Birthday Eve

Tomorrow I turn 50. I was 14 the year my dad turned 50, and I remember teasing him about being half a century old! I don’t feel much older today than I did then.

But I’ve changed in at least one major way: 25 years ago I wanted nothing to do with junior highers. My husband and I were youth counselors at our church, and I would say, “Give me the high school kids, but keep those junior high kids away from me. Especially the boys!”

The boys in my 8th grade boys’ composition class would be shocked to hear that. “But you love us, Mrs. Acuna!” they would protest. And they would be right. Though sometimes they drive me crazy, I do love this age group – the boys and the girls. I find the workings of their minds fascinating, and their sense of humor an absolute joy (or absolutely disgusting, depending on the moment).

So what changed? Having kids of my own helped, but so did learning about the workings of the teen-aged brain and heart. Through listening to teens, observing their interactions and reactions, reading lots of literature, attending workshops, and lots of trial and error, I like to think I’ve gained a good understanding of who they are and why they do what they do. I’ve certainly gained a huge appreciation of the struggles they face as they plow on through the storms of adolescence.

It’s become my mission to share what I know with parents and anybody else who spends time with teens. I sometimes wonder if 50 isn’t too old to be teaching about teenagers (not to mention actually teaching teenagers!). But when I stop to think about it, I realize it’s only been through years of experience that I’ve learned what I have. So I’m going to keep pushing on, with a goal of improving adult/teen relationships through increased understanding.

I can’t promise, however, that I’ll still be doing this when I turn 70.

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Why Couldn’t I Be An Only Child!?

One day while I was out running errands, my youngest son called me to complain about being treated badly by his two older brothers. Since we live in a tri-level house, I instructed them to each pick one level and stay there until I got home. I got the usual questions designed to annoy me:

“What if I have to go to the bathroom and he won’t let me upstairs?”

“Hold it.”

“What if I get hungry and he won’t let me in the kitchen?”

“Starve.”

I refused to be baited. By the time I got home, tempers had eased and they were friends again, playing video games together on one TV.

Sibling conflicts take on a whole new dimension when one (or more) of them hits puberty. Already an unpredictable bundle of emotions, teens are hypersensitive to teasing and criticism – and their siblings are more than willing to dish out a steady diet of both, regardless of whether they’re older or younger.

A wise parent will manage not to take sides while defusing the heat of the battle. Usually a physical separation is in order, probably to their own rooms.

Your goal should be to help them learn to get along so one day they can be friends. This is why I vetoed my husband’s idea of making the older brother do the younger brother’s chores as punishment for picking on him. Picture it: with every dish he washed, the perpetrator would seethe with resentment and plot his revenge – which sort of defeats the purpose.

It’s part of a parent’s job to civilize the children. But you can’t make any headway when everybody’s mad at everybody else. Send them to their corners to calm down. Once everyone is breathing normally and thinking rationally (or as rationally as adolescence allows), talk to each one individually. This is key, because otherwise they’ll be gauging who’s getting in the most trouble. With each one, have a discussion about why they were so angry, and how they handled their anger inappropriately (name-calling, bad language, assault). Validate their right to be frustrated when their feelings get hurt or they’re deliberately harassed, but teach them a better way to handle their anger.

Tell them they need to stay where they are until they can be pleasant, or until they sincerely apologize. If they choose to stay isolated for a couple hours, let them, unless it’s time for dinner or chores. If they do find their way back together again, do not shoot yourself in the foot by saying, “Well, I see you two decided to make up!” Just play it cool, pretend like you don’t notice, and be grateful for the peace agreement.

After all, you know it isn’t going to last. . .

Fine. Whatever.

You may not be able to feel it, but you have a button in the middle of your back. In fact, if you have more than one child, you have one button for each.

As they’ve grown, your children have kept an eye on that button. They’ve analyzed, observed, and stored away information on that button for the day when it would come in handy. That day arrived the day you asked a question or made a comment – and the response made you see red. Blonk! Your button just got pushed.

Sometimes it’s triggered by a tone of voice or by a temper tantrum. Often it’s triggered by a show of apathy: “I don’t care. Whatever.” This is both a great offensive and defensive strategy on the part of teenagers. If they can set you off, they’ve gained a certain amount of power over you. The consequences may even be worth that one moment of realization that a word or two carries so much weight. For most teens, it’s a highly effective passive-aggressive jab.

On the other hand, by remaining non-committal, they can avoid making a bad choice, or starting an argument. It’s the difference between “Where do you want to go for dinner?” “Uh – How about McDonald’s?” “Why do you always pick the same place! Don’t you ever feel like something different?” – and – “Where do you want to go for dinner?” “I don’t care. Whatever.” It’s hard to argue with a non-answer!

Sometimes your button can be pushed without the use of words. All it takes is a well-timed shrug, a snort or grunt, or a certain flip of the hair. Your teen knows all too well what will set you off, and her timing is usually spot-on.

Button pushing almost always leads to undesirable consequences: a harsh exchange of words, an imposition of grounding, an order of “Go to your room!” So why do they do it? Part of it is that old bugaboo, differentiation. It’s another part of your teen separating from you. Unpleasant as it is for all involved, it’s a necessary step to adulthood. Think of it as testing the boundaries of the invisible fence.

