Raising Teens: Get In Their World

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am writing this to tell you a little about how I am feeling and let you know that I am trying to understand how you are feeling too. There are some things I would like to ask of you. One, I would like it if you could try to see things through my eyes.  I have been trying to do that with you and I think you would see me differently if you did that too. Two, I would like it if everything was not all my fault. I know that I need to take responsibility for some things, but not 100% of things. Three, it really hurts when you say I am being a certain way and I don’t think fits me. Words like rude, dramatic, or self-centered make me feel bad. You may not always use those words, but the message is clear. Four, sometimes I don’t get enough time to cool down when I am upset or I just don’t feel like talking about it right now. I want to respect you, but I want you to respect me too. When these things don’t work, I feel down inside and it is hard for me to set myself up for success. I am only saying all this to tell you how I am feeling and try to  find a way to work things out easier. Please write me back.

Wow! That is a lot for a 14-year old to say, and it shows that while parents can get stuck thinking that “kids are just kids”, teens are often capable of thinking and expressing themselves beyond what we  believe is possible.  While you may not have received a letter like this one, your teen has probably shared his/her thoughts and feelings in one way or another.  These can come out in a variety of ways ranging from calm discussions or letters like this one to angry yelling or tearful breakdowns.  Her letter is an expression of her emotional intelligence, or her ability to:

  • Know her own feelings,
  • Use her feelings to make decisions,
  • Manage distress and control impulses,
  • Take actions that move her toward her goals,
  • Show empathy – know how others are feeling, and
  • Manage emotions in her relationships.

The trap for parents is that they can find themselves analyzing, reacting, or responding point-by-point to what is shared.  But actually, their sharing is a perfect opportunity to GET IN THEIR WORLD!   What teens really wants is for their parents to “get them”… to understand who they are and what they are going through.

Using the letter above, you can begin to “get her” by  trying to understand what is at the source of her words. What is it that she really wants you to know about her?  You may see that she wants to be:

  • Understood in the context of her world – the teenage world,
  • Seen as responsible,
  • Seen as a part of, but not the sole source of the problem or argument,
  • Thought highly of ,
  • Respected, and
  • Given space to calm down.

Given that, how might you respond to her? Being in her world would involve putting aside your own thoughts and emotions and focusing on what she wants you to understand about her. For example, you could let her know that you think she is responsible. You could even give examples of her being responsible.

The next time you have an opportunity to be get in your teens world, try the following techniques:

  • Focus on fostering openness and trust in your relationship. Generally, this means creating a safe environment for sharing by listening and showing that you believe your teens thoughts and feelings are valid and important.
  • Stay focused on what your teen shares. Be careful not to react to triggers of your own thoughts and feelings. You will have an opportunity to share what is important to you later.
  • Address what is at the source of your teens thoughts or feelings and avoid focusing on picky details. In the example above, you can hear that she wants to be understood. Try saying something like, “It sounds like you feel really misunderstood and I want to understand you”
  • Repeat what is said, so that your teen has the experience of being heard.  For example, “So, what I hear you telling me is…..” (put it in your own words but restate what was said).
  • Dig a little deeper by asking your teen if you missed anything, or if he/she would like to tell you more. Phrases like, “Did I get that right?”,  “Have I missed anything? or “Do you want to tell me more about that?” can help you dig a little deeper.
  • Point out the outcome you think your teen wants. I hear you saying that you would like to be heard. You would like it if I listened to you without interrupting.”
  • Create with your teen. Make some agreements. For example, you could agree to be AWESOME listeners, or to allow space before talking about heated issues.

Once teens feel gotten, they are much  more open to listening to you.  It is at this point that you can share what is going on for you and give your teen an opportunity to practice getting someone else.  It is through these kind of interactions that emotional intelligence is built and fostered!

Happy Parenting,

Shelly

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Your Teen Is Changing! What Can You Do About It?

Michelangelo said that when he set out to sculpt a statue from a formless block of marble, he sought only to remove the excess marble from the statue that already existed inside the block. This is what Aristotle called accidental change.  Aristotle believed that when change occured, something new came to be, something old passed away, and something stayed the same throughout.

While we constantly watch our children change, the teen years are some of the most pronounced. Your teen will go through pubertal changes, as well as changes in brain structure, cognitive capabilities, and sexual interest.  They will also experience changes in the roles they assume in their family, community, and school.  Outside of their own development, teens must adjust to the changing world around them. For example, teens have experienced the rapid growth in technology, changing views in politics, and emerging styles in music and clothing.

