Tag Teen

Why Do We Get So Defensive When Our Kids Complain About Us?

combative momWe parent-lunatics, as much as we are hard on ourselves about our parenting mistakes, can be remarkably defensive when our kids come to us with a complaint about the same. The purpose of this entry is to consider possible causes for this dynamic and to suggest some coping strategies.

Possible Causes

• We love our kids to a degree that is indescribable. I suspect there is part of us that believes that if they totally got this they’d cut us more slack. And, when they don’t, we imagine they are missing how much they mean to us.

• We bust our tails in service to our kids and we (perhaps unconsciously) believe that if they truly recognized that that they’d be more often keep their complaints to themselves. It’s almost like we voluntarily paved our driveway for a neighbor (and received only a brief “thanks” for the service). But then, when we walk on our neighbor’s lawn to retrieve a newspaper, get yelled at for damaging the grass. Yeah, we’ve committed an affront. But, the scolding seems to be missing the big picture!

• We often do better than was done for us by our parents. So, we want out kids working dadto say something like “Father, I so much appreciate that you had it tougher than me when you were growing up and are putting so much effort into rising above that and selflessly and graciously giving me a better childhood.” In these moments we forget that it’s more likely the family dog will sing the Star Spangled Banner.

• Our kids are WAY more self-entitled, irrational, ungrateful and unfair in their treatment of us than the other way around. So, when they come to us with their grievances we want to take out the scales of justice and do some objective analysis.

Coping Strategies

• The first thing is to give your child permission to complain and to express anger. This is not the same thing as allowing cursing or abusive language. But, creating a household where it’s safe to express such thoughts and feelings goes a long way to promoting your child’s long-term wellness and interpersonal skills.

blocking out stimuli• We all do well to remember that our children are exactly that: children. In other words, if your child’s brain was placed into a fully grown adult’s body, and a full battery of neuroimaging and neuropsychological were tests completed, the conclusion would likely be that brain damage exists.

• Sometimes when our self-care is out of balance it’s easy to look to our children to meet our needs. This leaves us vulnerable to overreacting to complaints (i.e., the outlet for my needs being met is being challenged). It’s probably better to make a plan to get some consistent “me” or “us” (i.e., parents) time.

• Taking a deep breath and keeping things in perspective is helpful. Research suggests that our kids make less out of our conflicts than we do. When our kids come to us with lamentations about our parenting we can be more devastated, and think there is something much more wrong, than our kids do.

• Use empathy as much as possible. Just letting your kid know that you dadandsonunderstand what he or she is thinking and feeling can be very helpful. And, to be empathic with a position is not the same as to agree with it. It just lets your child know that you’ve heard and understand him or her, and that means a lot.

• This is the hardest part, but agreeing with any good points that your kid makes is very important to do. This will make it more likely that he or she won’t lie to you (i.e., what’s the good of bringing arguments to the bench if one never wins), models effective conflict resolution skills and strengthens your bond.

• Oh, and it’s probably not a good idea to expect much gratitude as long as your child has brain damage (see above). I know that’s very, very difficult given how selfless and gruelingly difficult parenting can be. But, we can always hope that this will come later, maybe after were dead, but at some point 😉

I’ll conclude by noting that the more years I get under my belt as a parent the more I have an empathic joining with one aspect of grandparenting. I CAN’T WAIT to see my kids in my shoes and to then go home to my childless residence! What’s that line about he who laughs last??

Parents of Teens: Do You Actually Give People Your Home Phone #?!

This week my youngest turns 13, which now means that I live with 3.0 teenagers, and will do so until 8/14, at which point my eldest will go off to college.

In the spirit of that reality, I’m blogging today about the odds of getting an accurate message delivered to you, when a teenager has taken the message. As you examine the illustration below, please note that this is dependent on the caller having had the good sense to make sure that your teen wrote down the message. Without that, the numbers would be much lower 😉

teens and phone messages

10 Tips for Surviving Your Kid’s Graduation

Your kid’s graduation, be it from high school or college, is a major family event. This entry includes my top 10 suggestions for getting the most out of the experience.

#1 Determine a figure that you plan on spending and stick to it unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise. If there are other adults contributing it’s a good idea to partner with him, her or them in this decision. (If you don’t get along with the other person or persons arrange for a neutral party, that everyone trusts, to join the discussion.) It is so easy to spend an amount of money that is toxic for you, which is no favor to your graduate (i.e., in the months following the graduation she’ll benefit more from having a relationship with a well parent than from a stressed out parent). If your graduate gets pushy about celebrating his graduation in a way that exceeds your budget ask him what his plan is for coming up with the extra cash.

#2 Partner with your graduate in deciding how the money will be spent. For instance, your graduate may prioritize putting together a down payment on a car over having a party.

#3 Collaborate with your graduate on who will be invited to share in the celebration. You would want to have an important reason for overriding your graduate’s wishes along these lines.

