Tag Archive for teen

Parents as Emotional Containment Pods

A teen’s life is full of emotions. They can be happy one moment and angry the next…down in the dumps one moment, then turn around, and be on top of the world.  I’m sure you’ve seen it. School and community do not provide a safe place for them to unload these emotions. Instead, our teens endure the tedious demands of teachers, authority figures, and other teens while they go through their day at school or wander through the community. They put up with annoying peers with whom they need to interact as they navigate the teen challenges of becoming their own person and learn to differentiate from their family. Amazingly, they do this all with a great deal of grace.

Then, they come home. The frustrations, angers, annoyances, hurts, sorrows, and tears of the day remain bottled up until they release them, pour them out right onto us, their emotional containment pods. Yes, as a parent we get the privilege of serving as emotional containment pods for our teens. I say privilege because they come to us, a person they consider safe and who lives with them in a place they consider safe, to let it all out. They are comfortable enough with us to let all the uncomfortable feelings roll right out of their mouth and onto us. We help them contain the mess. We help them manage the emotions and navigate the frustrations. They have given us an opportunity to support them because they trust us! Unfortunately, knowing this does not make it easier for us to manage the frustration of experiencing their emotions wash over us and fill us.  But here are some tips that might help.

  • Remind yourself that you are providing them a way to unload stress so they can “keep it together” while at school and in the community. In addition, this provides an opportunity to teach problem-solving. But, before you move into any problem solving, listen.
  • Listen. Listening will teach your children that you value them.  It also informs them that their emotions are not overwhelming to you, you can handle them. You can help them manage the emotions, contain them in a healthy way.
  • Confirm whether your child wants to vent or complain. Venting simply expresses frustration and allows the “venter” to feel better because they have been listened to and heard. If your child simply wants to vent, listen, empathize, and listen some more.  Complaining, on the other hand, conveys the message that someone else needs to fix the problem. It takes no time to look at the areas of the difficulty “I” can influence. It leaves the complainer helpless. The complainer never feels better. Complaining does not accomplish anything. If your child wants to complain, move to the next bullet.
  • Help your child learn the difference between problems over which they have influence and those they cannot solve. Help them learn where their responsibility begins and ends. Help them determine what aspects of the problem they have influence over. When they have discovered those areas of influence, help them think through a plan of response. For those areas over which they have no influence, encourage them to learn to “accept the things they cannot change.”
  • Set limits. We want to have more relationship with our children than just listening to them vent. Encourage them to tell you positive events of the day as well. Also, sometimes our teens have bad days. They are irritable and snap out at family. They punish their family for their own bad mood with cutting remarks and snarky comments. It is a fair limit to say, “You can vent, I’ll listen. You can come to me and we can problem solve. But, we will not allow you to mistreat us.”

Teen years are filled with stress and emotion. Fortunately, these emotions provide a wonderful opportunity to grow closer with your teen and guide them toward greater maturity.

Parenting Lessons from the Pool

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.

A Powerful Way to Learn About Your Teen

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.

  1. Do not fire questions too rapidly. Machine gun firing of questions leads to a backfire. The teen becomes overwhelmed and shuts down, silence.
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. “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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. Use the “right” tone and volume. A casual tone often contributes to more ready responses. A volume sensitive to your teen encourages more responses.
  5. 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.

Help Flatten the Curve on THIS Crisis

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. Teach your children healthy screen management. Studies suggest that becoming overinvolved with cell phones and social media platforms can contribute to depression. It sucks up time, potentially limiting opportunities to become physically active…and research suggest that just an hour of physical activity decreases the risk of depression by 10%. It casts a false view of life, increasing the fear of missing out. And, the burden of a smartphone is too great for our children to manage. They do not have the maturity level to manage it independently and effectively. We need to teach them how to use their electronic devices wisely, to be a smart consumer of social media so social media does not consume them.

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?

My Teen: A Live-in Boarder?

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?

Preventing Suicide In Our Teens

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:

  • Scouting groups like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Frontier Girls, Spiral scouts. For more information, visit Top 5 Scouting Organizations for Kids.
  • 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.

Daddy, Can I Date?

I remember the day it happened. My 6th grade daughter asked me if she could date a particular young man. My first thought was, “Is she crazy? My little girl…another man? No way!” Maybe I was overreacting. So, rather than give her my initial thoughts, I became curious. “What does it mean to date someone?” I asked.

“I don’t know?” she answered. “I guess we’d see each other at school and talk.”

Still curious, I pushed a little further. “Would you kiss him?”
“Eww. Daaad. Yuck.”

“I guess that’s a ‘no’?” She shook her head. “Well, are you going to hold hands?”
“No. That’s gross.”

Satisfied that her idea of dating was very different than my initial fears, I said, “Sure. You can date him.”

Dating seems like such a normal part of the teen years. Many consider it an important learning experience for teens, helping them develop their self-identity and social skills. It increases their awareness of others. It helps them learn about their emotions and the emotions of others.  But, is it necessary? What if your teen just doesn’t date? Will they still learn these things? According to research from the University of Georgia, the answer is “Yes.”

The researchers conducting this study analyzed data that followed students from the 6th grade through 12th grade. Every spring, students completed surveys that included information on dating, social and emotional factors, relationships with peers and family, symptoms of depression, and suicidal thoughts. Their teachers also completed questionnaires rating each student’s social skills, leadership skills, and levels of depression.

The results are interesting. First, the self-reports of students did not differ between dating and non-dating students. However, the teachers rated the non-dating students significantly higher in social skills and leadership skills than their dating peers.