Whether we are talking about normal development or changes in the world around us, some will be easier than others. People often respond to change with phrases like, “Come what may”, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, and “What we resist persists.”  When people really don’t want to deal with change, they often look for proof to justify that it isn’t really happening or necessary.

One thing to consider is how Aristotle’s description of change fits your teen. Try taking a day or two to live in wonder of who your teen really is right now.  Have a good look at what has emerged, passed away, or  been the same for as long as you can remember. This can happen in a variety of areas such as personality traits, tastes in food, interests, styles, and levels independence. Why do this? Because, change happens so quickly we can miss it if we don’t pay attention.

Another thing to consider is how you deal with your teen changing. Do you avoid it or embrace it? Do you prepare for it or deal with it as it comes?  Do you accept it or wish things would just stay the same.  It is important to consider how you deal with change because your response can actually have an impact on your teen’s experience of him/herself.  For example, let’s say your teen’s interest switches from playing football to guitar. Embracing this change may open up opportunities for your teen to feel excited, proud, and adventurous. However, responding with criticism may generate feelings of hesitation, sadness, and guilt.

Finally, consider that you can have an impact on how your child changes by what you expose them to, and how you embrace what they choose to explore.  Teens often take your openness and interest in them as a pure expression of love. One time, I heard a teen tell his mom, “It means so much to me that you are open to me trying on different nutritional diets. It means even more that you will do them with me. It says that you care about what matters to me and I love you for it.”

While change looks different for every teen, it is inevitable.  Regardless of how you feel about it, change helps to shape the adult your teen becomes.  Challenge yourself to be a positive contribution and enjoy it along the way.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

The Practice of “Still Lake” in Parenting Your Teen

How would you complete the sentence, “Parenthood is……”?

It is pretty amazing, isn’t it? Becoming a parent immediately changes you. From that moment forward, you put your child’s needs ahead of your own. Parenting is one of the few things that can make you strive to be the best person you can be. Sometimes, it is smooth sailing. Other times, it is the perfect storm. You may find yourself challenged by the very things that make you who you are as a person.  Your personality, past experiences, expectations, and hopes can get in the way of you having the kind of interaction you want to have with your teen. Sometimes we say or do things we don’t mean. Other times, we are simply stuck. When we feel lost, we turn to friends, other parents, books, health professions, or anyone else we trust to provide us with honest and helpful advice.  We do all of this in an effort to raise happy and healthy children.

In a conversation over dinner the other night, I was reminded how fortunate I am to have people with whom I can share this journey. Our conversation made me think of a symbol from my Tae Kwon Do practice. This symbol is called “Still Lake“, which means “strong on the inside, calm and gentle on the outside”.   It represents a person’s ability to live with grace and confidence. It is a reminder that one does not have to be “tough” to be “strong” and it is symbolic of being aware of oneself and the impact that you have on those around you. It is about having poise in your interactions with others.  This symbol represents being comfortable enough in who you are to be truly present with someone else.  Still Lake can exist in all relationships, with one of the biggest being your relationship with your teen. You can practice still lake in your parenting by focusing on: (1) having an empty mind, (2) removing the meaning, and (3) cleaning things up.

Having an Empty Mind: When you have an empty mind, you remove any filter that you have about how a particular interaction is going to go. Often times, we come to conversations with an expectation of what someone is going to say or do. This pre-existing filter can impact how you respond to your teen. For example, think about a typical interaction with a teen who struggles to do homework. If you are used to your teen resisting homework, you may come to your next interaction expecting him/her to fidget or lack focus. This expectation will guide both how you talk to and respond to your teen.  You react to what you expect, not what is really going on at the time. We can only be fully present with our teen when we remove the filters of what we expect will happen based on past experience.

Removing the Meaning:  The moment something happens, we assign meaning.  It is human nature and happens almost instantaneously. For example, someone says, “I can’t believe you said that,” and you make it mean, “She must think I am stupid for saying that.”  You might tell your daughter, “Those shorts are too short,” and she makes it mean, “My mom thinks I’m being sleazy.”  Your son may get bumped in the shoulder by a friend during passing period at school, and he makes it mean that person is mad at him.  The truth is, we can drive ourselves crazy trying to guess what someone or something means, and usually we are wrong. Like having an empty mind, being aware of this is important because it can dictate how you are around a person in the future. For example, a teen would probably be different to a parent’s comment about short shorts if she believed her mom respected her. Similarly, a teen would likely be different to a teen that accidentally bumped him then one he thinks is mad at him. Whenever you see your teen assigning meaning to something, help him/her to: (1) recognize the assumed meaning up front, (2) generate other possible options, and (3) focus on what is actually true about the situation, instead of perpetuating what they “think” is true.

