“I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to Say!”

hisnsetSeveral years ago our drama teacher passed away unexpectedly, and it fell to me to tell the 7th and 8th grade drama students.  After I broke the news, they sat in silence until one young lady said, “I’m sad, but I don’t feel like crying,” and another said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”

I’ve spent time over the years explaining the grieving process to 8th graders, assuring them that the sadness will come and go in waves, and that it’s okay to have happy times even when you’re grieving.  They feel guilty for being happy (or angry), and they’re surprised when people laugh during or after a memorial service.  Dealing with grief is a life experience that teens know comes with adult rules and expectations–but they don’t know what those are, and they’re afraid they’ll do or say the wrong thing.

Recently our school community had to deal with the loss of a beloved former student in a tragic accident.  As the news spread via social media, we adults found ourselves not just counseling teens through their sadness, but answering questions like, “Is it normal to feel this way?  Is it okay for me to do this?”

Some teens want to talk through their grief right from the beginning, but others will need time to process.  Wise adults will avoid asking direct questions like, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How are you feeling about all this?”  Instead, listen for opportunities to approach sideways, like heavy sighing (ask, “Feeling kind of emotional today?”) or watch for a sad expression (say, “I’m missing her, too).

Remember, it’s not your job to cheer up a grieving teen; you are there to listen with empathy and understanding. Offer assurance that there is another side to the valley of sadness, but it’s better to trudge through it than try to avoid it.  When teens start laughing again and moving on with life, reassure them that it’s normal and expected.

And know that it’s okay for you to laugh, too.

Do You Think He Has ADD?

alanWhen I am asked this question, I always answer with, “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter to me if he has an official diagnosis.  There are things we can do now to help him improve his focus and organization.”  (I then refer them to their pediatrician for a formal evaluation if they’re still concerned.

I am the person who walks into a room with my coffee cup in hand and loses track of it one minute later, with no recollection of it ever leaving my grip.  Consequently, I have huge empathy for the student whose pens and pencils disappear during the first week of school, or who finishes every assignment on time but can’t find it when it’s time to turn it in.

“I bought her a planner, but she won’t use it!”  This complaint indicates an organized parent who would be lost without her own planner.  Fact is, some of us just aren’t “planner people.”  (Cynthia Tobias calls us “piles and files” people.)  I suggest students try a variety of methods for keeping track of assignments, including sticky notes, digital devices, and a wipe-off board at home.  Some students just keep a blank sheet of paper in their binders and list assignments as they go (then hope the binder goes home with them).  I also encourage students to make use of school websites to find homework due dates.

Sometimes what looks like a focus problem is just a learning style.  In her book The Way They LearnCynthia says that visual learners need to picture the lesson, so they look like they’re daydreaming.  Auditory learners need to talk about the lesson, so they look like they’re interrupting.  Kinesthetic learners need to move, so they look like they’re just fidgeting and not paying attention.

Once students know their own learning style, they can take steps to adapt in the classroom. For example, visual learners might draw picture notes instead of writing words; auditory learners might make up rhymes inside their heads; kinesthetic learners might have a (quiet) fidget toy.

For both focus and organization solutions, experimentation and proving it works are the keys to finding a good system.

Does he have ADD? Perhaps. . .but the more pressing question is – “Does he have the coping skills he needs?”

The Hugging Rules

imageParents dread the first time their middle schooler rejects their hug by pulling angrily away and hissing, “Stop!”  It seems backwards that just when a child’s self-esteem takes the hardest hit, they refuse comfort from the people who care most about them.

After speaking with many middle schoolers, I’ve learned there are specific situations in which they’re willing to be  hugged – but only in the right way.  Parents would be wise to heed the Hugging Rules:

1. Let your middle schooler initiate the hug, at least most of the time.  You’ll get a more satisfying hug that way.

2. Don’t linger.  A quick hug, especially if it happens when you’re saying good-bye, is more appreciated than a long (translation:  embarrassing) one.

3. Do it in private as much as possible.  Within the family is safe, at bedtime is usually acceptable (you can even sneak in a kiss then, too), but at school you’re in dangerous territory.

4. Save the big hugs for holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.  (Okay, the 12-year-old boy who shared this one got laughs and teasing from his peers.)

As with all rules, there are exceptions:  some middle schoolers say they have no problem at all with hugging their parents anywhere, anytime, while some parents complain about overly affectionate middle schoolers.

But for some parents, the best advice is to treat your middle schooler as you would a persnickety cat – approach only when invited, be thankful for any affection you get, and try not to take any rejection personally.

The Help Button

hlpbtnA friend who wants to change jobs asked me to teach her how to use Microsoft Word.  I considered all that she needs to know, from creating  a document to using tables and lists. . .and I decided the best thing I can teach her is how to use the Help Button.  When she can’t remember how to insert a picture, she can use the Help Button to find the instructions–because the reality is that I won’t always be available.

Students come to me and tell me what’s wrong:  “My pencil broke.”  Though they obviously expect me to fix it for them, I respond, “You can complain about the problem or seek a solution.”  And then I wait.  Eventually, and sometimes with prompting, they figure out that they need to borrow or sharpen a pencil.  Parents of middle schoolers should do the same–teach their children to solve their own problems.  This begins with not jumping in to provide an immediate solution but asking instead, “What are you going to do about that?”

