10 Tips for Parents of Anxious Teens

I was approached recently by parents who were worried about their daughter’s anxiety level.  She’s a 5th grader playing soccer with the junior high team, and even though she loves it (and the girls are nice to her), she’s in tears before every practice.  Parents and teachers alike are finding themselves faced with anxious teens.  Anxiety not only makes its sufferers miserable, it also affects their performance, attendance, and self
-esteem.

While some teens with anxiety need to be seen professionally, there are things all parents can do when faced with an anxious teen:

  1. Alert the teacher.  It’s helpful to know so I can provide a little more assurance and be on the alert for stressors.  Sometimes a reassuring hand on the shoulder or a comment like, “Let me know if you need some down time” from the teacher will make it possible to get through the day.
  2. Validate their feelings. Don’t say “There’s nothing to worry about” or “We go through this every day.”  Say “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?” or “It’s your old friend Anxiety creeping up on you again.”
  3. Encouraging deep breathing.  Try triangle (inhale-hold-exhale) or square (inhale-hold-exhale-hold) breathing.  Doing it together helps you both relax.
  4. Keep moving.  Even if he’s crying, gather up his things and keep nudging him toward the car. Talk about your day ahead to give him something else to focus on besides his feelings.
  5. Know your limitations. Don’t feel like you have to eliminate her anxiety, because chances are you can’t do so anyway.  Trying to get her to stop being fearful only keeps the focus on her worries and might frustrate both of you.
  6. Create a metaphor. Anxiety can be seen as a curtain that has to be pushed through, or a fuzzy monkey that just keeps hanging on.  Or it can be the baseball that gets stuck in your stomach.  Some teens can find ways to deal with anxiety with a helpful visualization.
  7. Focus their thoughts beyond the next few minutes.  Help them to find something to look forward to by reminding them of what’s on the schedule:  “You have art this afternoon, right?”
  8. Find a balance. Avoid getting sucked in and making it worse–“Oh, you poor thing; you should stay home today”– or issuing ultimatums–“Either stop crying and get to school or I’m pulling you out of everything!”  You need to be the calm anchor in this storm.
  9. Speak calm and encouraging words.  “You can do this.” “I’m right here with you.”  “Your teacher understands what you’re going through.”
  10. Pray together.  Or if not together, let your teen hear you praying for peace and courage to face what’s ahead.

I suggested that the parents of the 5th grader keep their reactions low-key, saying something like, “Oh, there are those soccer tears again.  Need a Kleenex to use on your way to practice?”  They can validate her anxiety that way but also help her see that it need not keep her from doing what she loves.

Sometimes anxious parents need reassurance, too.

Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.

Lighthouse vs. Helicopter Parenting

Essentially, when we remove all risks from our kids’ lives, we may do more long-term harm than the risk itself. ~Tim Elmore

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Sometimes I come across an article that is so good I just have to share it.  I’d never heard the term “lighthouse parenting” before, but author and speaker Tim Elmore makes a great case for it in this Focus on the Family article:

From Helicopter Parent to Lighthouse Parent 

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8 Helpful Things About Social Media

somedSometimes it’s spit out like a curse: “Blame it on social media.”  But there really are some good points to texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Let’s take a look at eight good uses of social media.

1. Finding old friends. My first students knew me as “Miss Chan.”  Not long after my husband and I married, we moved to Washington.  I figured my first students wouldn’t remember my married name, so I wouldn’t hear from them again.  I don’t know how the first one found me on Facebook, but soon an avalanche of friend requests arrived from her classmates.  I was as taken aback to see them with spouses and children as they were to realize I was only 22 when I taught them.  High school friends, college buddies, parents of both (and of old boyfriends)–almost everybody is out there somewhere, and if they’re not, you can be sure one of their family members is!

2. Keeping tabs on family.  When my children were in college, I’d use Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to know what was going on in their lives–not just so I knew when to be concerned, but also because it gave me a starting point for conversation: “Who were you talking about in that tweet?”  Facebook now helps me keep tabs on my aging mom, because when I see her like someone’s post, I know she’s up and moving.

3. Sending short messages.  Whose day hasn’t been made by a text or a message saying, “I’m thinking about you; have a great day”?  This is a great way for parents of teens to communicate their love without causing embarrassment.  If it’s a good day, you’ll even get a “Luv u 2” text in return!