Cleaning It Up: You know there is something to clean up when you feel like something was left unsaid, misunderstood, or taken the wrong way. Whatever is left undone between two people exists in the space between them. Let’s say that you hollered at your daughter about her short shorts while her friend was over. Outside of being embarrassed, she may be left feeling like you don’t think she has any self-respect. That feeling will go into the bucket of “what mom or dad thinks of me”. It may even become something that she takes on as part of how she defines herself. Cleaning it up involves a few steps:

  • Affirm your relationships.

“You are so important to me and I really want you to have what you deserve in life. One of those things is to be respected by others.”

  • Recognize your part of the conversation.

“I don’t think anything bad of you. In fact, I think your shorts are cute. Right or wrong, I worry that people will not respect you as much if you wear them.” 

  • Acknowledge the impact you had on her.

“I am sorry that I embarrassed you in front of your friend.  I realize I may have even made you feel bad about yourself for wanting to wear them. I don’t think your shorts say anything about you as a person.”

  • Ask if there is anything you can do.

“Do you want me to say something to your friend? Can I take you shopping for some shorts that we both like?”

Still Lake represents the balance between strength and vulnerability.  You have to be “strong” to have an open mind and remove all the meaning so that you can understand what is actually true about a situation.  And, you have to be vulnerable to say you are sorry and admit your contribution. Still Lake is a practice in self-awareness. It is not about being perfect; it is about being real. You will find that teens appreciate it when you are real with them. It makes them feel as though they too can be strong, vulnerable and real with you.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

What’s Going On? My Teen Seems So Far Away!

One of the barriers to communication is the naturally occurring distancing that takes place during adolescence. Communication during the teen years can be especially challenging because of the rapid changes that occur in their physical bodies and social worlds.  The first thing to remember is that as your child moves through the teen years, he/she will become more private. Teens often move toward writing in their journal, hiding in their bedroom, and holding private conversations with friends via text or instant message. Recently, a mom who was trying to monitor her teen’s use of Facebook and cell phone told me, “My 12-year old hates it when I am in her business. The other day she screamed ‘Don’t read my texts! That is just weird. I don’t want you to see my private conversations!’”

Think back to your own adolescence. Were there certain things that you really didn’t want to talk to your parents about? How did you decide what to share and what to keep to yourself? The truth is, most often teen are not trying to be devious or dishonest; they are simply in the process of separating themselves from their parents. While it is important to remember that this individuation is part of how teens develop their identity and become their own person, it is also important to remember that sometimes you have to interject yourself into their world to keep them safe and healthy.  This requires paying a lot of attention to what is going on in your teen’s life. Everything from school, friends, and activities to feelings, moods, and actions is important. You know it is time to intervene when you sense that something is wrong, or suspect that your teen is holding something that could put him/her in danger.

Certainly, too much distancing can have other negative impacts on your relationship by removing opportunities to share and connect with one another. Remember that giving your teen space is not the same as staying out of the way completely.  Even though increased independence can reduce the amount of one-on-one time you have with your child, it does not have to translate to zero time or poor communication.  Part of parenting is being able to find the balance between giving children room to grow, while also establishing a safe environment with rules for behavior that match your beliefs and values.

The difficult part of this life stage is that these changes take place at the same time that your teen requires lots of guidance and monitoring to navigate new freedoms and opportunities. Teens need continued structure, attention, reassurance, and love from their parents as they try to find their way.  Often times, your life experience will help you to recognize when your child needs you.  Remember, sometimes teens will push their parents away so that they will pull them closer. Let your teen know that you pay attention because of your love and your ability to use the knowledge, experience, and the resources you have gathered over time to help them grow and develop.  Your teen will be more likely to share with you when the message is “I can help you” versus “You are going to be in trouble”.

Finally, don’t take it personally when your teen is quiet and distant. Focus on taking advantage of the opportunities you get to make connections and show interest in them. If these opportunities do not come frequently enough, create the space you need to interact in such a way that you have more opportunities. The virtual world we live in, and the ease with which teens use cell phones and other technology, opens up new doors for connection. Regardless of your means of communication, reaching out to your child says, “My mom/dad thinks of me. My mom/dad loves me”.  Staying in touch while being compassionate and understanding of your teen’s need for independence can go a long way in building understanding and trust between the two of you.

