Are Teens Really Wild Animals?

My first test of being responsible for another living thing happened when I was in college. I received a Black Labrador Retriever from another college student who had purchased this full-bred, papered puppy before realizing that “Having a puppy is a lot of work!” His lanky body and big feet made him goofy and his playful free spirit made him extremely cute! As endearing as this 10 week old puppy was, he had a lot to learn about life and I had a lot to learn about being his mom! He had to learn to go to the bathroom outside, listen when he was called and refrain from chewing everything in sight! I had to learn how to teach him these things.

Looking back on this experience, I realize there are some parallels between raising a puppy and raising a teen. Both have a lot to learn about life, both get away with things occasionally because they are so cute, and both need consistent rules, boundaries and affection to grow up. One of the first things I did was get my dog, Cassidy, a kennel. He spent all of his alone time in this kennel; he even slept in it at night. This helped him learn not to chew or go to the bathroom inside. However, the true test of his learning would come when he got to stay home alone, without having to be in his kennel. It was at that point that I would know if I could really trust him. Don’t we experience this same realization with our teens? We can only know that they have learned and that we can trust them when we let them loose to face the world and make their own decisions.

When Cassidy was six months old, I decided it was time. He had graduated to having the freedom to roam the apartment for a few hours at a time. From this experience, I learned some pretty important things that can be related to raising teens. First, I learned that Cassidy liked his kennel. His cozy little den was comfortable, safe, and predictable. Most of the time, he was in his kennel when I got home, even though he was no longer restricted. Teens are not all that different. Teens need their home to be comfortable, safe, and predictable. Even though they may argue differently, setting rules and expectations for behavior and following through with consequences gives them a sense of security. If home is not comfortable, safe and predictable, where can teens go to gain a sense of control in the midst of their chaotic life?

I also learned that bored puppies make for naughty puppies. Cassidy stayed out of trouble when there were toys for him to play with and bones for him to chew. Teens also need ways to stay busy. As they get older and increasingly independent, they need an appropriate balance of extracurricular activities and leisure time. Every teen wants down time, but too much down time can be troublesome. It robs them of the opportunity to develop confidence and skills and creates a setting where they can make bad choices in an effort to fill their time.

Finally, I learned that Cassidy got in trouble when something new was introduced to his safe and structured environment. One of his first adventures out of his kennel was spoiled by a “care package” that my mom sent me. True to form, this package was filled with laundry soap, homemade cookies, and other goodies and necessities. Cassidy ate all the cookies, which obviously had a “negative” impact on his behavior. Who knew a 6 month old puppy could completely destroy a lazy-boy chair! Our teens are going to be introduced to new things all the time and there is no way that we can predict every scenario. However, we can pay attention, consider possibilities, and do our best to prepare them for the unexpected. Teens also need to know that their parents don’t expect them to know everything. They feel great relief when they know they can call on a parent for help and guidance. Our role is to be both available and approachable so that our teens can ask for help anytime they feel unsure or unsafe. I’ve known many teens that have said things like: “I felt so much better after I told my dad everything” and “I was relieved when I told my mom and was no longer alone in dealing with my problems”

It is absurd to say that raising a dog is just like raising a teen. We all know that the stakes are quite a bit higher with teens. Still, pets often provide the first context for us to learn about being responsible for another living thing. How we love and discipline our pets has an impact on the kind of pet they become. It may be fun for you to think about your experiences with animals, consider other parallels, and share a story with us!

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How You Respond Can Influence Your Teen’s Behavior

Think back to when you first brought your baby home. There you sat, fully responsible for the livelihood of this child. You may have felt exhausted, or even a little overwhelmed by all that had changed. Yet, you loved this baby more than anything in the world and very quickly realized how much he/she enriched your life. I remember people calling my house, saying “What are you up to?” Often, my reply was “Just sitting here watching my baby sleep” I thought to myself, who would have believed that I could just sit and watch someone sleep for hours at a time!”

The following video is a profound illustration of the importance of parent-child interactions, and the impact that our responses can have on the actions and behaviors of our children. While this video shows a mom and her infant, there is an important message to parents of teens;  how we respond to our teen influences their behavior.

As parents, we try to do all we can to nurture and provide for our baby’s needs. When they smile at us, we smile back. When they cry, we try to sooth them. We play, touch, laugh, coo, feed, clean, rock, and tickle them. These interactions play a very important role in both their social-emotional development, and their attachment to their parent. It is through these interactions that they begin developing a relationship with you. And, it is through that relationship that they develop patterns that guide their perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and expectations in relationships they will have as teens.

