the past were parent directed, as in I signed you up or soccer, or baseball, or dance, or piano, or whatever it is you wanted your kid to experience. Middle and High School is when the rubber meets the road. Kids find out that as they get older, coaches aren't so interested anymore in making sure everyone has a chance to play, now they just want to win. Maybe your teen has now realized that this is something he is just not good at, and everybody else sees that too. Sitting on the bench while everyone else plays away can be humiliating. But what you hear from your teen is, I hate this, it's so boring, I hate the coach, etc etc etc. So now what? As a parent it has been comforting knowing that there was practice or rehearsal, and your teen would be constructively busy after school, maybe even on weekends. Now there is an empty void. The days when your minivan used to be full of kids yammering on about the game as you carpooled is now an empty car. Your teen sits mute in the seat next to you, and you see an entire weekend unplanned, feeling guilty that you want to be with your friends hanging out without your teen. Can't he/she find something to do????

First of all, this is a short-term problem. Your teen has closed the chapter on the childhood part of his/her life, but hasn't quite figured out yet what the next chapter holds. He/she knows that they are supposed to want to be with other kids, hanging, fooling around, getting into trouble, but that just does not fit for them right now. They can't seem to settle on an activity/sport/passion that they feel competent and interested in, and  probably academics is something that gives them that same sense of purpose and structure. The only problem with that is it is isolating and lonely. Here are some suggestions. Summer programs. Get them away for the summer at a program that grabs their attention and focuses on a competence, computers, science, writing, whatever you see from your perspective that grabs them. They will make new friends, who share their interest, and potentially bridge the social gap. They may not be able to articulate this to you, but your powerful parent observation skills should be able to steer you in a direction. Remember this is not something you want them to be interested in but something they ARE interested in. OK so its only February. Often teens like this are too shy to get involved in something that they might actually like, and if you suggest something they will reject it out of hand for that reason alone. Sometimes its helpful to enlist the help of a guidance counselor or outside person on the down low. Perhaps you have a kid who is a closet artist. Maybe you can talk to the drama person and see whether they might go to your kid and say, "hey we really need help designing sets for the spring play, I heard you have some skills in painting, could you help us?"Maybe your teen is great with younger kids, and tutoring a neighborhood kid would help him/her feel good. Go to the neighbor and ask if they might call your teen and ask them for help. You get the gist. Think of yourself as a life coach. Youngish teens often don't know what it is they want to do and still need some help. But you have to be more subtle about helping them. You want to give them the feeling that they are in control, and competent. This is a moment in time. As teens become more secure in themselves and their developing identity they will be willing to take more risks. By junior year, most kids are finding those friends, those activities, and those passions that make them feel engaged and involved. Some kids learn to "walk" at 10 months, some at 13 or 14 months, either way they all learn to walk.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If you have a this!

Beverly Beckham, a columnist for The Boston Globe  wrote a very thought provoking article about our country's young women in Sunday's paper. The link is copied below. To summarize she wonders when our girls will think success is more than: being a sex symbol, or being noticed by men. She says: "Our fashion is about exposing women, our sitcoms are about bedding women, and our songs are about beating women. This is what our girls absorb." She quotes some lyrics from nominated songs from last weeks Grammy's and all I have to say is Whoa!

Maybe I am just getting old, but I am shocked by the provocative nature of even our young adolescent girls. More parents than I care to count call me after having found provocative pictures, texts, and facebook postings. I am talking about our 12 year old girls here. Clearly we are not getting the message out that though we get that it's fun and exciting to attract boys, nudity and sexually charged language is not the way to go. And what about our boys. How do we teach them respect for girls. Remember my video post(the post was on feb 11) of a few weeks ago where I described a 12 year old boy asking his childhood friend after making plans to walk with her to Starbucks after school.  "Can I kiss you? Can I touch you? Can I fuck you!!!" This poor young girl was so upset, she avoided going to school for days.