One of the most important skills parents can teach their children is how to think and speak for themselves.   By age 11, middle schoolers should order their own food in restaurants, tell the hair stylist how they want their hair cut, and describe to the doctor what the pain feels like.  When they’re unhappy with a grade, they should be the ones to talk to their teachers.  If they can’t find something, they should stop and consider where it might be instead of being told by a parent where to find it.  If they’re trying to use something new, they should be the ones to read the directions.

Independence is an important skill learned only by experience.  The next time your middle schooler asks for your help, don’t answer right away.  Instead, reply with a comment such as, “Hmm. . .sounds like a problem.  How do you plan to solve it?”

It’s like pointing to the Help Button.

 

Vacation Spoilers

Jon Stepping on David

A mom complained, “It used to be fun taking my kids on road trips, but now my 13-year-old daughter ruins everything.  She is on her phone the whole time!  When we ask where she wants to eat, she says, ‘I don’t care,’ then complains about wherever we go.  I get so tired of her sulking and making everyone miserable!”

Adolescence can be like an unwelcome passenger on a family vacation.  Though the benefits of traveling with teens are many – they can find the nearest Starbucks on their phone and heave suitcases out of the car – they may not help willingly, preferring instead to whine or grumble (“Why do I have to do everything?”).  Their bad moods can bring everybody down as they pick on siblings and act like nothing will make them happy.

Here are some helpful tips for frazzled parents:

1. Declare “No-Phone Zones.”   This can be 30 miles or 30 minutes, but do negotiate rather than dictating.  And be sure you participate, too!

2. Ignore bad moods.  I saw parents do this recently at a motel breakfast.  Their daughter, who was around 13,  sulkily slouched against the wall, not participating in the family chatter.   When she finally slid over and joined the conversation, she was welcomed and immediately included.  Which brings us to the next point:

3. Ignore good moods.  Don’t say, “Now isn’t this nice, when you’re actually being  happy?”  It will then become a matter of pride for him to prove that he is not happy; in fact, now he’s twice as grumpy because he’ll say you are picking on him!

4. Take the back seat.  Siblings get tired of sitting near each other, and the view from the back is boring.   Switch with your teen if s/he is old enough to be in the front seat; this will also give the back seat crew some of your attention.  If you’re flying, consider one parent sitting with each child instead of parents in one row and kids in another.

Take the middle road with moods and the back seat on the road (or in the air), and you may find that Adolescence isn’t so hard to travel with after all.

 

“Hey! Why’d You Punch Me?”

scrthndsk

While working with a student one afternoon, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Hey!  Why’d you punch me?”  This is what I refer to as a “tattle voice,” designed to alert the nearest adult that trouble is afoot (or a-punch, as the case may be).  This time,  knowing the tattler probably had punched first, I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard.

There’s something inside of middle schoolers that compels them to punch, poke, and smack (boys), or hug, link elbows, and walk with their arms around each other (girls).  This is partly because their needs for physical affection haven’t diminished, but their means of meeting those needs have changed.  When they’re 5, their parents will still pick them up, kiss them good-night, and hold their hands as they cross the street.  When they’re 10, changes start to happen, some of them initiated by themselves.

When they’re 13, they may still crave parental hugs, but they’re not sure if that’s okay with their peers.  At an age where affection from parents may or may not be welcomed,  punching and hugging meet basic needs for affection in a socially acceptable manner.  I’ve had students decide punching me might be a good way to connect, and I’ve had to suggest we switch to fist bumps instead.

Parents who aren’t allowed to hug (at least in public) can meet physical needs in subtle, more middle-school-approved ways, like a friendly shoulder bump when walking, or a high five.  Side-arm hugs are tolerated more than full-on body hugs, and developing a “secret handshake” can be a fun way to connect.  Just don’t do it if they’re afraid their friends will see it and laugh!

There will be those days when your middle schooler may seek you out for a big hug.  Don’t ruin it by saying, “Oh, so you DO still need me.”  Just open your arms and enjoy the moment.

And in between those times, keep practicing your secret handshake.

 

“So I’m Never Supposed To Have Any Fun?”

CAParents like to call it attitude; I’ve dubbed it exaggerated sarcasm.  Call it what you will, it’s designed to push our buttons – and it’s usually successful!

Last week we instituted a seating chart for 7th and 8th graders in the lunchroom, which caused the expected whining and complaining.  One angry young man approached me and said,  “So we can’t sit by whoever we want?”   Such phrases don’t translate well in print, but anyone who’s heard them will be familiar with his tone of voice.

As my blood pressure rose, I was tempted to take the bait, replying defensively with, “Look, you brought this on yourself.  If you could just behave appropriately, you wouldn’t have to suffer.  I’m not the bad guy here.”  However, experience has taught me that my response would not be met with, “Oh, you’re right.  Thank you for explaining it to me.”  Instead, the door would be opened for arguing and proclaiming of innocence and accusations of picking on people for no reason.

So instead I just said, “Yep, pretty much,”  accompanied by a small, sad smile and a shrug.  The young man looked frustrated, shook his head in disgust, and walked away muttering.  I wisely did not ask him what he was muttering, as that would have started a fresh conflict, and my goal was to defuse this one.

In the 1983 movie War Games,  a young Matthew Broderick teaches a computer about the futility of thermonuclear war by having it play several games of tic-tac-toe.  In the end, the computer comes to an important conclusion – one every parent would be wise to adopt when faced with teenage attitude:

“The best move. . .is not to play.”