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.
I don’t know about you but I hate to see my children upset, struggling, or in pain. Still, sometimes they misbehave and suffer as a result of that misbehavior. They make foolish choices and struggle with the consequences. As hard as it is to watch, it’s in their best interest to let them suffer. I have, however, discovered a way to limit those moments of suffering and thus our own struggle with watching them suffer. Limit them, I say, NOT eliminate them. It’s a way to teach them disciplined behavior and how to make wise daily actions before trouble begins. It’s not 100% successful, but it certainly made a huge difference in our home and in any home in which I’ve see it implemented. I’m talking about establishing daily routines.
Routines will help your children and your family discipline before you even need to. Many of the benefits of routines stem from the predictability they add to family life. When children know what to expect, positive things happen. One great benefit of routines is watching your children learn disciplined behavior before suffering the consequences of poor choices! Let me share a few other benefits your children will experience when you establish healthy routines.
Children become more cooperative and less oppositional with routines in place. Power struggles decrease as routines become the norm. Morning routines replace nagging. Bed time routines replace fighting. Children learn to follow the routine because “that’s what’s next” and what’s next is a healthy, wise lifestyle choice.
Children gain a sense of mastery and independence with routines in place. As children learn the routine, they require less prompting. They learn to do more on their own. For instance, a dinner routine which includes setting the table, clearing the dishes, and loading the dishwasher becomes a family activity in which everyone participates and learns how to complete each step independently if needed. A morning routine contributes to competent self-care and an independent ability to prepare for the day, which will be a great benefit to the whole family in middle school, high school, and college.
Children gain a sense of security from healthy routines. Routines add predictability to the day. When transitions and changes occur, those routines add stability. Predictability and stability equal safety and security for children. Children who feel safe and secure in the family listen better and misbehave less often. For instance, children who know their parent will read with them before they go to sleep experience a sense of safety in the relationship that allows them to open up and talk about the important events of their life and day.
Children gain a stronger identity through routines. Routines help define who we are as a family and as individuals. We are ‘readers’ who read together every night. We are ‘independent people’ who don’t need our mom to get us up for school every day. We are family, supporting one another as we talk during family meals. We are ‘campers’ who go camping one a month. We are ‘people of faith’ who practice our daily and weekly prayers and services. You get the idea: routines build identity.
Children bond with family through routines. Family dinners, bedtime routines, routines of taking leave, routines of reunion, and holiday routines all provide the opportunity to bond with family and express love and affection for one another. They provide the time to share experiences, talk about the day, and practice values together.
My youngest daughter had a wonderful opportunity to sing at DCINY under the direction of Eric Whitacre in Carnegie Hall. She was ecstatic. It demanded a great deal of work and courage on her part. She had to fill out the application, try out, rehearse independently, and then rehearse with the choir. She also made arrangements with her teachers to make up missed classwork, arrange travel to New York, arrange a stay in a hostel, and manage her time while there. She did an amazing job. I’m very proud of all she did, including her work to grow as a vocalist and as a person who cares for and loves people from all walks of life.
My oldest daughter is preparing to move across the country to begin her next stage in life. She has worked hard to get an opportunity to study music’s impact on identity for oppressed populations. She too is thrilled with the opportunity. She has worked hard to get to this point. She has already begun to make the arrangements necessary for a successful move. It’s exciting to consider who she might meet, where she might go, and what she might learn. I’m very proud of all she has done, including her work to grow as a pianist/musician and as a compassionate advocate and scholar.
I love watching my daughters grow and experience life. I anticipate other wonderful experiences in both their lives. It is all very exciting. At the same time it’s a bit…well…sad. Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled to watch my daughters grow and encounter new experiences. But, their growth also means they become more and more independent. They do not need me as much anymore. They are learning to manage their own lives without my help. They are learning to do it “all alone.” Go figure. Years of working to get our children to this point and now it’s here. Now, it’s time to let go. Well, maybe I’m not really going to just let go. I’m going to hold on tightly, but with an open hand as I watch my daughters take flight. I’m going to hold on tightly with an open hand so I can watch them “soar to new heights.” I’m going to hold on tightly with an open hand while trusting the relationship we have nurtured to keep us emotionally close, no matter how physically far they travel from home and how independent they become. I’m holding on tightly with an open hand so we can learn from one another, so we can share in the new experiences of life as each of us grow older. I’m holding tight with an open hand as we learn to relate together as adults who serve and encourage one another, support and strengthen one another. It’s an adventure, a frontier we have not yet fully experienced as a family. But it holds great opportunities for all. So we walk this adventure together, holding on tightly to one another with an open hand.