#4 If you fund a party for your graduate’s friends make sure that it is chaperoned well enough to keep everyone safe and legal (e.g., not allowing underage drinking).

#5 Realize that celebrations hardly ever go off as planned. It is almost inevitable that one or more people, the weather, mechanical things, food or something else. will disappoint. Keep in mind that something like this is almost always bound to happen, that it is really only as hampering as you decides it needs to be and that what really matters is the graduation itself; such insights can keep a speed bump from causing a major crash.

#6 Include a present that has an emotional impact; this is the sort of gift that stands to keep on giving much longer than material presents. For instance, you might write a gratitude letter for your graduate (see my blog entry on this method), create a photo slideshow, with music, of your graduate from infancy up to the point of graduation, write a poem that expresses your thoughts and feelings about your graduate, and so forth. In getting in the mood for creating this gift imagine what it will feel like to watch your baby walk across that stage and take a diploma in hand.

#7 Assuming you are not hiring a professional for this purpose, ask a responsible friend or family member to do the picture taking and video recording. If you assign this task to yourself you will not only be in fewer of the images but you will be one step removed from taking part in the celebration.

#8 Respect the value of a good night’s sleep. While graduations are festive, they are also stressful. Stress plus a weary body can facilitate an assortment of unpleasant outcomes (e.g., irritability, compromised decision making, diminished concentration and impairing fatigue).

#9 Form a plan with your graduate, in advance, for how she will thank any who gave her presents or participated in the celebration (i.e., the method and the date by which it will be completed). This makes it less likely that you’ll be cast in the role of hound afterwards. (For less mature graduates you may need to form a contract stipulating that access to a privilege you provide–e.g., usage of a car–will only happen after the thank you cards are mailed.)

#10 Take at least a few moments to pat yourself on the back for all that you did to get your graduate to this place in life. Parenting is tough work that we all stink at it sometimes, but our efforts and intentions are selfless and beautiful and deserve to be recognized. In the instance of a graduation it is clear that your parenting was at least good enough to facilitate your kid successfully finishing a major educational hurdle. So, take an existential moment or two and enjoy that about yourself!

Ten Tips for When Your Teen Says, “I hate you!”

angry male hand upI remember when my eldest was in preschool and the delight we both took in being reunited at the end of each day. At the time I shared my bliss with a graduate student. This student, who had two teenagers, responded with “yeah, but wait ‘till she’s a teen.” I remember feeling nonplussed by that remark. While the available science and my clinical experience were both consistent with my grad student’s remark, I thought this would not happen to me…not only has it happened multiple times, but it has happened with both of my teenagers. And, my third child will hit adolescence in a few months, leaving me looking at want adds for oil rig work in the North Atlantic.

So, my fellow parent-lunatic, here are the things I try to do, at least when I’m acting with intention, when one of my teen says some version of “I hate you!”

Tip #1: Reflect on the resilience formula: crisis = pain + opportunity. You’re crisis opportunityfeeling the pain. Now, where is the opportunity? (My own experience is that the dosing of opportunity is usually higher than the dosing of the pain.)

Tip #2: Take a deep breath and keep things in perspective. This is a normative experience. (Those of you who have raised a teenager, and have not experienced this, should probably keep that to yourself, lest the rest of us kick you off the island!) Your teen’s brain is still developing, especially in regards to those parts that will end up defining his or her most mature self. Moreover, sometimes you hear this because you’re doing right by your teen (e.g., doing effective monitoring) and s/he will be grateful later (probably not until after your dead though).

Tip #3: Realize that yours and your teen’s experience of the conflict may be different. Research suggests that these sorts of conflicts bother we parent-lunatics more than they bother our kids. Ever have your teen go off on you and then act like zero happened a few hours later, or the next day? Our teens often look upon these conflicts as being less significant than we do.

Tip #4: Spend at least one hour a week each week doing special time. I’ve written extensively about this within this blwork-life balanceg and my parenting book. This is my top resilience promoting parenting strategy.

Tip #5: Use other wise parents as a sounding board. The three criteria I use for my sounding boards are: (a) the person is experienced and knowledgeable about the problem or issues at hand, (b) the person is willing to disagree with me and (c) the person feels kindly towards me. This discussion can help you to find your perspective and feel more confident about moving forward with your teen. Of course, if you can partner with your spouse all the better (my wife is my go-to gut check person in these instances).

Tip #6: Be selective about your psychological autopsies (i.e., following up later teen rolling eyeson what was said). A simple “I hate you!” Or, “you suck as a parent!” followed by the classic storm off and door slam, may not be worth following up on. Sometimes the gift we give our teen is allowing him or her to blow off steam without it ending up being a thing.

Tip #7: Wait until everyone’s brain is back online before doing a psychological autopsy. Sometimes your teen might say some things in the middle of one of these rants that is very hurtful or which gives you information you believe you need to follow up on. In these instances wait until you’re both calm and rested in order to proceed. This allows for everyone to have all IQ points on deck for what could be a difficult discussion.

