Category Archives: Parenting

Serious Advice for Parents of Teens

When Parenting Teenagers — Age Matters

Most parents easily recognize that when it comes to parenting, age matters a great deal.  If you’re not convinced, try giving your teen a nice, cuddly hug, preferably in public.  Not surprisingly, what’s fun and rewarding for one age group, is stupid, incomprehensible, or embarrassing for another.

Teens can be especially challenging for parents. Forgive the blunt language, but the truth is:  Teens often think adults in general, and their parents in particular, don’t know squat.  When I recently shared this well-known fact with a teenager, she gently corrected me by saying, “I think what you mean to say is that adults only know squat.”  I just rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever.”

In contrast to some of my teenage friends, I happen to believe that adults usually do have their squat together.  Therefore, I’ve written a short guide (with attitude) for anyone who has the daunting task of communicating with teenagers.

Principle 1: Always remember, on average, adults are usually smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This fact comes with a certain responsibility.  It means we should strive to really act like we’re smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This means, unfortunately, we have to act mature.  Sometimes we have to go the extra mile when trying to understand today’s youth.  It also means quickly forgiving them when their brains seem to malfunction.

Think about what it means to be more mature – and maybe even wiser – than your teenager.  Think of how to demonstrate your adult maturity in a way that your teen will respect.  Be concrete and specific.  For example, don’t think: “I’ll show my wisdom and maturity by trying to be more patient when he talks on and on about skateboarding.”  Instead, think something like: “I’ll make a point of asking him about his skateboarding at least twice a week. Then, if he’s up for talking, I’ll pay attention to him for at least 5 minutes before I change the subject or get distracted with something else.”

Principle 2: Many teenagers have a special invisible antenna that sticks out from the top of their head. Don’t bother looking for this antenna because it’s invisible.  It’s a “Respect Antenna.”  It functions to instantly ascertain whether a given adult likes or respects a given teen.  Consequently, although teens may act like they’re not paying any attention to you, they’ll still be able to psychically determine whether or not you like and respect them.  And if their invisible antennae signals that you don’t like or respect them, they’ll treat you miserably. Oh yeah. One more thing about this: Like everyone else, the teenager invisible respect antenna regularly malfunctions.

Principle 3: Many teens have dysfunctional eye rolls that appear completely beyond their voluntary control.  For some unknown reason, these eye rolls are triggered when adult authority figures make serious comments.  If you notice teens having this eye roll problem try your best to treat them with the sympathy they deserve.  This means you should smile while looking deeply into their eyes with every ounce of kindness left in your heart. You may think your teen is being disrespectful, but really she or he really needs your sympathy for this problem.

Principle 4: Teenagers are insecure.  Often, they cover their insecurity with a thin veneer of self-confidence and bravado.  This veneer has the effect of making adults assume that young people are confident or overconfident. Such an assumption can cause adults to back off and not offer help, when sometimes, help is exactly what your teen needs.

Principle 5: Young people are very good at tuning out adults while following the sometimes incredibly bad advice of their peers.  The best weapon we have against this sad trend is to sit and listen to young people as they talk about their lives, while, at the same time, resisting the impulse to give them our sage advice.  After listening for a considerable length of time, it can be effective to dress up one of your good ideas as one of their bad ideas and pretend that they came up with it.  If this subtle technique for influencing young people gathers no moss, then you may be forced back into the Dr. Science approach.  The Dr. Science approach essentially involves informing the youth that you know more than they do and therefore they MUST abide by your wishes.  This approach is usually effective only if you have way more money and way more valuable property than the young person.

Principle 6: Scientific research has clearly shown that, down deep, young people really want positive relationships with adults. . . AND that they greatly profit from such relationships.  Try to ignore the fact that adults conceived and conducted this research.  Instead, just go right on doing your best to develop positive relationships with as many teenagers as possible and go right on assuming they want those relationships.

Principle 7: In the end, you’ll find that communicating with teenagers is a lot like baseball.  In professional baseball, if you get a base hit 3 out of 10 times you go to the plate, you have a great chance of getting voted onto the All Star team.  The same is true for communicating with teens.  If you’re a lifetime .300 hitter, your child will probably eventually vote for your induction into the parental Hall of Fame!