Children are an enigma to me, a puzzle. They hear everything…except when you ask them to do something. Swear one time in front of them and they repeat it for weeks at the most inopportune moments…but they still forget to say “thank you” and “please” after a gazillion reminders. They can remember every single one of the countless Pokémon characters in existence, even spouting off each one’s strengths, weaknesses, and evolutions (I’m not even sure I said that correctly)…but they can’t remember to make their bed and brush their teeth. I can’t say I ever figured out this puzzle, but I have learned a few hints to increase the chances that your children will listen to you when you give them a directive.
First, grab their attention. Gain eye contact with your children before giving them a task. This may mean interrupting their current activity for a moment so you can obtain face-to-face, eye-to-eye recognition. Speak directly to them. You’ve seen your children do it to you. When they want to tell you something or show you something, they repeat your “name” until you turn to look at them. They tap your arm and leg and side until you look at them. They might even grab your chin and turn your face to look at them. Take a hint from your children. Grab their attention before giving them a task.
Second, make it fun. Clown around a little bit. I remember my children’s allergist. He always found Donald Duck in my daughters’ ears and Bugs Bunny in their other ear. He found amazing characters in their eyes and throat. They couldn’t wait to see him and find out which ear Donald Duck would reside in today. They never fought his ear, nose, and throat inspections. Why? Because he added fun to it. Be creative and make your children’s chores fun. Sing while you set the table. Tell stories while you make the bed. Make dinosaur noises while you walk to school. Whatever your children love, use it to create some fun.
Third, don’t ask, tell. When children are young they do not understand that a polite question such as “Would you please set the table?” is a directive. If you want them to set the table, make it a polite directive: “Set the table, please.” Once again, you will see this when your children interact with other children. Young children rarely say things like, “Would you please pass me that Lego when you get a chance?” They use a much more directive approach. They say, “I want that one” or “Give me the blue one.” They are not necessarily rude, just direct. They understand direct. They do not yet understand the nuances of indirect requests. So, if you want your children to do something, tell them politely but directly.
Fourth, slow it down. Be patient. Give them a chance to respond. Children need time to process your request, give them time to do so. If you jump in too quickly, you have just given them an “out.” You have changed the focus from your directive to your impatience. They can’t focus on both. Until their preteen years, they can only focus on one thing at a time and that is generally the immediate or the one with greatest intensity. So, if you jump in with an impatient remark, they will forget the directive and focus on your impatient remark. They find it difficult to keep both in mind. Slow down, be patient, and wait. Give them a chance to respond. If they do not respond, grab their attention again and repeat the directive.
Finally, give them appropriate choices. Let them begin to make choices from an early age. Do they want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt today? Should we read then take a bath, take a bath before reading, or read one book before the bath and one book after the bath? Let them choose. Agree on their choice and carry it out. You might be surprised at how well they remember their choice. And, doing this increases their independence over time.
Five practices that will help your children listen well. They will still prove to be an enigma. You’ll still discover those astounding paradoxes that shock you…like their ability to make the most profound, insightful comment just before talking about the Tooth Fairy’s lack of generosity. But hey, at least they’ll listen a little better.
Social skills are foundational to the human experience. They bring us into relationship with others. They give us the opportunity to experience community as well as the joy of intimacy. They enable us to communicate our needs and clarify our desires. They empower us to work together and accomplish greater things. They help us develop friendships. In other words, social skills serve as a foundation to our relationships, our values, and our growth. Let that foundation weaken and the whole house starts to crumble. I mean, the whole house starts to crumble. In fact, poor social skills contribute to poorer mental and physical health (the whole house). One researcher actually notes that poor social skills increase loneliness and chronic loneliness is “as serious of a risk [factor] as smoking, obesity, or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise (Read Poor Social Skills May be Harmful to Your Health for more). In brief, our children fair better physically and mentally when they have good social skills. Fortunately, social skills are learned over time and that learning begins in the family. Parents are their children’s first and most significant social skills coach, their friendship coach. How can a parent become a great friendship coach to their children? Here are 6 tips to help you get started.
Enjoy time with your children. One of the best ways to coach social skills is by modeling and practicing them yourself. Interact with your children and practice good social skills in the process. Treat them politely. Show them how friends treat one another. Share. Laugh. Play. Set boundaries. Express emotions. Negotiate disagreements. There is no better coach than one who can play the game well and engages his trainees in the process. Enjoy time with your children. (I love the time of Enjoying Your Child–Priceless!)