Tip #8: When doing a psychological autopsy get your teen’s perspective first, and offer empathy (which can be done even when you disagree); stay there until your teen is vetted, unless you find yourself getting too upset (in which case you may want to stop and come back later). This can be gruelingly difficult to do, but not only will you be modeling an effective communication style, but you will be helping your teen to be more open to your perspective when it’s your turn to share.

child helpmeTip #9: Make sure this isn’t part of a larger problem. Is your teen making similar statements to teachers? Is your teen struggling in his/her social life? Are academics not going well? Does your teen routinely struggle when s/he is asked to do things s/he doesn’t feel like doing?  Is your teen’s mood often disturbed? Does your teen struggle in his/her extracurricular life? Are any of your teen’s regulatory habits disturbed (e.g., sleep)? If the answer to one or more of these questions is  “yes,” then the “I hate you” remarks may be a cry for help.

Tip #10 (readers of this blog can see this one coming a mile away): Err on the side of getting help sooner rather than later. Psychological problems are akin to medical problems in so many ways: they are nearly universal by the time a kid reaches adulthood (about 90%), most of the time they are treatable in a short period of time, they are easier to treat the earlier they are caught and, if they are left unchecked, can cause very stressful and costly consequences. However, unlike medical problems, only about 20% of youth who need evidence-based mental health care get it. Want to be among those parents who don’t make this error of omission? Just click here to get the ball rolling.

So, go forth in peace my fellow parent-lunatic. And, if you can remember exactly why we all signed up for this, would you email me? I’ve forgotten 😉

Seven Myths about ADHD

child trying to get through glassThere are three kinds of ADHD: a child has significant concentration problems but is not significantly hyperactive (ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type), vice versa (ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive/Impulsive Type) and both (ADHD, Combined Type). About 75% of kids with ADHD have ADHD, Combined Type while the large majority of the rest have the inattentive type.  Below are seven common myths about ADHD. Following those I list core guidelines for evaluation and treatment.

Myth: ADHD is not a real disorder. This is akin to saying that diabetes isn’t a real disorder or asthma isn’t a real disorder. To my knowledge, no reputable scientist or professional organization subscribes to this position. About four to six percent of youth suffer from this biological disorder. Studies of the brain indicate that these youth show poor functioning in the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and sustained attention to boring tasks.

Myth: ADHD, Combined Type can be caused by poor parenting or being upset male college studentraised in adverse circumstances. While significant attentional problems can be caused by an assortment of problems (e.g., trauma, depression, anxiety), the degree of sustained hyperactivity required to diagnose ADHD is usually not caused by environmental stresses (I say “generally” as even a broken clock is right twice a day, but I’ve never seen a case like this or read about a case like this). ADHD is a biological disorder caused by either genetic transmission (i.e., it runs in the family) or significant insult to the brain (e.g., mom smoking cigarettes during pregnancy).

Myth: ADHD is caused by what a child ingests. Certainly what a child eats could affect just about any condition. Moreover, correcting an unbalanced diet, or eliminating allergens or toxins, would be part of a helpful treatment plan for just about any disorder. However, nothing that youth put in their mouths has been established as a primary cause of ADHD.

girl paint all over herMyth: A positive response to medication treatment proves that a child has ADHD. Many children will experience improved concentration on low doses of stimulant medication, whether they have ADHD or not. Our culture is replete with examples of people, who do not have ADHD, using stimulants to accomplish some desired effect (e.g., pilots during the Korean war took dexedrine in order to be able to focus better during long bombing runs).

Myth: Youth suffering from ADHD, who are treated with stimulant medication, are at higher risk to develop substance abuse problems as a function of taking the medication. Actually, the exact opposite seems to be more likely: having ADHD, and not receiving effective treatment for it, seems to double to triple the odds of substance abuse in adolescence. Moreover, the number one cause of death and serious injury among teens and young adults are accidents and youth with untreated ADHD are at a much higher risk to experience those.

Myth: ADHD can be treated effectively by enhancing a child’s motivation. defiant boyAs I wear corrective lenses I use the following analogy with my clients: “if I told people I wasn’t willing to wear glasses but was interested in other treatments, they might try to make the light brighter for me, cheer me on, or suggest that I get closer to things I’m reading. However, nothing is going to help nearly as quickly and effectively as my just putting on my glasses. And, my not putting on my glasses could eventually make me think that my problem with reading is a problem with my effort. And, if I go there in my thinking, I’m probably going to make myself very, very upset and sick.”

Myth: People outgrow their ADHD. It is true that a small percentage of youth with ADHD reach the point that their symptoms are not significantly impairing in adulthood (these are usually the milder cases with multiple protective factors at play). So, in that case this myth has some truth to it.  However, testing on those individuals will usually document the lingering presence of the disorder; it’s just not causing impairment anymore, secondary to the protective factors and brain maturation.


