Vacation Spoilers

Jon Stepping on David

A mom complained, “It used to be fun taking my kids on road trips, but now my 13-year-old daughter ruins everything.  She is on her phone the whole time!  When we ask where she wants to eat, she says, ‘I don’t care,’ then complains about wherever we go.  I get so tired of her sulking and making everyone miserable!”

Adolescence can be like an unwelcome passenger on a family vacation.  Though the benefits of traveling with teens are many – they can find the nearest Starbucks on their phone and heave suitcases out of the car – they may not help willingly, preferring instead to whine or grumble (“Why do I have to do everything?”).  Their bad moods can bring everybody down as they pick on siblings and act like nothing will make them happy.

Here are some helpful tips for frazzled parents:

1. Declare “No-Phone Zones.”   This can be 30 miles or 30 minutes, but do negotiate rather than dictating.  And be sure you participate, too!

2. Ignore bad moods.  I saw parents do this recently at a motel breakfast.  Their daughter, who was around 13,  sulkily slouched against the wall, not participating in the family chatter.   When she finally slid over and joined the conversation, she was welcomed and immediately included.  Which brings us to the next point:

3. Ignore good moods.  Don’t say, “Now isn’t this nice, when you’re actually being  happy?”  It will then become a matter of pride for him to prove that he is not happy; in fact, now he’s twice as grumpy because he’ll say you are picking on him!

4. Take the back seat.  Siblings get tired of sitting near each other, and the view from the back is boring.   Switch with your teen if s/he is old enough to be in the front seat; this will also give the back seat crew some of your attention.  If you’re flying, consider one parent sitting with each child instead of parents in one row and kids in another.

Take the middle road with moods and the back seat on the road (or in the air), and you may find that Adolescence isn’t so hard to travel with after all.

 

“Hey! Why’d You Punch Me?”

scrthndsk

While working with a student one afternoon, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Hey!  Why’d you punch me?”  This is what I refer to as a “tattle voice,” designed to alert the nearest adult that trouble is afoot (or a-punch, as the case may be).  This time,  knowing the tattler probably had punched first, I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard.

There’s something inside of middle schoolers that compels them to punch, poke, and smack (boys), or hug, link elbows, and walk with their arms around each other (girls).  This is partly because their needs for physical affection haven’t diminished, but their means of meeting those needs have changed.  When they’re 5, their parents will still pick them up, kiss them good-night, and hold their hands as they cross the street.  When they’re 10, changes start to happen, some of them initiated by themselves.

When they’re 13, they may still crave parental hugs, but they’re not sure if that’s okay with their peers.  At an age where affection from parents may or may not be welcomed,  punching and hugging meet basic needs for affection in a socially acceptable manner.  I’ve had students decide punching me might be a good way to connect, and I’ve had to suggest we switch to fist bumps instead.

Parents who aren’t allowed to hug (at least in public) can meet physical needs in subtle, more middle-school-approved ways, like a friendly shoulder bump when walking, or a high five.  Side-arm hugs are tolerated more than full-on body hugs, and developing a “secret handshake” can be a fun way to connect.  Just don’t do it if they’re afraid their friends will see it and laugh!

There will be those days when your middle schooler may seek you out for a big hug.  Don’t ruin it by saying, “Oh, so you DO still need me.”  Just open your arms and enjoy the moment.

And in between those times, keep practicing your secret handshake.

 

They Don’t Think Like We Do

schbs

Last week we went on a field trip.  One student arrived at school late and was literally the last one to board the bus.  About 15 minutes down the road, my phone rang and a confused parent on the other end asked, “Did you forget me?”  Oops – it was the mother of my late student, and I had, indeed, forgotten her.  When I questioned her daughter about why she hadn’t asked me to wait for her mom, she said, “Because you told us that you wouldn’t wait for anybody who was late!”

Later that same day, I stood outside in a huddle of 8th graders who were trying to stay warm in 45-degree weather.  I reminded them that I had encouraged them to dress warmly, and one of them replied, “I did! I’m wearing my sweatshirt!”

