Tag Archive for adolescence

A Dad’s Crucial Role Starts Early

A study published in the Social Service Review (September 2020) confirms the importance of a father’s presence in their children’s lives. This study used data collected over a 10-year period (starting at five-years-old) to explore the impact of a father’s involvement on the behaviors 15-year-old children. They discovered that a father’s social engagement with their children as well as time spent with their children led to fewer behavior problems in 15-year-olds. A father’s quality involvement in their children’s lives impacts their behavior for the better. But how much will it improve their behavior?

This study (read a review) found that increasing father involvement among families from lower socio-economic-status (SES) reduced the differences in behavior of 15-year-olds from higher SES groups. Specifically, a father’s involvement with his children reduced the gap between lower and higher SES groups in behaviors like aggression, depression, and delinquency by 30-50% in children who did not live with their fathers. Their involvement reduced that same gap by 80% for those children who lived with their fathers. Even more powerful, this study suggests that a father’s active presence in his children’s early life has a significant long-term impact on their adolescent behavior.

Interestingly, cash support did not have this significant of an effect on adolescent behavior. Children need hands-on, time invested, social engagement of fathers to really make the behavioral difference we want, not cash. (Father’s still need to support their children financially. Children need the financial means to meet daily needs. But a father’s active involvement in their lives can impact their behavior beyond what simply throwing cash their way does.)

Fathers, your involvement is crucial, pivotal to your child’s future. Get involved. Experience the joy of engaging your child today and you will experience the joy of a relationship with them for a lifetime.

Your Marriage & Teen Cyberbullying

Cell phones and social media have become common place for our teens. Although social media can serve a positive purpose, it also comes with multiple challenges. One challenge relates to cyberbullying, or online behavior involving harassment, insults, threats, or the spreading of rumors. Over half the teen’s in the U.S. have experienced cyberbullying. If you have two teens in your home, there is a good chance that at least one of them has experienced cyberbullying. That’s the bad news. The good news? You can help reduce the risk that your teen will engage in cyberbullying and become a cyberbully by focusing on one particular relationship, your relationship with your spouse!

A study published this year (2020) in the International Journal of Bullying Prevention suggests that your relationship with your spouse may impact whether your teen engages in cyberbullying. This study utilized data from the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey. Specifically, they looked at data from 12,642 pre-teens and teens (age 11 to 15 years) surveyed in 2009-2010. These teens were asked about their bullying behaviors and their perceptions of certain characteristics of their family, characteristics like relationship quality and investment. Questions included whether parents were loving. The study revealed that those who said their parents were “almost never” loving were 6 times more likely to engage in high levels of cyberbullying than those who said their parents were “almost always” loving. In other words, those teens who perceived their parents as loving were less likely to engage in cyberbullying. So, if you want to contribute to less cyberbullying and reduce the risk of your child becoming a cyberbully, let your teen see a loving relationship between you and your spouse. Here are some hints to keep your relationship with your spouse strong and loving.

  • Spend time with your spouse. Your children need to see you enjoying time with your spouse. Sit together when watching TV. Go for walks together. Enjoy a date night. Laugh together.
  • Show your spouse physical affection. Your children may be grossed out when you share a hug or a kiss, but they will know you love one another. Hold hands. Sit arm in arm. Share physical affection.
  • Express gratitude. Make it a habit to thank your spouse for things they do for the family, for the children, for the home, for you. Thank them for earning money to support the family. Thank them for cleaning the kitchen, making the bed, doing the laundry, cooking dinner. There are a thousand things a day for which you can thank your spouse. Express gratitude.
  • Praise your spouse in your children’s presence. Recognize when your spouse does something well and acknowledge it verbally. Compliment them on how nice they look. Acknowledge their hair cut. Let them know you think they are a good cook, a hard worker, a sensitive and considerate friend. Admire your spouse’s positive qualities in the presence of your teens.
  • Work together around the house. Let your children and teens know that you and your spouse are a teen. You both contribute to the household chores and tasks. You help each other out. You and your spouse are a team caring for your home and family.
  • Flirt with your spouse. I know, your children and teens will be totally grossed out by this but do a little flirting anyway. Let them see how much you truly adore your spouse.

These behaviors will communicate the love you and your spouse share. Your teens will hear it loud and clear. And, even more, they will reduce the risk of your teen engaging in cyberbullying.

A Challenge for Families of Teens

The media often tells us about the challenge of teens. We hear about their fluctuating moods, out-of-control hormones, and risky behaviors. We raise concerns about the prevalence ratings of teen sexual activity, drug use, or bullying. But maybe these stories sell our teens short. Maybe there is much more to our teens than the media would suggest. In fact, research published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology asked 191 ninth grade students to engage in five acts of kindness in a week. In response, the students completed 943 acts of kindness during that week! 94% of the teens reported completing 3 or more kind acts of kindness in response to that challenge. Not surprisingly, after completing one week of kind acts, the students showed an increase in their perception of their own kindness. Binfet, the author of this study, noted that “when encouraged to be kind, the teens surpassed expectations.”

This reminded me of a concept Tony Campolo espoused many years ago in his book Ideas for Social Action. He believed that young people are attracted to challenge more than entertainment, meaningful action rather than “pie in the sky when you die” promises. In this study, Binfet challenged students to kindness and their response “surpassed expectations.”

What does all this mean for parents and families? Perhaps, rather than focus on the challenge of teens, we need to offer our teens a challenge, a challenge to kindness, a challenge to reach out to the others in love, a challenge to live a life of service, sacrifice, and meaning. In response to the study above, Binfet suggested that our teens would benefit from parents and educators finding “ways to best structure opportunities for youth to be kind to help foster their development.” I believe this challenge begins at home. How can we, as parents, provide opportunities for our children and teens to show kindness to others? When we do, I believe we will be pleasantly surprised as our teens “surpass our expectations.” So, rather than bemoan the challenge of teens, lets challenge our teens and our selves to engage in acts of kindness.

Here is an experiment you can try this month. It is a challenge for the whole family, including your teens. Challenge every member of your family, including the teens, to engage in 5 acts of kindness every week for a month. Note the acts of kindness can be done within the family or outside the home toward friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. At the end of each week, talk about the kindnesses each one has shared and how those acts of kindness impacted you as an individual and the world around you.

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.

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.

Adolescence: The Perfect Time to Contribute

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.

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