The Bubble

My mom often picks up the grandkids after school.  One afternoon she arrived in my classroom after the students had gone, her eyes blazing:  “As I walked on the sidewalk, NOT ONE of those kids would move aside to let me pass!  I had to step into the parking lot to get by them!”   “Were they junior high students?”   “Yes!  A whole pack of them!”  I gently explained that the sad reality was they probably hadn’t even noticed her, but that if she’d stopped and asked them to move, they probably would’ve looked surprised to see her, then stepped aside.

Self-absorbed.  Self-centered.  Inconsiderate.  These are all words commonly used to describe teen-agers.  And they’re all pretty accurate, much of the time.  In my class, we call it “the Bubble,” as in, “You need to get out of your bubble.”  Last year’s class even had fun pretending to pop each other’s bubbles.  The bad news is, it’s going to take awhile for it to go away.  The good news is, there’s a very good reason for it.

Here’s another example, often heard in my class:  “I want to pray for my grandma; she’s having surgery.”  “What’s the surgery for?”  “I’m not sure.”  “When is her surgery?”  “I don’t know.”  “Will she have to stay in the hospital?”  “I have no idea.”  “How do you know she’s having surgery?”  “My mom said I’d have to ride home with my friend on the day of the surgery.”

Your typical teens only hear the part of the story that applies to them.  So why the self-absorption?  It’s pretty much survival.  Compare a 10-year-old to a 14-year-old.  The physical differences are the most obvious:  in that four years’ time, they’ve gained a few (or several ) inches, sprouted hair in several new places, lost those pinchable baby cheeks, and watched the shape of their bodies change, often dramatically.

And those are only the changes we can see.  Emotionally, they feel like they have little control over their mood swings.  Intellectually, they’re thinking all sorts of new thoughts about who they are and where they fit into the big picture of Life.  Spiritually, they’re beginning to question all that they used to take for granted.  Between studying their reflections in the mirror and reflecting on all that’s going on inside their hearts and heads – is it any wonder they barely notice the rest of us?  The Bubble is a survival technique; it gives them time and space to deal with – well, with themselves.

My advice is to keep gently poking your head into the Bubble.  When you see the mess he’s left behind, call him to your side and ask him to look through your eyes.  He’ll probably be surprised to see the open cupboard, the open peanut butter jar, and the open bread wrapper.  (This is a real-life example, by the way, and when he saw the mess, he promptly cleaned it up.)

When you give her important information – “Dad will pick you up at 1:00 for an ortho appointment.  Don’t forget to get your homework assignment” – have her repeat it back to you.  She’ll be annoyed, but at least you’ll know the words penetrated the Bubble.

When he inconsiderately interrupts your conversation, point it out to him.  I like to say, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to interrupt the important conversation I’m having with this student/parent/teacher.”  Often, he’s surprised even to see there’s someone else with me!

Don’t fight the Bubble; it’s not going away any time soon.  But do keep stepping inside to remind your teen that you – and the rest of the world – are still here.  And be patient.  Since you grew into a thoughtful, considerate adult, chances are good your teen will, too!

E is for Empathy

It’s a typical evening in a typical house with a typical teen.  Mom asks, as she usually does, “Do you have any homework tonight?”  She’s immediately blasted with, “YES, I have homework!!  That stupid Mrs. Meanteacher gave us like a HUNDRED questions in history, and they’re all due tomorrow!  I hate her!  She’s the meanest teacher in the whole school!  Man, school SUCKS!  Why do I have to go?  I think I just want to quit school and get a job!”  How do you imagine Mom responds?  How would YOU respond?

If I could only share one thing about dealing with teens (or even with grown-ups, for that matter), it would be to learn to use empathy.  Unfortunately, too many times we parents get caught up in thinking we need to turn every incident into a learning opportunity.  Consequently, we would counter the above outburst with an item off of our Menu of Daily Lectures:  1) Respect Your Teacher, or 2) School Is a Privilege, or 3) Watch Your Language, or 4) You Can’t Get a Job Without a Diploma, or 5) The Combo Special  – All of the above, with a side dish of And When You Get Your Homework Done You Need To Do The Dishes.

When faced with an emotional teen, your best tool/weapon/friend is simply an answer slathered in empathy.  To the above outburst you might respond, “Oh, that’s so frustrating, to have that much homework in one night!”  End of response.  Don’t offer suggestions, don’t complain about the language (unless it’s truly profane – we’ll deal with disrespect another time), don’t point out the obvious (that getting started NOW might be a good idea) –  just use empathy.  Figure out the feelings behind the outburst and just show that you understand.  It’s a basic emotional need, to be understood.

If your empathetic response leads to another outburst – “No kidding!  And I still have a math test to study for AND  a stupid paper to write!”  Just answer with more empathy:  “Wow!  That does sound like a lot!”  This is harder than it sounds, because your first instincts are often to try to get your teen to calm down, or to try and come up with a solution to the problem.  But try empathy a few times, and you just might be surprised at the results.  In the best-case scenario, you’ll get a calmer teen who’s now able to be more realistic and to come up with a game plan to deal with the problem.  Best of all, you might just be seen as a parent who actually understands.

(For more info on parenting with empathy, check out or the book Parenting With Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline.  It’s powerful stuff!)

Are We Having Fun Yet?

No, I’m not being facetious!  I meant that seriously – when’s the last time you and your teen had any fun together? 