Is it our own discomfort with thinking about our kids as sexual beings, preventing us from having the kinds of conversations that will make everyone squirm? Maybe we give out mixed messages as women when we are consumed with our own bodies and the images we project. I remember having conversations with my daughter when she was a teen. I would be talking about how fat I felt, or how old and ugly I was feeling.(That's when I was in my 40's, now that I am heading into my 60's I actually like myself better. See getting older is fun) But I do remember very clearly my daughter saying, "and you wonder why I am consumed with worrying about being fat. I get it from you!!!!" And I'm guessing she is more than a little right. I do not have one memory of my middle aged mother ever ever commenting on her size, her sexiness or her aging. Women in the 1950's and 1960's just did not think about that, or if they did they did not talk about it. And what about the dads. I know even from my own hubby and our middle aged friends, there are always comments about this hot woman, or that hot woman. Again, I never ever heard my dad comment about women in terms of their hotness. Maybe, we as adult have to start with ourselves and watch what we say and how we live. Are we giving these messages to our daughters and sons without even realizing it? Do we spend too much time and energy making ourselves look sexy and cool, rather than just healthy? Maybe we have had too much of the kool-aid as well, read too many People magazines, too many Allures and Vogues showing us how to find the fountain of youth. We have bought too many creams, had too much botox ( I draw the line) too many eyelifts and so on. Maybe we have to first model self-acceptance for our kids before we can expect them to follow suit.

At the least we have to continue, on a regular basis to have talks with our teens about this. No matter how much eye-rolling you may encounter, do not let that deter the message. Find opportunities when they present themselves, don't manufacture them. If you are watching a show or hear some lyrics or see something in a magazine or hear a story from the news, or a friend, there is your chance, your "I get it"  moment. " I get how this might sound hip or funny, but I worry that it makes girls feel like that have to wear a tight or cleavage revealing top, or short shorts with a butt crack exposed, or whatever, just to get attention from a boy. Do you feel that way?"
Or with your son: " I get that boys think its funny to comment on the size of a girls boobs, or think that they can convince girls to take pictures or give blow jobs in order to be their boyfriend, but its really just to "get a little", and get a good story to tell the guys. I hope you wouldn't lead a girl on like that? Just talking about this once does not facilitate change. This is tough stuff. Our world is changing and this happens to not be one of the good things. Our culture bombards us with messages, but we give our kids messages as well. Do as I say, not as I do, won't work anymore. You gotta walk the walk to really make a difference.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Good cop bad cop: an age old parenting dilemma

Today's Boston Globe did an article about "The Great Divide" when parents disagree about how to raise the kids. When kids are young arguments between parents tend toward eating and TV habits, and bedtimes and manners. Ah, the good ole days say parents of teenagers. If only we were just arguing about too much junk food. Arguments for parents of teens get much more personal. "You never say no, or all you ever do is say no, or why am I always the bad guy, or don't you remember when you were a teen, or kids will be kids, can't you just lighten up?" Worries about your teens safety, future,  and their success in life are present in every decision and negotiation you go through with your teen. Differences in personality and style with your parenting partner can become especially apparent in parenting your teen.

Most of us have very vivid memories of our own teenage years and the parents who got us through them. Some memories skew toward the awful. "My parents were so rigid, and punitive, I never want to be that way with my teen, or "I got away with everything, my parents were clueless, its amazing I am still alive, I will be much more on top of stuff with my teenager." You can see the inherent problem here. If you and your partner were parented from opposite ends of the parenting spectrum, and now are parenting from those perspectives, your teen will be in hog heaven. There is nothing easier for a teen than having parents who are extreme opposites. Because their brain now allows them to analyze their parents and how they parent, (your own private couples counselor) they can now figure out who is the best parent to go to for which things. Want to go to a concert and stay out late, go to the parent who is excited you love music and feels concerts are a rights of passage. Definitely do not ask the parent who would never let you go out on a school night, thinks concerts are only for drug addicts, and whose only experience with concerts is the Symphony.

This is problematic, not only because your kid is learning how manipulate his parenting duo, but also because it is a set-up for one parent to have a satisfying and fun relationship with their teen while the other parent ends up with the anger, and the lack of connection as the "bad cop parent."No fair! If there are two parents present in the family, it is important for this teen to have a model of cooperation. If a teen learns to manipulate a situation to his advantage on the home front, this then becomes a roadmap for manipulation in other relationships as well,  with friends, with co-workers when they start a career, and any future partnership or marriage of their own. Teens learn how to manage the world from the people who are closest to them, and that my friends are their parents.