Evaluation guidelines

Keep in mind that in order to qualify for an ADHD diagnosis a child must show unusual and impairing inattention (usually to tasks that bore him or her) or hyperactivity/impulsivity at both school and home for a period of at least six months. The common standard for “unusual” is the 93rd percentile (i.e, having the symptom worse than 92% of the youth’s peer group). Moreover, the onset of the first impairing symptom should be before the age of seven and no other viable theory can explain the symptoms that are being demonstrated (i.e., ADHD is a diagnosis by exclusion).

The methodology for determining the presence of the disorder is determined by a cost/benefit analysis. As I consider the myriad of factors at play, I’d suggest the following be the default standard for ADHD evaluations: a family interview, a child/teen interview, the completion of parent, teacher and child–if the child’s reading level is sufficient–behavior rating scales, a comprehensive review of school records and a review of any other relevant records. (The behavior rating scales should include broad-band measures that endeavor to assess for a spectrum of disorders as well as narrow-band measures that try to rule out ADHD specifically.) If one of these elements is missing, I’d worry about the increased odds of an inaccurate finding. If these sources of information leave the diagnosis in doubt, I’d suggest adding a computer based continuous performance test (e.g., the Test of the Variables of Attention). (There is a reasonable argument to be made for including a continuous performance test  in every evaluation for ADHD, so I wouldn’t differ with those clinicians who do.) In instances where a learning disability is suspected, additional cognitive and achievement testing would usually be in order.

anxious teen african-american

Treatment guidelines

The large majority of children with ADHD have at least one other co-occurring condition (e.g., Oppositional Defiant Disorder). The configuration of the co-occurring problems would normally have a substantive impact on an evidence-based treatment plan. However, for ADHD itself, medication is the primary treatment of choice (i.e., the scientific evidence supporting its efficacy is overwhelming). It is also very common to need behavioral treatments, at both school and at home, to augment the primary treatment. As a primary treatment, the following would typically not be indicated: dietary manipulations, chiropractic treatments, play therapy, art therapy, music therapy or basically any interventions that does not have a sound scientific foundation to support its usage as a first line intervention.

For more science-based information on ADHD, consider any of the following websites designed for lay people:

www.chadd.org, www.add.org or www.help4adhd.org

Also, on 12/4/12, from 1 to 2 PM EST, there will be a Twitter chat on ADHD. (I will be one of the panelists.) This will be hosted by Dr. Richard Besser, Chief Medical Editor for ABC news. Just go to #abcDrBchat at that time.

Teens Are Going to Have Sex and Drink, You Can’t Control That…Not!

National survey’s conducted by authoritative bodies have indicated that 40% of high school seniors report having drank alcohol in the past month (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2012) and that 47% of high school students state that they have had intercourse (Youth Risk Behavior Survey, CDC, 2012). The communality of these behaviors causes some parents to throw in the towel and declare that they can’t be stopped. However, it’s pretty clear that it’s ill advised for teens to use substances and have sex. (What sense does it make to throw a toxin at a brain that is still developing? What sense does it make to allow a teen to engage in the most intimate, and potentially risky, of interpersonal behaviors when that teen isn’t mature enough to live independently?)  As a clinician I see the havoc that can occur when teens have sex and use substances. So, for those of you who are prepared to fight this fight, here are some tips for keeping your teen safe:

#1: Carve out an hour of one-on-one time each week. An open channel of communication makes it more likely you’ll be in the loop. During this time all you should do is listen, affirm (legitimately and proportionally) and express positive sentiments. This free download explains the exercise, as does Chapter One of my parenting book, WPTF. You may also value reading Conversation Starters for You and Your Teenager.

#2: Be open to your teen changing your mind when he or she makes a good argument. Research suggests that teens are more likely to lie to their parents when they believe they can never win an argument, no matter how much they are in the right. I wouldn’t give in for the sake of giving in, but I would be open to being in the wrong and letting your teen know when he or she has made a good point.

#3: If your teen wants to do something, and you’re inclined to say “no,” ask yourself three questions. This thing your teen wants to do: is it physically dangerous? Is it psychologically damaging? Is it too expensive? If the answer to all three is “no” then I’d seriously rethink the “no” as promoting independent decision making is a very important parenting goal.

#4: Try to be the first one to discuss all sexual topics with your child. You don’t want the popular media, other kids or other adults to be the ones to define a certain topic as they may not share your values. This means staying ahead of the curve and starting sex education early. By the way, I wish all teens would read Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs, if only the first chapter on herpes.

#5: I would want to have four questions answered to my satisfaction before my teen leaves my eye-line outside of school: Where are you going? What are you going to be doing? Who are you going to be doing it with? What adult is responsible for monitoring (which can be at a distance, if appropriate)? Judge Judy has a tagline regarding teenagers. She asks, “How do you know when a teen is lying?” Her answer, “When their lips move.” While I doubt Judge Judy means that literally, her point is well made. I’m also becoming increasingly favorable towards technologies that allow parents to track where their teens’ cell phones are. Finally, keep in mind that you are trying to create in your teen’s mind that he or she should think six times about doing something risky because you’re apt to find out.