In addition, scores on the depression scale were significantly lower for the non-dating students (according to the teachers). The non-dating students also reported being sad or depressed at a significantly lower rate than the dating students. It seems that non-dating teens avoid a great deal of drama and so experience a lower incidence of depression. Overall, it turns out that both dating and non-dating are normal, healthy behaviors for teens. Both dating and non-dating teens learn social skills and grow emotionally. Both grow in their self-identity. No worries. Dating or not, our children can mature into healthy, happy adults.

A Couch Potato Teen? The Good News, Bad News, & Even Better News

What’s wrong with a couch potato? Researchers in the United Kingdom have answered that question. Well…they didn’t ask that question literally, but they answered it nonetheless. They followed 4,000 children using “wearable devices called accelerometers.” These devices record body movements, sort of like a Fitbit. They analyzed the data collected through these devices when the children were 12, 14, and 16 years old. Ironically, their daily sedentary time increased from 7 hours and 10 minutes to 8 hours and 40 minutes over the span of those years. The knowledge they gained about adolescent activity levels comes with good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. This increase in sedentary time was associated with an increased risk of depression. A decrease in activity level contributed to the risk of depression. Specifically, every hour of increased sedentary time during adolescence was associated with an 8-11% increase in a risk of depression at 18-years-old.

Now the good news. The risk of depression decreased by 10% with every hour of physical activity added to a teen’s day. In other words, adding an hour of physical activity to a teen’s day cut the risk of depression by 10%! Adding two hours of physical activity cut the risk of depression by 20%!

But wait. There’s even better news. Physical activity does not have to involve the gym, sports, or a major workout. These are good, but not the only options. Physical activity in this study simply meant moving around. Even light activity like walking to a friend’s house, running errands, standing while talking to friends (rather than “sitting on the phone”), doing chores around the house, or helping set the table helped to accrue physical activity…and decrease depression! That is great news because there are so many options to help your teen gain more physical activity. Really, anything other than the sedentary sitting or lying down while play video games or watching TV is going to help accrue time of physical activity. So, encourage your teen to walk to a friend’s house, ride their bike to the store, play a game of pick up basketball with friends, do some chores…anything to get them on their feet and moving.

For an added bonus, engage in some physical activities with them—walk the dog together, ride your bikes to a movie, do yardwork together, engage them in cleaning the house with you. Not only will the physical activity help decrease their risk of depression, but the time spent with you will contribute to their long-term health and happiness as well.

After School Questions Your Teen Might Even Answer!

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 today?
  • 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 today?
  • 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 today?

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.

A Roadmap to Rebuild Trust With Your Teen

Let’s face it. Teens do some crazy things at times. I did some stupid things as a teen. You probably did too. And, our teens probably will as well. They may do one thing we never thought in a million years they would do; and, in so doing, break our trust. It may be simple, like staying out past their curfew. Or, it may be more serious, like getting caught with drugs or sending a revealing picture to the “new love of their life” (or convincing their “new love” to send the picture). Whatever it is, big or small, it shatters the trust we once had for our sweet, innocent child. We discipline and work to assure the behavior won’t happen again. But how do we rebuild the trust we once had? How do we begin to trust our teen again?

  • Be open with your teen. Explain your feelings to your teen. Let them know their behavior hurt you. You may have sounded angry, but underneath the anger was hurt and disappointment. Explain your desire to trust them again and your continued love for them. Let them know you recognize their potential and believe in their ability to reach that potential. Recall times in which your teen has acted in ways that built trust and increased your pride in them. Let them know you still remember those positive behaviors as well.
  • Develop a balanced view of your teen. Recall the positive things your teen has done and said that give you a sense of joy and pride in order to balance any feelings of disappointment and hurt you may have experienced. Remember, you have also done wonderful things and things of which you are not proud. Allow your teen the same freedom.
  • Deal with your feelings. You have talked to your teen, now deal with your own emotions. They are your feelings and your responsibility. Don’t let your emotions interfere with your changing relationship with your teen. Resolve them. 
  • Clarify boundaries and expectations…but be careful as you do. Do not set up unrealistic expectations in a knee-jerk reaction to the behavior that broke your trust. Be reasonable. Discuss limits and boundaries with another adult to get a more objective viewpoint. Discuss them with your teen as well. Work to reach an agreement on what constitutes reasonable expectations for your home and family.
  • Develop a clear roadmap for regaining trust and watch your teen’s journey on that road to redemption. When your teen meets an expectation or follows a rule, make a point to notice it and allow it to enhance your trust in them. Realize no teen is perfect, so allow for some  minor setbacks. A rule of thumb is to allow your teen 1 setback for 5-6 trust building actions you observe. Keep your eyes open for those trust building actions. Don’t let them slip by unnoticed.  
  • Take a risk. Parents have the tendency to hold their teen closer and micromanage their every activity after trust has been broken. Unfortunately, this only increases frustration. It leads to greater conflict and a further deterioration of trust. Rather than micromanage, allow your teen to engage in a “trial run.” Explain the “trial run” to your teen. “I am trusting you with this job or activity. When all goes well and they return, you will have nurtured trust. If you revert to the behavior that originally broke our trust, you will have further damaged our trust.”
  • Finally, talk about other stuff. Don’t continue repeating the conversation about your fears and their behavior. Find some areas of interest to talk about. If they enjoy music, talk about music. If they enjoy fishing, talk about fishing. Find areas in which you can enjoy conversation with your teen. Doing so will build relationship and trust.

These 7 actions are not simple. But they will help rebuild trust with your teen and deepen your relationship with them.

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