If you want additional information about how to communicate more effectively with teens, we recommend parent education classes. You might discover several things: (a) there are other parents out there, besides you, who are struggling and want a better relationship with their teens; (b) many parents (and maybe even the class leaders) will have great ideas about how to improve your teen communication skills; and (c) by meeting with parents and talking opening about our challenges, we’re conspiring to prove that we’re indeed wiser than our teenagers.

[This blog is adapted from an old newspaper article in the Missoulian and from “The Last Best Divorce Workbook” (written by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan and published by Families First Missoula, 2005)]

Thoughts on Sharing Parental Power

The following parenting strategy is an excerpt adapted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328919870&sr=8-1). As with all techniques, this is just a tool and it may or may not fit with your personal family situation.

Give Information—Then Back Off

Most parents, at least initially, feel drawn toward actively and directly teaching life lessons to children. After all, as adults, we have far more accumulated wisdom than children and therefore it makes perfect sense to tell them what decisions they should make and warn them of potential life dangers. Many parents also use direct power strategies of lecturing, criticism, praise, and advice-giving to teach their children important life lessons. Unfortunately, life lessons based on direct power are often ineffective.  This is likely true because, as Carl Rogers might say, children are more interested in learning about life based on their own experiences rather than learning indirectly from parental lectures.

Praise, punishment, lectures, advice, and criticism are external means of influence (Glasser, 2002). When talking with parents, we usually emphasize that praise and punishment strategies involve “outside-in” or external learning. Punishment is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something wrong; praise is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something right.

All learning is partially outside-in and partially inside-out. Children can learn from what others say (often through praise and punishment) and they can learn from their own judgments of their own direct experiences. Generally, children’s developmental issues (e.g., individuation, identity formation) make it desirable for parents to intentionally use inside-out learning strategies with their children, at least some of the time.

Inside-out learning emphasizes personal experience and judgment rather than judgments imposed by others. Most parents agree that, although they want their children to be open and sensitive to others’ opinions, they want their children to have an internal sense of direction and integrity even more. Unfortunately, using direct power to tell children what to think often backfires.  Some children oppose their parents simply for the sake of opposing their parents. In these cases, children seem to gain a sense of identity through opposition or rebellion instead of learning to personally reflect on their experiences and then consciously choose their own behaviors.

Troy’s Three Choices

Troy, a teenage boy, came for counseling. Troy was in conflict with his parents about his relationship with his girlfriend. His parents were concerned and had made it clear that they disapproved of the girlfriend and of his relationship with her. This communication left Troy feeling deprived of his personal choice and so he stubbornly clung to his relationship despite the fact that he also had doubts about whether the relationship was a good fit for him. As we worked in counseling, it became clear that Troy had three general choices: (1) He could comply with his parents’ wishes and discontinue the relationship; (2) he could oppose his parents and insist on his right to have this relationship; or (3) he could think about his parents’ opinions as information and then step back and critically evaluate the relationship himself and decide what he thought was best. We discussed the most challenging outcome of all: that he might end up agreeing with his parents and terminate the relationship and then they (and he) might think they had “won” the power struggle.

As a result of our discussions, Troy decided he wanted a joint meeting with his parents. During the meeting he effectively communicated to them that they had made their position and their concerns very clear. He then emphatically asked them to back off so he could decide how to proceed with his relationship. In the end, Troy broke off the relationship and thanked his parents for giving him the space and time to make his own decision.

This case illustrates the give information and then back off technique. The parents communicated their concerns directly. Although they were initially overbearing about what their son should do, eventually, with encouragement, they backed away and gave their son time to independently consider the issues. In essence, by backing off after expressing their concerns, they also communicated trust in their son’s ability to make a reasonable decision. One problem underlying this situation is the fact that after expressing concerns, it’s often difficult for parents to keep their mouths shut and let their children make their own decisions on their own timeline rather than the parents’ timeline.

Asking Permission

Troy’s parents might have been even more influential if they had started the process by asking Troy if they could share their opinion with him. For example, they might have asked: “Would you like to hear our thoughts on how your relationship seems to be going?”

