Thursday, April 26, 2012

The College Decision

I may be a little late on this one. I think the deadline for making college choice decisions is next week. But I wanted to offer a little advice based on a conversation I had recently with a parent whose daughter is transferring after finishing her freshman year.

The school she chose to attend last May was in a warm climate, which she loved, was a college that has become one of the "it" colleges over the last 5 years, and had that cache and vibe that both parents and seniors in high school respond to. Pretty campus, small but not to small, 5,000 students, good program in the academic area she "thought" might become her major. Notice I put the "thought" in quotations. That is because many, many kids start off with an interest in one area, and when they graduate are in a completely different major. Which is great by the way. That actually is what the college experience is all about. Trying out different identities, different interests, different kinds of relationships, and different academic areas. OK so what went wrong. Turns out the school was a complete mismatch.

While the "big picture" of this college fit the bill, the actual day to day of college life did not. This is a school where the "Greek Life" is king. Everybody pledges a sorority or a fraternity, or if that doesn't interest you, than there are academic clubs that function like them. These clubs unite people who share a similar major. You live together on the same dorm floor, study together and party together. This is a college divided. So... if you don't get into the frat or sorority of your choice, and you haven't yet settled on a major, or if you have, and you don't particularly want to surround yourself by your classmates 24/7 you are kind of left out in this college. And all this happens by the middle of your freshman year.

This left this student with few people to hang with. Though she had made friends in her dorm, many of them pledged or joined something and they were otherwise engaged. She didn't get into the sorority of her choice. Also turns out living on a beautiful campus, in the middle of nowhere left few alternatives for leisure non-partying activities. No real town to go to, go to a movie, take a walk, or go to eat. Pretty place, but very isolated.

The areas you and your senior should be discussing now are not academics, but college life. Because honestly, this will be the make it or break it of settling into and loving their new college life. Here are some important questions to ask, and I advise making sure your son/daughter calls and speaks to at least two kids who are completing their own freshman year for their perspective. I know admissions offices will be happy to  furnish your teen with students who have offered to talk to incoming freshman.

  • Does size matter? Yes it does. 
  • Does rural VS urban VS suburban matter? Yes it does. How does your teen like to spend their free time, and does this school offer those chances to do what they like to do. 
  • What happens if they don't pledge a sorority or fraternity or do not get into one they want, or aren't interested in that whole joining thing, what do these students do and where do they go for their fun?
  • What do people do on the weekends? At the college I teach at, many of the students go home on the weekends, and those left have nothing really to do. My school is in the suburbs, and most students do not head into Boston, and there is NOTHING to do in the town  where the college is located. Not surprisingly many of my freshman students are transferring, at first thinking small and suburban was good, but now hating it's limitations.
This choice-making time is all about asking the detail questions, which your college-bound senior will not like to do. Teens look at the big picture, and have little patience for the smaller stuff. You will need to help them do that. It can make the difference between the phone calls you get from happy college freshman or miserable ones. Which call would you rather get?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Need, I Want..... You Will!

 I usually love the shows that are on HBO. I was greatly anticipating the new show "Girls". It follows the lives of 4 young women of the millennium generation. Newly minted from college they are making their way in NYC.  I'm not sure if I am disappointed in the show as entertainment, or disappointed in these 4 women. If these are true representations of 20 somethings, then we as parents have gone horribly wrong. A columnist from the Washington Post agrees with me.

Two years out of college, smart as whips, they can't seem to support themselves. Mommy and daddy to the rescue for two years while one of the girls tries to get her sh** together, until they finally pull the plug. Waa, waa, waa!  This is a scenario that is not just playing itself out on television unfortunately but in real life. I have many friends and clients whose twenty somethings are searching for the perfect job/graduate program, even though that may take years. Parents willingly pay for rents/car insurance/health insurance/cell phones/clothes/food and entertainment while their kids are on the journey of self-discovery which often include unpaid internships. God forbid they waitress, babysit, or do temp work to support their habits while they find themselves. These parents are great parents who love their kids to death. Like all parents. Growing up, many of these young adults were stars. They were stars on a sports team, on the stage or with community service. The had great grades and valued their education, and were rewarded handsomely for all their accomplishments. As long as they did well in school, on the field, on stage, or in the community their wish was their parents command. Whatever they wanted/needed they were pretty much assured of getting, clothes, money, phones, computers, gadgets, spending money, etc. Not that all families are wealthy, by the way, just that keeping their kids happy was their #1 priority.

