The Last Word on the Last Word

I like to have the Last Word. Who doesn’t, right? In many of my roles, I usually get to have the Last Word: as a professor in a graduate program, as an owner of a private practice, and certainly as a blogger. Long ago, however, I figured out that, as a parent, I am much better off letting go of my attachment to the Last Word.

When my own children were tweens, I watched the father of a similarly aged client manage an argument in my office masterfully. The conflict had something to do with money, the mall, and adult supervision. It was early in my work with Christie, and as I often do when I am just getting to know a family, I asked them to discuss a recent problem so that I could watch their interaction. The argument went on for a few minutes. There were several heated exchanges. Christie rolled her eyes a lot and cried and threw around words such as “trust” and “overprotective.” Mom raised her voice and spat out words like “spoiled” and “ungrateful.” Dad didn’t say much initially, but after several unpleasant interchanges between his wife and daughter, he summed up most of what had been said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone of voice. Then, with the skill of none other than the Buddha himself, he brought the argument to a close by saying,

Christie, I know you like to have the last word, so why don’t you finish this up? – Dad, 40-something

To which, Christie replied,

Whatever. – Christie, age 12

And then, the most miraculous thing happened: everyone stopped talking. Just like that. It took me a moment to process what had happened; Dad had offered his daughter the Last Word, she had accepted the offer, and then, that was that. The argument was over.

Looking back on this interaction, I am still somewhat in awe of Dad’s zen-like way of being in the midst of family conflict. I have not achieved this level of skill nor do I expect the families I see for therapy to do so. Still, I learned something very powerful from that father, and I have shared it many times over in the past several years. Here’s what I learned:

No matter how much a parent likes to have the Last Word, it is ten-fold more important to a child or adolescent. There is nothing to be gained by a parent who relentlessly pursues the Last Word. A child is likely to pursue it even further.

If we think about what is going on developmentally for our children at the age of 12, or 16, or even 3 for that matter, it makes sense that the Last Word would be of utmost importance to them. They are trying to establish separateness and independence from their parents. They need to demonstrate, over and over (and over and over and over), that they think their own thoughts, form their own opinions, and govern their own behavior. It goes against this developmental momentum for a child simply to acquiesce to parents in the face of conflict.

For parents, giving up the Last Word does not mean relinquishing authority. In the example above, Mom and Dad were annoyed that Christie had not complied with limits they had set about a trip to the mall. By allowing their daughter to have the Last Word, they had given up nothing. They had not bestowed upon her complete freedom to do whatever she wishes at the mall. They had not retracted the stern messages they (mostly Mom) had given her about her noncompliance. They had simply allowed Christie to speak last. Really. That’s it.

Sometimes, a child’s Last Word may feel disrespectful to parents, even more so than Christie’s “whatever.” If Christie had used her Last Word to speak disrespectfully by saying, for example, “You guys are ridiculous,” it would still make most sense in the moment to let it go. There will always be future opportunities to address such behavior. At the end of a disagreement, getting caught up in a disrespectful comment would take the focus away from the issue at hand, in this case not complying with limits. Parents can only deal effectively with one problem at a time. Much more than that and kids check out completely.

This dad’s way of relinquishing the Last Word is just one way, albeit a highly skilled one. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Thanks for hearing me out. Anything you want to add?
  • Final thoughts on the matter?
  • Before I go mow the lawn, anything more you want to say?

Try letting go of your attachment to the Last Word with your own kids. Notice how this strategy changes the way disagreements play out. Notice in particular how everyone feels when arguments end. If you like what you see unfold, and especially if you don’t, let me know in a comment. I really don’t have to have the Last Word.

For more on managing parent-child conflict effectively, see Redefining Winning.

