The No-No List for Parents

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!

Sue Acuña is a middle school teacher at Concordia Christian Academy in Tacoma, Washington. Visit her classroom and you’ll find a room filled with lamps, carpets, comfortable chairs–and some pretty chill middle schoolers.

Don’t Be Helpless (Part 2)

In my last blog we discussed how to avoid being helpless when dealing with teens and their cell phonesOn her phone or talking back. (See Don’t Be a Helpless Parent.)  This time we’ll tackle two more issues that cause parents to throw their hands up in despair: social media and chores.

1. Beyond Twitter and Snapchat Be aware: most teens do not use Facebook as their primary contact with friends.  They use Instagram to keep up with friends’ activities (fewer words, more pictures), and Snapchat for conversations.  They also use apps like Kik, or Yik Yak to chat with friends–or strangers.  Apps such as Kiwi and Whisper go even further and allow users to communicate anonymously.  Think of the power that gives middle schoolers to hurt–and be hurt by–one another.

If your teen owns a smartphone, tablet, or iPod (which connects via wi-fi), you need to keep on top of how they’re using it (also see When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?).  Ask your teen to open the apps and show you how they work, and require that they give you passwords (you can open most accounts from you computer).  Tell them you won’t be checking all the time, but they should expect you to look in once in awhile. You need to weigh the awkwardness of invading your teen’s privacy against the possibility of them falling victim to–or being tempted to start–cyberbullying, or striking up a relationship with a (possibly dangerous) stranger.

2. Doing Their Share  While it’s nice to have your kids help around the house, the benefits go beyond having clean dishes.  Children who do chores at home do better in school and grow up to be more successful adults (check out Why Children Need Chores in the Wall Street Journal).  You would think that by adolescence, chores would have become a habit, but most parents find themselves in a daily battle to get their kids to do even the most basic of tasks.  

After years of being frustrated with my children and tired of hearing myself nagging and complaining, I called a family meeting with my sons (then 10, 12, and 14).  I laid out which chores needed to be done daily and let them decide on a fair division.  They determined each job would be done for a week, switching on Saturdays.  We discussed consequences for not doing chores, and they agreed that being grounded from all screens (computer, TV, video games) for three days was appropriate.  For a second or recurring offense, they came up with the Chore Slave, who would be at the parents’ beck and call for an entire Saturday.  The key was to involve them in coming up with a plan.

I in turn agreed that if chore didn’t get done in a timely manner, I would do it myself and calmly issue the consequence.  This resulted in me sometimes preparing to load the dishwasher, only to be nudged aside by a desperate boy.  I never refused his offer, nor did I make a snarky comment like, “About time you showed up.” My goal was for them to do chores without being yelled at, so I graciously left the kitchen without a word.

Just as it was worth your while to teach your preschooler how to tie a shoe or ride a bicycle (both struggles I remember well), it is also critical that you hold your ground on major issues in adolescence.  Parents of 13-year-olds have about five years before they graduate from high school.  That may seem like a long time to fight the good fight, but you will be preparing them for decades of responsible adulthood.

Hang in there.

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

youwin

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!

 

The Art of Understatement

Right in the middle of my lesson, a student stood up and walked across the room, heading for the trash can. He was pretty much oblivious that I was still talking, so I had to do something to let him know he was a distraction.  I could’ve said, “Excuse me?  Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m teaching here!  Go back to your seat!”

Instead, I stopped talking and gently cleared my throat.  He froze and stared at me, then sheepishly crept back to his seat.

I deal with a dozen or so incidents each day where I have to choose between making a big deal out of it or being more low key.  If I can handle something in a way that gets what I want while saving a student from embarrassment, that’s the direction I’ll take.

Some of my favorite understated reactions:

  • Raising my eyebrows and shrugging, in a silent “What the heck?” gesture
  • Chuckling and shaking my head
  • Saying, “No-no” in a light tone
  • Wagging my finger
  • Pointing to the student and then to where she should be
  • Saying “Sh” in a gentle tone
  • Using my fingers to pantomime sitting or walking
  • Making eye contact and giving a subtle shake of my head

Teens are self-conscious, insecure, and easily embarrassed.  Put them on the spot and/or make them uncomfortable, and you can expect defensiveness in return. Then you get to deal with what parents like to call “attitude.”