It is wonderful to support your kids, and reward hard work. But there is a consequence for all this giving. Teens turning into young adults are completely focused on their goal, not on the process of getting there. Sometimes one has to delay gratification of a longer term goal, in order to pursue a short-term learning to support yourself and become independent. When you give-in to your teen for requests for expensive cell-phones, video games, computers, tablets, kindles, clothes, sometimes just because everyone else has them, you reinforce the "ask and you shall receive" mentality. I hate using the "good ole days" analogy, but truly, when I was a teen, then a college student, then a college graduate, I did what I had to do to support myself. That's how it was back then. I have to admit that one of the greatest gifts my mom gave me, I gave my daughter during all these same years was that we had no money for any of the extras.  The pride my daughter felt when she bought her first TV with money she had earned was enormous, or the first dress she bought, on sale, but still expensive that she had coveted, or the senior trip she took with her girlfriends in her senior year of high school. She and I have talked many times about whether she resented us for not paying for all the things that her friends parents paid for and took for granted. Never once, she said,  did she feel that life was unfair. She feels proud of supporting herself, and how it has set her up to be very responsible about money now that she is an adult.

The next time your teen comes to you wanting a new outfit, or computer gadget, or fancy phone, or concert tickets, how about saying: " So how do plan on paying for that." Start now!!!  Don't wait until college graduation, when the "real jobs" might be scarce, and working at something less desirable is not a choice, but a reality they know they have to do to take responsibility for their lives and their choices. Rather than just handing over the credit card, how about sitting down together and coming up with a plan for earning and contributing a portion of the cost. They may hate you for it now, but you will thank yourselves for it later.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Power Of Puberty

Last week I watched the tribute show that 60 minutes did on Mike Wallace. It was a fascinating profile of what was behind this very driven and enormously accomplished journalist. Turns out it was acne during puberty. Who woulda thunk? In an interview that Mike Wallace gave to a young college journalist a few years back,  he confessed to this young man that as a teen he had terrible acne. He never felt attractive enough or good enough, and to counter those feelings he set incredibly high goals for himself, proving that despite what he saw as an enormous flaw, (his acne) that he would and could overcome this. In the therapy biz we call that reaction formation, which means countering one set of feelings with the exact opposite. In Mike Wallace's case, " I feel ugly and a loser, therefore I will become successful and desirable.

If only all teens could turn what they perceive as their deficits into their motivators. Puberty can be devastatingly awful. It is a cruel twist of fate that just as a person is at the height of self-consciousness, their body turns on them. Perhaps your teen also has bad acne, or maybe your daughter is completely flat-chested or maybe buxom. Maybe your son is the shortest in his class, or maybe as a 5th grader he is the tallest and has facial hair to boot. Whatever it is, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you, it is a hugely big deal to them.

 David Elkind, the author of All Grown Up And No Place To Go  calls this "the lightening rod." I'm sure you had your own cross to bear when you think about yourself and your body during puberty. The problem for parents is that the way this plays out for your teen isn't always that obvious. They may not be walking around the house saying " I hate this or I hate that about my body." But what you get instead is the 2 minutes before they leave for school meltdown. " I have nothing to wear, you never buy me any clothes, I told you those jeans make me look fat, why did you let me buy them blues!

And because their ride is sitting in front of the house, or the bus is at the bus stop, you have your own meltdown, screaming at them that "they are ungrateful spoiled brats, having just spent $200 on clothes, or the dermatologist or you just did their laundry, if you would just put it all away" blues of your own! The truth of it is, it isn't about the jeans. It's that for some reason that morning they looked in the mirror and someone looked back that made them feel ill. It is really that simple. If you pay attention to their tantrum you will miss the real story.