[Names and other potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

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Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Questioning vs. Criticizing

In early May, I put out a request on Facebook to grandmothers and grandfathers. I asked for suggestions for a post that would be of interest to them in their role as grandparents. I received eight suggestions. One was about the impact of organized sports on family time; that suggestion resulted in a post titled Balls and Baked Ziti. The other seven suggestions, all from grandmothers who have sons, were about navigating relationships with daughters-in-law. Here is what one grandmother offered:

The hardest part for me is that you have to watch your own child make the inevitable mistakes that we all make as parents, knowing that your grandchild/ren will be the ones to suffer. I don’t want my son and daughter-in-law to think I’m judging them or criticizing them at all, so I step back completely–but I still worry that my life experience as a parent tells me that many of the things they’re doing could create real problems for their child later. I feel helpless to stop the process. So…I just try to let all of that go and just enjoy the amazing little human being that they have created and love every minute I get with him! – Elyce, somewhere north of 55 years old

Full disclosure, I do not consider myself an expert on grandparenting. Further, I was blessed with a mother-in-law who was very respectful of boundaries. While I am certain she had opinions about the ways that her son and I raise our children, she passed away without a word to me on the topic. My own mother has never held back an opinion, but she has been overwhelmingly supportive of our child-rearing practices. Given all of this, I had to think about this question from a very broad perspective. I had to apply what I know about family dynamics in general to this particular type of relationship.

Somewhere along the way, I learned the concept of listening to learn versus listening to argue. This is a really useful concept in family therapy; I invoke it often to help family members understand that listening isn’t really useful unless they are open to learning something new or to changing their opinions.

I think a similar distinction can be made about questions; one can ask a question to gain understanding or one can ask a question to express an opinion. As is always the case with interpersonal communication, the true intent of a question cannot be surmised simply from the words. One must also pay attention to body language (such as crossed arms or rolling eyes) as well as tone (such as sarcastic or exasperated), volume, and other nonverbal qualities of speech. A question such as “Why do you tie her shoes for her?” can be asked as a genuine question or it can carry implied disapproval.

Elyce is a wise and kind woman who knows a great deal about mothering as well as child development. I hate the thought that all of her great wisdom is silenced by her concern that she will offend her son or daughter-in-law. Still, Elyce’s way of parenting is only one way; it is very possible that two great parents could approach a parenting issue from two entirely different ways of thinking and both be doing a great job. And since none of us is a perfect parent, it is safe to say that Elyce made mistakes, perhaps very different ones from the ones being made by her grandson’s parents. Just as her son has grown into a fine young man in part because of all the great parenting she did and in spite of the parenting gaffs she made, Elyce can trust in the resilience of her grandson. He can still grow into a fine young man, just like his father.

As with many aspects of interpersonal relationships, asking questions in a way that conveys genuine interest in hearing another’s perspective is a nuanced proposition. Print is a difficult way to capture the nuance since so much meaning is conveyed non-verbally. Imagine the following scenarios. Then read the questions in italics at the end of each scenario. Think about how the speaker might ask the question in a way that communicates openness and respect rather than criticism.

Grandma has been staying with her son and daughter-in-law following the birth of their 3rd child. The plan is that she will stay for a month to help around the house, to prepare meals, and to transport the older children to and from school and activities. All has gone smoothly, and Grandma is very impressed with the couple’s parenting practices overall. She believes her grandchildren are happy and well-adjusted. The only struggle she has faced during the first week is that the parents allow the children to watch television while eating breakfast on school mornings. This is not a problem for Grandma’s 11-year-old granddaughter who leaves the table as soon as she is finished eating to go and primp, but Grandma has been struggling to get her 7-year-old grandson to leave the table and finish getting ready for school. She says to her daughter-in-law, “I’m having a little trouble getting Declan ready for school on time. Any suggestions for getting him to turn off the television?” [Imagine how different an impact the following question, which clearly expresses an opinion, would have: “Do you really think it’s a good idea for the kids to watch television on school mornings?”]

Papa is concerned that his daughter and son-in-law are overly solicitous with their 6-year-old daughter. He sees them preparing special meals for her because she is a fussy eater, allowing her to stay up past her bedtime if she claims she’s not tired, and driving her to school if she doesn’t feel like taking the bus. He is understandably concerned that she is becoming spoiled. One morning when Papa arrives to take his granddaughter to the park, he finds his daughter dressing Deirdre while the little girl lies limply on her bed and whines about being too tired to dress herself. He asks his daughter, “What do you think would happen if we give Deirdre some time to wake up and dress herself? We could wait downstairs.”  [Imagine how different an impact the following question would have: “Why are you dressing her when she is perfectly capable of dressing herself?”]