Other things to consider in maintaining a connection with your child during this phase:

  • Share aspects of yourself with your teen.  This can prompt your teen to share in return.
  • Be creative about how you interact with one another. Find ways to communicate regularly. You may have to schedule something a trip to the coffee shop on the way to school or a weekly lunch outing.
  • Make your communication engaging by talking about things he/she enjoys. Help your teen see that you are not prying or snooping, rather you are interested in who they are as a person.
  • Take personal responsibility for creating a loving relationship with your child. Making your teen feel like he/she is responsible can backfire, or make your child feel burdened with guilt, uncertainty, and/or sadness.
  • If you feel it in your gut, there is probably something going on that you need to know about. Your knowing could keep your teen safe, or give you an opportunity to you’re your teen make an informed decision or better choice.  Don’t be afraid to be up front with your child about your concern.

The Adolescent Brain: What Stays? What Goes?

The brain is a powerful and mysterious thing!  It is functioning all of the time, day and night.   Certain parts of the brain even have multiple pathways to perform the same task……just in case something goes wrong.   There is an entire body of science looking exclusively at what our brain does when we are sleeping.  Another body of science examines how the brain changes during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. And another body of science looks at how brain activity is linked to social behavior.  In fact, one of the most fascinating developments in social science research is that we now have empirical evidence to explain actual behavior. For example, there is evidence that certain areas of the brain develop 3 years slower for those diagnosed with ADD than for those without ADD.

Some have said that we only use 10% of our brain.  This is a myth that was perpetuated out of the work of Karl Lashley in the 1920s and 1930s. He found that when sections of a rat’s brain were removed, the rat would relearn certain tasks.   Now we know that the removal of even small areas of the human brain can have devastating effects on behavior.  It is more likely that we use 100% of our brain, but only use portions of the brain at any given time.

As you can tell from the pictures above,  the number of synapses decrease between 6 and 14 years of age.  We call this the “Use It or Lose It” phenomenon.  Here’s the way it works.  At 1-year of age, the human brain has twice as many synapses than an adult brain. This is because the brain produces many more connections among cells than it will use.  The developmental task of the childhood years is to prune and select the most useful, or perhaps the most used neurons, synapses, and dendrites. This pruning continues into the early teen years. The important thing to notice is that more is not better.  Think about all the different ways you can go from one location in town to your house.  Maybe you tried several different paths when you first moved into your house. However, over time you learned that one route was faster than all the others. From that point on, you always used the same route. This is exactly what is going on in the teenage brain.  Overtime, your teen’s brain gets more efficient by establishing the best, most direct pathways and getting rid of the others.

There are other changes taking place in the teenage brain besides pruning. Research from Temple University highlights a few other ways the adolescent brain is changing:

  • Brain structure – certain parts of the brain are smaller in childhood than in adolescence, while others are larger.
  • Brain junction – adolescents use different parts of the brain than children to perform the same task.
  • Interconnections – various regions of the brain establish good communication with other regions. For example, the regions responsible for logical reasoning become better connected to those responsible for emotion. When this happens, the two regions talk to one another, allowing for better self-regulation.
  • Response to peers – peers activate the reward center of the adolescent brain. That means that teens are more likely to take risks in the presence of their friends, especially when they believe their friends will reward them for their choices. Interestingly, they have not found these same connections when teens interact with adults.

As a parent, you can expect your teen to:

  • Be inconsistent.  Outside of the fact that they are trying new things on, different parts of their brain are in different developmental stages.
  • Learn from his/her experiences.  Thinking ahead and controlling impulses improves by having exposure to a variety of experiences.  Discussion around why the world works the way it does is also important.
  • Need practice – Encourage your teen to plan, anticipate consequences, and regulate behavior.  Practice with your teen whenever you get a chance.  It will not work all the time, but it will work sometimes.  
  • Get emotional – Because the teenage brain floods the body with dopamine, teens often respond more quickly to things that spark emotions (like a friend in need) than they respond to less emotional things (like a math test). This doesn’t mean you should let your teen spend his/her entire evening with friends instead of studying.  However, it does highlight the importance of acknowledge your teen’s feelings and allowing him/her to express emotion. It is easier for teens to move onto other things after they have dealt with their emotions.
When you are trying to understand your teens choices, sit back and consider: What’s their experience? How would they know what their choices/options are in the present situation? What else is going on in my teen’s world that could be prompting a certain response  (ex. issues with schoolwork, friendships, activities, and/or family). As often as you can, take advantage of the opportunities you have to expand their understanding of the world.  Above all, hang in there…..they do get smarter over time!
Happy Parenting!
Shelly

What Where You Thinking?!?! Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex of the Teenage Brain

Have you ever asked your teen, “What were you thinking” and gotten the answer, “I wasn’t”  or “I don’t know.” During adolescence, the teenage brain is undergoing subtle, but dynamic changes, all in the midst of major physiological, psychological, and social transitions. Overall, theses changes lead to more sophisticated thinking skills and increases in their ability to process emotions.