Part of it might just be transferring the teen’s bad feelings at the moment over to a safe target: you. Because you’ve promised to love that teen no matter what, he feels like he can safely unload his frustrations onto you. Or maybe it’s not that noble – maybe it’s just a case of misery loves company.

Whatever the reason, the best reaction is always an understated one. However, that’s also practically impossible when the arrow has been custom designed to hit where it can do the most damage. You may get your feelings hurt, you may lose your temper, or you may be shocked at the depth of your reaction. Always keep in mind that you want to stay connected to your teen. Don’t let this become a guaranteed fight starter.

If you can calmly call it what it is, go for it. You could try something like, “When you give me that kind of an answer, I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if you really mean ‘whatever,’ or if you’re just saying that to bug me.”

If you can’t respond calmly at the time, bring it up later when you and your teen are both thinking with your rational brain and not the loaded-for-bear brain. Tell her you remember being a teen and driving your parents crazy with the same sort of answer. Let her know that from now on, if she says “Fine” or “Whatever” or “I don’t care,” you’re going to take it at face value and make a choice for her. Then be prepared to follow through. Sometimes teens really don’t care!

And sometimes they’re just pushing buttons.

Laugh a Little

Today in 8th grade science, we discussed proper nose-picking etiquette, because boogers are not snack food, nor are they to be smeared nor flicked. Go where you can be alone, remove them and place them in a tissue, and dispose of them. Then wash your hands!

We’re studying the respiratory and excretory systems. If you want to know about our discussion on peeing urinating, you’ll have to ask me in person. Not everyone has the whacked-out sense of humor of a junior high teacher.

But junior high students do, and it’s okay to join in with them sometimes. They can be witty, wicked, inappropriate, or just downright silly. As an adult, you know the limits of appropriateness and can certainly head off anything offensive. But before that point, there’s a whole lot of opportunity to have fun.

Yesterday in class I mentioned that I’d bought some cheap chocolate eggs on clearance. “Oo,” said a student. “Are they Cattleberries?” That became a running joke all day! This is the same student who thought your prostate gland was part of your digestive system. I said if that were the case, half the world’s population was in big trouble!

I use humor to soften sticky situations at school. For example, if two students begin roughhousing in the hallway, I’ll stop them and ask, “What are you thinking?” As they look at me with guilt on their faces, I’ll continue, “There’s a camera out here! If you want to do that kind of stuff, go into a classroom where there won’t be video evidence!” They’ll laugh with me -but they’ll get the point, and they’ll stop.

My son Jon can bring me to tears with his “Crazy Driver” impersonation. He’s also the one who started laughing at me one day when I was reprimanding him for something. He must’ve been about 10, and he was sitting on the floor. As I began ranting, he just looked up at me and saw something amusing in my face, and he began to laugh so hard he fell over on the floor. What did I do? Sputtered to a surprised stop – and laughed along with him.

If you can diffuse a situation with a laugh, more power to you. If you can distract a gloomy teen with a little teasing, so much the better. If you can laugh so hard with your kids that tears come to your eyes, then that is a very good day.

And it’s one you’ll all remember.

To Tell the Truth

From a blog reader: “Why do so many teenagers feel compelled to LIE? There are days it seems my 17-year-old lies just to lie. I know sometimes he just doesn’t want to be bothered with a conversation, but other times it’s because he doesn’t want me to know things and yet there are times I feel he is just being plain evil. Too big to “spank”, not sure soap in the mouth would work, do you have a good solution to help resolve this issue?”

Teens lie for two major reasons: to get what they want or to get out of trouble. They also lie for a host of minor reasons: to be funny, to test your mood, to tick you off, to irritate their siblings, to get out of chores/homework/punishment, to let you know they think the question you’re asking isn’t worth their time, to avoid a scene. . .

Sometimes you can just laugh it off with a “yeah, right,” and get a grin of acknowledgment in return. Sometimes you have to confront it head-on and call it what it is, and then issue consequences that fit the crime as much as possible. I do think it’s important to deal with blatant lying, because if you don’t, you’ll be encouraging a really bad (not to mention really immoral) habit. You can also give a teen a false sense of power if he thinks he can outsmart you.

The rules for dealing with any issue with your teen are always the same: keep your cool and stay connected. Most teens have an arsenal of ways to distract you (blaming you, changing the subject, out-and-out attack) – be on the lookout and stick to the task at hand. Sometimes prolonged eye contact – without any words – can result in an admission of guilt. Your goal is to avoid blowing up and creating new issues. Remember: don’t waste your air by asking useless questions like “What made you think I wouldn’t find out?” (you won’t like the answer anyway), or by launching into a lecture. One or two sentences about the importance of being trustworthy or what it means to be a person of integrity, and let it go – for now. You can revisit the topic later in a nonthreatening way when he’s in a more receptive mood.

