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.

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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!

 

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.

“You Know What Would Be Funny?”

jasvcoSee that middle schooler?  He’s a nice kid, as is the one next to him–and the one on the other side of him.  On their own, none of them gets into much trouble.  But put them together and leave them unsupervised at, say, the mall?  Now you’ve got huge potential for trouble.  Somebody asks that fateful question–“You know what would be funny?”–and suddenly they’re trying things as a group that they’d never do alone.

Part of it is physiology (see Blame it on the Brain), but another part of it is a version of “gang mentality.”  Notorious for acting first and thinking  later,  two or more teens hanging out together without adults around will gather courage from each other.  I’ve heard students tell of stealing bowls of Halloween candy from porches, throwing popcorn in movie theaters, and riding bikes off roofs.  I’ve seen photos of girls dressed in goofy outfits in dressing rooms and heard their confession of running out and leaving the mess behind, laughing at how angry they’d made the store personnel.

While sometimes it’s just harmless fun, at other times it can be outright dangerous.  Young teens have been know to sniff, drink, or ingest dangerous substances, as well as set fire to, blow up, or even microwave crazy items.  Afterwards, of course, they suffer remorse (and possibly bodily harm), but at the time it seems like such a great idea.

Parents who drop off their young teens without staying with them–or at least tailing them at a discreet distance–are putting their kids at risk.  Hang around and be available, and you’ll find that your presence is often enough to head off trouble.

Think of yourself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the Secret Service.

Are Your Chores Done Yet?

“My mom figured out how to get me to do dishes,” announced my teen-aged friend.  “She pays me!”

Whether  parents connect an allowance to chores or believe they should  be done as a member of the household, most parents struggle with getting their kids to do them.  “Nag, nag, nag, that’s all I do,” complained one mom.  “And half the time I wind up doing them myself because I’m tired of fighting.”

Here are a few ideas parents have used to get chores done with less nagging:

  • Popsicle Sticks:  Instead of a chore chart, one parent writes them on popsicle sticks and lets her kids choose them.  This eliminates bickering over whose turn it is to do what, or complaints of “I always have to do that!”  (Trading is allowed.)
  • Password Hostage:  The same mom changes the wi-fi password daily and only reveals it when chores are finished. (Phones, controllers, and power cords can also be held as hostages.)
  • Earning Opportunities:  In our house, extra money could be earned by doing chores that were harder than the weekly ones.  Washing windows, cleaning  the fridge, and weeding were paid chores.  However, regular chores had to be done before any money-earning chores could be started.
  • Stick the Parents:  I  used to make a list of 8 chores that needed to be done.  Our 3 sons would sign up for 2 chores each, leaving the last 2 for Mom.  They enjoyed sticking me with cleaning toilets and mopping floors – but they also realized we all had to do our part!
  • Love and Logic®:  Instead of threatening – “If you don’t do it, you’re in trouble!” – Love and Logic teaches saying it differently – “When you’re finished, feel free to play!”

Doing chores will help your teen be a better citizen, student, and adult.  Don’t give up!

Back to School Battles

tnwgWhether school has started or will be starting in a few days, chances are the battles have begun.  They may be about what can or cannot be worn to school, which backpack or binder fits into the budget, or what a reasonable bedtime is.

Parents of middle schoolers quickly learn that “Because I said so!” doesn’t win many arguments; in fact, it leads to more arguments – and more battles.  It’s at this point that parents throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know what to do with him anymore!  I just can’t win!”

Remember that line from the movie War Games?  “The only winning move is. . .not to play.”  It’s great advice for dealing with emotional, unpredictable, fast-growing middle schoolers.  Try to avoid as many battles as you can.  Instead, try postponing – “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you this weekend” – but do give a deadline so you don’t sound like you’re just putting them off.  Or negotiate – “You can have that binder, or you can have the shoes you wanted; make a choice.”  Or hold your ground – but use empathy – “I know how much you want that shirt, and I’m sorry I have to disappoint you, but. . .”  (Be sure to give a concrete reason.)

The trouble with loud, messy battles is that you can’t really win.  Just like in thermonuclear war, the winner suffers as much as the loser.  And too many battles can cost you the most valuable prize of all – your relationship with your middle schooler.

Don’t compromise your standards, don’t wimp out on your parenting responsibilities, and don’t spoil your children.  But try to avoid ugly battles that cause more harm than good.  And do everything you can to stay connected to your middle schooler, even when you have to cause some disappointment.

In the meantime. . .”How about a nice game of chess?”

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

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I expected it:  some parents got defensive after the last post (All That Attitude).  “But,” they said, “what if I’m speaking in a calm and reasonable tone and I still get attitude?”

That’s when you use “The One,” which is simply your index finger pointed up, as in “Wait.”  Don’t comment on the attitude and don’t reply to what’s being said (it’s probably just to bait you anyway); instead, say, “Wow.  I don’t feel very respected by your tone (or words).  Could you try that again, but more respectfully, please?”  As lame as it may sound, I have almost 100 percent success with this.

If the comment is repeated in a nicer tone, then respond pleasantly or with empathy, depending on what is said.  For example, your reply to “Why do I have to do all the work around here?” might be, “It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  I can totally relate.”

If it’s out of line no matter the tone, as in, “I said, ‘I hate my brother,'” don’t overreact.  You can deflect attitude by being neutral – try shrugging and saying, “Seems like everybody feels that way once in awhile.”  No need to lecture on using “hate” or other strong language; by middle school, they’ve heard it.  Again,  you’re being baited.

If the comment isn’t repeated because the speaker knows it’s over the line, or because not repeating it is a power ploy (“Just forget it”), then let it go.  End the conversation.  Change the subject.  Avoid getting sucked into a battle that isn’t related to anything else.

It takes patience and willpower to head off an Incident, and you may need to phone a friend to vent afterward, but stick with it and you’ll see the dreaded Attitude diminish.

(Just be sure you’re not the one who invites it back.)