The only way to deal with this is to at least have an agreement that neither parent will impulsively give their teen the immediate answer to a request. Teens are extremely talented in the art of negotiation and are not good at delaying gratification, that doesn't mean that you have to feed into that. Both parents have to get into the habit of saying, "your mom/dad and I will get back to you on that." When your kid pressures you for an answer, nothing really you have to say here, but give a shrug of your shoulders, a smile, and a we'll get back to you, and thats that. If is something that is time sensitive, and the other parent is not at home, thats why cellphones and texting were created. Obviously this strategy is for decisions you know are open to question, not the run of the mill, can I go hang at Joey's house. Do not ever disagree as a marital unit in front of your teen!!!! Take it outside, into the bathroom, in the car. Kids love seeing you two fight over this kind of stuff, and it can make one or the other parent seem ineffective and powerless. So please do your own negotiating privately, especially when you have to take defeat. You and your parenting partner may come from two very different places, but respect for each other always always always needs to be modeled. Even saying to your teen after a decision has been made: "you know I get why your mom/dad was so worried about having you do this. But we talked about it and here is why we came to this decision. You are communicating parenting understanding,not necessarily agreement, but respect for differing opinions. Believe me, this will come in very handy when you need your teen to understand you!!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Icky new social networking sites...beware!

I read a letter today from a local district attorney's office notifying the professional community that works with teens about two websites that teens seem to have found that opens a can of worms definitely left unopened. The first is OMEGLE.COM and the second, CHATROULETTE.COM. Both not only have a tremendous ICK factor, but can be dangerous as well. They are sites and chat rooms that resemble regular on-line chat rooms but now use the added attraction of live video. So basically there is no screening involved and anyone can just click on the site, and you are on stage live and in person. A parent I know wanted to check it out after she heard about it, and it was only seconds after she signed on when someone's video came up and said HI, where are you? She freaked and signed off immediately. But then, she is a responsible, thinking, sane adult. A teen, not so much. I had heard about chatroulette before from a parent with a 19 year old son who was home for college break. Walking into his room one evening to say goodnight, she found him having video sex with some naked strange girl on his computer. Ick, right?????

I am sure that many of your teens already know about this site. These things spread like wildflower, and it only takes 1 kid who has heard about it to bring it up on his/her laptop while friends are over, and it is off to the races, so to speak. I am imagining that teens see this as a fun party game. As in;" hey lets go on chatroulette and check out the guys/girls. There is tons of nudity and perverse sexual behavior for their titillating pleasure. There might be some teens, feeling social awkward, needy of attention or just plain horny, who might start to access this site on a regular basis in lieu of actual human contact. This is both psychologically unhealthy and might potentially put them in contact with people who could take advantage of them in the future. The parent who found her son on this site was actually in a "relationship" with this underage girl. He was 19 and was planning to visit her in the summer half way across the country, in a part of the country where the term "shotgun wedding" means shotgun. Huge worry that this young man could have been charged with statutory rape. Scary stuff.  Another smart parent remarked that once the image is online it can be reproduced and there you have pornography in the making. We are not just talking about still shots here but actual video potential.

Have I grossed you out enough? Think of this as just another teaching moment. You might say: 'Have you heard about these new sites....... They sound so scary and dangerous to me. Such potential for teens to be taken advantage of by skanky people. If you know anybody who goes on these sites, you should really warn them. I get how kids might be attracted to sites like this, all kinky and weird, but there are real sexual perverts who live on these sites who are good at tracking people down they find enticing. Really dangerous and scary." Put the fear of Satan in them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dope, Weed, Pot, grass, cannabus, marijuana,hemp all spell trouble

Teens and pot, not good, Adults and pot, whatever turns you on. I have had a number of letters from parents recently worried about their teens use of pot. It seems that their teens have defended their use with a variety of rationalizations. Some of my favorites include; " I can think better, I can drive better, even the cops don't care, it relaxes me so I can concentrate better on my homework, you should be happy, at least I'm not drinking alcohol!" Unfortunately this is the drug talking. And thats the point, pot is all about distortion. That's what the 60's were all about, and why the lava lamp was invented!

Adolescence is all about new experiences and experimentation. It is a cruel law of nature that tempts teens to try all sorts of new things just at a time in their lives when their brain is engaging in a major growth spurt. Teens live in a world of what you see is what you get. With alcohol you see the fruits of your labor literally in the toilet bowl if you're lucky, otherwise in someone's car or basement. You worship the porcelain temple and then you pass out. With pot the effects are less obvious and more hidden. Pot gives you the illusion of feeling in control but what you're teen is missing is what is going on in the depths of their brain. As with all experimentation, some kids might try pot and see it as a treat every now and then, and others will begin to use more regularly. In either case it is important to talk with them about it.