But if you can get the desired behavior, or change in behavior, without calling unwanted attention to your teen, you’ll not only get cooperation–you’ll get huge amounts of appreciation.

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.

Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

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?

A New Year With Your Teen

I’ll say it again:  I love spending my days with teen-agers.  Maybe I am a little crazy (which helps when dealing with teens), but there are so many things to enjoy about them!  Here are some helpful resolutions to get your new year of parenting teens off to a good start:

Remember that they’re halflings.  They’re starting to look like adults in a taller, gangly, hairier way.  Sometimes they even sound like adults, especially when they question you in unexpected ways (“Why do we even go to Aunt Lulu’s house when you complain about her all the time?”)  And they certainly want to be treated like adults, except on their birthdays or when there are chores to do.  But the reality is they’re still a work in process, and a good portion of what you see is still a child, clinging to childish behaviors and attitudes.  You and I know some of those never go away; admit it—you still want your own way as often as possible.  It’s how we deal with those attitudes that changes, and that’s what you need to teach and model to your teen.

Have more Seinfeld moments.  In other words, laugh about nothing, but laugh together.  We laugh often in my classroom.  Sometimes it’s me being funny, like when I respond to a cry of “Unfair!” with “That’s MRS. Unfair to you.”  Sometimes it’s the students: “Your grandpa is in rehab?  Is he a drug addict?” (No—he had a hip replaced.)  Think about your best memories with good friends and how many involved laughing—possibly until you couldn’t breathe.  Create some of those memories with your kids, and you’ll treasure them long into their adult years.

Make more eye contact.  Check your own screen time before ranting about your teen’s.  When you’re in a conversation and your phone buzzes, ignore it and maintain eye contact.  You’ll make a huge statement about how much you value what’s being said—and who’s saying it!  Close your laptop, put your tablet to sleep, or mute the TV when your teen is talking to you, and you’ll get better results when you expect the same behavior.  Require some meals be device-free, whether at home or in a restaurant, and be the first to model turning your phone off (not just silencing it).

Dethrone the homework god.  No, I don’t mean your teens should stop doing schoolwork (all of my teen readers just groaned), but do try to keep it from becoming the Most Important Topic, the one all your conversations center around:  “You’ve been home for seven minutes; why haven’t you started your homework?” or “You’re just sitting there doing nothing; don’t you have any homework?”  Yes, grades do matter, but everyone needs balance in their lives, including students.  Make an effort to communicate that you care about more than just homework.

Do more. . .and less.  Listen more, play more, negotiate more.  Nag less, criticize less, yell less.  In short, practice more positive responses and fewer negative ones.  Your teen is watching you and learning from you how to be an adult.  It’s more important than ever to model respect, kindness, patience, manners. . .all the behaviors you hope to see in your child as an adult.

Listen with your heartphones.  When your toddler threw a tantrum, you knew whether she was mad, scared, or just tired, despite what she said.  Tune into that frequency with your teen and try to see what’s behind his outburst.  There’s a good chance that the attack (“Why do you always pick on me?”) is masking embarrassment, frustration, or just a horrible, no good, bad day.  For best results, under-react:  say nothing for several seconds, give a non-committal “Huh,” or offer food.  Often whatever it is will blow over, but if you suspect there’s a bigger issue, allow some recovery space and then gently make your presence known.  Be ready to listen without interrupting or judging.  Communicate how much you care.

Stop and smell. . . whatever.  From the time your child was a toddler, you’ve been dreading the Adolescent Years, and now that they’re here you can’t wait for them to pass.  Teens are impulsive, loud, moody, smelly (Axe Spray can be even worse than sweat), unpredictable, exasperating—and fascinating.  So much change happens so quickly—both inside and out—that you’ll want to take mental snapshots to remember it all when they’ve gone off to college or moved out.  Because when that day arrives, you’ll wonder where the time went.