The next day I stopped a 7th grader and asked him why he was walking down the hall like a penguin.  “It’s my new shoes,” he explained.  “If I bend my feet, they’re going to get creases above my toes!”

I see and hear this kind of thing every day.  Despite what they think, teens don’t yet have the world figured out.  They lack life experience, and they haven’t developed much of what we adults call “common sense” – but what is really wisdom gained from living and learning.

Sometimes they make us laugh, sometimes they make us stop and question ourselves, but if you listen carefully – they’ll always give you a glimpse into how their unfolding brains work!

They never cease to surprise me.

Speaking in Teen Code

gmi_87_09Politicians and diplomats could take a lesson from teenagers when it comes to being noncommittal.  Translating the hidden meaning behind the words teens speak is like an art form.   Here’s what parents need to know:

Question:  “Are you doing (homework) (chores) (the weeding)?” Answer: “I was just about to start!”

Translation: No.

Question:  “Are you finished with (homework) (chores) (the weeding)?” Answer:  “Almost!”

Translation: No.

Question:  “Did you kick your brother?” Answer: “He spit at me!”

Translation:  Yes.

Question: “Did you wear that to church?” Answer:  “Dad didn’t say anything about it.”

Translation:  Yes.

Question: “Who broke this glass?” Answer: “It was an accident!”

Translation:  I-did-but-please-don’t-be-mad-at-me.

Question: “Do you love me?”  Answer: <shrug> “I guess.”

Translation:  Yes-of-course-I-do-but-I-just-can’t-say-it-back-to-you-right-now.

Question:  “Will you do this job for me just because you love me?”  Answer:  “You’re the best mom ever!”

Translation:  No

When I get responses like these in my classroom, I always respond the same way, calling out, “I know that means ‘No’!”  The speaker laughs, admitting nothing but amused that I get the joke.

Translation:  “Thanks for understanding me!”

A New Year of Parenting Resolutions

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Christmas – with all its stresses and joys – has come and gone yet again.  If it feels like it passed quickly, take heart – so too will your years of parenting an adolescent.  It’s an important transition time, one to enjoy and explore rather than merely to endure.  That could be your first parenting resolution!   Here are three more to consider:

Respect your kids.  No matter how much you tell them to respect you, they’re not going to learn how unless you’re modeling it.  Parents show respect when they make requests with “please” (and follow up with “thank you”), when they don’t interrupt,when they speak in calm voices, and when they make eye contact.  Look back over that list – aren’t those all behaviors you want from your children?

Listen with empathy.  When I tell my husband about my bad day, I want him to say, “Wow,” or “That sounds awful.”  I do not want him to tell me that I shouldn’t be so upset, or that his day was worse.  Nobody feels the need to be understood more than an emotional, moody teen.  If parents won’t listen, there’s always somebody else who will.

Praise your kids more.  And in public, even if it makes them squirm.  But be low-key about it:  “Hey, I noticed you picked up your dirty clothes” will be more appreciated than, “Wow, you picked up your clothes?  Good for you!  Thank you so much!”  (And by all means, don’t sneak criticism into your praise, as in “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”)

Enjoy, respect, listen, praise.  And have a happy New Year!

It’s An E-Ticket Ride

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“She’s so emotional!  When I started talking about her new school, she burst into tears, ran to her room, and locked the door!”

It’s a familiar story at the end of the year, whether or not there’s a new school involved.  Middle schoolers are such emotional creatures anyway, and all of the emotions that come with endings and new beginnings bubble up and overflow.  The adults in their lives find themselves riding a roller coaster with blind turns, breathtaking climbs, and alarming dips.

The best thing a parent can do is to hold their middle schooler’s hand during the scary parts, high five them during the exciting parts, and try not to be caught off guard by the next outburst.

At our school, the 8th graders graduate in June and go off to either 9th grade at a junior high, or freshman year in high school.  Doesn’t matter where they go, they’re leaving behind all that’s been familiar – for 10 years for some of them – and heading into foreign territory.  Their comments throughout the year swing from “I can’t wait!” to “I don’t want to go!”  I tell them they should be ready to leave but sad to go, and they appreciate that I understand how mixed up they are.