A little science lesson here. There are receptors in the brain that just love THC, the chemical in pot. These receptors are connected to two very important parts of the brain. The Hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, and the Cerebellum that controls balance and coordination. In short, regular use of pot can cause problems with thinking and problem solving (the hippocampus) and distorted perception of sight, sound and loss of motor coordination. (the cerebellum) So much for the driving rationale. Responding to lights, sound and reaction time are all distorted.

Pot is especially attractive to teens because it relaxes them, mellows out their stress, and if they are someone who struggles with anxiety, pot can be a wonderful new best friend. There is nothing more uncomfortable than feeling anxious, and once a teen who suffers with anxiety tries pot, a love affair begins.

Talking with your teen about pot requires finesse, and the power of understanding. Here is your I Get It moment. You can say to your teen" I get how pot would be attractive to you. I know you are stressed out, and it makes you feel relaxed and mellow. But here is what you don't know." At this point instead of sermonizing and lecturing, either read this to them or have them read it in your presence. is link to a very straight forward Q&A about pot. If you choose to lecture, your teen will think this is your opinion and probably just stop listening, thinking that they know more than you about this particular subject. So real science is always good in this situation. Now I am sure that you will get resistence here. And here is how you might handle this. " I am worried that you don't feel that pot affects your judgement, driving etc. You need to read this article and talk with me/us about it before we will allow you to drive our car. It is important to us that you have the facts here. If we see a change in your grades, or your ability to concentrate on getting your work done, we will have to drug test you every now and then. We love you and want to make sure that you don't unknowingly jeopardize your health and your future.

Talking with your teen who you already suspect is using pot is not easy. Expect them to be resistent, defensive, and in a lot of denial about this. Try really hard to not get mad, this will not serve you well in helping them to understand why this worries you so much. Information is power!

You can't make me!

I received a letter recently from a parent who had attended one of my seminars, thanking me for providing her with a new outlook (the power of understanding) with her 12 year old daughter. With her permission I will share her story with you. 

It seems this is a skiing family. In past years, this family of four have equally enjoyed this activity, so much so that this year they decided to really commit and rent a ski house for the season. This couple also have a younger daughter in addition to the 12 year old daughter. This is no small expense and the parents hoped that this would be a great opportunity for family time, chatting in line and on the lifts, skiing the trails together, etc.  Seemingly out of no-where, this previously enthusiastic skier only wants to sit in the lodge and "veg". The parents feeling helpless,  have this conversation with her which I am sure will be familiar to many of you.  "We were offering everything under the sun...Do you want to have a friend up? No.  Do you want to stay home with a friend this weekend? No.  You can't just stay home and do nothing.  I know.  What do you want to do?  I don't know.  We just want you to be happy.  Tears at the bottom of the lift. The guy next to us just kept looking at us like crazed parents-ugh."

For whatever reason this 12 year old is feeling differently about skiing this season. Maybe she is self-conscious in a way she never felt before. Maybe she doesn't like the way she looks in her ski clothes, maybe as her body is changing and feeling clumsier and out of sync with her body she feels awkward and uncoordinated, maybe maybe maybe, it could be thousand things that she cannot articulate. It just does not feel right. PERIOD. Embarrassment and worry about how others see you is the over-riding theme of adolescence, and something that you as parents have absolutely no control over. You can't talk them out of it, you can't punish them or threaten them out of it. These are such strong and powerful feelings that if you fight them on it, they will fight back, feeling that the alternative (what you want them to do) is way worse than whatever punishment you choose to dole out. The other frustration for parents is like the 12 year old in the story, most kids can't articulate what exactly is going on, they just know what they know, which is something feels really really bad, and they will stand their ground no matter what to avoid feeling worse, no matter the consequences.  This is beyond frustrating for parents, who are determined to figure out the problem, and then fix it. The good news is that this is just a moment in time, maybe a few years, but as they gain some confidence and self-understanding this becomes at least a conversation rather than an inquisition.

These wonderful parents, using the power of understanding and I get it moments I teach in my seminar and I hope in this blog realized this and came to this conclusion: "She is not lazy, she is an excellent student, and she wants to be with us (thankfully), but maybe sometimes she just needs to sit in the lodge with her music, or a book, and be very content. And we need to be OK with that, too.  She is such a wonderful girl, we just want her to be happy, but this is all part of growing up and learning who she is, trials and triumphs."