#6 Maintain open lines of communication with the parents of your teens’ friends. For instance, I know one mom who organized a monthly breakfast where experiences could be shared. And, I wouldn’t let my teen go over another teen’s home unless I felt confident that the adults who lived there shared my ideas about monitoring. (You wouldn’t believe the stories my teen clients tell me about the things they do in homes where adults are present.)

#7: Support the pursuit of your teen’s competencies. Bottom line: a teen who is on display for his or her competencies is less inclined to engage in risky behaviors, has less free time to do so and is associating with teens who are in the same competency boat. (I cover strategies for pursuing this in WPTF.)

#8: Pursue rituals. The bottom line: rituals are a protective shield against life’s slings and arrows. Adaptive rituals also leave less time available for risky behaviors. Two rituals that rock, in terms of being correlated with a plethora of positive outcomes for teens, are family meals and practicing a religion. (See WPTF for more.)

#9: Talk about and model healthy behaviors. Of course, it is way better to be a hypocrite and expect healthy behaviors even when not modeling them, than to throw in the towel.  But, it’s a more effective sell if you walk the talk.

In closing keep in mind that it’s your teen’s job to rail against your efforts (i.e., to promote his or her independence). That’s healthy. Indeed, I might worry a little about a teen who doesn’t push back. They’ll thank you later, though probably not until after you’re dead ;-).

What To Do When a Crush Dumps Your Teen

We engaged parents feel like we can be no happier than our least happy child. When our kids hurt, it seems like we hurt worse. Our love is a crazy, over-the-top kind of love that makes us lunatics sometimes. While there are probably important evolutionary benefits to our experiencing love to this degree (i.e., upon reflection of the reality in which we find ourselves as a parent, we might otherwise leave our kids at the hospital ;-), there are also disadvantages, unless we are careful. One such situation is when our kids are hurting. Because of the depth of our love we sometimes try to rush in and make the pain go away in ways that either deprive our kids of important outcomes or damage our relationship with them (e.g., see my entry Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood). This entry is designed to help you to avoid both of the latter when your teenager gets dumped by a significant other.

Tip #1: Limit your first response to listening with empathy. This is the hardest part, listening without trying to make your teen’s pain go away. To be subject to a one-way dumping hurts a lot, especially if it is unexpected, the attachment was a strong one or the relationship was your teen’s first significant romance. As you hear the story you can make empathic comments: “That’s terrible.” “You must feel like your guts are being ripped out.” “I’m so sorry that she is being so unfair.” “It must really hurt that he cheated on you.” Being empathically present as your teen cries and laments, without trying to make the pain go away, is a major gift. It may not feel like it at the time, but it is. (This is often confirmed later by your teen’s expressions of gratitude or by him or her opening up to more to you.)

Tip #2: Try to help your teen get clarity about what he or she wants to do but avoid sounding like your trying to get him or her to do this or that, with one exception. Of course, you will have opinions about best next steps. But, you want your teen to learn to thinks these things through for himself or herself now, when under your care and the stakes are lower (though important), than later, when living on his or her own and the stakes are higher (e.g., should I marry this person?). Maybe the relationship is salvageable, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s best to make a closing statement to the other person, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s best to seek out an explanation from the other person, maybe it isn’t. You can serve as a sounding board, exploring pros and cons of each choice–including pointing out risks and benefits that your teen might be missing–until clarity descends. The only time it’s usually advisable to give firm but kind directives would be in situations when your teen wants to do something that could be dangerous (e.g., going to the other person’s house at 1 AM in the morning), psychologically damaging (e.g., arranging to declare love over the loudspeaker at school) or unduly expensive (e.g., purchasing an expensive piece of jewelry). Otherwise, it’s usually best to encourage your teen to make his or her own call, even when you might wish for a different choice; in the latter scenarios I’d even say something like “Brandon, that probably would not be the way I’d do it in your shoes, but I think it’s more important that you do the thing that you think is best because you’ll be the one experiencing the consequences. Plus, who knows, I’m just an old fart and you could be right.”

Tip #3: Educate, but only once your teen’s thoughts and feelings have been vetted. Let your teen know that it may take a while to get fully over the pain (e.g., going through the holidays and changes in the seasons will bring up painful memories of closeness with the other person) and that this is okay, it is to be expected and it will pass with time. This is a wonderful time to share your stories along these lines. (Crisis = pain + opportunity. The pain you experienced from being dumped can now be an opportunity in your relationship with your teen.)

Tip #4: Help your teen to focus on maintaining good regiments for diet, sleep and physical activity. Getting dumped can cause the behaviors that support these foundations of your teen’s wellness to go into the tank. So, cheerfully supporting each of these can be very helpful. (See other blog entries for tips on maintaining each of these.)