In both instances, the grandparents have reasonable grounds to be concerned and are careful to ask open questions which defer to the parents’ expertise on their child(ren). Any suggestions… and What do you think would happen if… are great ways to phrase questions because they communicate a desire to gain understanding. What if allowing Declan to watch television over breakfast is the only effective way his parents have figured out to get him out of bed and dressed in a timely manner? What if Deirdre’s mother knew that the best way to deal with her refusal to get dressed was to ignore it, but Mom didn’t want to inconvenience her father by making him wait for Deirdre to cooperate?

If even open, deferential questions still feel risky, then it might be a good idea to seek “permission” to ask about or comment on something you have noticed. For example, Grandma might say to her daughter-in-law, “I’m curious about the routine on school mornings. Is it okay if I ask you something?” Once given permission to do so, she could ask, “How do you get Declan to turn off the television and finish getting ready? I’ve been struggling with that.” Papa could say, “May I make a suggestion?” Given the go-ahead, he could add, “What don’t we go downstairs and give Deirdre some time to wake up and get dressed so I can take her to the park?”

If these strategies don’t work and open, carefully couched questions still elicit negative responses, it is probably best not to voice parenting concerns in the future. In therapy, I often talk about how one’s relationship with a child (even an adult child) is more important than almost everything else (see Safety, Relationship, Everything Else). Questioning your son’s approach to parenting is not worth jeopardizing your relationship with him. If your daughter and her partner are actually handling a parenting situation in a way that creates problems down the road, you increase the likelihood that she will come to you for advice when that happens by 1. avoiding critical comments, 2. respecting her expertise about her own child(ren), and 3. valuing your relationship with her above having your say about her child-rearing. Rather than risk straining the relationship, take a deep breath, trust in the power of development and resilience, and as Elyse does, just enjoy the amazing little human beings and love every minute you get with them!

[Names and other identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

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The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership

You may have noticed that I have not posted anything new in several weeks. There are two reasons for this. First, I have been deeply immersed in creative writing over the summer due to the slower pace, visits to places that inspire me, and participating in a writers’ group for the past six months. The second reason is that no topics for blogging have emerged from my clinical work recently. Until now.

Last week, I spent a lot of time talking to kids about two different topics. With those lucky enough to start school after Labor Day, I spent time talking about their hopes and worries for the new school year. With those who already had several days of school under their belts, I asked about their schedules, their classes, their peers, and their teachers.

Ten year old Hatsu, a lovely and very bright girl I have enjoyed watching grow up for the past couple of years, provided me with today’s quote and inspiration. Hatsu attends a small independent school that practices “looping” in the lower grades. Looping simply means that the teacher moves up with the students, sometimes through all of the grades and sometimes just for one or two. Hatsu is a new 5th grader and has Mrs. L. as her teacher for the second consecutive year. I know that she did not have a great 4th grade experience due to a less-than-ideal match between teacher and learner. Mrs L. is somewhat “old school,” giving a lot of not-very-interesting homework and frequent tests that require a lot of memorization. She has high standards for classroom behavior and is a tough grader. While Hatsu is a gifted student, she is also very much a free spirit who loves to put her own creative spin on her assigned work. Mrs. L. did not always appreciate Hatsu’s flair, and Mrs. L.’s displeasure was often reflected in Hatsu’s grades.