That’s the parents’ job, too – to show they understand.  A middle schooler will appreciate a parent who shows empathy far more than a parent who belittles – or worse, who tries to change – their feelings.

 

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

theone

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.)

All That Attitude

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When I mention that I teach middle school, two things happen:  1) I get blessed, as in, “Oh, bless you – that’s not an easy job.” and 2) I get asked how I  handle all that attitude.

But the reality is, I don’t get much attitude from students.  The eye rolling, shrugging, hair flipping, steely-eyed glaring – I see very little of it.  Correction:  I see very little of it directed at me. However, I do see it directed at other adults.  So why not at me in my classroom?

It’s not because I terrify them.  Spend an hour in my classroom and you’ll pick up on that, as the teasing goes both ways.  But I do demand respect, and that, too, goes both ways.  And that may be part of the answer:  I treat my students with respect.  Teens match their tone of voice to the tone being used with them, so I try to keep mine calm.  I can’t do it all the time – sometimes I’m too frustrated – but more often than not, I keep my cool.

The other part of the answer is a little trick I call “intentional ignorance.”  For example, if I’ve had to tell a student that she can’t play in a basketball game because of low grades, and she throws herself into her seat and glares at me, I will pretend not to see her little tantrum.  Unless she gets so loud that she’s disrupting the class, I will turn a blind eye to her antics until she settles down.  If she does get disruptive, I’ll (calmly) ask her to visit another classroom until she has herself under control.

Why don’t I have to deal with “all that attitude?” Probably because I choose to ignore it – and not to return it.

 

 

We’re Just Not Friends Anymore

Girlfriends

Every year I counsel parents  and middle schoolers about the ebb and flow of friendships in this age group.

In lower grades, it seemed easier:  everyone who liked to play soccer would get together on the field at recess.  Those who preferred the Big Toy would hang out there.

Everything is different in middle school.  Because kids mature at different rates, friendships change – often without warning.  Friendships are based on common interests, because “If you like what I like, that validates my choice.”  And boys who aren’t interested in sports or girls – or girls who aren’t interested in make-up or boys – will find themselves adjusting their friendship circles.

Middle school is also when the whole class is no longer invited to birthday parties.  Some middle schoolers are allowed to have their first boy/girl parties, which creates all kinds of social calamities as feelings get hurt when one’s not invited.

It helps to remind middle schoolers  that this is a difficult time everyone goes through, but things usually get better in high school, where there are more clubs and teams to join.  Most teens find their niche (or their “group”) by the time they’re 15 or 16.

My advice to parents is to step out of “Problem Solver” mode and work more on “Good Listener” mode.  Give lots of empathy – “It’s hard when things change, isn’t it?” – but don’t feel like it’s your job to make the bad feelings go away.  Middle schoolers need to feel they’ve been heard and understood, and then they can move forward in dealing with feelings and social issues on their own.

Friendships change like the tides – it’s a parent’s job to be the anchor.

Huh? Are You Talking to Me?

ImageI read a book recently that had too much dialogue.  To me it felt like “Blah blah blah,” and I finally started skipping over the dialogue (and ignoring it in the process).

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes try to engage in too much dialogue.  Or they deliver long monologues, which are worse.  Remember how the adults sounded in the old Charlie Brown cartoons?  That’s what middle schoolers hear after the first few words.

Keep in mind that when you lecture a teenager, you are the only one listening after the first minute or two.  At some point you’ll figure that out and ask a question like, “Are you even paying attention?” or “You’re not listening, are you?”  Such questions will cause defensiveness and “attitude” in the teenager – and now you’ve got a whole new problem to deal with.

You’ll get the best results by keeping your speeches short and to the point.  Skip the questions altogether, especially the ones doomed to make things worse: “What were you thinking?” or “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

Name the problem, issue the consequence – and include a sincere apology, if it’s appropriate: “I’m sorry, but since you didn’t call last night when you were going to be late, you won’t be allowed to go to tonight’s birthday party.”  No need to raise your voice, point your finger, or make the teen look remorseful.  Just say your piece and walk away.

Because at that point, both of you will still be listening.