Mom: Sherpa, Supporter, & Number 1 Fan

Since it is Mother’s day, let’s talk about moms. Moms become moms the day they find out they are pregnant. Before the baby even enters the world, moms feel responsible for taking care of this new life MomTeenby providing it with the most nurturing environment she can inside her body. And, babies make themselves known! They are the source of morning sickness, kicks to the bladder, sleepless nights, and the inability to tie one’s own shoes anymore. For me, coffee made me sick and I could smell rotten produce a mile away! Mothers greet their baby with open arms the day it is born, but their hearts and souls already know each other.

Most moms say that having their first child was a distinct experience; there’s nothing quite like it! Expecting moms spend months wondering things like: “What is this really going to be like?” “Can I do this?” “Will I every have time for myself again?” You may have had different questions depending on your circumstances and how prepared you were to have a child. Regardless, becoming a mom probably left you with feelings of anxiety, joy, worry and excitement.

A good friend gave me some of the best “advice” I received with my first child. He said, “Your child will not know any different. Whatever you do will be normal and perfect in his/her eyes.” Of course, as children get older they start to notice that other families do things different. There is still a comforting feeling associated with going home after a rockin’ sleepover or a fun weekend vacation with another family. There is nothing quite like coming coming home.

With all this thought about what it means to be a mom, I decided to ask some teen how they would describe their mom. Here are some of the things they said.

“A mom is the best support system anyone can have. She is someone you can always rely on to support and love you no matter what you do. She is helpful and loving and kind.”

“A mom is someone that makes you. She buys you food, drives you places, and always loves you.”

“A mom is a guide. She is your Sherpa in life. She won’t do things for you, but she will help you reach the top of the mountain. She sets you free when you’re ready to go.”

“A mother is someone with whom mistakes don’t matter. In any relationship, people are bound to mess up. Both mothers and kids inevitably do so. This can break other relationships, but there is something about mothers in which the bond is really quite special and unbreakable.”

As you go through your day, think about what “mom” means to you. If you would like, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Have a magical day and happy parenting!

Shelly

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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...
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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.


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
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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

Goodness of Fit: Giving Up Being Right Doesn’t Make You Wrong

Sam bursts through the door after school, throws his book bag on the ground, and heads toward his room.  Mom is in the kitchen making a cup of tea when she hears Sam get home.  She hollers, “Hey kid….how was school? What is your plan for tonight?” Sam says, “I don’t know” while heading up the stairs.  Clearly Sam was upset about something.  Mom wonders…what should I do? Do I try to talk to him, wait for him to come to me, or just let it go for now.  As she stirs the honey in her tea,  her thoughts drift to how her day had gone. She had actually had a pretty rough day herself.  In fact, things at work had been going down hill for about a month. She feels emotionally exhausted, but knows that she needs to reach out to her son.

Mom begins to walk upstairs. How many different ways could this conversation go and why? Both are coming to the conversation with their own personality, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.   For years, psychologists have tried to understand what contributes to effective parenting and strong parent-child relationships.  And for years, researchers have said that this is cultivated by things like knowing what’s going on in your teens life: with whom are they spending time, what are they doing, where are they going, when will they be home, and how they’re doing.  Another component is finding the right balance of being responsiveness to them and having a structured and predictable environment.   This sounds easy enough, right?  The Goodness of Fit Model suggests that the  teen’s temperament, the parent’s temperament, and the demands and expectations of the environment are important contributors to how easy it really is. 

The Goodness of Fit Model Model suggests that a teen’s development is not based on a specific personality trait, but rather on the the way in which  their temperament, other people’s temperament, and their environment interact.  A person’s temperament is their natural style of interacting with people, places and things, whereas the environment is inclusive of all the different contexts in which people interact with one another.  These contexts include things like family, school, work, and peer groups.  A good fit is established by finding, or creating, a match in these areas: 1) the parent and the child’s temperament, (2) the parent and his/her environment, and (3) the teen and his/her environment. When this happens, parent-teen relationships are healthier and teens are happier with themselves and the world around them.  Teens have a higher self-esteem when they feel like they can successfully navigate their relationships and activities.  As you would expect, a poor match can have the opposite impact.

You have more options for how you respond to situations when you enter into them with an understanding of both you and your teen’s perspective. Giving up being right doesn’t mean you have to be wrong.  It may be that you and your teen simply approach things differently. When you are present to who your teen is and why they react the way they do,  you can avoid some of the recurring battles in your household.   Doing this goes a long way in  building trust between you and your teen, while making parenting more enjoyable!

The Goodness of Fit Model looks at two component: The behavior fit and the emotional fit.  The behavioral fit refers to the fit between the person and the environment, while the emotional fit refers to the fit between individuals.  Using the  example above, let’s look at behavioral fit.  Maybe Sam likes to keep to himself, but he shares a bedroom with his teenage brother. This can leave Sam frustrated when he wants space and his room is occupied by his brother.  When you think about emotional fit, consider whether your teen has a compatible or incompatible temperament in relation to some the people in his/her life….including yourself!  Looking at our example again, maybe the mom is really introverted and is internally processing her bad day at work, while Sam wants to talk about what he is feeling.  It is normal for it to be more challenging for you to understand a teen who has a very different temperament than you. You may even find yourself having less patience to deal with certain things because of your teen’s temperament.

Whether your temperament clashes or is compatible with your teen, you can have a big impact on the interactions you have with one another, and your level of satisfaction!  Start by recognizing the similarities and differences, and consider when you can  make adjustments in your parenting to better meet the needs of your teen.  You can also help your teen learn how to interact with people who  approach situations in different ways than themselves. Below are some additional strategies for understanding and managing “fit”:

  • Have discussions that acknowledge, but do not judge the other person’s way of interacting in the world. This will increase trust and understanding in your relationship.
  • Approach your teen with empathy and work through differences in a way that acknowledges both reactions. Giving up being right, doesn’t mean you have to be wrong.
  • Teach teens to recognize the “other” person’s perspective. This is also important because it is during this time that teens tend to be heavily focused on themselves.
  • Help your teen recognize and engage in environments that fit their personal temperament.
  • Anticipate what your teen may need in order to handle a person or an environment that is not a good fit. For example, prepare a shy teen for overcrowded events. Teens do better when they know what to expect.
  • Have realistic expectations of teens. Try to avoid putting them in situations that are counter to their temperament. This can make them feel bad about themselves and can ultimately decrease their self-esteem.
  • Acknowledge teens who have a challenging temperament. By doing this, you can recognize that teen behavior is not always a result of “bad” parenting. You alone are not fully responsible for the way your teen is or is not.
  • Engage your teen in activities that match their temperament. It can be helpful to put active teens in sports, emotionally expressive teens in music, funny teens in drama, and academic teens in math or chess club.
  • Find chores that match their temperament.  Consider having active teens mow the lawn, less active kids fold the laundry, and  emotionally expressive teens walk the dogs.

When teens learn to put themselves in situations that “fit” their temperament, they are able to feel successful in their interactions with others and the world around them!

Happy Parenting,

The Search for Identity: Who Am I? What Am I Committed To? What Am I Afraid Of?

Identity development is one of the most fundamental tasks teens face. It is during this time that they are most likely to try on different aspects of their personality as they work to figure out who they are and who they want to become.  Your teen will grow and develop. Some characteristics will stay the same, some will change, and some will change and then go back to the way they were before.  As challenging and emotional as it can be, this is a good time to be sensitive to how difficult it was to be in a constant state of evaluating “Who am I?”

Your identity is a complex set of attributes that contribute to how you describe yourself and what makes you unique. Before you try to understand your teen, think about how you might answer the following questions:

  1. How would you describe yourself?
  2. What are three things that you are committed to?
  3. What are you afraid of and why?

Now, think of the world of a teenager. How would your teen describe him/herself? Putting some thought into this can give you new insight into your teen’s identity. Children typically describe themselves using specific adjectives. Seven year old Johnny may say, “I am kind and funny” and nine year old Suzie may say, “I am talkative and nice.” This changes in the teen years. Fifteen year old Johnny can see that he is kind sometimes, and unkind other times. He can tell you that he is funny when he hangs out with his guy friends and quiet around girls.  Similarly, 17 year old Suzie can tell you that she is talkative around people she knows and quiet in new situations. She can articulate that she is generally nice, but can be mean when she is tired.  How teens describe themselves is an aspect of their identity and one that becomes more and more sophisticated as their brains develops.

What three things were you committed to? What do you think your teen is committed to? This is important to consider because our identity is also built on the things we do.   A  teen that is committed to daily swim practice defines herself as an athlete,  a teen that looks for a job at 16 sees himself as hardworking, and a teen that volunteers at the humane society describes herself as an animal lover.  If you think about what your teen commits to, you can link it to certain characteristics that make  up their his/her personality.  Adults can relate to this. What is the first thing you tell someone that you just met?  Do you say where you work, tell them about your children, or mention your favorite activities? Like teens, these are parts of you that you are committed to and enjoy sharing with other people.

All teens have fears. They may be afraid of looking bad, saying or doing the wrong thing in a social situation, or doing poorly on an exam.  The impact of these fears can be compounded by their inability to distinguish their thoughts from the thoughts of others.  For example: If a teen thinks her hair looks bad then she also thinks that everyone else thinks her hair looks bad. All this thinking about what other people are thinking can be really exhausting!  Fears impact identity development by inhibiting a teen from trying new things and making new commitments that build competencies and esteem.

Here are some things to think about as you help your teenager go through this transition:

  • Pay attention to how teens describe themselves.  Tell stories that are rich with characteristics you have observed. Your teen may choose to add these to how he/her description.
  • Engage teens in conversations about the things they like to do. Help your teen explore new areas.
  • Remember that independence bread confidence. Find safe opportunities for your teen to express his/her independence and develop new competencies.
  • Make a big deal out of their accomplishments. Verbalize the things you see working for your teen in different situations.
  • Recognize that experimentation is normal. A big part of your role is to pay attention and reel your teen in with clear about boundaries, expectations and consequences.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Raising Teenagers: Interview with Steven Spierer

Teenagers are a breed of their own, and raising teenagers is not an easy task.  Recently, I was invited to speak with Steven Spierer on Talk Radio One about raising teenagers and building healthy parent-child relationships.  Having raised teenagers himself, Mr. Spierer frequently incorporates information about parenting into his show. Check out his website at http://www.talkradioone.com/  He has some great stuff!

Happy Parenting!

Shelly D. Mahon on the Steven Spierer Show