Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Stay At Home Teen

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, March 29, 2016

When Your Teen Gives You The Silent Treatment

I met a mom the other day who asked me with such pain in her eyes what to do about her 16 year old daughter who in anger had said to her " I will not speak to you again until I can move out at 18!" That was 2 months ago. The parents stood in front of me that night feeling so hurt and so powerless. The mom bought the silent treatment, hook, line and sinker, and also has not talked to her daughter in these 2 months. Talk about a stand-off. The dad feeling stuck in the middle of the two women he loves, chooses to do nothing rather than look like he is taking sides. 

This is an extreme case, but I too remember as a teen, when I felt my mother had misunderstood me so badly that to get back at her I would not talk to her.... forever. Forever turned out to be a few days. Not sure who flinched first, but I know I'm not really good at holding a grudge, but some kids AND some parents are good at grudge holding. Both parties are waiting for the other to apologize, and for two stubborn people this waiting can turn into months as in the mom and daughter above. That is two months too many of wasted time and energy. 

When a perceived injustice occurs, and your teen states emphatically that they hate you, and they can't wait to move out, and they will never speak to you again, and then they don't speak to you for days or weeks at a time, and you reciprocate with silence something has gone terribly wrong. Your teen is angry and hurt for whatever reason, as are you. Perhaps you are a stubborn person, who holds on to hurt and find yourself saying:"fine,  if she/he doesn't want to talk to me, that's her/his choice, but I can play the same game, and lets see how much they like it!" What kind of model is that? Teens are emotional. Their brain chemistry feeds that flame like air to a fire. Your job is to slowly and carefully find your way into the fire, and get everyone to safety. 

You need to keep the door open so that your teen might find their way back in, and save face doing it. They have laid down a gauntlet and now feel obliged to walk it whether they really want to or not. Every night before bed, every morning when they get up, you continue to express your love for them regardless and without expectations. Your teen needs to know that no matter how much they have hurt you, (and perhaps they feel you have hurt them) you always always love them. Texts sent to their phone, cards left on their bed, e-mails sent to their computer, whatever you need to do to let them know that you are ready whenever they are to figure this issue out. Some I get it moments: " I get how angry you are, or I get how hurt you are, or I get you need time, and I respect that. But I love you and I know we can figure out what went wrong here. I can't change if I don't know or understand what can make you so angry with me that you can't even talk to me. I love you, and there is nothing more important to me than figuring out what has gone wrong."This message has to be given without guilt and anger if you truly want to open the doors of communication. Anger breeds anger. Having a child who feels so negatively towards you is unbearable, so much so that many parents don't want to open Pandora's box. Your teen will be brutally honest when the flood gates open and you need to be prepared for that. If your relationship has deteriorated to this extreme, I'm guessing that blame lies with both parties. Modeling ownership of your own part in this allows your teen to do the same. Who flinches do!!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Making The College Decision

The deadline for making college choice decisions is coming. So 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 At first glance they thought that small and suburban was good, but now they feel the limitation.
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?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Things Teens Do

  • Love their friends more than they love you, at least temporarily
  • Love their friends more than they like school, at least temporarily
  • Talk back
  • Not talk at all
  • Think they know everything
  • Think you know nothing
  • Think they are always right
  • Think you are never right
  • Have a messy room
  • "Forget" to do their chores
  • Go places and not tell you with whom, where or when they will be home
  • Get in car accidents
  • Run out of gas
  • Have friends drive with them even though they're not allowed to
  • Maybe drink
  • Maybe smoke some weed
  • Maybe have sex of some kind
  • Want to go to parties, especially at houses where the parents aren't home or are clueless
  • Sneak out at night
  • Lie
  • Appear lazy and unmotivated
  • Never want to spend time with the family
  • Is mean to their younger brothers and sisters
  • Argues and picks fights
  • Is sarcastic and can be mean
  • Are funny
  • Are sweet
  • Are loving 
  • Are kind
  • Are passionate
Sound familiar? These are all normal testing behaviors of teenagers. Having any or all of these behaviors does not make your teen a sociopath or a bad kid, just a kid who's learning about the world, what it has to offer, and what kinds of consequences there are when you act that way. 

Don't be too accepting and don't be too critical.  There is some nice space in the middle, understanding what's within the "normal" but still making kids accountable.