The tricky part is that this development takes place during a time that is known for increased risk-taking behavior.  Because teens will try on new things to learn about themselves, it is important to help them understand how much their brain is changing and how they can take care of it during the teen years. This will help them to avoid things that can harm the brain, like substance use. It can also help them realize that they are not supposed to be able to think like an adult.  Part of a parent’s job is to create a space where their teen feels comfortable enough to ask for help .

We used to believe that the majority of development took place in the first five years of life.  Now we know that while the size of the brain does not change much after grade school, the brain matures considerably throughout adolescence and into their 20’s.   Understanding these changes for yourself can help you talk to your teen about what is going on, how the changes impact their thinking and decision-making, and how risks-taking behavior can have a negative impact on brain development.

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...
Image via Wikipedia

The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is thought to be the last area of the brain to be fully developed. This section of the brain controls much of a person’s logical thinking and decision-making.  Think of this as the CEO of the brain. It is in charge of a number of important skills like: controlling impulses, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, initiating appropriate behavior, changing behavior when situations change, organizing things, forming strategies and planning behavior, setting priorities, making decisions, showing empathy, having insight, and taking constructive feedback.

Kind of makes sense why teens can be so unpredictable, argumentative, and sensitive. It helps to explain behaviors that appear completely out of character.  I’ve heard several parents joke, “Where did my child go?” “When is he coming back?”, or “I think he’s been possessed by aliens!”  Still, all of this doesn’t mean that teens can’t make good decisions. It simply explains why teens can be smart enough to reason with their teachers and parents, formulate arguments for personal or political points of view, and build web sites, while still making poor decisions to skip school, cheat on a test, or drink and drive.

With all of these stills still developing, teens are susceptible to being impulsive, lacking plans, and making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences.  As a parent, you can:

  • Help them build these skills. Recognize that you play an important role in having teaching  your teen to stretch their thinking. Now, as much or more than any other time, they need constant conversations about life and how to handle different thoughts, feelings, and situations.
  • Help them “clean things up”, or make amends with those they have impacted when they make a mistake. Use mistakes as opportunity to talk about other ways to handle the situation.
  • Remember that you respond more intellectually to situations. Teens respond “from the gut” and need continued guidance while their brains are still developing.
  • Help them practice! Take an active role in thinking through different scenarios. Help them connect their gut feelings to the possible outcomes if they acted on them.  Teens may still have a more narrow view then of situations than you do. They need you to put small events into the larger context. You may also find it helpful to relate situations to past experiences (theirs, your own, a even a third party like a neighbor or movie character) so that it is more concrete.
  • Don’t assume your teen does things on purpose. Step back and consider that at the time, they might not have been able to respond any differently.
  • Do your best not to overreact to situations. Your teen needs to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about tough situations so that you get the opportunity to coach him/her. It is through this process that teens build pathways in the brain that will help them deal with similar situations in the future.  The brain will literally recognize, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and will be able to pull from past experience.


How Do We Help Our Teens Be Achievers in Life?

There is no shortage of information, movies, and opinions about student achievement. Some talk about how to compete in a global economy. Others talk about the increased use of strategies such as cheating or using drugs like Adderall to improve performance.  Still others talk about how to promote achievement in a healthy way. Recently, I read an article summarizing a study referred to as “The Berlin Study”.  During the 1990’s, psychologists from the Universität der Künste examined violinists to determine who the highest achievers were and why. Fascinated by the findings, I read the article, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” that was published in the Psychological Review.

They came up with some very interesting findings. I think these findings are applicable to how we help our teens perform to the best of their ability.

One of the biggest findings challenged the idea that some are innately smart or talented in a certain area.  Now, this is not to say that some teens are not more inclined to like athletics, music, or academics. However, they noted that to be truly gifted at something required practice and dedication. Often times, those that were considered “elite” had been engaged in the activity for at least 10 years. This is consistent with more recent reports that doing well in school has more to do with effort than it does natural ability or intelligence.

The larger group of musicians was divided into “elite” and “average” players.  From this they gained some interesting insight on what separated the two groups.

  • They practiced the same amount of hours. The difference was in how they spent their time.  The elite group spent an average of 3 1/2 hours per day on what they called deliberate practice. This meant that they did uncomfortable, methodical work that stretched their abilities.
  • The elite group also practiced in large chunks of time – once in the morning and once in the evening. The average players spread their work throughout the day.
  • The elite group was significantly more relaxed, less stressed, more rested, and engaged in more leisure activities.