4. Sharing pictures. While we may tire of selfies and food pics, some pictures can be worth far more than 1000 (typed) words.  When my math students need help, they send me a picture of the offending story problem along with what they’ve already tried, and I know where to start my tutorial.  When my mom has an error message on her iPad, she texts my son a “screenshot” (taken with her phone), and he knows how to help.  Every year I have 8th grade girls text me photos of their outfits, asking if they’re within dress code (though I usually tell them if they have to ask, it probably isn’t).

5. Creating peace of mind.  In my family, we text somebody when we arrive home safely.  Again, this is a great way to keep track of my aging mom as well as my sons, the twenty-somethings.  When they were in  high school, I told my boys I didn’t care where they went (an untruth), but if they didn’t make it home, I needed their last known whereabouts so I’d know where to start my search.

6. Making appointments.  I love scheduling medical appointments online.  I also schedule parent conferences by emailing the first draft of my schedule to parents and letting them request changes as needed.  Parents will text me midday and ask to meet after school.  And sometimes my husband and I will plan a last-minute dinner date after work!

7. Finding important–and not-so-important–information.  When my husband and I wanted to install an auxiliary port in our new used car, I went to YouTube and learned how.  When I needed lesson plans to teach physical science, I went to Pinterest.  There’s a whole community of friendly strangers at your fingertips, just waiting to give you advice.

8. Knowing when to pray.  In the “old days” (think the year 2000), having an email prayer list was an awesome invention.  Now, with a single post I can set in motion a prayer chain of hundreds, some of whom I’ll never even know.  There’s great comfort in knowing so many prayers are being lifted so quickly.  On the flip side, when one of my friends or students needs my prayers, I hear right away.  It’s not unusual for a student to contact me on Facebook with a message: “My grandma’s in the hospital; can you pray?”

Social media has its limitations, and we all need to use it with discretion, but it can simplify our lives in many ways.  Today’s teens won’t remember life without it, so it’s our responsibility to teach them how and when to use it appropriately.

Want some tips on how to do that?  Check it out on Pinterest.

Out to Lunch With 8th Graders

Picture 14-year-olds at a banquet. You may be imagining spoons hanging off their noses or food flying across the table, or maybe yawns and queries of “How much longer?”

Last week I attended a luncheon with the 8th graders shown above. They were part of the entertainment, but  after singing (unexpectedly a cappella), they got to sit down for lunch just like the other guests.  They needed a little help figuring out which fork to use, and they didn’t all recognize the blue fan-shaped objects in front of their plates as napkins, but otherwise they handled it well.

Yet there were definite signs that they were 14-year-olds.  For example, two of the girls noticed teabags on the table but no hot water, so they attempted to make iced tea in their water glasses (tip: it doesn’t work).  The two boys entertained themselves playing tic-tac-toe on the program, while one of the other girls headed to the bathroom to clean the Caesar dressing off her shoe (“It wasn’t my fault!”).  One of the boys poured himself a small cup of coffee and, after adding two creams and two sugars, pronounced it “pretty good!”

Overall, I was proud of their ability to behave like young adults even as I was entertained by their antics. Middle schoolers are comfortable being children but at the same time really want to learn how to be grown-ups.  They can step it up when they need to, but they reserve the right to be silly if they feel like it. One of my secrets to getting along with this age group is to treat them like young adults but not to be surprised when they act like kids.

When the luncheon ended, I told them I was so proud of them that I was going to take them all out for dinner.  “Cool!” said one of the guys.  “Will we get to order dessert?”

A Peek Inside the Cyber World of Teens

You know about Facebook and Instagram–you may even have your own accounts—but what about Snapchat, Tumblr, or Kik?  How many YouTube celebrities can you name?  While some parents are blissfully (and frighteningly) ignorant about what teens do online, others may think they’re in the know (but aren’t).  If you don’t regularly access your teenager’s phone/tablet/computer, or if you have no idea how it even works, chances are you’re leaving your child vulnerable to more dangers than you realize.

I came across an article that I’d like to recommend, written by a young high school teacher who knows much more about the options available to teens on the internet than I ever will.  I encourage you to check it out (click anywhere on the picture to open the link):

For Every Mom

Photo via For Every Mom

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

School Spirit is Alive and Well

Photo by Janelle Morehart

Take 1000+ students in grades 5 through 8 from five different states, put them on a small college campus in Portland, and have them compete in events like knowledge bowl, basketball, and music—and you have LEST, the annual Lutheran Elementary Schools Tournament.