But what if you know he’s lying and he won’t admit it? First off, make sure of your facts. If you have little or no doubt, then be prepared to be patient. Calmly present your evidence – “I read the text on your phone” – and give him a chance to respond. If he still denies it, tell him you’re going to give him time to think about it. Take his phone and ask him to hang out in his room (or wherever you think is appropriate), and put some distance between the two of you. After a couple of hours you might stop in the doorway and casually ask if he wants to change his story. If you get a glare and a sullen “No!” just fade away and leave him alone. When he’s finally willing to admit he lied, issue a reasonable, appropriate consequence (grounding for a month is usually pretty extreme; missing a social event or staying off the computer or video games for a week or two will usually do the trick). If he never does admit it, sadly express your sorrow that he doesn’t trust you enough to be honest with you – and then issue the consequence anyway.

You will also want to have a conversation about how hard it will be for you to trust him in the future, but don’t make a federal case out of it. Keep giving him “second chances,” and make (casual) mention of your appreciation when he chooses honesty over lying. And remember this: if he does choose honesty, don’t discourage the behavior by “going off” on him. His response will be, “See? When I DO tell you the truth, you just freak out! What’s the point?” Encourage honesty by making it worth the effort, “Thanks for coming clean. Because you did, your consequence will be less than it would’ve been if you’d gone on lying to me.”

It’s too bad that Pinocchio nose-growing thing never panned out, isn’t it?

The Walk Away Policy

We knew we were in trouble when Matt at only 3 1/2 would sit at the table for hours, refusing to finish his dinner. We’d try flying the airplane into the hangar, eating only three more bites, having a race with Daddy, taking a bite ourselves to show now nummy it was, displaying the scrumptious dessert reward, threatening with time out/spanking/early bedtime – but nothing would work. That kid would sit there until we gave up and sent him to bed.

As he grew older, it only became more apparent that he had his mother’s obstinacy and his father’s stubbornness. Call him “strong-willed,” “concrete random,” or “just plain difficult” – he’d probably have left home around age 14 if we hadn’t stumbled upon what I deemed the “Walk Away” policy.

Maybe it’s because he’s a firstborn, but Matt has a strong desire to do the right thing. We learned that if we laid out our expectations and then walked away, he would feel the pressure of those expectations and eventually do what he was supposed to. In his own time. But if we stood over him and insisted he do it now, on our time, it wasn’t gonna happen.

This won’t work with all personalities. For some kids, walking away will mean that they’ll forget completely what they’re supposed to be doing. But for the “I’ll-do-it-because-I-want-to-not-because-you-told-me-to” types, it’s a survival technique. It can keep you from getting sucked into a power struggle where you have to continually up the consequences (and then follow through with them). Most importantly, it can keep your relationship with your teen on a positive footing instead of having it deteriorate into resentment and hostility.

Matt’s a college student now. His stubbornness and desire to do what’s right have helped him to become a young man of integrity and purpose. When he was 17 he said to us, “When I have kids, I’m going to let you raise them when they become teen-agers. Because you did such a good job with us!”

Got a stubborn teen of your own? Try walking away and see what happens.

Too Old?

We held our first annual family Easter Egg Hunt in 1990, the first Easter when Matt could walk. As years passed, more siblings and cousins were added, and the hunt grew and changed locations – until we were hiding over 400 filled eggs in my sister’s backyard for 9 cousins to find.

I’d always just assumed that as the kids aged, they would outgrow hunting and be relegated to watching from the deck. That almost happened the year Matt was 13. We agreed it was a good age to switch from “hunter” to “hider,” and he had a great time helping his uncles stash eggs for the younger kids to find.

But he didn’t have a great time just watching the younger kids look for the eggs, and the adults felt a little sorry for him. So the next year, when one of his cousins joined him in the 13-and-up category, we made a new rule: the older kids could hunt, but they had to give the littler kids a 10-15 minute lead. This also meant the adults had to come up with more creative hiding places, so everybody had more fun!

A similar transition took place with Christmas stockings. There came a year when the older two decided to help Mom fill the stockings. It only happened one year, though, because on Christmas morning it wasn’t much fun to dump out their stockings when they already knew what was inside.

Mom’s still filling Christmas stockings, but this year the Easter Egg Hunt finally came to a close. Matt’s 21 now, and his youngest cousin is almost 13. As the kids grew, we’d gotten creative – like the year we hid jigsaw puzzle pieces in the eggs. The cousins had to assemble the puzzle, flip it over, and read the poem written on the back which gave clues to where the loot was stashed. It had seemed like a great idea in the planning stages, but in reality it led to squabbling and disgusted comments of “I give up – you guys finish it yourselves” from the older cousins. By the time they got the goodies, they didn’t much care.

It was by mutual agreement that we didn’t dig out the eggs and hide them this year. Two of the cousins went to California for Easter, and it just provided a natural opportunity to change tradition. I feel a little sorry for the younger cousins who didn’t get 20 years of hunting eggs; we’ll see if they clamor to bring back the tradition next year.

So how old is too old for teens to participate in the family traditions? Obviously, I don’t believe there’s a “proper” age. It should just happen naturally, when everyone senses it’s time to stop.

I’ll let you know when that happens with Christmas stockings!