I couldn't have said it any better.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Teen speak for themselves


·      Just don’t want to talk sometimes, and I’m not being rude, I just don’t want to talk about everything all the time.
·      Do try and that I give 100% but they do not understand.
·      Am trying.
·      All the good things that I do, instead of all the bad things that have come up in the past.
·      Don’t do a lot of bad things that other teenagers my age do and that I do listen and care about what they say.
·      Try very hard and when you yell it’s always for absolutely no reason and I end up breaking down and crying.
·      Try harder in school when they are not checking in on my school work every second.
·      Am actually really good at school and try hard just for them instead of only noticing when I do badly.
·      Really do try, and what they say to me doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. I listen even when they don’t think I am.
·      Am as normal as everyone else.
·      Actually do try very hard in school but it just doesn’t show.
·      Do really good in school just to make them happy. They are my main motivation because they mean so much to me.
·      Try really hard at the things they want for me and that I am not a stupid girl.
·      Really have tried to be good and more respectful and better in school, even when they find something wrong with what I did.
·      Care about them way more than I think they feel about me.
·      Do try really hard even though I’m not perfect, and that I really do love and respect them.
·      Do try to make a difference with everything I do even though sometimes it’s hard.

I think that the theme here is that there is a alot more going on than meets the eye. What speaks to me in these comments from 14-18 year olds, is that what you see is only half the picture. They worry that you take their behavior at face value. There is much more going on that teens often cannot articulate, and feel your disappointment in them so keenly that they often just shut down rather than try to talk and explain the fuller story. Food for thought.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

To be or not to be a couch potato

Recently I have had a number of coaching sessions with parents concerned with what I call the "missing child syndrome." The teen isn't actually missing missing, but spends so much time closeted off in their bedroom cave watching movies, TV and playing video games on their laptops that it begins to feel that it's time to put up a missing child poster.

This becomes the most problematic on the weekends when there is an excess of unstructured time, and fewer activities. For younger teens, the pre-drivers, weekends can be quite anxiety provoking. What will I do? Who will I do it with? What if no one wants to do anything with me? There is a transition that occurs for kids in 8th and 9th grade. At this point some of the kids they have been friendly with, may have moved on into having a more active social life that includes meeting up at malls, parks, town centers or basements in co-ed groups. Your teen may have been left behind, not feeling ready or interested in some of the experimentation and activities of these marauding groups of kids. (and amen to that!)  So if their usual posse of friends are now unavailable to them, it leaves them potentially feeling lonely, abandoned and loserish. The computer becomes their weekend date; familiar, comforting, always available, and will always do what they want to do. I get it!!!  Hanging out with the family during this weekend time, only reinforces what they are already feeling, so avoiding you at all cost helps them save face.

Here is how you can help. First of all teens do not do well with planning ahead. That's just the way it is. Mostly its because they really don't know what it is they should do. In elementary school having a "playdate" was a no-brainer. A friend came over, you played games or dolls, or legos or watched a movie. Done! Now there are fewer options, you actually have to talk to each other, and where are you going to go and what are you going to do? So when they do feel bored on a Saturday afternoon and want to do something, the insecurity of calling someone and potentially being rebuffed because the person they want to call probably already has plans becomes a deterrent to calling anyone, and the avoidance helps them save face by thinking, "I just want to veg out by myself anyway."

 Do not at this point lecture them about waiting till the last minute. This just confirms they are a loser.  What you can do is on a Thursday night say to your teen, "I have to do X on Saturday, I can drop you and a friend at X while I do my thing, and then pick you up later. Why don't you ask X at school tomorrow if they want to go with you?" This accomplishes two goals. The first is that it gives your teen a real plan that they can go to a friend with that isn't at the last minute. Most kids won't have their plans for Saturday yet, and asking them at school, in person, takes away the worry about that potentially rejecting text or phone call. Secondly, you have understood that teens don't do planning well, and since it makes you nauseous to see your teen lying around for 18 hours watching a screen, helping them by offering up a plan takes them out of the bedroom, and out into the world.

This won't last forever. So even if they are home, the good news is at least you know where they are. Soon enough the fight will be, why aren't you ever at home?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What is the deal with peer pressure?