I was playing solitaire on my smartphone last night. Yes, I do have one! I thought the game was over. I couldn't find any more moves and was about to close it out. My eye caught that one move that changed the whole game, and I won!! Life with a teen is kinda like that. It might seem that you can't take anymore, and then something shifts, and you can finish and move on. You gotta have patience. I'm still learning that!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

I Got The Chore Blues

No kid wants to do their chores. Honestly I really don't know anyone who gets kick-ass exited to mow the lawn, take out the trash, bring down their laundry. Hell, I don't even like to do those chores. It's only when there is that tipping point, when if I leave whatever for one more day that I begin to feel really really bad about myself. And I am an adult.

So your first weapon in combatting the chore blues is to anticipate the struggle it's going to take. Your second weapon is to have a plan in your head that outlines, the number of times you are willing to ask before you just do it yourself, and then the consequence for your teen for not doing it.

There are two variations that I think are effective:

Plan 1

Keep your "asks" to three. All Teens need to be reminded, that is normal. After the 3rd ask you stop asking. And when your teen comes to you next for a ride, money laundry, help with homework, a special snack, etc, you say:" Gee honey, I would love to, let me know when you have done X and I'll get right on it. 

Plan 2

Again keep your asks to three. Then just do it yourself. And when your teen comes asking for any of those favors, you say, You know honey, I would have, but I asked you three times to do X and you chose not to help me out. So sorry, now I choose not to help you out today. 

Nagging is no fun, and almost never works anyway.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Parent Director VS The Parent Consultant

You might not think it, but your teen is very much like a toddler! Tantrums...need I say more!  Also like toddlers, teens are exploring a whole new world with a whole new brain. Bear with me here. A researcher from MIT conducted a study with 100 preschoolers. The experiment was as follows. Each toddler was presented with a toy that had multiple functions. One group of toddlers were shown one function of how this toy worked by a research assistant, then were left to their own devices to explore the toy. The other group of toddlers were given the toy with no instruction, and were left to their own devices to explore this toy.

The toddlers who were given some instruction, played with the toy in that one way, then got bored and stopped playing with it altogether. The group who was given no instruction, not only played with it longer, but through trial and error discovered the different ways this toy could be used. Simply put when direction was given,  there was no exploration. When no direction was given, there was much exploration. I don't know about you, but I think that developing problem solving skills is the main event of childhood and adolescence. It is what helps to develop confidence, and curiosity. Developing a personal identity requires it as does thriving in our new complicated world.

The term "helicopter parent" has been popularized of late, referring to parents who hover over their teens, involving themselves in all aspects of their teens life. Your choice as a parent is to either stand on the side lines and let your kids play the game of life, providing assistance when asked or needed versus getting in there with them and telling them how to play, what moves to make, and how to make those moves.

Like those toddlers who without instruction figured out how this somewhat complicated toy worked, your teens are driven to figure out their "toy" as well. If you figure it out for them, then they will grow to depend on you to always figure it out for them. This does not make for a healthy adult. I don't know about you, but hiring someone or marrying someone who hasn't learned how to problem solve might be a tough sell.

Some parents thrive on being the problem solver, the director of their kids lives. You are not being fired, just given a lateral move. Think of yourself as their consultant instead. The hours are way more flexible and now you have some time for yourself. Its all good.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Free To Be Me

One of the major tasks of Adolescence is to develop a personal identity; what are my values, my interests, my passions, what are the qualities I look for in friends and lovers, what is my sexual identity, what are my goals? etc.  Part of this process is also to look closely at the people who raised them, and analyze how they are both different and the same from them. I always say that having a teen in the house is like having your own personal therapist. With this new brain of theirs, they are able to really look at you without the cloud of perfection that hovered over you in their childhood. Why the hell do these kids have to grow up?????? They are now free to share with you their thoughts and ideas about you! Unfortunately much of what they share is the stuff we already don't like about ourselves. Having them be so honest can be very uncomfortable. But if you can listen without hurt or defensiveness, you might learn something new and potentially useful about yourself. More importantly it is part of the process of figuring out who they are.