So the next morning your teen throws a tantrum before school, or before a school dance or before they leave the house on a Friday night to hang out with friends, and you become the scapegoat for all that is wrong with their bodies, rather than getting sucked down the dark hole, just give them a hug, and say: 'I get your not feeling good about how you look tonight, is there anything I can do to help. " It won't make the acne go away, or the boobs shrink, or make them 6 feet tall, but at least someone "gets" that life just sucks sometime!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Little Break

Since this is the school vacation week in my neck of the woods, I will be taking this week off to grade tons of final papers from my 60 college students! Some vacation! There are exactly 249 blogs in the archive, lots to keep you busy this week. Stay tuned for my 250th blog next Tuesday. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trust VS Temptation

I got a wonderful e-mail today from a parent who is struggling with "sneakiness" from her teenage son. Do I hear a chorus of "me too". This is a classic parent-teen struggle. You work hard to set reasonable rules, and your teen works just as hard to wrangle him/herself around them. Here is what this parent wrote: "I believe he senses me becoming "paranoid" and questioning things because I don't trust...and he then becomes sneakier. How do I break that cycle and how do you convey confidence and trust when they have broken that trust?"

Let's play this out. You make a rule. This mom had a rule about no food in the basement. She goes down the basement and finds cans and wrappers stashed behind furniture. This a relatively minor infraction but a great example of how these small things build up, create niggles of doubt, until full out distrust and paranoia develop. Fill in the blank here with the smaller rule breakers that your teen challenges you with.

Here is your "I Get It" moment: "Hey honey, I just found (fill in the blank) wrappers and cans in the basement. Clearly you think this is a rule worth breaking. Give me an alternative. I'd rather we come up with something together, that we both can agree on, rather than you disagreeing with something and sneaking around to do what you want anyway." The work is always to encourage truth-telling. When you include your teen in the rule-making, at least you get them to have partial ownership of the problem. Here is how you can do this. Using the above example, 

Your teen will probably say: "its stupid that I can't eat downstairs where I hang out."

Parent says;" What do you think I am worried about when you ..........." 

In this case kid will say: "that I will trash the basement." 

Mom can say: "Yes that's right, so what will you do to assure me you won't trash the basement, and get rid of your trash."

 Now the owness is on the teen to come up with a plan that makes you happy.

Final question from parent: "What will the consequence be if you don't follow through on your plan."

The consequence is in place. If you aren't satisfied with the consequence your teen comes up with, offer one up yourself. Maybe in this case, you are banned from the basement for 24 hours if I find trash down there. 

As your kids get older, they will disagree with you more and more. Your choice is to set your rules, and watch your kids dance around them, or engage them in the process so they feel a part of the process. They want to manage their life, they are driven to manage their life, even if they don't do it well. It's called practice! It is up to you to give them opportunity to practice, by including them in the process. They will screw up. But I think it is less about trust, and more about temptation. Teen''s are impulsive, and don't think things through for very long. They need help in that department. So when you find the beer can in the basement, what you want is use that to open conversation. So rather than getting angry, and going with a "how can you betray my trust like this" You might say" I was surprised to find this beer. I know we don't have any in the house, so either you or one of your friends brought it in. What are you going to do to make me feel OK about being in the basement and sneaking in beer or booze.?" Again, using the words trust can be loaded. Teens are tempted by all the fun stuff teens want to do and try. They need your help to stay safe and trustworthy, not just your anger. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

For This Parent It Could Be Jail Time

Just wanted to get your attention! I have another ripped from the headlines story for you. This past Saturday night a loving mother agrees to host a party for her teenage daughter and her friends. At 11:05 PM, the local cops show up after getting complaints from the neighbors that there was a loud party and kids were outside throwing beer cans out of their cars, and that the street was completely parked up with 15 to 20 cars.  When the police entered the house, the mother acknowledged there was a party with alcohol, and that the teens had cars and would be driving home. ( I know, what was she thinking?) Mother leads the cops down to the basement, where they find booze and after an initial chaotic "running of the teens" the cops corralled 30 kids ages 15-18 from 17 different towns. (these kids go to a private school which draws kids from a wide swath.)  Many more teens escaped through a basement door, making a mad dash for their cars, speeding away from the house and away from the law. The "detainees" parents were called to come and pick up their teens. The mother was arrested for violation of the social host law, that states that if there is underage drinking with or with out knowledge of the parents they are held liable and responsible.