Talk about thoughts and feelings with your children. When you watch a movie, talk about the subtext of thoughts and feelings that motivate a character’s actions. When a friend interacts with your children in a way they don’t understand, talk about the subtext of thoughts or feelings that may contribute to that interaction. Explain how your own thoughts and feelings contribute to your actions. Label feelings you and your children experience. The broader a child’s emotional vocabulary, the more understanding they become…the better friend they become. (More tips @ Teaching Your Child to Handle Emotions)
Allow for individual style. Not everyone is an extravert. Not everyone jumps into social settings. Some people are more introverted. Some slowly warm up to activities and interactions. Allow for those differences in style. Let the introvert enjoy interacting with small groups and the extrovert enjoy the loud social settings. Allow time for your children to slowly warm up to an activity if that is what they need. Allow your children to move quickly into an activity if they are comfortable doing so. Allow for those individual styles and don’t force your children into a style that does not fit their personality. (Read Honoring Variety)
Create opportunities for social interactions. When your children are young you do this by scheduling play dates. As your children get older, they can become involved in various groups like scouting, church youth groups, choirs, musical groups, sports’ teams, or volunteer groups. You might also consider family games nights with various board games that encourage social interactions. Invite other families over for game night. Play a few games together then let the children go off to play together while the adults chat for a time.
Turn off the technology and “go face-to-face.” Technology has a way of limiting social skills. Twitter does not allow children to learn the art of reading facial cues or hearing voice tones. Facebook does not let us see the ups & downs of life since people tend to post the happy days. “Face-to-face” interactions, on the other hand, teach us to understand facial expressions and interpret voice cues. They help us learn how and when to ask for clarifications that can deepen our understanding of one another. With this in mind, limit technology. Encourage face-to-face interactions. (More @ Welcome to the Dead Zone for more)
Give your children space. It may sound contradictory to give our children space, but they need time to practice the skills they are learning without our intervention. They need the opportunities to resolve conflicts, negotiate difference, and enjoy age expected interactions with peers. After all, practice makes perfect. So, take a breath, step back, and let them go. Give them space to practice on their own. (Good Parents Do Nothing!! tells more)
Well “Coach,” follow these tips and you are well on your way to “Coach of the Year.” And your children will develop the social skills necessary to navigate their world independently and successfully!
Our children crave quality time with us, their parents and families. In fact, they need quality time with us. Quality time is the currency of love in our children’s world. It purchases their sense of security and it is crucial to their emotional and mental health. Quality time creates a sense of safety that allows them to explore their world, learn about their life, and grow more mature. One of the best ways to spend quality time with your children is to enter their world rather than expecting them to enter your world. When you enter your children’s world of play, imagination, and thought you learn so much about them and you help them grow more mature. Of course, sometimes we find it difficult to enter our children’s world. After all, it’s just so… well…childish. But the benefits to their emotional and mental health are enormous. Here are some tips to help you enter their world.
Let them lead the play rather than you leading them. As they direct the play, you can narrate what is happening like a sport’s caster narrating the play. When you do this, your children feel valued and appreciated. They know you consider them significant enough to pay attention to. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children will give you more ideas for letting your children lead the play).
Let your children choose the toy. When children are expected to play with a toy not of their choosing, they quickly become bored. Their attention span shortens and their interest wanes. You actually help increase your children’s attention span when you follow their lead and let them choose the toys and objects of play (For more read Nurture Your Child’s Attention Span).
Be available during the play without imposing your desires on them. Instead of suggesting what your children “could do,” delve into what they are doing and enjoy it. Enjoy their imagination, their ideas, and their activities. Your children will learn the importance and power of their ideas.
Allow children to enjoy independent, unstructured play while you remain available to them. Studies suggest that children allowed to engage in independent play have higher IQ’s than those who engaged only in adult led and structured play (Read Make Your Child “a Head Taller than Himself” for more).
In other words, a great way to have quality time with your children is to let your children teach you rather than trying to teach them. When we allow our children to teach us, we let them have the joy of discovering themselves.
Sue looked exhausted, frazzled, and run down when I arrived at her house. I thought she’d be more rested at home. We had hoped to go out for coffee and conversation, but she couldn’t find a sitter. So, I figured I’d go to her house and enjoy some time together. It didn’t go as I had imagined. We did not sit at the kitchen table to enjoy conversation while her son played nearby. No, her son demanded her constant attention. She was constantly on the go responding to his unending demands for a drink, a playmate, an interaction…constant entertainment. If he wasn’t making demands, he was getting into something that forced Sue to run over and stop him, redirect him, and then entertain him. We “couldn’t get two words edgewise” because Sue’s son required constant engagement. That’s when I realized the importance of giving our children a place where they can play safely without adult intervention. Giving our children a safe place play alone, without adult intervention, demands some preparation. First, you have to organize a child-proof room. But once you have established that safe area, children can play independently with nothing more than their parent’s observation. Parents can sit comfortably or engage in other activities knowing their children can play safely alone. And, allowing our children time to play alone without adult intervention will benefit our children in many ways. Let me describe just a few of the benefits of allowing our children to play alone.