As teens start thinking for themselves, they might start to go down paths that parents aren't comfortable with. I'm not talking about unsafe or risky behavior, but life choices about what they like to do, where they might want to go to college, and ultimately what they want to do with their life. Most parents have dreams for their kids. In healthy families, parents keep those dreams to themselves waiting to see what path their children seem most interested in, even if it means parents giving up their own dreams for their kids. In some families, parent's dreams for their kids is more of a requirement than an option. We call that Identity foreclosure, when the option of choosing one's own identity is taken away from them. The following paragraphs are answers to a question on the exam I gave last week, asking students to choose the identity type that most describes their experience with this process. These students have answered identity foreclosure.

Food for thought:

"My parents forced me to go to all elite catholic schools form kindergarten to college. I  was never allowed to get anything below a B or I would be in serious trouble. I am now not a catholic."

"My parents picked nursing school for me. they said they would only pay for college if I went for nursing. My mom graduated from a nursing program and really wanted me to go."

"My parents control most if not all decisions made in my life. If they think that this is the best decision for my future they will push me toward that path without acknowledging my concerns."

"Everyone in my family is in the medical field and my parents urged me to become a nurse. I was pushed to pursue this.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Present Is Not The Future!!

I've been reading the actress/comedian/writer/producer Mindy Kaling's book called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?   It's not only hilarious, but full of great life lessons, albeit funny ones, especially for teens. She captures so brilliantly the hyper-self-consciousness that is a such a presence in a teen's life, and also the drama that teens experience.  You know when your teen experiences a humiliation, betrayal, or exclusion, that it feels to them literally like the end of the world. Here's what Mindy says about that:

"Teenage girls, please don't worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete. Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life. What I've noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also a big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it's so wonderfully fair. 
    I just want ambitious teenagers to know it is totally fine to be quiet, observant kids. Besides being a delight to your parents, you will find you have plenty of time later to catch up."

She talks about what it's like being a girl, well because she's a girl, but these life lessons are not gender specific. The high school experience is just a moment a time. It's not only a good lesson for your teens, but it's also a really good lesson for parents. The most important years of your teen's life are yet to come. High school is NOT the defining moment. Your teen might not know that, but you should!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

There Are Only Two Real Parenting Mistakes!

First I want to say, that all your kids will be fine in the end. There I said it! Unless there is severe mental illness or severe family trauma, by the time your teen hits their 20's they will adore being at home, desirous of your input and advice about their life, and unbelievably fun to hang out with. So take a deep breath, pleeese!

The way I see it, in my experience, after 30 years of working with families, and raising one of my own, there are only two real parenting mistakes that can change the outcome of your child's life.

First is the too strict or rigid parenting style. If you are the party of NO, my way or the highway, or you have a ton of rules way past the time that kids need rules for everything, and you have extremely high expectations for your teen's academic performance, you run some risks.

Risk #1: Adolescence is all about independence. If you continue to write the script for your teen's life they will react in one of two ways. If they feel over-controlled, over-managed, and have to answer to too many rules, some kids will be forced to act out to get the freedom their brain and their body are telling them they should have. By acting out I mean lying, hostility and anger, deliberate school failure, drug and alcohol use or abuse and avoiding you at every turn. This can feel like armed warfare. These teens need to learn how to make decisions on their own. These are the kids that often bail on college. As soon as they hit campus, and experience that first taste of freedom, all control and discipline, no matter how much you have drilled it in to them is gone. They have never actually learned how to be self-disciplined, or internalized the rules and structure that you imposed. As young children structure and control is good, as teens you need to share and encourage with supervision your teen's innate drive to be independent.

Risk #2: Some teens who are over controlled and over-managed become extremely passive. They have developed what is call learned-helplessness. What they integrate is a lack of complete confidence in their ability to make decisions, and look to you for direction in all parts of their life. This is not healthy. These teens are lovely to have in the home because they never fight with you, and come to you often for help. For a parent, there is nothing like it. However in life, you will not always be available.  When it comes to adult relationships whether romantically, with friends,  or with bosses or colleagues they will rarely speak up for themselves, and open themselves up  to be taken advantage of, thinking that they don't know better. These kids need to learn to have confidence in their own ability to make decisions, and that what they want matters.