Tip #5: Encourage pleasurable activities. Such a loss is like being in a sea of pain. Experiences of pleasure, even if muted, can be like a raft while on that sea. Try not to show frustration if your teen rejects many of your offerings but keep them coming at a pace that works for your relationship (i.e., not too often, not too infrequently but just right).

Tip #6: Encourage safe social contact. Your teen may feel like he or she is in an abyss. While that sucks it’s a better to be in the abyss with company than alone. But, the company needs to be patient, understanding and disinclined to be scornful of melancholy. Initially this contact may be best accomplished with family and close, mature friends.

Tip #7: Seek our professional help if your teen is experiencing significant impairment accomplishing primary responsibilities (e.g., academic work), is showing a serious symptom (e.g., wishing God would strike her dead), or has mild to moderate symptoms that aren’t getting better after a couple of weeks (e.g., insomnia). If you’re in doubt, go. And, don’t wait for your teen to agree. (I tell parents “it’s your job to get him into my office. It’s my job to deal with him not wanting to be there.”) For a referral, click here.

Neurotic Parental Guilt

As a child psychologist, dad and friend of many parents, I’ve noted that neurotic guilt is common among we parents. Sometimes these feelings are mere flashes while at other times they are thematic. Of course there are situations in which experiences of guilt are not neurotic as they are helpful (e.g., situations where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child and the guilt feelings motivate change). But, here I’m thinking of instances when we engage excessive self-reproach for having human limitations or for having normative human experiences. In this entry I’ll first describe some common scenarios that evoke such quilt and then suggest seven strategies for coping with it.

The first common scenario is when there is a separation at hand:

• A child leaves for college, especially if the child leaving is the first born. (Many parents report feeling shocked at how quickly this day has arrived.)

• A parent departs for an extended period of time. This commonly happens when mom or dad serves in the military, but there are many examples of it in our run-and-gun culture (e.g., as a phase of relocating to another part of the country).

• A parent is on his or her death bed.

In these and other related situations we can be swept away with thoughts that we did not get the most out of our time with our child. We can mercilessly beat ourselves up with thoughts that we should have spent more one-on-one time, done more shared activities, communicated our love more effectively or just been a better parent. A famous quote by Kahil Gibran comes to mind “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

The second common scenario is after some positively anticipated event or period of time is over such as:

• A vacation is finished.

• A holiday period is concluded.

• A weekend is over. (I wonder what percentage of neurotic parent guilt happens on Sunday nights.)

In these and related scenarios I might kick myself for moments of conflict, boredom or disengagement. I so much looked forward to having a joyful or meaningful experience with my child. And, when reality almost inevitably falls short of my high expectations–what I refer to as the “Clark Griswold Syndrome”–I kick myself with self-reproach and feelings of guilt.

I believe at the root of neurotic parental guilt is the overwhelming and gut wrenching love that we have for our kids. It is so encapsulating and powerful, that it makes us lunatics much of the time. So, my fellow lunatic, let me suggest some antidotes for this neurotic guilt:

Strategy #1: Use what we psychologists call “coping thoughts.” Coping thoughts are true thoughts that provide comfort. Wearing a pair of jeans that are so tight that they hurt serves no purpose. So, sane people swap them out. This type of neurotic guilt serves no purpose, so we do well to swap it out. Here are some coping thoughts to try on for size:

√ “Everyone has moments of stupidity, impatience and frailty. There is no escaping my humanity.”

√ “I love my kid more than my life. It isn’t possible to love someone more than that.”

√ “I do (have done) all kinds of things for my kid such as….”

√ “Conflict and disengagement are woven into the fabric of human interactions. There is no being together, for any extended period of time, without them.”

√ “Life is not a fairy tale, it’s better. But, that comes with mess for everyone.”

Strategy #2: Imagine you are in the future and your child is a parent. He or she is now coming to you for help with the exact same type of guilt you are now experiencing. What advice would you offer your future child? If your like most, this can lead you to a more wise and kind stance with yourself. (This is also one way to get in touch with what I have referred to as your “wells of wisdom.”)

Strategy #3: If your child is still living with you, or lives close to you. Try hard to do at least one hour of “special time” each week. If you do this exercise consistently you are taking a mighty step towards promoting an effective relationship with your child. (Special time is different from quality time. To learn more about how to do it see Chapter One in my parenting book, or download this article that I wrote.)

Strategy #4: Write a gratitude letter for your child. Click here for a blog entry on the specifics of this method. This can be a most profound human experience. (Be careful not to expect reciprocation though. It’s wonderful if a letter comes back at you later, but no one is served if you experience resentment secondary to a frustrated expectation.)

Strategy #5: Apologize for any real mistakes that you made and, if it’s a pattern, try to both understand the underlying cause(s) and take steps to either improve or resolve the situation. Steps for improving could include such things as spiritual direction, psychotherapy, improving health habits and enhancing your self-care (i.e., parenting from the cross is rarely effective), and I speak as someone who has taken abundant advantage of each of these self-improvement measures.