By asking for Troy’s permission, a new power dynamic is intentionally established. The new dynamic includes some of the following characteristics:

  • The parents give a signal to Troy that they have important information they’d like to share with him, but they’re giving this signal before they provide the information.
  • Asking permission gives Troy a sense of empowerment. He may choose to (a) receive the information, or (b) reject the information. He’s less likely to feel as though his parents are shoving the information down his throat.
  • Even if Troy initially rejects the information by saying “I don’t want to hear what you think” or “I know what you’re going to say,” he can still change his mind and ask for the information later.
  • If the parents approach Troy with an attitude of concern, he may feel cared for, which is always a good thing in a parent–child relationship.
  • If the parents can respect Troy’s right to reject the information, paradoxically, he may become more open to hearing their opinion later.
  • Overall, by asking permission, the parents are at least expressing partial faith or trust in Troy and his problem-solving ability.

Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule. This particular problem-solving technique provides an excellent foundation for exploring exceptions to all indirect and problem-solving strategies. Because these approaches intentionally and explicitly give away parental power, they should be used only when parents feel at least somewhat comfortable trusting their children with the problem-solving process. For example, if Troy’s girlfriend is obviously abusing drugs and pulling Troy toward a destructive lifestyle, it may be necessary for the parents to insist on more extreme and directive steps. These steps might include:

  • Family therapy
  • A drug/alcohol intervention
  • More intensive supervision of Troy’s behaviors
  • Severe limitations regarding Troy’s freedom outside the home contingent upon specific communication and “checking-in” standards
  • Involvement with law enforcement (if appropriate and/or warranted)

Although not exhaustive, the preceding list provides a sense of how the nature of the parent–child relationship and the parents’ trust in their child’s judgment interact with the level of directiveness.  More directive, limit-setting, and monitoring parenting approaches may be necessary, depending on the severity of the situation.

Anti-Bullying Tips for Parents

Tip Sheet 11: Anti-Bullying Tips for Parents

Although some educators and individuals refer to bullying (and being bullied) as a normal part of growing up, for many children (and parents) bullying is quite simply a traumatic nightmare. This tip sheet offers ideas for dealing with this perplexing and persistent social problem in schools and neighborhoods.

1. Encourage your child to communicate openly to you about his or her bullying experiences. This will be difficult because you will instantly want to contact the bully’s parents or “beat up” the bully, neither of which is recommended.

2. Open communication includes empathy and asking your child what she or he has done to try to stop or cope with the bullying. Avoid blaming and avoid taking action on behalf of your child (unless the level of bullying aggression makes an intervention necessary and then only do so with the support of school personnel, law enforcement, or other appropriate community members).

3. Help your child understand that being bullied is not his or her fault. Although sometimes bullies increase their bullying when children react, reacting to bullies should not become a reason to blame the victim for increased bullying.

4. Help your child identify different strategies for dealing with bullies, recognizing that some strategies will work better than others for individual children. Strategies might include (a) avoiding and/or ignoring the bully; (b) hanging out with friends and not being alone and vulnerable (parents can help children develop new social connections); (c) connecting with school or community personnel who can help with bullying; or (d) using humor to defuse bullying situations. Encouraging your child to fight back is not recommended as it usually results in increased bullying frequency and longevity.

5. Use your child’s school as an ally and resource. Although you should be careful about approaching the school without your child’s permission, often school personnel will have ways to address bullying, in general, that don’t identify you or your child (and thereby increase bullying likelihood). Also, encourage your child to speak with trusted school personnel (school counselors or school psychologists are a good start).

6. Become more present and available in your child’s life. This might mean volunteering at school and even having casual, face-to-face contact with the bully (not to confront the bully, but to help make your presence in your child’s life a reality to the bully and bystanders).

This list is just a start. Additional information on how parents can help their children with bullying and other issues is available in the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan

A Bill of Rights for Children of Divorce

There are lots of different “Bills of Rights” for children and parents of divorce available online. I’m re-posting this one that Rita and I originally published in November, 2000, in Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association. It’s a slight revision and has been on this blog for a while, but here it is in honor of all the kiddos out there who end up with the challenge of transitioning between two homes. Feel free to share or use as you wish.