I read an interesting article in the New York Times today. Teenagers, Friends and Bad Decisions I love when articles confirm what I already know, but in a new way. It makes me feel so smart. This referenced a study that was done at Temple University looking at the effect on teens brains while they are making decisions when they are alone versus when they are with their friends. The experiment was so interesting. Ask a bunch of 14-18 year olds to do a simulated driving game for which they will be rewarded with cash if they finish in a certain time frame. Embedded in the game are choices to be made like running yellow lights to finish more quickly. However if you "crash" you get penalized and delayed.  Scores were compared with a group of college students and a group of young adults.  "Half of the time each person played alone, and half the time they were told that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching in the next room." The results, no change in game playing or risk-taking for college students and young adults when told about people watching their play, but for the teens they ran 40% more yellow lights and had 60% more crashes when they "believed" their friends were watching. Remember these "phantom friends" were not even in the room with them, they only believed that friends were watching. 

This is pretty powerful documentation of the effect of what we call "the imaginary audience", a term coined by Psychologist David Elkind that refers to the heightened sense of self-consciousness in teens. This occurs because of the newly developing and growing teenage brain that is working on overtime to make teens aware that not only do they have thoughts about themselves but that other people have thoughts about them. Think of this as opening night jitters that starts the second teens awaken and ends when they have posted their last facebook message of the day. What will I wear today, how will people see me? What will I say today, what will people think about what I am saying? and so on. The study supports the thinking that when your teen is on their own they are more likely to make responsible decisions (no imaginary audience) but give them a real or perceived audience and lets get on with the show! Because often times it is all for show, just like the teens in the study who took more risks when they thought their friends were watching. 

This would be a great article to read with your teen. Here is scientific documentation of all your worries. Let them know that you are not crazy, even the scientists can see that when you are with your friends you are more likely to put yourself in risky and potentially unsafe situations. Your job here is to use that power of understanding with your teen " I get how important it is to not embarrass yourself in front of your friends, but I know that sometimes you might make a different decision when you are alone than when you are hanging with your friends. Lets try to find some ways that you can both save face in front of your friends, but make sure that you are safe. This is the kind of conversation you might have every weekend just before your teen leaves the house. This is NOT something you can change about  your teen. It is literally chemistry, but you can make your teen aware of it and provide them with strategies, scripts and alternatives to keep them safe. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

I know something you don't know!!

Here is a question a parent gave me at the end of one of my seminars: What do you do when your child tells you about some risky behaviors that a friend of his/her is now engaging in and you know the friends parents? Is it different when you don't know the child's parents?

I actually get this question a lot, because I think the underlying thought is:"I would want a parent/friend to tell me if my teen was engaging in risky behaviors. First, if your teen is sharing this information with you, you have hit the jackpot. This means that your teen finds you worthy of his/her trust and thinks that you can help in situations they may feel stymied by. Your first and most important allegiance is to your teen and his/her safety. This is something worth protecting, because it means that you may be able to impact not only the safety of your teen but perhaps someone else's teen as well. If for example your teen comes to you with a story about drinking or a party, it is because they felt uncomfortable, and lacked the experience and strategy to deal with it in a way that left them feeling OK. They don't need your judgement they need your help. If you go right into "the lecture":  "You are not allowed to ever go to that house again, if I ever find out you have been drinking or taking drugs, you will be grounded, and I don't want you hanging out with those kids again." You can be assured that your teen will NEVER come to you again for help. If you immediately call the parent of the kid(s) who he/she has told you about, you can also be assured that your teen will NEVER come to you again for help.

Here is what you can do. First, commend your teen for coming to you in the first place. "I really am glad you can tell me this stuff, I know you are worried about your friend, the situation, and now we can figure out together what might be a good plan of action." Now comes the strategy session. Do not try to solve this for your teen, work on it as a collaboration. Come up with alternatives and scripts so they are prepared when this situation happens again....and it will, despite your warnings, punishments and threats.    Just by the nature of teen's experimental, and thrill seeking drives, situations that are risky will always be present in their lives. You can't protect them from the situations, but you can give them the information and strategy that will help them when they are in the thick of it. If they are worried about a friend, then help them figure out how they might be able to help that friend before you get on the phone and call the parent.