Playing alone, without adult intervention, sparks children’s imaginations and creativity. Observe your children as they play alone and you will witness dragons, princesses, cowboys, doctors, and monsters come to life. You will see detectives and firemen working together to capture invisible villains and put out imaginary fires. Playing without adult intervention frees our children’s creativity.
Playing alone, without adult intervention, gives our children the opportunity to learn problem-solving skills. When we stay out of the way, our children find their own solutions to problems that arise. They brainstorm and find ways to banish their boredom. They learn to negotiate and compromise with one another. They learn to set boundaries and assert themselves kindly. These are all lessons learned in the classroom of play when we don’t interfere with the teacher of experience.
Playing alone, without adult intervention, helps children become more comfortable with themselves. They may explore new activities and, in the process, develop their interests. They learn they are “OK” without constant entertainment because they can entertain themselves by exploring novel activities. As a result of these things, they become more comfortable with themselves.
Playing alone, without adult intervention, teaches children to manage their time. Rather than having their time managed by scheduled activities, these children learn to enjoy the quiet. They also learn how to entertain themselves.
Playing alone, without adult intervention, allows children to learn to soothe their own emotions. They learn emotional management skills like distraction. They learn to focus their attention on what they have rather than what they do not have. They learn to soothe themselves.
As you can see, allowing children time to play alone helps them grow. Children learn so much in the classroom of play when allowed to play alone without adult intervention. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we never need to play with our kids. Our children need time to play alone and they need time when we engage them in play. Giving our children time to engage in unstructured, independent play without adult intervention carries many benefits we don’t want our children to miss.
Our youngest daughter moved out of our house and into her college room today. I won’t get to tell her “good night” at the end of each day, hear her come down the stairs in the morning to start her day, or enjoy our “Tuesday Daddy-Daughter Days” now. On the other hand, I won’t have to ask her to put her stuff away every day or work my way through her leftovers in the fridge. I will really miss her daily presence in my life. Still, I have to say, it’s not the first time I’ve had to watch her take a step away from me and toward independence. This is just another step in a series of steps that began many years ago with the words, “No, I do” as she pulled away from me to zip her own coat. Some of her steps have been sure-footed, some hesitant. Most have proven more difficult for me than they were for her. She has learned the pace most comfortable for her in stepping toward independence. She has grown more confident in her abilities. Me…well, I’m just a “therapist with separation anxiety” (her words, by the way). I don’t completely agree with her assessment, but I have to admit…I have experienced some separation anxiety with each step she has taken. Overall, watching my daughter mature and walk toward independence has increased my joy. But, I have experienced some separation anxiety…and, I have learned at least two things from this adventure of letting go.
I learned the importance of observing my daughter closely. Observation builds a foundation for understanding our children’s strengths and interests. It allows us to learn about their competencies and their developmental abilities. Observation allowed me to see what my daughter had learned, what she already knew, and what she was ready to learn and do. With all this knowledge, I was better able to present opportunities that fit my daughter’s readiness to learn while still challenging her to grow. It allowed me to keep the environment conducive to her abilities. Observe your child closely and you will learn the same things about your children. Even learning all this, you might struggle to learn the second lesson. I know I did.
I learned to trust my daughter to initiate and explore herself and her world. This meant I had to learn to believe in her competence to learn. Sure, I supported her exploring and learning (just check my pocket book), but I had to trust her enough to let her go, to take a step away, and explore more and more independently. I had to trust her ability to manage the discomfort of trying something new with only my distant watchful eye for support. I had to trust her to learn from her mistakes without rescuing her…or sheltering her from future mistakes. I had to trust her to learn her limitations and strengths. And, as she did, she became more confident. Her judgment improved. And, I could trust her more. Trusting your child to takes steps toward independence throughout life will do the same for you as well.
Observing will increase your ability to trust. As you trust, you will observe all the more and rejoice in the growth you see. All the while, you will find yourself letting go one step at a time and trusting each step of the way…even if it does still remain difficult to watch them grow up and leave home.