Strategy #6: A more elaborate version of the coping thought strategy would be to make a list of your parenting strengths and successes. This could be a one-and-done exercise or a weekly effort. It is a list of things you have done, or do, well as a parent. It can also include evidence of good outcomes that your child experiences or has experienced.

Strategy #7: Get helpful feedback. My personal criteria for such a consultant is that (a) he or she is wise about parenting (i.e., by experience, by training or both), (b) he or she cares about me and (c) he or she is as likely to agree as to disagree with me (i.e., someone who is only going to agree with me is of little use for this service).

In closing, and to beat one of my most treasured and favorite drums, if you think you could benefit from speaking with a good child psychologist, pick up the phone! 😉

Video Games: Good or Evil?

There are many statements floating around out there about video games that suggest they should be either vilified or, less commonly, celebrated. “Video games are purported to…

…wreck your kid’s ability to pay attention.”

…make your kid violent.”

…take care of  your kids needs for physical activity, at least if he or she uses systems like Wii or Xbox Connect.”

“…promote addictive behaviors.”

“….offer a solution to social anxiety.”

In this column I’d like to make eight suggestions about video games that will respond to these and other concerns.

#1 Limit your kids total access to sedentary electronic pleasures to two hours a day. This is the sound counsel of authoritative bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. If your kid is spending more time than this he or she is likely missing out on other important activities such as physical activity, doing homework and socializing face-to-face. Actually, if you are mostly hitting your stride as a family you may find that your kids don’t have more than two hours a day free anyway.

#2 Take the ratings seriously but also realize that they can, for any given game, not be a fit for your child. (I find some parents are surprised by just how graphic and adult-themed video games marketed for kids and teens can be.). If my kid is exposed to material that he or she is not developmentally ready for, symptoms can emerge (e.g., becoming aggressive, having a difficult time sleeping).  There are also parent advisory websites you can review content in the games. Click here for one such example.

#3 Watching your kid playing acceptable video games, and commenting on his or her skill as well as how much you enjoy spending time together, can be a useful way to spend special time. (Readers of this blog, and my parenting book, know about my recommendation to spend one hour a week, with each kid, one-on-one, doing special time.)

#4 If you’ve been reading this blog and/or my book, you know that another activity commonly recommended by authoritative bodies is for each child to sweat and breathe hard for 60 minutes a day. Video game playing activity counts towards this only if your child is actually sweating and breathing hard. If he or she can’t carry on a normal conversation and sweat is changing the color of his or her shirt, you’re good. Otherwise, it doesn’t count.

#5 Many gaming systems, and their attached games, provide online access. Imagine the following scenario. You sign your kid up for a martial arts class at your local Y, a class which encourages participants to interact and get to know each other. In the class are other kids like your kid. But there is also a 44 year old divorced man who is sexually frustrated and medicating his pain with alcohol, a 25 year-old man who is struggling to control his urges to sexually assault children and a woman who medicates her severe anxiety by chain smoking marijuana. How okay would that be? Point made? For an article on some specific suggestions to promote monitoring of your child’s or teen’s online life, click here.

#6 Keep an eye on how your kids’ video gaming impacts him or her. You are the world’s leading expert on your kid. Use that expertise to gauge how a given video game is affecting him or her, if at all. For instance, I once knew a kid in elementary school who started playing a couple hours of an E rated game each week. At the same time he started becoming aggressive at recess. His parents made the connection and took steps to resolve the situation (a straight-forward banning of the game wasn’t indicated. I describe this case in my parenting book in the chapter on monitoring).

#7 Many parents ask, “should I let my kid have a video game system in his or her bedroom?” Until I see a well-controlled research study that investigates this with a sample that is large enough to allow for broad generalizations, it’s hard for me to feel strongly either way. But, my intuition, is that if you follow all the other guidelines in this blog entry, and your kid is generally doing well in life, it’s probably okay. But, I wouldn’t hook up access to television programing as there are too many ways that could be problematic (e.g., becoming too withdrawn from family life, putting it on when he or she should be sleeping). Also, keep in mind that if having a video game system in the room proves to be problematic, it doesn’t take an act of congress to undue it 😉

#8 What are the signs that the video gaming is becoming, or has become, problematic? The easiest sign is that your child is acting like he is crack dependent and the game playing is the crack. If this is the case, see this blog entry that breaks down how to deal with this kind of scenario. Otherwise, the gaming is problematic if it is interfering with any other important developmental tasks or if it is associated with symptoms. If in doubt, I’d recommend seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional. For a referral click here.

Helping Your Teen Overcome Anxiety About Dating

While many of us would just as soon not have our teen date, thank you very much, we know that overcoming fear and apprehension about such is an important developmental hurdle. This entry, my 75th to date, reviews seven tips for you to share with your teen and four tips for you.