To adults it sounds like a nightmare—middle school kids in the library, the cafeteria, the gym, the classrooms—but it is a fun three days, and for many students it’s one of the most memorable times of those tumultuous years between ages 11 and 14.

It wouldn’t be such a good time without the preparation and expectations of teachers combined with the vigilance and chaperonage of parents.  Weeks before we left, I held classroom discussions about sportsmanship, being good guests, and school spirit.  Especially school spirit.

The reality is that our school spirit at LEST in past years has been rather lackluster.  While other schools in the gym were joining in cheers for their teams, ours was noticeably quiet.  I told them how it used to be in the past, with parents tossing bags of red hots and Big Red gum into the stands.  “Can we do that?” asked one excited young lady.  I gave permission, and in the next few days she gathered a crew to help her assemble the bags.  In Portland she not only threw bags at our fans, she had fun sharing them with other schools, too.

Because we have no cheerleaders, the 8th grade class has taken on the responsibility for leading cheers at the pre-LEST pep assembly.  Initially, it was a handful of brave souls, but in recent years it’s been the entire class on the floor.  This year the 8th grade upheld the tradition, leading cheers not only at the assembly but also in Portland.  They were loud and they were proud, and they weren’t ashamed to show it.

But they didn’t just cheer at basketball games.  They showed up in droves—parents in tow—at every event, from the drama production to the spelling bee to the choral festival.  Wherever I went, I saw students in red, cheering loudly for everybody from our school, whether they were classmates or not.  I had goosebumps more than once as I witnessed more school spirit than I’d seen in years.

Some good prep, a little pep, a few bags of candy, and a whole lot of “Our team is red hot!”–that’s all it takes to get middle schoolers wound up for a good cause.

We’ve got spirit, yes we do!  We’ve got spirit; how ’bout you?

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Photo by Stephanie Pariseau

Super Bowl Weekend: A Good Time to Teach Sportsmanship

Here in Seahawks territory, Blue Fridays are a big deal, and the students in our school proudly wear their Seahawks gear every week.

But there are a few dissenters, who also proudly–and bravely–wear their team shirts.  They know that while they may take some ribbing, they won’t face out-and-out hostility, because our rule is:  You can support your team, but you can’t bash anyone else’s.

Bad sportsmanship is good entertainment in today’s society, which is why it’s so important to teach emotional middle schoolers and teens what good sportsmanship looks like.  Whether it’s the team they’re on, or a college or professional team, teens need to know the difference between being a fan and being a bully.  Cheering for one’s team, “repping” their colors, and flying the team flag are all acceptable ways to show support.  Trash talking about the other team, defacing their posters, and calling the players names are not.

Teaching good sportsmanship goes right along with teaching common courtesy (holding the door for the person behind you), using manners (not burping loudly in a restaurant), and apologizing appropriately.  And it’s not enough to just teach it; adults need to model it as well.

As I always say, it’s part of our job to civilize ’em–and a big weekend filled with Super Bowl parties is the perfect time.

After we took the (staged) picture above, the nose-thumbing young man behind the Broncos fan patted his back and said, “Poor guy!  You know we love you–even if we don’t love your team!”

I’m pretty sure Russell Wilson would approve.  (Go, Hawks!)

When a Red Sweatshirt Makes a Big Difference

swshirtsLast week our 8th grade class sweatshirts arrived.  With a big “15” containing everyone’s name on the back, the shirts are seen as a symbol of class pride and unity.  As we headed outside for a class photo, one student looked around at the sea of red and said, “This just feels so cool.  Like. . .we all just belong together.”

The desire to belong is a basic human need, but it’s especially strong in adolescence. Teens seek places where they can “belong together,” and it’s critical that they find positive experiences, such as singing in the choir, rather than negative ones, like joining a gang.

Teens who are part of a soccer team, an orchestra, a robotics club, or the cast of a play are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors.  Search “positive benefits of extracurricular activities” on the Internet and you’ll find dozens of articles saying students who participate in after-school clubs and teams do better both inside and outside of school.

Of course balance is important, and parents need to be alert for overcommitted kids, but finding a niche where it’s possible to make new friends and share common goals is a must.

By having an identity as part of a group, teens gain a sense of value that can carry over into other areas of their lives.  The “uniform” can be a dress shirt and tie, a team T-shirt, or even a class sweatshirt–whatever it takes to mark them as “belonging.”

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