Establishing a healthy family is a balancing act. It requires finding the best blend between diametrically opposed traits. For instance, a healthy family finds balance in at least these three areas:
A healthy family lives in the balance between structure and freedom. Too much structure and a family becomes rigid. Spontaneous fun and laughter disappear. Family members feel trapped and imprisoned by the constant demands of an imposed and unbending structure. Too much freedom, on the other hand, and a family experiences chaos. Limits and boundaries become broken or even disappear. Predictability flies out the window and, as a result, family members experience insecurity, confusion, and even fear. Healthy families find a balance between these two extremes by establishing a flexible structure. Flexible structure provides a daily family schedule and daily routines while leaving room for down time and unstructured play. It leaves open the possibility of making adjustments as situations and circumstances change. A flexible structure provides the best of both worlds: structure and freedom.
A healthy family lives in the balance between connection and independence. Too
much connection and family members becomes entangled and boxed in. They feel intruded upon, unable to develop their distinct interests or pursue their individual opportunities. No one can develop their individuality, their unique character. Each person in the family will even experience great difficulty establishing their identity. Move too far toward independence, however, and family members find themselves alone, isolated, and without support. They have no one with whom they can enjoy life, no one to help them develop as unique individuals. We need relationships to discover our own identity. Healthy families find balance between these two extremes by developing interdependence. Interdependence empowers family members to engage one another and enjoy individual time. Relationships become the springboard for individual identity development by providing a safe harbor from which to explore interests and ideas as well as a safe haven in which to find comfort and reassurance. Interdependent relationships become the place of safety, comfort, encouragement, and empowerment for each individual and the family as a whole.
A healthy family lives in the balance between “mine” and “yours.” Too much focus on “mine” and family members becomes self-absorbed and self-centered. Stinginess undermines sharing. Greediness leads to excessive competition for resources that everyone perceives as limited. But, when the focus turns completely to “yours,” at least one person becomes a doormat. After time, she will feel taken for granted and used. Eventually, she will rebel. She may lash out in anger or shut down in defeat, bitter and resentful. The whole family suffers as a result. Healthy families balance “mine” and “yours” with “ours.” Finding “ours” is no easy task. It requires a growing knowledge of each family member. It demands a long-term vision, a willingness to postpone “my own” agenda and even sacrifice for the good of the family. In short, finding “ours” requires love and acceptance. “Ours” presupposes differences but learns to tolerate, accept, and even celebrate those differences as opportunities to learn, love, and serve.
Children are not our puppets. We cannot control them. (Learn more in Children Are Not Our Puppets.) In fact, if we hold our children on puppet strings, we do them a disservice. We interfere with their healthy self-image, intimate relationships, and ability to assertively take a stand for what they believe. What can you do as a parent to cut the puppet strings and let go? What can you do to keep your children safe while not controlling them? These five actions can help you let go of over-control while encouraging your children to mature.
Get curious. Encourage conversation with your children. Learn about their interests and opinions by asking open-ended questions. Learn about their friends, their dreams, their fears, their hobbies. Our children are fascinating! Get curious and learn about them by talking with them often.
Get your own life. Don’t live your life through your children. Don’t encourage your children to fulfill your dreams. Get your own life and let your children have their life. That will mean allowing them to become involved in activities without you. It will mean allowing them to meet other adults they can look up to and go to for advice. Let your children have their own life may mean allowing them to have no interest at all in something you find exciting. Let your children have a life that is separate from your life.
Be consistent and flexible. Children need us to be consistent in our love for them and our expectations of them. They need to know the rules and the consequences of breaking those rules. As they grow, they benefit from knowing the reasoning behind the rules as well. Our children also need us to be flexible. They need to have the opportunity to talk about the rules and give their explanation for why they believe an exception or a change is called for as they mature. They need to know we will listen and consider their opinion. They need to know we are willing to make changes in the rules or expectations when they make sense and show maturity. We grow as they grow. The rules changes as we all mature.
Accept their choices. Children and adolescents need to make choices. Let them make age appropriate choices. You may not let your preschooler choose where to go for vacation, but let them choose between two outfits to wear for the day. As your children grow, let them have more choice and responsibility. They might make choices you disagree with. Sometimes these choices are merely opinion, like whether to wear a pullover shirt or a button up shirt. Other times their choices will just be wrong. When these wrong choices are not dangerous or life threatening, accept them. They will suffer the consequences. Let them. We learn when we make wrong choices and experience the results.
Lean in. No matter what your children do, lean in to your relationship with them. Our children really need to know we want a relationship with them when they do suffer consequences for bad choices. They need to know our love is unconditional. When they do something that makes you proud, lean in to the relationship. When they make a mistake or fail, lean in to the relationship. When they disobey and you have to discipline them, lean in to the relationship. For love covers a multitude of sins.
These five practices can help you cut the puppet strings and train your children to become real boys and girls. No, they will become even more than that. They will become mature and responsible young men and women.