Cared For and Supported

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a seminar and shared with my class at Concordia, Tacoma, the slides I’d used with students in Loveland, Colorado. When the image of Charlie Brown and Snoopy came up, the reaction was startling:
“Yes! YES!!”
“I wish my parents knew this!”
“Could you please tell this to my mom?”
“Can I take a picture of that and show it to my dad?”

While it is a parent’s instinct to rescue or cheer up or smooth the way, understanding becomes more important than problem-fixing once a child reaches 10 or 11 years old. Middle school is full of emotional ups and downs, and relationships are everything. When things go wrong with friends or classmates, the whole world crashes down on them. Empathy is actually appreciated more than interference, so instead of calling other parents or talking to teachers, a wise parent will be understanding but hands off.

School is also more stressful than parents remember. While teens don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or aging parents, they do have to face countless opportunities to feel dumb, along with perceived judgment from their peers, sitting still all day, and more work when they get home. Instead of convincing them that their lives aren’t so bad, parents will connect better if they express empathy for the trials and anxiety that accompany adolescence.

When things go wrong in your middle schooler’s life, pause before reacting. Don’t offer solutions or try to make things better. Resist the urge to ask questions starting with “Why. . .?” or “How. . .?”  Be available, but don’t push your way in. Offer food or a blanket but don’t insist. Ask if a hug would be okay, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Your understanding and patience will be appreciated, far more than your offer of help. And even if your don’t say the words, your middle schooler will hear “I love you” coming through loud and clear.

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A Tale of Two (Moody) Middle Schoolers

It was a pretty chill Friday until the last two periods of the day, when I got to deal with two guys with attitude.

I heard student #1 (let’s call him Sam) yelling before I entered his classroom:  “What’s your friggin’ problem? I can’t believe you just did that! What’s wrong with you?!” I didn’t wait to find out what the issue was; I walked in and sent Sam to another room to cool down,  knowing he’d only get more worked up if I gave him a chance to speak. It turned out someone had backed a chair over Sam’s poster on the floor, and Sam unloaded on him without giving him a chance to apologize.

I went to Sam and let him tell his side. I then told him his response was inappropriate and said when he was calm, he could return to class. I also said he needed to apologize at some point. He was back in 5 minutes, not ready to apologize, but sulking quietly in his chair.  I ignored him for 20 minutes until he raised his hand, ready to participate, at which point I called on him like nothing had happened.

During the next class, I had a student (let’s call him Liam) get testy with me because he didn’t want to be in the front row in a dance number we were rehearsing for graduation.  When I pointed out that he’d already rehearsed with the front row and couldn’t change because the back row’s routine was different, he got sarcastic, “Oh, no! I would go this way instead of that way and mess everything up!” I calmly said he could drop out if he wasn’t happy, and he turned and left the gym. I let him go, knowing he was headed to another classroom to vent to a staff member.

Minutes later he was back with a sincere apology: “I’m sorry; that was stupid. I shouldn’t have said that.” I told him he was forgiven and said we could’ve worked out something, but when he chose sarcasm, I got defensive. He apologized again and held out his hand. We shook hands, he got back in line, and the rehearsal continued.

I’m often asked how I deal with “all that attitude” in middle school.  The reality is that I don’t face much of it, because if it appears I stay maddeningly calm and defuse the situation as quickly as possible. I first avoid an open confrontation and then I pretend it never happened, allowing students back into my good graces as soon as they stand down (regardless of my feelings at that point). I want us both to get back in the Blue (cool, peaceful) Zone and out of the Red (hot, angry) Zone as soon as possible so life can go on.

Middle schoolers are emotional creatures, often embarrassed by the lightning speed at which their tempers flare, tears flow, or uncontrollable giggles erupt. As the adult, it’s my job to ride out their feelings and give them every opportunity to save face. It’s how I keep good relationships with my students, and it’s more effective than a tirade or a lecture from me.

On Friday when school ended, both Sam and Liam wished me a good weekend as they went out the door. They knew I bore them no grudges, and we ended the week feeling pretty good about each other. After all, Monday is another day!

The No-No List for Parents

I originally posted this list in 2012; it can also be found in our book, Middle School: The Inside Story.

Parents tell me their teens won’t talk to them, but teens tell me their parents don’t listen to them. There’s a desire on both sides to communicate, so where’s the breakdown? While it can be frustrating to hear “Fine,” “I dunno,” and “Whatever,” it’s not all the teenagers’ fault.  Here are ten mistakes parents make when trying to hold a conversation with their kids.