Second parenting mistake is the too permissive parent. This parent maybe has an unspoken rule, do well in school, and I will ignore everything else. Or maybe, your philosophy is that your teens should be able to manage their own lives, or maybe the parent's life is in chaos with a divorce, or other family crisis, and takes their "eye of the ball" being too involved in their own life events. Rather than too many rules, there are no rules, no expectations, no supervision. These are the parents with the blind eye. A blind eye to what goes on in their own basements with their teens and their friends, a blind eye to where and what their teens are doing when they are out and about, and a blind eye to their teens safety. Teens are by nature risk-takers. Sometimes those risks can be life-threatening, either physically or psychologically. Teens need to know that someone is looking out for their welfare, even if they fight you tooth and nail when you do. When these kids move into adulthood, they are often entitled, irresponsible young adults, who look towards you to bail them out when they act badly, perhaps its is financially, or legally. These now grown up kids, can't or don't feel like managing the mundane of life, and will constantly look to you to do it for them, even well into adulthood.

So these are the two extremes. Everything else in between, usually works itself out. Parenting a teen is about setting enough limits to keep your teen safe, and give enough leeway for them to practice decision making, knowing that they will make mistakes, that they will hate you some days, and knowing that underlying it all is love. Your love for them, and their love you. It really is as simple as that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Art Of Teaching Responsibility

Two lists were generated by my college students describing things that their parents did well to prepare them for college life, and some ways parents left them unprepared for a life away from parental oversight.

Many students expressed gratitude to their parents for teaching them how to take responsibility for themselves, both financially and  emotionally. These students felt a sense of personal satisfaction that if they wanted something they had to work to get it. Though they knew their parent's support was always available to them, they liked feeling "in control" of their life, and liked that their parents had confidence in their ability to make good decisions whether around academics, curfews, partying, friends, college etc. Conversely. many students felt unprepared for life on their own, and wished their parents had made them get a job when they were in high school,  and had given them more opportunities to be responsible for themselves, while the parental safety net was there. Now on their own, they are overwhelmed with all the daily decisions that they must make on their own. These students are calling or texting their parents multiple times a day just to get advice on some of the mundane tasks of daily living. I am sure that those parents who get these texts are grateful. It's almost like they've never left home. "They love me, they really love me!"

But it won't feel so cute when they are 25 and still calling you to find out how to make a doctor's appointment, take care of a bounced check, expired car registration, or empty bank account.  The time is now! So if you are a problem solver, a person of action who loves to take care of business, beware. Taking care of your teen's business will come back to haunt you in the future. Here is a checklist of ways to encourage independence.

 1. When your teen comes to you for help with a problem, I know you feel flattered, but resist the temptation to solve it for them. Instead ask questions that put them in the drivers seat like: "What do you see as some of the options?" "OK lets look at option 1, pros and cons" Take them through the process of how a decision is made. Remember teens today are impatient, they look for a quick response. But there are some things in life you can't google. It just takes old fashioned time. You solving their problems just feeds their need for instant gratification.

2. If you find yourself becoming your teen's personal ATM, it might mean that your teen has lost awareness for how much and how he/she spends your money. So much of a teens life is magical. Using cell phones, computers, mom and dad's generosity, everything they want is literally in their fingertips. How about saying to your teen; "I am willing to give up to $$$ a month and then it's up to you if you want or need anything over and above." Just because your teen wants to go shopping every weekend that doesn't mean you have to shell out 40 bucks so they have some spending money. They may buy another T-shirt or video game, but because it was just a meaningless buy, no skin off their teeth, it ends up in a pile of other impulsive boredom buys. Do not just mindlessly buy or give your teen money. Make them work for something.  Don't deprive them of that feeling of pride when earned money is what buys them something. Maybe it's a job, maybe it's money for chores, but teaching them that you don't get something for nothing is a valuable lesson.

3. Teens ask you to do many things for them. And because you love them and because many of your teens have busy lives, or because saying no starts an argument, you do it. There are times however that demands cross the line from "Mom/Dad, can you, will you?" to " TAKE ME, BUY ME, FEED ME, CLEAN ME !" Unknowingly parents often feed into the narcissistic impulses that are common for adolescents, and with that comes a sense of entitlement. Make sure that if and when you help your teen out, it does not come after some overt disrespect, or avoidance of requests that you have asked of them. You might say in a calm, non-confrontational voice: "I love doing things for you, but not when you speak to me like you did this morning." Or, I love doing things for you, but I have asked you a million times this week to just bring your laundry to the machine so I can do it, and you haven't. When that is done I will be happy to take you to X's house." It is important for your teen to understand that relationships are reciprocal, cause when they are out in the big bad world, fellow grown-ups will expect that of them.