There are so many problems here, where do I start? The most obvious being this parent knowingly allowed her daughter and her friends to drink at her home. Not only were they allowed to drink, but the mother knew they would be driving, and not just around the corner. These were not kids from the hood. Some of these kids came from more than 20 miles away to party at this woman's house. Wouldn't you if you were a teen. How fun to be able to drink and party without interference, in a lovely, hassle free home.

Could this be any more unsafe? Even before the cops got there and the kids ran, this mother had no idea the condition of the kids partying at her home. Kids were coming in and out through the basement door. How easy it was for this mother to turn a blind eye. If you don't see it, you don't have to deal with it. I'm guessing she was up in her room, door closed, TV on, oblivious to the shenanigans down below. 

What to do? First if you allow your teen to have a party at your home, make sure there is one way in and one way out. That means any other egresses are locked for the night. This way kids are forced to see the parents, who can check for safety and inebriation. Also parents should set a limit with their partying teen for the number of kids they feel comfortable supervising, as well as a guest list. This way parents can keep track of invited guests, versus party crashers. Parents, do not hang up in your bedroom. Force yourself to go up and down the stairs with pizza, brownies, etc. These should be the rules and expectations when your kids request permission to party at your house. Kids will sneak stuff in, but it will be your job to keep it at a minimum. Any teen who looks compromised in any way and is driving, should be detained until picked up by a parent. PERIOD!

How about if your teen is a guest at a party? Here is your "I Get It" moment. First tell them the story I just told you. and say: "I know you might find yourself at a party like this, where parents might be home, but choosing to stay clueless about what's going on. This scares the sh** out of me. Once kids start drinking, any rational thinking goes down the tubes. Thank god the kids who ran to the cars buzzed didn't get into any accidents. Just by the grace of god. Please let's have a system in place so that you can get yourself out of this situation in a safe way. That is the most important thing to me. I love you, and couldn't bear it if something happened to you running away from a party like this. "

This message should be on a continuous loop. You can't say it enough. As you can see, having parents home is no guarntee that there will be supervision. The ironic coda here is that this mom had signed a "Safe House" agreement that states that they will not allow teens to use alcohol in their homes. Parents at the school are given a list of parents who sign this agreement so they can feel some sense of security sending their kids to homes who have signed this agreement. I guess not!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another Scary Sleepover Story

I hate to start off the week with a sad story, but sometimes it's these kinds of stories that have the most impact. The morning news had this story. It's Friday night and this 16 year old girl and her friend, who was sleeping over, had a 3:00 AM craving for a snack. A snack that apparently her own house could not provide. So they jump in the family car and drive to a local gas station/minimart to satisfy their craving. In their haste to leave, the driver leaves her wallet at the minimart. Realizing she didn't have the wallet, back they go to the gas station to get the wallet. Anxious to get home, she speeds off on the dark road home. In her haste, she misses a curve, flips over, hits a tree and is killed. Her passenger, ejected from the car, wanders around, finds a house, rings the doorbell, and tells the homeowner she doesn't know who she is, where she is, or what happened. She is now in a nearby hospital in serious condition.

Such a sad sad story. The dad says of his daughter: "She sometimes did things and didn't think of the consequences at the time because she was just that way. She was a little bit of a rebel, but just a wonderful child that any parent would have been proud of." According to the article, this girl was a talented athlete, honor roll student, and beloved friend of many.