When I asked Hatsu how she was feeling about the start of 5th grade, she sighed dramatically and told me that she was expecting it to be a “very terrible year.” When I asked why, she mentioned several disappointments, including a close friend leaving her school and not getting her first instrument choice for the 5th grade ensemble. And then she added,

I have no respect for Mrs. L. and neither do my parents. – Hatsu, age 10

Full disclosure: my children have been blessed with a long, unbroken line of great teachers. I have never been in the position, as a parent, where I could not respect a teacher. I can remember clearly as a student, however, complaining to my parents about a couple of teachers who were really, truly terrible, (see Dealing with a Difficult Teacher for more on this) one in 4th grade (this one believed that if a handful of kids misbehaved, then the whole class should be punished; she also made it clear that she thought boys were poor students and trouble-makers) and one in 10th (this one taught History and made outrageous statements about People of Color, “Yankees,” and other groups, such as wealthy families, that she did not respect). At the time, my parents responded in what felt like very unsupportive ways. They would say things like

  • You don’t have to like her or agree with her, but you do have to treat her with respect.
  • She’s the teacher; you are going to have to find a way to deal with her.
  • The best revenge is to do excellent work.

Now that I am old and “wise,” I completely understand why my parents responded in the ways that they did and why their responses were really on point.

  • There are at least two points of view in every teacher-student relationship, and parents typically hear a very one-sided version of events. It is naive to assume that a child can provide an unbiased account, even if the child makes a sincere effort to do so. What if, for example, Mrs. L. said “For this essay, it is very important that you follow the outline in the handout. This is the format the middle school teachers prefer, and I want you to be ready next year.” Hatsu might have heard this as, “There is no room for creativity in this essay. Just stick to the outline.” Those are very different messages.
  • School is about much more than developing academic skills and learning factual information; it is just as much about social and emotional development. Children dealing with difficult teachers (or teachers who are just not a good match for them) have the essential opportunity to practice important skills such as getting along with people they don’t enjoy, following rules they may not agree with, and finding their voices within others’ constraints.
  • Teachers who feel like “poor matches” may be the ones who teach exactly what a student needs. For example, Hatsu naturally excels at the creative aspects of projects, but she is a relatively weaker writer. She is great at coming up with ideas but has a harder time organizing them on paper. She has a keen understanding of math concepts, but tends to make careless errors because she doesn’t attend closely to details. Mrs. L. feels like a poor match to Hatsu when, in fact, she may be the exact right teacher for her at this moment in time.

After Hatsu and I wrapped up our discussion about school, which focused mostly on being open-minded and taking some responsibility for making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, I asked her to wait in the waiting room so that I could speak to her mother alone. Mom was a little put off when I asked about her conversations with Hatsu about Mrs. L. In fact, at one point, she stated emphatically, “I’m not going to pretend to like someone that I don’t.” I confirmed that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the entire year, no matter how unhappy the family is about this. Then, I asked Mom to think about the following question: Given that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the next 9 1/2 months, what is there to gain by feeding into Hatsu’s dislike and disrespect for her teacher?”

Mom was ready with a retort. She argued that joining with her daughter helps Hatsu feel supported. She believes that any attempt to challenge Hatsu’s perspective will leave her feeling unheard. I encouraged Mom to consider a middle ground that might sound something like this:

I understand that Mrs. L. is not your favorite kind of teacher and that you wish you had a teacher who is more fun and creative. Still, she has been teaching for many years and I trust that she wouldn’t be teaching at your school for so long if she weren’t good at her job. Let’s think together about what you might do to have a better year with Mrs. L. Any effort you make to improve your relationship with her will help make it a more enjoyable year for you.

I brought Hatsu back into the office and modeled what Mom could say. Not surprisingly, Hatsu came up with two excellent ideas immediately. She suggested that she could meet all Mrs. L.’s requirements for assignments and then add extra creative touches. She also suggested that she continue to pursue her creative interests during her free time. I am confident that there are many other ways that Hatsu can have a great year in 5th grade even if she doesn’t have her ideal teacher.

When parents criticize teachers or join in their children’s negative comments, they risk ruining the opportunity to partner with their child’s teacher(s). Any parent who has had a child who struggles with one or more components of school life – academics, study skills, peer relationships – knows how valuable good relationships with teachers are. It is impossible to take a child’s side one minute and partner effectively with the teacher the next. A collaborative approach, in which child/student, parents, and teachers are all on the same team working toward shared goals, much more effectively sets the child/student up for school success.