A Bill of Rights for Children of Divorce

By John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan

I am a child of divorce.  I hold these truths to be self-evident:

I have the right to be free from parent conflicts and hostilities.  When you badmouth each other in front of me, it tears me apart inside.  Don’t put me in the middle or try to play me against my other parent. And don’t burden me with your relationship problems, they’re yours, not mine.

I have the right to develop a relationship with both my parents.  I love you both.  I know you will sometimes be jealous about that, but you need to deal with it because you are the adult and I am the child.

I have a right to information about things that will affect my life.  If you’re planning on getting a divorce, I have a right to know, as soon as is reasonable.  Likewise, if you’re planning to move, get remarried, or any other major life change, I have a right to know about it.

Just as I have a right to basic information about my life, I also have a right to be protected from inappropriate information.  This means you shouldn’t tell me about sexual exploits or similar misbehavior by my other parent.  You also should not apologize to me – for my other parent – because this implies a derogatory judgment of my other parent.  If you apologize to me, apologize for yourself.

I have a right to my own personal space in each of my homes.  This doesn’t mean I can’t share a room with my brother or sister, but it does mean that I need space and time of my own.  I also need some special personal items in my own space . . . and this just might include a picture of my other parent . . . don’t freak out about it.

I have a right to physical safety and adequate supervision.  I know you may be very upset about your divorce, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect my needs for safety and supervision.  I don’t want to be home alone all the time while you’re out dating someone new.

I have a right to spend time with both parents, without interference.  My right to spend time with each of you shouldn’t be dependent upon how much money one of you has paid the other.  That makes me feel cheap, like something you might buy in a store.

I have a right to financial and emotional support from both my parents, regardless of how much time I spend with either of you.  This doesn’t mean I expect twice as much as other kids get, it just means that you should stop worrying about what I got from my other parent and focus on what you’re providing me.

I have a right to firm limits and boundaries and reasonable expectations.  Just because I’m a child of divorce doesn’t mean I can’t handle chores, homework, or other normal childhood responsibilities.  On the other hand, keep in mind that even though I may have a little sister or brother (or step-sister or step-brother), I’m not the designated babysitter.

I have a right to your patience.  I didn’t choose to go through a divorce; I didn’t choose to have my biological parents live in two different homes, move away, date different people, and in general, turn my world upside down.  Therefore, more than most children, my life has been beyond my control.  This means I will need your help and support to work through my control issues. You also need to give me time to get comfortable with your new romantic interests. You’re my parent and you should handle my discipline and not hand it over to some new person who I don’t even trust yet.

Finally, I have a right to be a child.  I shouldn’t have to be your spy, your special confidant, or your mother.  Just because you hate to talk to each other, I shouldn’t have to be your personal message courier.  I exist because you created me.  Therefore, I have a right to be more than a child of divorce.  I have a right to be a child whose parents love me more than they’ve come to hate each other.

 

For more information on the Children’s perspective on separation and divorce, check out our book, Don’t Divorce Us!: Kids’ advice to divorcing parents. It sells from $0.81 on Amazon and is available in Turkish:)

 

 

 

A Short Divorce Education Story

It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I was hoping for rain; six hour Saturday classes on divorce and shared parenting are much easier when it’s raining.

Parents begin to arrive. I offer food, but no one eats.  A few people slip into the kitchen and fill their cups with coffee or tea.

Soon, I’m sitting, knee to knee in a circle with ten other men and women.  No one really wants to be here, including me. About half the parents have been mandated by the Court to take this class on divorce and shared parenting. The other half felt compelled to come to deal with a difficult divorce situation.

On the far end of the circle, a big burly man in his mid-thirties stares into space.  He looks angry. We mutually avoid eye contact. Class is about to start and so I’m compulsively making small talk. My chatter includes the local men and women sports teams, the short and long-term weather forecast, and other conflict avoidant topics.  I make a point to NOT bring up religion, politics, or recent changes in child custody law.

We begin with ground rules and introductions. Everyone agrees to confidentiality, to mutual respect, cooperative participation, and to be open to new ideas. As introductions proceed around the circle we eventually come around to the burly man. I notice dread building up in me for what I suspect will be an outpouring of anger and resentment. Instead, when he begins speaking his face contorts. Then he puts his head in his hands and quietly starts to cry.