Tips for you to share with your teen:

Tip #1: Normalize your teen’s anxiety. Many teens think that other people find this to be much easier than they do; moreover, the sexes are notorious for thinking that the other sex doesn’t freak out as much about this stuff. But you and I know that most people can relate to the sense of dread and anxiety that most experience when first starting to date (e.g., dialing six digits of your crush’s phone number and hanging up, about 25 or so times, because you couldn’t dial that fateful seventh number). Tell your stories, especially if they are funny, as in comedy = pain + time. (Click on the following link for an example of a funny story I tell about my own dating experiences in order to help nervous teens: Using Our Screw Ups To Help Our Kids)

Tip #2: Teach the art of the flirt. That is, give your teen some tips on how to engage in risk-free explorations of the other person’s interest. There are so many ways to do this, and I’m sure you have your own strategies. But, here are some:

√ Create a pretense to call the person (e.g., information about an upcoming test, confirmation of the location of an upcoming event) and see if the person seems happy to be talking on the phone. If your teen is open to it, offer a role play.

√ Friend the person on Facebook (or follow on Twitter, or engage on Tumblr, etc) and see how receptive he/she is to the chit-chat. A nice opening line can be a compliment.

√Ask the person if he or she would like to share some non-dating experience such as lunch at school or studying at the library. Or your teen could offer that he or she has no taste in clothes and could the other person–whom your teen offers has amazing taste–meet him or her at the mall and help his or her sorry self pick out a piece of clothing or two. The same strategy could be employed in picking out a piece of sports equipment.

Tip #3: Teach your kid that you can’t have fun without diving in. Said more like a psychologist: the only effective way to deal with developmentally appropriate fears is to confront them and that avoiding them only makes them stronger. I elaborate on this theme in this blog entry: My Child Gets Afraid A Lot. what Can I Do? And, make sure your teen understands that electronic asks (e.g., texts, Facebooking) are wimpy and often reflect poorly on the asker.

Tip #4: Teach your child that a “no” ain’t no thing. Actually, when I’m working with a teen or adult who is afraid of the ask, I’ll say something like “Bryon, I really hope that Morgan says ‘yes’ when you ask her out. But, for the sake of our work, it’d be better if she, and the next bunch of girls you ask out, would all say ‘no’ because this would increase the chance that you’d figure out that it ‘ain’t no thing’ to get rejected as there are a nearly limitless supply of girls lined up right behind those guys.”

Tip #5: Encourage your child to not try to be anyone other than who he or she is. I suggest to teens that getting someone to like them based on false information is a complete waste of everyone’s time and effort and will very rarely work out (even a broken clock is right twice a day, but the odds of success are very low).

Tip #6: Give your child some tips for the date itself. If your child gets a “yes” response, he or she can become even more freaked out. But, there are lots of ways to create a less stressful date. First, going in a group can cut down on stress. Next, going to an event or movie requires less interaction, and so can be less intimidating (a strategy I often employed when first dating female creatures). It can also be helpful for your teen to prepare a list of conversation starters (e.g., top five favorite movies, recording artists, vacations experienced, things to spend money on in the case of winning the Powerball, places to visit in the world).

Tip #7: Teach some tips for reassuring and impressing the other teen’s parent-lunatics. The stuff that impresses you, would probably impress them. And, if those parents are involved in any administrative aspects of the date, it’s good for someone from your camp to confirm that their camp is situated well for that role (see the blog entry I mentioned below on monitoring).

Four additional tips for you:

Tip #1: Make sure your teen’s sex education is up-to-date. For example, I really like the book Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs by family practitioner and friend Jill Grimes, M.D. This book does does a super job of educating teens about STDs. Actually, I wish every teen (and adult) would read Chapter One, on herpes (I made sure my teens did as soon as I read it).

Tip #2: Make sure your teen is sufficiently monitored. This blog entry elaborates on what that means: Recent Research: Teens Need Parents to Monitor Them.

Tip #3: Let your teen know that you’re interested in discussing any aspect of any of this but take “no” for an answer and don’t pry (after you’ve established that the monitoring is sufficient that is).

Tip #4: When your teen is interested in talking, try to drop what you’re doing to listen. Teens are like windows that are only intermittently open, and usually not on your schedule. So, when they are open, try to take advantage; those interactions will likely end up mattering more to you, when you are later reflecting back on the meaning of your life, than whatever it was you were doing when your teen approached you.

Tip #5: If your teen’s anxiety about all of this proves to be overwhelming, seek out a mental health professional who can offer him or her cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is usually the indicated psychotherapy for overcoming this problem. For a list of potential treatment providers, click here.

In closing let me offer that one major topic that I’m not taking on here, but will subsequently address, is how to handle situations in which your teen has a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered orientation or if he or she is unsure about all of that. Stay tuned.

By the way, I asked my 15 year old son Gannon to read this entry for edits. Besides asking, “why do we need to be monitored?!” and laughing again at the humiliation I experienced on my first date (referenced in the link above), he said, and this is as good as it gets: “I think it’s good.”

Good luck!

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