This is not to say that there are not individual differences in a person’s ability to multi-task or manage stress.  However, there are some interesting implications for how we teach our teens to study and build skills.

Let’s look at what all of this means.  First, doing work that pushes you may not be fun at the time, but it provides for a bigger increase in skill. So, the same work is easier the next time.  Seeing improvement leads to increased satisfaction and motivation to keep working.  For our teens, this means being persistent, even in the face of challenge.

It also seems as though doing something for larger blocks of time allowed the students to get into a groove.  You could say that their brain fired faster or they were in a “flow”.  In short, the work they were doing was more effective than work that was constantly interrupted. When work was spaced throughout the day, the students wasted some of their time getting back into the activity. For our teens this means that distraction and interruption can be a huge barrier to being an effective student. Changing music, checking Facebook accounts, or texting friends may mean (1) taking longer to complete the work and (2) getting less out of it in the end.

Finally, spreading work throughout the day can leave a person in a constant state of busyness, stress, and exhaustion.  This results in our teens thinking about what needs to be done when they should be sleeping, or even while they are working on something else. They may not have as much time for leisure activities because they are worried about having time to get everything done.  This means that our teens could benefit from separating their school work, activities, time with friends, and time for television, games, or social media into distinct blocks of time throughout the day.

While we are talking about these strategies as they apply to our teens, you may find that they work for you as well!

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Hearing Is Not the Same as Listening to Your Teen

It is just another Monday.  A mom takes her kids to school, does a few hours of work, runs an errand, and then heads back to the school to pick her kids up at the end of the day. She arrives at the junior high and her daughter is about 20 minutes late. Then, she rushes straight to the  high school to pick up your 9th grader. He gets in the car and starts barking! He is upset that she is 15 minutes late, annoyed that his sister is sitting in the front seat, and mad that he has to go to his aunt’s house for dinner that evening.  Mom recognizes that he is upset and says, “How was your day? Are you ok?” He responds with No! I am not ok! AND, I don’t want to talk about it!” Noticing how upset he is, she decides to sit quietly. Unfortunately, he keeps going. He starts drilling her about being late. “You are always late!  I should just take the bus to school!”  Then, he moves onto his sister. “Why are you sitting in the front seat!?! You know I sit in the front seat!” At this point, your daughter says, “I don’t know why you think you’re so special that you always get the front seat!” There is nothing to do but to declare silence in the car.  She say, “Clearly there are some bad feeling in the car. I think it is best if we don’t talk to one another until we get home.”  So, she drove the remaining 10 minutes in silence and everyone separated to different corners of the house when they got home.

What can she do now? Certainly, this mom could hear how upset her son was when she picked him up from school. How can she listen in such a way that she can understand why he was upset.   First she needs to check her intentions. In other words, why is she interested in listening to her son? To LISTEN BEYOND HEARING involves having one or more of the following intentions:

  1. Being truly interested or enjoying what the other person is saying
  2. Trying to understand someone
  3. Hoping to learn something
  4. Comforting or helping someone
Several, if not all of these intentions could be present for the mother in our example.  Now, lets consider what people do when they are not listening. Don’t feel too bad if you notice that you have had one or more of these intentions in the past. The reason this list exists is because everyone is a poor listener at one time or another. Often, when someone is NOT LISTENING, the person is:
  • Preparing for what to say next
  • Listening for a certain things and ignoring the rest of the conversations
  • Listening for the purpose of talking, rather than to hear the other person
  • Listening because of  obligation  (i.e. being nice, trying to gain their interest/affection, or feeling stuck – you don’t know how to exit the conversation)
  • Listening for the other person’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities
  • Trying to be right: listening for ammunition or weak points in the other person’s argument
Outside of having good intentions, it is important to think about how you are listening. Being a good listener is not about simply sitting in silence and nodding your head.  Effective listening involves using active listening skills. When you are using these skills, you:
  • Pay attention to body language
  • Paraphrase what the other person said so that you can be sure you understood it correctly
  • Clarify what has been said. This is similar to paraphrasing, but you ask questions like: “Did you mean…? Did you say…? Have I understood you right?”
  • Give feedback. After you have paraphrased and clarified, you can share your own senses, thoughts, feelings, reactions in a non-jugemental way.
Going back to our example, what could this mother say to her son.  She may approach her son and say something like, “I can tell your really upset. I am sensing that something happened at school. Is that right?” Her son may say “yes” and continue sharing. He may say “no” and begin clarifying. Or, he may need more prompting. Active listening often requires calmly investigating what is really going on.  “I can tell you are really sad by the look on your face. Is there anything that I can do to help you.” As is often the case, the boy in this story was not upset about his mom being late, or his sister sitting in the front seat of the car. It turns out, the boy failed a test that day, and found out that his ex-girlfriend [who he still cared for] was dating someone else.  These are things most of us would be upset about. Sometimes teens simply cannot fully recognize or control their emotions. In part this is because the emotional part of the brain is very active, while the frontal lobe that controls logical thinking and self-regulation is not fully developed.  The trick is to not take it personally, give yourself the time you need to be present, and then listen compassionately to what your teen is saying. Often, your teen will walk away from that conversation feeling truly heard and ready to move forward.