If you have Rock Band or Guitar Hero in your house and you’ve never played, you’re missing a wonderful opportunity.  Sit down next to your teen and prepare for a humbling experience.  You’ll be lucky to get 3 regular stars on Easy while she crows about her 5 gold stars on Expert.  But it won’t matter in the least, because she’ll be laughing at your fumbling attempts (I always forget to “strum”) and you’ll both be enjoying the music.

Happy memories are made during good times together.  Don’t have (or approve of) video games?  Try board games like Apples to Apples or Taboo (don’t worry; it’s a word game).  Want something a little more intellectual?  Sit down in front of the TV together when Cash Cab or Jeopardy are on. 

Or have some spontaneous fun.  I went on a 4-hour road trip with a fellow teacher who was an expert at this.  He covered up the odometer at random times and said, “Guess how far we’ve gone.”  At our lunch stop, he put his hand over the bill and said, “Guess the total, within five dollars.”  It was a blast every time!

Just not a game person?  Go to a movie together.  My husband has seen Avatar twice with our sons – the second time in 3-D, and he can barely focus with his bifocals behind those attractive glasses.  Surprise your teen by making an unplanned stop at Starbucks, or by going out and eating ice cream for dinner.

My point is, there are going to be a lot of stressful times with your teen.  Balance those by just enjoying one another and laughing together.  But be smart about timing!  You can’t force fun, and it’s a well-known fact that you especially can’t force fun from a reluctant teenager!  I had success with letting everybody know “I’d really like this Friday to be a game night.”  We’d play games for a couple of hours, then separate to do our own things.  That way, it didn’t take up their whole evening, and we’d quit before we got bored.

Playing Guitar Hero is lots more fun than playing Candyland – take it from me.  Go give it your best shot!

Are you nosy? Or just interested?

The other day in science class we were discussing how fingers are controlled by tendons attached to muscles in the forearm.  This led to a hilarious session of 8th graders wiggling their fingers and watching the rippling beneath their skin up by their elbows (feel free to take a moment to check it out).  I said, “So tonight when your parents ask what happened in school today, you can just roll up your sleeve and show them!”  I immediately got responses ranging from “My mom will love this!” to “I never tell my parents anything; they’ll just keep bugging me.”  Why do some kids share everything with their parents while others clam up like they’ve taken The Fifth?

Teens want their parents to be interested in their lives, but they don’t like it when they feel their parents are prying.  How can you know when you’re doing which?  Frankly, it mostly depends on the day, the mood, and the personality you’re facing.  Before you ask any questions, wave your parental thermometer around and take a reading on your teen.  Does the thermometer read “sullen,” “irritable,” “tired,” or “crabby-for-no-reason-at-all?”  Smile, wave, and sidestep your teen for now.  If it says “relaxed,” “open,” “bubbly,” or “anxious-to-tell-you-something-you-might-not-find-funny” – go for it!

Now imagine for a minute that you’re telling a co-worker or your spouse about a fender bender you witnessed.  Some guy tried to go around a car that was going the speed limit, and he misjudged the distance and ran up on the curb.  You’re hoping your listener will see the humor in it, but instead you get, “You thought that was funny?  What if the guy had been hurt?  He could’ve caused another accident!  You need to think some more about what  is funny and what isn’t!”  Or maybe you can’t even get through the story because of interruptions:  “Where did this happen?  What color was the car?  How old was the driver?”  Until you get exasperated and just give up.  Would you want to share another story with that listener?  Not likely.

Yet this is often the response of a parent to a teen’s story.  Your teen is experiencing emotions very much like yours and much LESS like a 10-year-old’s.  Try to respond the way you would to an adult:  with interest, but not interrogation; with openness but not judgment; with your full attention but not intensity.  Don’t make the story more than it was, and don’t make the teller feel foolish for sharing (“That’s it?  That’s all there is?”)  You’ll find yourself hearing more than you did before.

You can also save your burning questions for later.  Casually ask, “You know when you told me about that kid who was faking having gas in the classroom?  You wouldn’t do something like that, would you?”  In the teen world, understatement is your passkey to more information.  “Going off” on your teen or asking “a bazillion questions” will get you banned from the club.  Play it cool, and you’ll find yourself having an enjoyable conversation.  Trust me – I do it dozens of times every day!

One Tough Job

I’m not talking about teaching 8th grade – I’m talking about parenting a teenager!

Remember when they were 3 years old and were unhappy?  You could usually cheer them up with a hug and a cookie.  It’s waaay more complicated now, isn’t it?  You ask, “What’s wrong?”  And you get “Nuthin” or “Stop bugging me all the time!”  Or a defeated shrug.  Any further attempts on your part to communicate are either ignored or greeted with an outburst that lets you know your efforts aren’t appreciated.

And yet – when I shared this reality with my 8th graders a couple of years ago, there was a thoughtful pause and then one student said, “I’d still like that cookie!”  And from the corner of the room a soft voice said, “And I’d kinda like that hug.”

Parents tell me their teens don’t talk to them anymore.  Teens tell me their parents won’t listen.  Obviously, the desire to communicate is there on both parts, but it seems like you no longer speak the same language.  It’s my goal to provide a place to share advice and experiences in this blog.  Teens tell me I “get” them, and every year I hear, “I wish you’d tell my parents that!”  But I don’t have all the answers, so I’m hoping this can be a dialogue.  Please use the comment section to share your advice and your questions – and even your frustrations – and let’s make living with teens more meaningful and enjoyable than you thought it could be!