We have very different interactions with teens.  We typically don’t coo, tickle toes, or rock teens, but they still need us to respond to them in a way that connects and builds relationship. And just like the infant in this video, teens may pull away, act out, or cry for help when we don’t pay attention and respond to their needs. They simply act out and cry for help in different ways. In fact, psychologists suggest that even rule breaking or delinquent behavior is often a wake up call for families that their teen needs something that he/she is not getting.

The following tips can help you pay attention and respond to your teen in a way that strengthens your relationship and prepares him/her to have good relationships with others:

  • Pay close attention to their emotions.  They will not be as transparent as infants. Give them lots of opportunity and room to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Listen with an open mind. Make a big effort to understand where they are coming from, even when you feel differently.
  • Understand that adults tend to use logic, while teens use emotion to explain their behavior. Often times, you must connect with your teen on an emotion level before they can even hear your logic.
  • Learn to identify the cues they use to show you that they need you. For example: While a baby may shriek to engage you, a teen may withdraw, play basketball, or draw a bath.
  • Realize that teens may not see or understand their own behavior. Help them to recognize what they are feeling and thinking by making observations and asking gentle questions like: “You look sad. Is everything ok?” or “I imagine you feel overwhelmed with everything that is due at school this week.”
  • Listen without trying to solve things for them.  It can be helpful to ask permission when you really want to offer your advice: “Can I share with you what has worked for me?” or “I have some thoughts about that. Would you like to hear them?”
  • Be mindful of your body language. Just like the mom showing no expression in the video induced a desperate response for her infant, your body language will communicate how you are hearing your teen. Showing sincere interests and not overreacting communicates trust that they can keep talking.
  • Show empathy. This demonstrates understanding and normalizes their feelings. Teens can feel guilt and/or shame when they feel like the only person in the world to experience something or feel a certain way.

Happy Parenting!

Positive Parenting Tips to Build Self Esteem in Teens

Just recently, I was talking with a 16 year old teen about what it was like to be 16. He said,

There is a lot of change at 16. You know it is hard to believe I am almost 17, and that 10 months ago I was just 15….there is a very big difference between being 15 and 17! A lot has changed in my life. I have gained some good things, and some bad things. I have lost some good things and some bad things. Now, I am deciding who I want to be.

What a great way to put it!  At 15 years old, teens are just entering middle adolescence.  High school is a new experience, thinking is becoming more abstract, and opportunities for new activities (both in school and with peers) are expanding rapidly.  By 17 years old, teens are gaining more and more autonomy and developing increasing amounts of responsibility for themselves and for their choices. They may be driving, working, dating, and juggling activities and school.

This period of time is a transformative time when teens try on new styles, build new friendships, take new jobs, and engage in new activities…..all in a search for understanding who they are,  who they are becoming, and who they want to be in the future. They are living out the consequences of their choices, however negative or positive they may be.  Even though many teens are reflecting on how their choices shape their identity, lack of brain development in the frontal lobe can make it challenging for them to think deep into the future.  As parents, it is important to remember that you can facilitate increased awareness by showing empathy, asking questions, and sharing your experiences with your teen.

Teens this age can act like adults one minute and kids the next, as they actively work to integrate all the different aspects of the self.  Throughout this process, teens need parents to use positive parenting techniques that help them build self-esteem and confidence.  Positive parenting is a psychological term that is used more and more to describe a form of disciplining children and teens. It differs from the more traditional sequence of positive rewards and negative punishments by putting a bigger focus is on communication, empathy, and understanding. Positive parenting can be done in conjunction with setting limits and boundaries that match your family’s needs and values. Below are 5 positive parenting tips that can help you connect with your teen:

  • Seek understanding: Try to approach situations from their perspective. Teens like it when you try to speak their language.
  • Talk with them, not at them: This means asking lots of questions, searching for clarity, rephrasing what they say back to them.
  • Get to their level: Sit together so that your eyes can connect at the same level.
  • Separate the deed from the doer: Show teens unconditional love by addressing the behavior without being critical of them as individuals.
  • State what you would like, not what you don’t like: Try saying “Feel free to take hourly breaks to check your Facebook” instead of “Don’t get on Facebook while you are doing homework!”

There is a consistent link between self-esteem in children and these kinds of parenting characteristics. Children with high self-esteem describe their parents as encouraging independence and being accepting of who they are as individuals.