Your job is to keep your lines of communication open with your teen. If the situation is life-threatening, or threatening to others then this does require a call either to the parent directly or perhaps calling the school's guidance counselor and sharing the information with them. This way, the guidance counselor can call the parents and say that some concerned parents have shared some information I think you ought to know about  your teen's safety. Using the school as your go-between allows you to keep your teen out of the loop and protect your trust with him/her while still looking out for the safety of this other child.

If you are friendly with your teen's friend's parent, then you might also use a more indirect approach when having coffee with your friend: " So what do you think our kids are into? Do you think Joey is drinking or fooling around with pot, I just wonder what I would do if I found out?" Now at least you can open up a conversation about your worries, and perhaps get this parent on the same worry page as you, again without divulging any particulars that your teen has shared with you. Your goal for this conversation is to gently nudge this parent into becoming aware of possibilities. You may be sick of me saying this, but your relationship with your teen is THE MOST IMPORTANT goal. Helping him/her to stay safe, may help his/her friends to be safe as well.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who am I? The real work of a teenager Part 4

Sometimes during this whole who am I process, some teens feel a need to just take a break from it all. In a good way. We call this time identity moratorium. Maybe your teen is a senior in high school, and he/she knows they want to go to college, but they feel burnt out by school and want a break from academics. He/she really doesn't have a sense yet of the direction he/she wants to go in, and feel just to go to college to go to college seems like a waste of both time and money. This is a healthy decision not to make a decision. That is what identity moratorium is all about. It is a conscious decision to take a break from making a decision. Sometimes this happens after a freshman year, or after graduation from high school or college, needing some perspective your teen may want to work a mindless job, go be a ski bum in Aspen, or travel the world. As long as this is a plan to make a plan there are no worries. Sometimes just living in the world helps teens to explore the parts of themselves they are just getting in touch with, and that require freedom from school responsibilities. 

This breaking from the normal often scares and freaks parents out. There is a worry that their teen may never become self-supporting, fully functioning adults if they don't follow the norm. I recently met with a couple whose son is an amazing techi. In his freshman year of college, he immediately found a part-time job in his college tech support office. He loved the job and his bosses loved him. He worked longer and longer hours while his grades began to suffer. The world of work where he excelled, was treated as an equal and felt competent, was way more fulfilling then his work as a student, where he suffered with ADD. He was asked to take a leave from school because of failing grades. This was devastating for the parents, but in fact, I saw it as a gift. For this student, working at something he was passionate about and felt competent at was a self-esteem builder. Why not have work be his primary effort, and make school the part-time effort. The question wasn't whether he would finish his degree, but that he would do it in a different way. His parents understood that his path to graduation would be a different path, not a bad one, just a different one. And that is the key. There is no right way. When a parent understands who their  teen is becoming, they can support whatever path it takes to get there. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Who am I? The real work of a teenager Part 3

Figuring out "Who am I " is not just the work of teens. Those of us in middle age, (which is most of you with teens...admit it, I'm just an older version) have the same work. Gail Sheehy, in her book New Passages, calls the adult version: Middlescence. In midlife, many of us start to look at our life through a new lens, just like teens with their new brain, wondering , is this it, is this all there is? Some change careers voluntarily, others are laid off and now have the freedom to reinvent, and others choose to go back to work after a 10 or 15 year hiatus. If work is not the question, finding meaning in life might be. Sheehy calls this a "meaning crisis". As adults in mid-life we are searching for who we will be in this next half of our life. The good news, is that we come to this journey with half a life already lived, with experience, and with some confidence and competence in what we have already accomplished. Teens starting this journey have none of this experience,  and not a lot of confidence or competence in their ability to make decisions, which is what the personal identity journey is all about, decision making.

Some teens relish the buffet table of life, trying out new dishes, saying ick to some, and yum to others, and are able to move on with the big decisions in life, Identity Integration.  Some teens are subtly pushed in a direction, never having to make the decisions themselves; Identity Foreclosure.  Then there are those teens who can't make any decisions at all. These are teens who are in Identity Crisis.  Teens who experience Identity confusion are overwhelmed with all the choices and decisions they must make. So rather than make any of their own choices or decisions, they avoid making any decisions at all.  These are teens who move from friend to friend, college to college, job to job, and perhaps become users and abusers of drugs and alcohol in order to avoid having to take responsibility for their life. They are your classic followers. If a person shows them interest or attention, then that person becomes a friend, not because they like that person, or feel that have commonalities or feel a sense of camaraderie, just that they are available. They are overwhelmed by that buffet table, and either take too much, not taking the time to decide which things they like, or they avoid taking anything but the familiar because it is just to overwhelming.