Talk to your teen about sex or someone else is going to!

In the words of Salt-N-Pepa: “Let’s Talk About Sex”

Talks about relationships and sexuality are a series of revolving conversations. It really starts the first time a child says, “Where do babies come from?” It is inevitable. By the time your child hits the teenage years he/she has been exposed to countless songs, images, magazines, t.v. shows, and movies that display varying messages about sexuality.  On top of that, they have heard peers and other people share their knowledge and ideas around sex and relationships.  This can spike a lot of fear and uncertainty in parents.  Why? Because parents have their own values, experiences, and hopes for their child. And, many parents do not know what, when, or how to talk about sex with their child.

Consider this….you are the closest and most reliable source of information to teach your child about sex and relationships.

Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures
Image via Wikipedia

If you have the conversations, you can be sure that your teen is getting accurate information.  Remember that like any other developmental issue, your teens interests and understanding of sex and relationships changes as he/she changes.  For this reason, it is important to have ongoing dialogue so that you can be sure to match where your teen is in the conversation.

Picture an 8 year old boy.  During a homeschooling lesson on the life cycle of the frog, the boy says, “Mom, how is the life cycle of a frog different than the life cycle of a person?  I understand that the male sperm fertilizes the female egg to make a baby. What I don’t understand is how the male sperm gets to the female egg. I mean, they are in two different bodies.” At that moment, the mom decides to stop talking about the life cycle of the frog! In fact, she decides to take a break from school altogether.  Instead she says, “Why don’t we go upstairs and make the bed so that we can talk about this.”  The mother decides to give him the basic facts using all the right terminology.  In between shaking out the sheets and tucking them into the corners, she bluntly tells him the basic mechanics of sex in about two-three sentences. Then she asks,  “Does that make sense? Do you have any questions?” He looks at her a little bit shell-shocked and says, “No…not right now.” The mom decides to spend the rest of their time together talking about their family values, and the emotional and moral aspects of sexuality. She talks about what a relationship is and why people enter into relationships. Then, she invites him to talk to her anytime he wants.  This boy is almost 18 years old now, and he and his mother have had countless conversations about girls, relationships and sex.  Most of the time she feels completely honored to be a trusted adult he can talk to.

Of course, not all teens are as curious or open to talking about sex with their parents.  Consider this scenario:

A mother is driving her 12 year old daughter to soccer practice when a commercial about teenage pregnancy comes on the radio.  She realizes that her and her daughter have never had “the talk”! So, she turns the radio down a little and says, “Do you know what they are talking about?” Her daughter responds with, “Yes, sex and what happens when you have sex.”  The mother says, “Do you know what sex is?”  The daughter proceeds to spell it out with amazing composure and accuracy.  In this case, the mother also used this opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding, talk about family values, and extend the offer to be a source of information whenever her daughter needed to talk.  This mother may have to be more more assertive and intentional in starting additional conversations with her daughter.

As you can see by these conversations, each “talk” can be a completely different beast.  In many ways, this depends on factors like your child’s personality, developmental stage, maturity, and the ease to which you and your child communicate.  Below are some things to consider when having “the talk”:

  • Consider that it is common for children to be curious about sex and sexuality as early as about eight years old. The key is to make sure that the information you share is developmentally appropriate and can be easily understood by your child. Children will ask more questions if they need more information.
  • Match your teen’s personality when talking about sex, sexuality, and relationships. Some children respond well to humor. Others want the short and sweet conversation. Still others want reading material.
  • Be sensitive to the embarrassing or uncomfortable nature of this topic.  Do what you can to lighten things up a bit.
  • Regardless of whether or not your child prefers to read about it, have books and other information available.  Teens can be embarrassed to ask adults questions. Since you want them getting accurate information, reading material can be a good supplement.  Plus, this gives them the option to access information privately and on their own time.
  • Let your teen know that not everything they hear from peers and the media is accurate. Dispelling inaccuracies is as important as providing the facts.
  • Pay attention to your teens development and continue to be available.  You can build a sense of  trust and closeness with your teen when you are an understanding and reliable source of information.