A great kid, and a wonderful daughter. And like most teenagers was impulsive, and didn't think things through. Maybe like your son or daughter. A plan was hatched: no good food here, lets go to the minimart, it will be fun to be out at 3 AM. My parents will never know, they're totally asleep, we'll be home before they ever get we're missing! It was all so easy, so available, so foolproof, except that it wasn't.

Tell this story to your teen:
Using this I Get It moment: "I get kids do stuff like this at sleepovers. I'm guessing there has been a time or two when you and your friends snuck out late at night, cause you thought it would be fun, not really thinking it through. That really scares me. And maybe, you didn't even want to do it, but didn't want to look like a "pussy" so you did it anyway. Maybe this hasn't happened to you yet, but I know it could. Let's come up with a plan so you feel like you have an "out" when a situation like this happens that could potentially be dangerous, and for this girl, deadly. Maybe you could just say, you're too tired, lets just order out and have a cab bring it, offer to treat everyone. Or text me, and I will say there is a family emergency and come get you. Or act like you are sick, and pretend to throw up, we can be creative, I love you and I just want you to be safe."

And if you are the home where a sleepover is happening. Please please please, no matter how well you know the kids at your house, let them know that you are an insomniac and are awake most of the night. wink wink.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Did You Drink Or Smoke Pot When You Were My Age?

I came across a really interesting article this week by Dr. Perri Klass, a well know Pediatrician and author on kids and families. The article: Q. Did you ever smoke pot? A. It's complicated,  addresses the anxiety and ambivalence most parents feel when their teens asks this question. Of course the major worry is, if I tell the truth, will my teen use that against me as in " Well you smoked pot or drank when you were my age, so don't be such a hypocrite and tell me I shouldn't."

A study done at the Hazelton Treatment Center in Minnosota actually found that parental honesty about their own history with drugs and alcohol was a positive influence. And that has been my experience with parents as well. When your kid finds out that you dabbled yourself as a teen, I think it makes them feel that they can be more open with you and feel less judged by you if you have experienced the draw of teen experimentation.

Lying never works. If you are trying to encourage your teen to be honest and open with you, you need to return the favor. Which isn't to say that you have to tell the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth. You do not have to say that you got trashed every weekend. Dr Sharon Levy, the director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Children's Hospital in Boston advises: "You don't need to tell everything. But if you decide to answer don't lie. Tell them the truth without glorifying it, and if you think you made a mistake, tell them that too."

If your teen does decide to turn it against you, you do not need to bite. Clearly if they have been confronted about a episode of drug and alcohol use, they will use any and all means to deflect responsibility for their actions. You do not need to get defensive or argumentative, you can just say we are not talking about me here, we are talking about what happened with you. Hopefully this won't happen because when your teen asked you for full disclosure of your alcohol and drug use it went something like this; " You know honey, I get that you are interested in hearing how I dealt with this stuff when I was a teen. So here goes. I did try pot, but just didn't like the way it made me feel. I didn't like feeling like I wasn't in control,( or when I was stoned, I couldn't concentrate and it stated affecting my school work) With drinking, I hated the feeling of getting drunk and being sick, and seeing other kids do really stupid things. ( insert a story here of some kid you knew who got into trouble drinking) so mostly I would just have a beer or two. When I was a teen we didn't drink hard liquor like teens do now. No one did binge drinking like that. And also pot has really changed since I was a teen. It is much much stronger now. And now there is so much more information about the brain. They didn't know when I was a teen that the brain is still growing, and that drugs and alcohol can actually lead to permanent changes in the way the brain works. Thank god I just kind of dabbled, cause if I knew then what I know now, it would have really changed the way I thought about it. I wouldn't want you to touch a hot stove just to find out you could get burned. My parents didn't know anything about this stuff, or about what I did, thank god nothing bad happened to me. But now we know alot more about brains and the potency of the pot out there, and of course I love you and want to make sure you are making informed decisions. I know that you have a lot ahead of you,  and that you have goals, and want to be successful in life. I wouldn't want to see something that you can be in control of to get out of control and alter you life forever.