  1. Interrupting. Cutting them off before the end of their story.  Or predicting how the story will end and finishing their sentences.  Even worse – interrupting an emotional story with questions about chores or homework.
  2. Downplaying feelings. Saying something like, “You think that’s a big deal?  You should try living my life!” when middle schoolers are excited about something or really angry at someone.
  3. Yelling.  Considered “going off” by middle schoolers, it usually causes them to just stop communicating.  Note:  to a middle schooler, “yelling” has less to do with volume and more to do with attitude and tone of voice at the time of delivery.
  4. Using “Always” and “Never.” Pointing out faults with language about how he always forgets to be responsible or how she never treats you with respect.  As with most adults, the moment “always” or “never” are inserted into a discussion, the listener gets defensive and starts looking for ways to justify the behavior.
  5. Criticizing. Complaining frequently about such things as clothes, hair length or style, and friends.  Expressing disappointment in behavior, attitude, grades, etc.
  6. Using half an ear. Saying “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” to make it sound like they’re listening even though they’re not.   Not making eye contact while the middle schooler is speaking (after all, how many adults will allow their kids to get away with that?)
  7. Belittling in front of others. Telling friends and family members about their children’s faults and past mistakes when they’re standing right there.  Or describing a situation that really embarrasses them, and then expect them to laugh along.
  8. Being judgmental.  Asking “What were you thinking?” or “Why are you so. . .?” or pointing out how immature they’re being.  Assuming it was their middle schooler’s fault before getting all of the facts straight. Or continuing to blame the middle schooler even if it wasn’t his fault – “You must’ve done something to make him act that way toward you.”
  9. Solving their problems. Making them feel inferior by telling them what they should do.  Interfering with the growth in self-confidence that comes with persevering through a problem on one’s own.
  10. Being sarcastic. Using a tone of voice that sounds serious, but using words that are confusing so that their meaning is unclear: “Sure—buy anything you want. I’ve got plenty of money.”  “Really?”  “No—I’m kidding.” Saying words designed to belittle a middle schooler in front of others.

If you recognized yourself in this list, don’t despair. Pick one or two and make a change.  Remember that your teens want the same things you do:  to be listened to, to be taken seriously, and to be understood.

Maybe they’ll even return the favor!

Five Etiquette Rules for Teens

 

On Grandparents’ Day at school, I expect my students to greet their guests at the door, lead them to their seats, offer them refreshments, and serve them.  They don’t do this naturally; their inclination is to stay seated, let their guests come to them, and get treats for themselves only. Yet every one of them will rise to my expectations because we’ve discussed proper manners beforehand.

Teenagers are notoriously self-centered and often seem rude, but it’s usually due to lack of training rather than blatant selfishness.  Adults who work with teens should expect them to be courteous but should also keep in mind that these behaviors need to be modeled and taught.

These are what I consider to be bare-bones basics for all teens:

  1. Use please and thank you.  At some point during puberty kids think saying “please” sounds childish.  Teenagers don’t realize how demanding they sound when they begin a sentence with “I need. . .”  Rather than reminding, “Say please” or asking “What’s the magic word?” (both guaranteed to cause eye rolling), I go deaf or say, “I’m sorry?” to requests without manners.  That way they have to think of it on their own.  In my classroom this often leads to students repeating demands in a louder voice, but I just smile and wait until they catch on.
  2. Look new people in the eye, shake hands firmly, and say, “Nice to meet you.”  We practice this in 8th grade, and the students express gratitude: “I never knew what to say when my mom introduced me to people, but now I do!”  I also point out that they make a great first impression as a confident, friendly teenager instead of a sulky or awkward one.
  3. Offer your seat to adults.  On public transportation, in a restaurant waiting area, or at a family gathering, teens should stand up and say, “You can have my seat.”  Some adults may prefer standing or sitting on the floor, but at least the offer has been made.
  4. Hold the door for anyone coming behind you.  First they have to be taught to check behind them and see who’s back there.  Lost in their adolescent bubbles, they aren’t always aware of people outside their spheres.  It doesn’t matter whether they open the door and hold it to let someone pass in front, or just reach behind to hold it until the next person grabs it, as long as they don’t slide through and let it close behind them.
  5. Disagree with tact.  I tell my students that in the Adult World (a phrase that gets their attention), we don’t say, “You like that?  Gross!”  Instead we say, “Oh, really?  I don’t much care for it” and agree to disagree.

If you encounter a young person using any of these manners, don’t overreact by being gushy, “Aren’t you the nicest young man?” which will embarrass him, nor by giving a backhanded compliment, “Well, what do you know–there are some polite teenagers in the world!”  Instead, just smile and say, “Thank you.”  It’s what we do in the Adult World!

 

 

Don’t Be a Helpless Parent

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her motherFor some reason, parents who have survived the skirmishes of toilet training, toddler tantrums, and bedtime battles lose their backbone when faced with a sulky or defiant teen. Parents of middle schoolers express helplessness when it comes to dealing with cell phones, sassiness, social media, and chores. The authoritarian parenting days are gone  (think Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins), but parents should still be bosses in some critical areas, even if it means being on the receiving end of angry outbursts.  I’ll tackle the first two topics in this blog and continue with the others in the next.

1. Cell Phones  Teens with smartphones have access to the whole world, yet many parents have no idea of what they’re seeing or whom they’re chatting with.  Parents say, “She’s always on that thing, and I don’t even know how it works” or “I can’t get him to put it down long enough to have a conversation.”  They worry about invading their child’s privacy, and they don’t feel they have the right to insist on a No Phone Zone.  I like to ask parents if they would let their teens entertain strangers behind closed bedroom doors, then I point out that allowing them unmonitored access on their phones is no different.  Too much privacy for teenagers is not a good thing.