Teens heading in this direction need practice in making and taking responsibility for their decisions. If a teen grows up with either an authoritarian or permissive parenting style (see blog entry: What kind of parent am I?)  they are not given the opportunities and direction needed to experience decision-making and learn from their successes and more importantly from their mistakes.  Too little freedom or too much freedom, too much direction, or too little direction have almost the same outcome. Discovering who you are and who you want to become require the ability to sift through and pick out what interests you, what excites you,what comforts you, what moves you, and what grounds you. This is overwhelming for even the most competent. If you give your kids too many gifts on their birthday, they run from gift to gift never really enjoying any one thing, if you give them only one they never learn to choose what excites them. Helping your teen to develop their own sense of themselves is a balancing act. Give to much input, your teen never learns what is you and what is him/her, give to little, they don't even know where to start. So when your teen struggles with making a decision, no matter how small, and asks for your help, rather than jumping in with all your parental wisdom and making the decision for him/her, start with a "Well what do you think". Your job is to let them know that you have confidence in their ability to think for themselves. They just need to practice.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Who am I? The real work of a teenager Part 2

There are many ways that teens work on the process of developing a personal identity. In the last post I explained the process of trial and error also called forming an identity through repudiation and integration. That's the formal jargon. Basically, teens try out a lot of stuff; friends, interests, academic subjects that turn them on or off, religion, personas, hair, and clothing styles, music, and yes even values and beliefs. All those things that make up the kind of person you become as an adult, and that eventually affect life decisions like which college to go to, what career to work towards, who to partner with, the kinds of lifelong friends you make, and the passions and interests that give you joy. They try these things out, hold on to those that feel right, and and then discard those things that feel uncomfortable, like the jeans you buy just cuz they are cool, but only wear once because they are too tight, too low, and that ride up your behind, and end up in the give away pile.

But there are other ways that kids can develop identities that aren't so healthy. The first is something called Identity Foreclosure. Foreclosure is a word we have heard way to much of in the last few years. Foreclosure in identity development also takes something important away.  It is taking away the right to  make your own choices about who you want to become. Perhaps you have a family legacy of a college or a profession. As you look back at your family tree, you see all the guys played football in high school and/or college, or as far back as you remember a certain college was pretty much everyone in your family's alma mater, or you have a family of doctors or lawyers or plumbers or electricians or your family runs a business, and there is an expectation that when you graduate high school or college you join the family business. This is only a problem...if its a problem. I once worked with a young man in therapy. He was really smart and attended an ivy league college, the same one that all the men in his family attended. All the men in this family went on to study and practice medicine, and he followed suit, never really questioning if he enjoyed science, and was interested in medicine as a profession, kind of just went along with the family script. As the end of his first semester in med school came to a close, he became extremely depressed and anxious and ended up being hospitalized for these serious symptoms. After some introspective work he realized he followed the family script because he felt it was expected of him, though he had no interest or passion for medicine. Thank god somewhere in that soul of his, though he couldn't say it aloud, his overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression called a halt to a life that was all wrong for him. He is happily a teacher today. His family was disappointed, and that was their problem. My client found his own way. 

If you have a profession or a college, or a passion or a way of being in this world that has become a family expectation rather than a choice, then there could be a problem. If your teen/young adult seems truly to want what has become family tradition, then there is no problem. But if you have a teen that seems to be following your family script, make sure that you say very directly, and out loud, you can be whatever you want!! Here is your I get it moment: "I know you want to go to X college because we all went there, or you think you want to become an X cause we all do that, or you like to play X cause we all play that, but here is the thing, we want you to do and be whatever makes you happy. It would be great to have someone in this family who does something different, so honey wherever, or whatever, you want to do, we support you." This is something that needs to be said not implied. Teens are very tuned into what is important to you, and truly they do not want to disappoint you. They may be a pain with the small stuff, like cleaning their room, or having an attitude, but when it comes to the big stuff, they want you to be proud of them. Giving them the absolute freedom, belief and support for their developing identity is the most important gift you will ever give them. 

Stay tuned for Part 3: identity confusion ( and this has nothing to do with sexuality)