Whew!! That's a long paragraph. You can be honest, without being preachy. You want to always keep the conversation open ended. Check in with them often, every weekend, reminding them how much you love them and want them to be safe.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Didn't I Just Ask You To.....? How Many Times A Day Do You Ask That Question?

ZITS Comic:

Jeremy's mom asks as she looks at the pig sty mess surrounding her son: Didn't I just ask you to put this stuff away?
Jeremy: No
Mom showing Jeremy a video she recorded 2 minutes earlier that says: "Jeremy, will you please put this stuff away?"
Jeremy: How was I supposed to know that you were talking to me????
Mom holding Jeremy's head in looking straight into his eyes: Jeremy. Clean. Up. This Mess.
Jeremy's friend who has witnessed this entire exchange: Wow. Your mom is really a good communicator.
Jeremy: Why? Did she just say something to me?

How familiar is this interaction? You ask your teen to do something, they nonchalantly nod their head or  say "yeh, Ok, I got it." You, naively thinking you have been heard, leave the premises expecting your request to be attended to. Ah if it were just so simple. As seen above, your teen has heard words, but only really as background sounds to whatever it is that has their primary attention, like TV, Video Games, facebook or texting.  They have perfected the art of non-listening while seeming to listen. What is important to you, is absolutely positively important to you,  but is absolutely positively NOT important to them. The only way it becomes important to them is when something they need you to do for them becomes contingent upon them doing what is important to you. Did you get that?

It is really this simple. Using the example above. Mom asks Jeremy to clean up his mess. Jeremy chooses not to hear the request and therefore does not clean up the mess. Maybe mom cleans up the mess cause she can't stand looking at it anymore, or maybe she doesn't and leaves Jeremy sitting in his own sloth.  But in either case, the problem is resolved the same way. For example, Jeremy comes to mom later that day, or evening, or maybe the next day asking for a ride, help in finding something, help with homework, needs to go to staples for a school report, you know whatever it is your teen needs IMMEDIATELY if not sooner. At this point, you or Jeremy's mom in this case, can say: " You know honey, I usually love doing things for you, but when I asked you yesterday to clean up your mess and you chose not to, I guess I choose not to help you out today. Sorry.

And it really is as simple as that. And when your teen gets angry at you for being the worse parent ever, remember yesterday's lesson:
Say no
Stay low
Let it Go!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Arguing With Your Teen? The Perfect Strategy

Thank god for television, comic strips, news, and AOL or where oh where would I come up with all these blog ideas. I was watching a rerun of 30 Rock, it's hard not to since they seem to be on every channel. It seems "Jenna" (it doesn't matter if you don't know the show or the characters) was having a hard time dealing with her very manipulative, user mother. "Jack" who has experience dealing with his own manipulative user mother was advising "Jenna" on a foolproof strategy in dealing with her mother's outlandish requests of her. As soon as I heard it, I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget. Three perfect steps to "winning" an argument.


Perfection! So your teen comes to you with a request to do, go, or buy something. I think that covers all the bases. This is the kind of request for which there is no compromise. Its either too expensive, too unsafe, or too unrealistic. Your teen, unfortunately does not agree.  You state your case in a kind and clear manner, hoping to ward off an argument. Sometimes that works, but if your teen is extremely invested in a YES, I'm guessing you get put on the defensive after being accused by your teen for being overprotective, overbearing, too strict, and the worst parent ever. It's tough not to get hooked. After all you have to protect yourself. But here is the thing, once your teen has heard the word NO, and you mean no, it doesn't matter how loud or how long you argue to the contrary, you will not win. PERIOD! And it will only deteriorate into a place you really don't want to go with your teen. So here is the "Jack Doneghy" strategy.

Say NO in a calm but controlled voice

Stay low, as in keep your voice in a low, soft, controlled register. Once you hit the high notes, you've lost. This means NO SCREAMING NO YELLING

Let It Go: There really is nothing else to say after you have said no. Given that you have explained your rationale for the no.You might end with an "I get it moment. " I get you're angry with me, and don't understand and don't want to hear this answer. I'm sorry, I know how disappointed you are."  and you are done. Do not re-engage.