Setting ground rules before handing over a phone is a must–some parents even use a contract (click here for a sample).  At the very least, let your teen know that you will randomly pick up the phone and look through it.  That knowledge alone will prevent some bad choices.  And don’t be afraid to take away the phone for a few days when you’re not happy with how it’s being used, or for other disciplinary reasons.  As I’ve said before, no teen has actually died from being grounded from phone use, and being kept away from their friends and social media is a consequence they’d rather avoid.

2. Backtalk  If you’ve ever said, “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my parents the way my kids talk to me,” it’s time to make some changes.  You deserve to be respected, but respect isn’t something you can demand.  Begin by checking your tone of voice when talking to your kids.  If phrases like “Who do you think you are?” or “You’d just better watch yourself,” spoken in harsh or sarcastic tones, are part of your repertoire, you aren’t modeling the respect you expect to receive.  Lower your voice, add please and thank you to your requests, and keep your tone as neutral as possible. Then expect the same.

When your teen is being hostile, don’t engage in a battle of words and defensiveness.  If I’m facing a disrespectful student, I hold up one finger and say, “Not feeling very respected right now.  Care to try again?”  When my sons had snarky attitudes, I would gaze patiently–but silently–at them until their tone changed.  If it didn’t, I’d tell them we’d talk later. If it did, I didn’t shoot myself in the foot by mentioning it (as in, “Oh, I see you can be nice when you want something”), I just let the conversation continue in civil tones.

Teens are masters at the art of deflection.  A  question: “Why do have to do all the chores?” or complaint: “You never let me do what I want to do!” can derail a parent from the original request and set up a scenario of defensiveness and arguing that quickly escalates into anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  It’s better if you don’t engage in the battle.  In fact, if you can smile, shrug, and say something infuriatingly calm like, “It’s my job to drive you crazy” or “You’re right,” your teen may just huff off in frustration and do whatever was asked.  Complaints and questions aren’t always genuine; often they’re just a way of expressing displeasure.  Ignore the huffing and do some deflecting of your own, and there will be far fewer battles.

You are the parent, and your job description includes times where you have to make your teen unhappy.  Be calm, be respectful, be firm–but whatver you do, don’t be helpless!

 

 

 

Communicating with a Look

When my husband and I are at a party, there comes a point where he catches my eye and gives me a look.  I know exactly what that means: he’s ready to head for home. No words are needed.

Stuff happens in my classroom every day.  Students tap on their desks, talk when they’re not supposed to, blurt out answers, make jokes at wrong times.  My first response is to give them a look. It sounds simple, but the behavior usually stops (sometimes with a guilty grin).

This wouldn’t be the result if I had an antagonistic relationship with my students.  Instead of a positive response, I’d hear, “What? I wasn’t doing anything!” or “Why are you always looking at me?”  Maintaining a good relationship with teens is the key to better behavior and less defensiveness.  When teens feel loved (or even liked), they can put up with necessary admonishment.  But when they feel that an adult is out to get them, their default response is hostility, either outright or in a more passive-aggressive form.

A look can communicate more than one message.  From my husband it means “Let’s go.”  To my students it can say, “Cut it out,” or “Seriously?”  But it can also be a form of positive interaction: “You get it, don’t you?” “Are you okay with this?” or even “Thanks.”

Teens appreciate the nonverbal communication because it’s less embarrassing than calling them out in front of their peers. It’s also relationship-building; it’s how they communicate with one another during class!

If your look is misunderstood or taken the wrong way–“I thought you were mad at me!”–just laugh and explain.  That experience in itself can be another relationship builder: “Remember that time you were trying to tell me something and I was scared that I was doing something wrong?”

In order for looks to be effective (and understood), there first has to be a good relationship.  Do what you can to stay connected, and you’ll find you can use your eyes more than your voice!

 

Sometimes You Get It Right

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A friend with sons ages 12 and 15 recently told me this story:

I had a good parenting moment this morning.  My son lied to me and tried to brush it off,  so I told him I was disappointed with him.  I pointed out that he wants respect and trust from me, but then he lies to me.  I said, “That’s not how it works,” and I walked away without delivering a lecture. 

After he’d showered, we were in the kitchen together when he actually said, “Sorry I lied to you, Mom.”  I said, “Thanks, Bud,” and went on with my morning routine.  I am always shocked when it turns out like that.

Three things this mom did right:

  1. Delivering an “I” message (“I’m disappointed”) instead of making an accusation;
  2. Making her point in only a few words and then walking away;
  3. Accepting his apology with grace and ending it there.

She also managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of parenting teens, such as yelling or belittling, which only lead to more issues like disrespect or defensive attitudes.

Sometimes parents feel that there’s no avoiding hostility and anger when confronting teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you can take a deep breath and keep calm, you’re more likely to get the results you want–and avoid those that you don’t want!