The room is still. He finally manages to talk. His speech is slow and his words like water. We’re submerged in the ache he feels from missing his son and daughter. Three other parents are wiping their eyes. Only fifteen minutes have passed and these parents are already deeply into their emotional pain. There are no more involuntary participants in this class now; everyone in the room is just a parent—a sad, frustrated, and angry parent missing their children and hating part-time parenting.

In the end, the class that wouldn’t eat, orders pizza together. The participants have bonded; they’ve discovered a common passion. They all love their children and want to be better parents.

Amazingly, the 10 parents agree to put their own pain and misery aside when communicating with their children’s other parent. They commit to keeping their children out of parent-to-parent conflicts. They express their willingness to try to accept and listen to their children’s anger, instead of stamping on it like a smoldering fire. They all realize that nothing will magically make their lives easier. But they resolve on a sunny Saturday afternoon to work as hard as they can to leave behind their dysfunctional anger and frustration. They resolve to become not only more loving parents, but also more skillful parents, parents who are ready to put their children’s best interests first and to treat their children’s other parent with the respect they wish for themselves.

Happy New Year . . .

Non-Drug Options for Dealing with Depression

                               “When it comes to treating depressive symptoms, there’s no better                     medicine than healthy and loving relationships”

 The following options can be very effective for relieving depression symptoms. Although antidepressant medications are also an option, because they’re so widely marketed only non-drug alternatives are listed and described here.

  1. Psychotherapy – Going to a reputable and licensed mental health professional who offers counseling or psychotherapy for depression can be very helpful. This may include family, couple, or group counseling or therapy.
  2. Vigorous Aerobic Exercise – Consider initiating and maintaining a regular cardiovascular or aerobic exercise schedule. This could involve a referral to a personal trainer and/or local fitness center (e.g., YMCA).
  3. Herbal Remedies – Some individuals benefit from taking herbal supplements. For example, there is evidence that Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish oil) can reduce depressive symptoms. It’s good to consult with a health care provider if you’re pursuing this option.
  4. Light Therapy – Some people describe great benefits from light therapy. Information on light therapy boxes is available online and possibly through your physician.
  5. Massage Therapy – Research indicates that massage therapy can relieve depressive symptoms. A referral to a licensed massage therapy professional is advised.
  6. Bibliotherapy – Research indicates that some people benefit from reading and working with self-help books or workbooks. The Feeling Good Handbook (Burns, 1999) and Mind over Mood (Greenberger and Padesky, 1995) are two popular self-help books.
  7. Mild Exercise and Physical/Social Activities – Even if you’re not up to vigorous exercise, you should know that nearly any type of movement has antidepressant effects. These activities could include, but not be limited to yoga, walking, swimming, bowling, hiking, or whatever you can do!
  8. Relationship Enhancement – As suggested by the opening quotation, the most potent medicine available for addressing depressive symptoms is a healthy and loving relationship. You can work on improving relationships in many ways, especially by developing effective communication skills, engaging in mutually enjoyable activities, and making a commitment to behaving in ways that support both your own mental health and that of your partner.
  9. Other Meaningful Activities – Never underestimate the healing power of meaningful activities. Activities could include (a) church or spiritual pursuits; (b) charity work; (c) animal caretaking (adopting a pet); and (d) other activities that might be personally meaningful to you.

 For information about this tip sheet, contact John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D. at johnsf44@gmail.com

26 Years with Rita

Today, on our 26th anniversary, we started with a run in Greenwich, CT, followed by massages in Eastchester, NY (thanks Chelsea!), and then found a fabulous Indian restaurant with a buffet lunch. It seemed only right to top all that off with a trip to the Goodwill, but somehow we ended up at the Goodwill store in the Bronx, which was a little frightening. . . if only for the traffic. I parked with one tire on the sidewalk while we scored a children’s book, a clear glass mug, and a 5 pound sweet potato from a street vendor. This particular day was a metaphor for the 26 years; no formal gifts purchased, but an entertaining and sometimes unpredictable adventure . . . which turns out to be the best gift of all.