Stand By Teens When They Make Mistakes

Recently, I shared some bad news with a  good friend of mine and she sent me this video. The video served two purposes: (1) She wanted me to know that she would stand by me through the hard times and (2) she wanted to communicate how important it was for me to stand by others.  Her sharing was a real gift to me. Instantly, I thought of how important it is to “stand by” our teens.  It is much easier to stand by them when they do something great. However, it is in the times that they struggle, or make a mistake that they need it the most.  Check out this video, and then lets look at how we can stand by our teens and coach them through their mistakes.

Stand By Me | Playing For Change | Song Around The World from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

Most adults have experienced heart break, hurt a friend’s feelings, or told a white lie.  Some have gotten a speeding ticket, failed an exam, or lost a job.  The reality is that we are human, and we have all made mistakes.  Along with those mistakes, we have had to live with the consequences of our actions.  Think back to the mistakes you’ve made.  How did you feel? My guess is that  you knew you made a mistake and felt pretty bad about it.  In reality, we are often our own worst critics.

Sometimes parents forget that our teens are much like adults. They know when they have made a mistake and sometimes get defensive when someone points it out.   Teens can feel a range of emotions including sadness, embarrassment,  and disappointment in themselves.  They are often scared to tell mom and dad, afraid of the punishment, and worried about what people will think of them.

So, how can you coach your teens through mistakes? Let’s start with what your teen does not need. Avoid rescuing your teens from making mistakes. Rescuing does a few things. First, it  tells teens that they should not make mistakes.  This can lead teens to have performance anxiety or feel unrealistic pressures to be perfect.  When adults jump in, it also  communicates that they are not capable of taking care of the situation themselves.  This takes away opportunities for them to build self-confidence and learn from their mistakes. The other thing parents can avoid is lecturing teens.  Lecturing does not help teens, especially when they already recognize and feel bad about their mistake.  Often times, lecturing leads teens to shut down and stop listening.

Your teen does need to hear that you will stand by them.  Being supportive is not the same as excusing their behavior.  Along with the appropriate consequence, it is important to have a conversation with your teen about what happened, what they made it mean, and what they are going to do about it.  When you take the time to listen, you get an opportunity to hear what is really going on in their head. When they feel heard, they are more likely to be open to your thoughts or suggestions. Outside of being a good listening, your job is to ask good questions.  Here are some questions that can help you coach your teen through his/her mistakes:

  • What’s up?
  • Let’s talk about it? I’m all ears.
  • Why do you think this happened?
  • How can you make this better for you?
  • What do you wish you had done differently?
  • What is really important to you? Why?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • Who might you want to talk to about this?
  • Please say more so that I can really understand.
  • How do you want to move forward?

You may be surprised how much head nods and words like uh-huh, yeah, I see, etc., will prompt your teen to keep talking. As they share, reflect back to them:

  • Can I tell you what I am hearing?
  • Did I understand this right?
  • I heard you say….. is that what you meant?

You may have some important things to share after you have listened to what you teen has to say.  Keep in mind that the idea is to help them deal with their mistakes without telling them what to do.  The teen years are a time to practice good decision-making and problem solving.  These questions may open the door for you to share your thoughts without sounding like you are taking over or giving too much advice.

  • How can I help?
  • Can I share a different way of looking at this?
  • Can I give you a suggestion?
  • I have some ideas. Would you like to hear them?
  • I have seen this before. Can I share some things that have helped others?

Sometimes, teens make mistakes that need a lot more adult intervention.  Try this if you want to provide more guidance but you still want the conversation to be inviting to your  teen.

I would like to talk about something really important, and I am not really sure how to talk to you about it? Will you help me work it out?

Finally, it is important to encourage your teen to apologize when he/she makes a mistake. Apologies are as much for the person apologizing as they are for the one receiving it.  When teens apologize, they are able to come clean for their mistake and ask for forgiveness.  It is in that moment that they can accept the mistake as  an event, instead of something that defines them. Not apologizing can leave teens making assumptions about what someone thinks, feels or believes about them. If a teen take these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on as being real, they can become a part of how the teen defines him/herself.  It may be helpful for you to share a story or two about apologies that you have made.  This will help them see that they are not alone in making mistakes.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly