I like to swim with my family and friends. I love to play in the deep end of the pool knowing that when I tire I can just swim to the edge of the pool and hold on. After a moment of rest, I push off the wall and play safely in the deep water again.
Lisa Damour offers this as a metaphor for one aspect of parenting teens in her book Untangled. When it comes to parenting an adolescent, she notes, our teens are the swimmers and we are the wall of refuge they hold on to when they become tired. Our teen plays in the deep waters beyond our home, wandering into the deep waters of the adult world and all its complications. By doing so, they assert and practice their independence. They smile and laugh with their friends who are playing in the same deep waters. They test the waters that we have worked so hard to protect them from as they grew up. They look like they are having fun, but they eventually get overwhelmed, hurt, or frightened (we all do when swimming in deep waters). When they do, they swim back to us (the edge of the pool) and find their refuge and rest. They hold on to feel loved and protected, safe and secure. Then, when they feel rested and safe, our teens push away from us and back into the deep with their friends. They may push off with a “snarky” comment, a hurtful argument, a nonchalant “I-don’t-need-you-attitude,” or, worse, the “you-are-so-lame” look. While we nurse the pain of their kick-off from the comfort of our side, they return smiling to their friends.
If you are like me, you have felt the pain of being the edge of the pool for your teen swimmer. It feels like rejection…and it hurts. But nursing that pain just gets in the way of them seeking comfort from us in the future. So, how can we limit the pain of the “push off”?
Anticipate the push off. Know that it is going to happen. When your teen comes to you, enjoy the time together.
Set boundaries on rude behavior. Expect politeness and respect. You may even need to tell your teen that their behavior is hurtful.
Do not let your hurt turn to resentment and hinder the secure base your teen finds in you. Do not let the fear of hurt interfere with your ability to remain available. Stand strong. Your teen will continue to return to you in times of need. They need your comfort, your love, your availability.
Gather your village. Parents need a supportive village when raising a teen. Invite other teen parents into your life. Find some mentors who have already raised teens as well. Build a supportive relationship with your spouse. These relationships will support you and serve to bolster your strength to respond to your teen’s growing independence with wisdom and grace.
Parenting a teen is stressful. As parents, we have our own deep waters to navigate while raising a teen. We worry. We hurt. We experience fear…just like our teens. But, these four steps can help you provide a loving, safe environment that will allow your teen to grow and become a strong adult. They will also help you navigate the deep waters of nurturing the mature adult you want your teen to become.
Turns out that one of the best ways to learn about teens is to ask them questions about themselves. But ask with caution because questions are powerful. Using them improperly can result in a backfire that drives your teen into silence. In order to avoid the backfire, keep these safety precautions in mind.
Do not fire questions too rapidly. Machine gun firing of questions leads to a backfire. The teen becomes overwhelmed and shuts down, silence.
Why ask why? Why? Because “why questions” backfire. “Why would you do that?” leads to defensiveness. “Why are you going there?” invites a lie. “Why” can make your teen feel criticized. Best to think of a different way of wording the “why question.” Try a “what” or a “how.” “What led you to try that?” “What kind of things are you going to do there?”
Condescending questions backfire as well. Asking a rhetorical question with a tone of voice that says your teen should also know the answer” pushes their silence button. Your teen will likely think, “No need to talk with them. They think they know everything.”
Questions designed to make your teen confess will backfire. Such questions make your teen feel trapped. What reason would they have for answering a question for which you already have the answer. (Notice the avoidance of the “why question: “Why would they answer?”) It makes them feel humiliated. Instead, make the statement of what you already know.
“Closed questions” fall into the category above. They invite simple “yes/no” answers or answers from a limited set of options. They also introduce the questioner’s bias and, many times, are used to manipulate the listener toward a certain end. Teens run from this trap. They shut down. “Closed questions” backfire.
Caveats in mind, questions are powerful. You can learn a lot about a person by asking them thoughtful, loving questions with an open and curious mind. Some powerful questions include:
Follow-up questions. When your teen is telling you about something, ask them follow-up questions to assure you understand. This shows you value them enough to listen and become interested in what they are saying.
Open-ended questions. Open questions allow your teen the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions. A parent will often learn a great deal about their teen through the careful use of open-ended questions.
Be sensitive to your teen’s mood and schedule when asking questions. Look for the right time to ask a question. Do not ask questions as your teen runs out the door or while they are in the middle of their video game. Ideally, you can develop times when your teen is available to ask question. For instance, bedtime, supper time, and time in the car as you go to various events provide great times to talk with your teen.
Use the “right” tone and volume. A casual tone often contributes to more ready responses. A volume sensitive to your teen encourages more responses.
Be willing to answer questions your teen asks of you. Our children and teens want to know about us. They want to know about our lives, our mistakes, our victories. Be willing to answer questions they might have. If a question seems inappropriate (and some will), you can politely tell them you do not think they need to know those answers right now. But, be willing to accept the same answer from them.
Questions are powerful ways to build a relationship with our teen. Used recklessly, questions can backfire and leave you with a silent teen. But used wisely, questions can help you learn about your teen. You will grow more connected with your teen. You will enjoy a deep, loving relationship with your teen.
We have a crisis on our hands…and it has been around much longer than the covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore, easier to pretend it doesn’t exist; but it is a crisis, nonetheless. The percentage of teens (12- to 17-years-old) who suffer at the hands of this crisis has increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2017! Let me put that into perspective. At the time of this writing (4/20/2020), 792,938 people of all ages have been diagnosed with covid-19 in the United States. In 2017 alone, 3.2 million adolescents between 12- and 17-years-old in the United States were diagnosed with depression. And that number only represents adolescents, not adults. (see NIMH Major Depression for more statistics). Suicide, a danger for those suffering with depression, has increased 47% between 2000 and 2017. In fact, 6,200 teens and young adults (between 15- and 24-years-old) died by suicide in 2017. (The Parent Resource Program). We have a crisis. But what can we do to stem this crisis? Here are five suggestions. They may sound simplistic, but they can produce results that will save lives.
Nurture a growth mindset in your children. A growth mindset focuses on effort rather than the end result or product. In other words, it focuses on the effort invested rather than the final grade, the trophy, or the grade point average. It teaches that effort is more important than the final grade. In the long run, this will help to build your child’s success mindset and decrease the potential for depression.
Value failure and setbacks as learning opportunities. They are not the end or something to be embarrassed about. In fact, failure is a kind of success. It allows us to learn, make adjustments, and continue to grow. Do your child a favor and love mistakes. Cultivate an environment that celebrates effort and learns from mistakes.
Help your children discover and pursue intrinsic goals, things they love. Intrinsic goals are those goals a person pursues by their own choosing and for their own enjoyment. So much of our children’s world is made up of external goals, those goals focused on material rewards and other people’s judgments. Grades, teacher expectation, and coaches’ determinations as well as media appraisals of appearance and popularity make up some of the external goals shaping our children’s lives. Unfortunately, a focus on external goals contributes to depression. Help your children discover their intrinsic goals and motivations. Become a student of their strengths and interests. Present opportunities for them to nurture their interests. Encourage their individuality. (For more benefits of learning about your children read Parents are Students…And Guess Who Their Teacher Is.
Let them play. Free play, play without adult direction and supervision, invites children to control their own play through negotiation and compromise. It encourages problem-solving and competence in the pursuit of personal interests. In other words, play is much more than fun and games. Free play nurtures a growth mindset and intrinsic goals as well as teaching person limits and social skills. (Read Who Needs a Prescription for Play to learn more benefits of play.)
These five steps can help stem the rising tide of depression in our families and our communities. Will you join these efforts to stem the rise, to flatten the curve, of depression among our children and youth?
Anna Freud once wrote that teenagers “live in the home in the attitude of a boarder, usually a very inconsiderate one so far as the older and younger family members are concerned” (1958). This quote describes how a teenager’s developmental work of separating from the family to become an independent person is perceived by others in the home. For many parents, this often feels like a teenager abruptly withdrew from the family and now spends all their time with friends. When they do come home, they immediately sequester voluntarily into their room. Suddenly, they seem embarrassed by a parent’s presence. They appear to desire time with friends more than family. They frown, sigh, and scowl in response to family attempts at interaction but light up with a smile as soon as a friend comes into sight. But who wants a scowling boarder in the home, especially one that doesn’t make any contribution to the household? How can a parent respond to this in a way that will promote their teenager’s growth?
First, understand that, as frustrating as it is, this is not unusual behavior. It is normal. Teenagers are preparing to leave the security of home and enter the world of adults. The teenage years of pushing family away allows them to practice leaving before they actually do. It allows them to pretend like they live alone with the safety net of family to catch them if (and when) they make a mistake. They can practice “adulting” from the comfort and safety of home. I like Lisa Damour’s analogy that the teen years of separating from family and practicing independence are like learning to ride a bike with training wheels (found in her book, Untangled). It’s preparation for the real thing. Give them the opportunity to practice adult decisions, adult debates, and adult lifestyles while in the security of your loving and watching eye. Let them have some independence.
Allow them some privacy. Let their bedroom become their sanctuary. You can still set limits around technology to help them internalize healthy limits of their own. But let them have their space. Respect that space. Knock before you enter. Don’t go in uninvited.
Provide opportunity for increased responsibility. Let them begin to practice some adult skills. Let them contribute to the household in a meaningful way. This may require that you explain how some task or chore you ask them to complete is meaningful. For instance, you might let them wash their own clothes, feed their dog, get a job outside the house, help cook meals, run to the store for you, or volunteer to help the younger children in church. Let them have some adult responsibility. These responsibilities will have to be adjusted as your teen’s schedule changes. But, let them have some responsibility.
Enjoy family meals. I know it’s difficult to get the whole family together every day for a meal. But try to get as much of the family together for a meal on as many days as you can during the week. The research suggests that dinner with one parent has the same positive effect as having dinner with two parents. The important thing is not forcing everyone to come together but getting as much of the family together as often as you can for a family meal. Aim for 5 of 7 days a week. The benefits of eating family meals (What a 10-year-old Gains Eating With Family and the benefits of The Lost Art of Family Meals) will serve as a great motivator for you to encourage family meals.
Take advantage of ideal times talk with your teen. Car time is one such time. When you drive your teen to various places, let them pick the music and spend the ride talking with them about the things they enjoy—their friends, their struggles, their relationships. Another great time to connect with your teen is bedtime. Before you go to bed (or before they go to bed, whichever comes first), spend 10-20 minutes touching bases. Share about your day and listen to them share about their days. Talk about your plans for the coming days and big plans for the coming months. Make this time of connection a simple routine and you’ll be pleased with how well you connect during this time. (Learn more tips to Connect with Your Teen.)
The teen years offer the teen a time to learn how to live on their own, to discover their place in the world, and to learn to trust in their ability to navigate the world independently. What better place to practice than in the safety and comfort of their parents’ loving gaze and care?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents. An average of 3,069 adolescents in grade 9-12 attempt suicide each year. In 2017, 6,252 people between 15 and 24 years old died by suicide (Youth Suicide Statistics from The Parent Resource Program). Those are staggering numbers. We need to do something to decrease these numbers. And, our families are a great place to begin.
A study published in the fall of 2019 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry looked at the “peer-adult networks” in 38 high schools (including 10,291 students) in New York State and North Dakota. Their findings suggest:
Students who attempted suicide were
those least connected to their peers.
Students who attempted suicide were
the least connected to trusted adults and, in fact, most likely to be
isolated from adults.
And, having 10% fewer students
isolated from adults in a school setting resulted in a 20% reduction in the
average rate of suicide attempts in that school.
Overall, schools in which students
had more friendships and were part of an interconnected social network that
included trusted adults, experienced fewer suicide attempts!
Of course, this study was completed
in school settings. However, the principles can apply even in the community and
our homes. This study informs us that our teens need a strong social network
that includes peers and other trusted adults. You can help build this strong, protective
social network around your teen by involving them in groups such as:
Local churches offer youth groups, Sunday School programs, volunteer groups, and small group studies. Involve your whole family in the church and each family member may find a group in which to become actively involved and supported.
Sporting involvement also offers a wonderful opportunity for your teen to become involved in a protective social network. They can become involved in community sports’ teams, traveling sports’ teams, school sports’ teams, or recreational club teams.
Community bands and theater groups also present an opportunity to involve your teen in a positive, supportive social network with peers and trusted adults.
Possibilities for involvement in a positive social network for your teen can arise from any area or interest: arts, chess, hiking…anything that might be a strength or interest for your teen. The MeetUp App may also provide ideas and opportunities. Each opportunity will provide your teen the chance to develop a social network of peers and trusted adults…and so decrease the chances of suicidal attempts.
Ever notice how frustrating it can
be to ask your teen, “What did you do today?” and hear,
“Nothing.” “Nothing!” All day with friends, all day at
school, all day…and “Nothing!” Maybe we need to ask a different
question, one that might surprise them, even elicit some thought on their part.
Here are some ideas:
What made you laugh today?
What new fact did you learn today?
What was the hardest thing you had
to do today?
What did you do during
lunch/recess/before school/after school?
What part of the day was the most
fun? What made it so fun?
Did anything happen today that made
you feel bad/sad/angry?
What did you do that made you feel
most proud of yourself today? Why did that make you proud?
What is the kindest thing did you do
for someone else today?
What kindness did you show yourself
What was the least boring part of
the day for you?
What are you grateful for today?
What did you do to help a friend
What was the most enjoyable thing
you did today?
Who inspired you today?
How did you help somebody today?
Who did you encourage today and how
did you encourage them?
Who encouraged you today?
What can I do for you right now?
What is happening tomorrow that you
are excited about?
What do you wish was different about
That’s 20 questions you can try
instead of the usual “How was your day?” or “What did you do
today?” Try different ones. Mix them up. And, add to the list. Please, share
with us any new questions you ask your children about their day.
Pre-adolescents and adolescents go
through tremendous change. They change from elementary school to middle school
to high school to college. Their individual
classrooms and teachers change multiple times a day. Their relationships with family
and friends change. Their voices change. Their bodies change. Even their brain
changes. In fact, their changing brain makes pre-adolescence and adolescence
the perfect time for building the habit of contributing to family and community.
One impact of a teen’s changing brain is their growing ability to think
abstractly and consider the consequences of various actions and words. They
want to make a contribution of consequence, a meaningful contribution as
opposed to the simple act of making their bed (which they likely perceive as
having little benefit to themselves or others). So, think about ways in which
your teen can have substantial impact on others in the community—a regular
volunteer position helping children or elderly or homeless for instance. When
you want them to contribute to the home by doing chores, explain the
“substantial benefit” of that chore. Don’t just make it up; be
sincere. Your teen wants to make a difference. Provide opportunities for them
to do so.
The teen brain also has a growing
ability to take another person’s perspective and to understand another person’s
feelings. They often “go overboard” with this growing ability in
their attempt to become popular with their peers. This new ability grows so strong
they worry about “bad hair days” or the “pimple that will ruin
the dance.” But you can utilize their growing ability to take another
person’s perspective and their desire to be popular by helping them consider how
they might contribute to their home and community. For what group of people do
they feel a particularly strong compassion? How might they like to contribute
to others in a meaningful way? How do household chores impact others in the
home? You might have these types of discussions with your teen while discussing
chores, opportunities to serve, or ways of contributing to others.
The reward system in your teen’s
brain is also changing. They experience greater positive feelings from new and
exciting activities than we do as adults. This drives some of their risk-taking
behaviors. However, research suggests that this same brain area (the reward
system) drives kind and helpful behaviors as well. In fact, most people,
including teens, find kindness and helpfulness a “feel-good experience;”
they find it rewarding. Sounds like a great reason to build opportunities to
make contributions of consequences into your teen’s life.
Your teen’s brain is primed for making
contributions of consequence. Create such opportunities in the family. Let them
provide real and meaningful jobs like caring for younger siblings, helping with
meal preparation, or participating in family decisions about food choices,
rules, daily activities, or vacations.
Encourage them to become involved in their school through student
government, clubs, or sports where they can take on leadership and
decision-making roles. Provide opportunities for them to contribute to the
community through regular volunteer efforts in areas where they have a
particularly strong interest or passion.
Parents often ask, “My teen comes home and goes straight to his bedroom, closes the door and isolates. Isn’t that bad?” Well…it depends. Researchers from the University of California and Wilmington College published a study showing not all solitude is the same. Some solitude was problematic. It was a red flag revealing a deeper issue. Other solitude was good, even helpful. It provided a refreshing, restorative time of self-reflection leading to personal growth and greater self-acceptance.
How can you tell the difference? By recognizing the reason your teen is choosing solitude. The motivation for choosing solitude differentiates problematic solitude from healthy solitude. If a teen chooses solitude in response to social anxiety, lack of friends, or rejection, they are at a greater risk of depression. They tend to have a lower level of autonomy and fewer positive relationships.
If solitude is imposed on a teen as punishment, they often feel like they are “missing out” on activities and opportunities. This can lead to feeling left out and lonely. It can contribute to depression and anger.
If a teen chooses solitude to help themselves “calm down” or for “peace and quiet,” it can prove helpful. In this case, solitude provides restorative time for self-reflection. These teens learn the skill of being alone and learn how solitude can enhance creativity and personal renewal.
Still, how can a parent know the difference? One way to determine if your teen is using solitude in a healthy or an unhealthy way is to ask them why they spend time alone. Allow them to explain what they are doing and why. This might be the start of a simple discussion about emotional self-care. You might also ask yourself some questions about your teen, questions you can begin to answer based on your own observations.
Does your teen have friends or are
they a loner? If they have no friends, their isolation may raise some concerns.
Why do they not have friends? Is it due to being bullied? Anxious? Fearful? Sad?
This observation may lead to a discussion with your teen about their mood,
their perspective on friendships, loneliness, and relationships in general.
Does your teen exhibit social
anxiety? It’s ok to be shy and introverted. As an introvert they will likely
still have a few good friends. However, if a person has social anxiety that
interferes with them going places or interacting with others it may be good to
seek outside help.
Does your teen seem energized after
spending time alone? Many teens just need time alone to “re-create” their inner
sense of peace after spending all day interacting in a somewhat chaotic and
over-stimulating school setting. They need to unwind and enjoy a moment of
“peace and quiet.” They need a time of personal restoration. If so,
they will often feel energized after a period of solitude.
How does your teen seem overall? Do
they sleep well? Do they enjoy times with friends? Do they become tearful
often? The answer to these questions can provide a great deal of information
about the health of their solitude.
Does your teen talk negatively about
themselves? Do they put themselves down? Are they excessively self-critical? If
so, their isolation may raise some concerns.
These observations may help you decide if your
teen’s desire to be alone is a problem or simply a healthy part of their
development. If your answers raise concerns seek out some counsel from friends
who have older children, a pastor, or a therapist.
Most parents want their teens to talk with them. They long for intimate conversations and fun interactions with their teen. But, teens are notoriously secretive. They are becoming their own person and may avoid talking about certain things with mom and dad. When all is said and done, however, teens really do want a relationship with their parents. They want to talk with their mom and dad. They don’t want to “be talked at” or “talked down to,” but they do want to “talk with” their parents. Unfortunately, parents may respond to their teen in
ways that teach their teen NOT to talk to them. They may actually encourage greater silence and secretiveness in their teen by responding to their teen in certain ways. For instance, here are five ways parents can inadvertently increase their teen’s secretiveness.
Making mountains out of mole hills. If everything becomes a big deal when your teen approaches you, they will talk less. Our teen is less likely to approach us when we respond with statements like “I can’t believe…” or “What were you thinking?” or “Why would you…?” or “You know better than….” These responses may cause your teen to feel inadequate and unaccepted. Also, if we yell and get upset when our teen tells us something, they begin to believe their actions and emotions overwhelm us. They may stop talking to us in an attempt to protect us from becoming overwhelmed. I’ve heard many teens say, “I can’t talk to my Mom. It’s too much for her. She just can’t handle it.” Making mountains out of mole hills will push your teen into silence around you, especially when an important issue arises.
Giving your teen only partial attention. Our teens crave our attention. They don’t admit it, but it’s true. They want our approval. They long for our recognition. If we focus on the TV or the paper or a video game when they want to talk with us, they will give up and quit trying to talk with us. When we divide our attention between them and the football game or them and “Candy Crush” they will decide we do not value them. They will give up seeking our advice and become more secretive. If you want your teen to talk to you more, give them your full attention.
Not keeping their confidence. I have seen too many examples of parents talking about their teen’s difficulties on Facebook or with friends in public places. Why would a teen talk with a parent who does not keep their confidence? Would you talk to someone if you feared they would spread your “dirty laundry” all over the neighborhood…or internet? Learn to keep your teen’s confidence. Be faithful and confidential.
Giving lots of lectures. Our teens really don’t like lectures. Do you? Their eyes glaze over and they tune out. They hear the sound of Charlie Brown’s teachers: “Wa wa wa wa wa.” They focus on how irritating the lecture is. Lectures just don’t work. Keep it short and sweet. Better yet, listen! Then, after you have listened, listen some more!
Pushing them to talk. You really can’t push your teen to talk with you. The more you push, the more they dig in and refuse to talk. In addition, your teen is going through a developmental stage of “differentiation.” They are separating from you as their parent and becoming “their own person.” This demands a lot of self-reflection and exploration. They naturally become quieter in regards to their parents. Parents actually find the most conversation with their teen occurs when they can accept the changing relationship and periods of silence. So, quit “badgering” your teen to talk and simply provide a safe and supportive environment where talking comes natural. Don’t worry, in a safe and supportive environment you will find your teen slowly opens up.
These five actions will push your teen toward silence and secretiveness. But, they also give you a hint about ways of getting them to open up and talk more. Don’t miss next week’s blog in which we will look at actions you can take to encourage your teen to talk with you.
Avoid cell phones and other screens before bedtime. Do not use screens within 90 minutes of bedtime. Instead, read a book, relax, take a bath, and enjoy conversation. These activities will also limit the amount of blue light experienced before bedtime.
Turn your phone to “do not disturb” for the night-time. No need to answer every text or message received through the night. Set the phone to only allow certain numbers to get through, like messages from your children or parents…for emergencies only.
Remember the importance of sleep. A good night’s rest is much more important than Facebook or Instagram. Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep/night (Learn more in Teenagers, Sleep and Blue Light). Lack of sleep limits a teen’s ability to listen and learn, contributes to acne, and increases agitation, even aggression. Lack of sleep also interferes with motivation, memory, and concentration. It even slows reflexes (Your Teen & the Importance of Sleep for more on the impact of sleep deprivation on teens). Recognizing the importance of sleep can increase our motivation to help our children develop a healthier pattern of sleep.
Curb cell phone usage in general. Set “phone boundaries” around meal times, family times, fun times…times when you will set the phone aside to focus on interactions with your family. Put the phone away so you can build intimacy and relationships.
Follow these four tips to defeat the digital enemy destroying your teen’s sleep. You might just gain a more rested—and pleasant—teen.