For Hatsu and her parents, this may mean a meeting (or several) with Mrs. L. in which Hatsu expresses her frustration in a respectful way, the family listens to Mrs. L.’s point of view, and then everyone works together to come up with ideas that support the shared goal of Hatsu having a successful and enjoyable year in 5th grade.

Hopefully, Hatsu is at school this morning thinking about our discussion last week. She certainly demonstrated in my office that she is capable of thinking flexibly and more positively about another year in Mrs. L.’s class. I am confident that, if Hatsu and her parents take a more collaborative approach, it can be a great year. And I can’t wait to see what Hatsu does with her first project: This Is Who I Am. She was planning to write a poem and make it into a photo montage slide show.

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Life Lessons Learned from Zip-Lining

Once in a while, I share a story about my family rather than a story from my work as a child psychologist. Today’s post is one of those personal stories.

In early July, my family traveled to the tiny little community of Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was the first time either of my teenagers had been out of the country. I could write volumes about the power of international travel, and perhaps I will one day, but this post is about something much more mundane.

When we told folks that we were planning a trip to Costa Rica, many asked if we were going zip-lining. Others told us that we simply must go zip-lining. So, sitting in our little house in the cloud forest brainstorming about how we would spend out limited time atop the mountain, somebody mentioned zip-lining. Neither child really wanted to go. One mentioned his fear of heights. One says no to everything unfamiliar at first, so it was difficult to know how to interpret her lack of interest. My husband wanted to go. I was torn between my fear of zipping through the sky over the canopy suspended by metal clips and nylon straps and my fear of having to tell everyone the Sayers family was too chicken to zip-line. Yep, still feeling the peer pressure.

In private, my husband and I debated what to do. Our mutual hunch was that, when all was said and done, zip-lining would prove to be an exciting and empowering experience for all of us. Plus, the naysayers would have great stories to tell about how we tried to kill them. Lucky for us, we are blessed with mostly compliant kids, so when we told them we planned to go zip-lining in a few days, they acquiesced.

On the appointed day, we treated the kids to a delicious breakfast at their favorite local bakery before heading further up the mountain. There was some mild grumbling and protesting over pancakes and in the car. Once we arrived at Sky Adventures headquarters, there was a lot of stony-faced silence. In the lobby, we were watching videos of people walking on the canopy bridges, riding the sky tram, and zip-lining. I have to admit, it all looked pretty scary.

When it was our turn, the guides gave us helmets and helped strap us into our harnesses. We listened to a spiel about what to expect. When the instructor began to talk about what to do in the event that we became stuck between two platforms, I began to think about how terrifying it would be to hang hundreds of feet about the ground, possibly in the middle of a cloud so that I could not see in any direction, with only my own wits and upper body strength to get me to safety. And I had the thought, “I can’t do this.” Simultaneously, I knew I had to.

When I was a student, I always raised my hand as soon as a teacher asked for a volunteer to be first to give a presentation or take an oral test. I couldn’t stand sitting and waiting as the feeling of dread (technically labeled “anticipatory anxiety”) grew. So, in typical form, I volunteered to zip-line first. In addition to just wanting to get it over with, I thought that my husband or I should be on the next platform to greet the kids in case one or both freaked out. Selfishly, I also didn’t want to be in the position of having to coax a panicking kid to take the plunge.

The instructor thanked me for volunteering, hooked me up to the pulley, and shoved me off the platform. No “are you ready?” or “you got this.” This, of course, is exactly the right thing to do. Not many people doing something really scary for the first time are going to cough out a “ready” when they are feeling anything but.

The best way to sum up zip-lining over the cloud forest canopy atop a mountain in Costa Rica is WOW! It is both terrifying and exhilarating. I loved it and hated it all at once. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and did not want to reach the end of the adventure. One thing was very clear by the end of our eighth and final zip through the sky: I felt like I had done something really big.

Over lunch, we talked about our experience. Because I am a dorky parent, I asked the kids what they learned about themselves from zip-lining. One said something about being fearless. The other said that it got less scary and more fun with each run.

Those two comments get right to the point of this post, that is, the big life lessons to be learned from a morning of zip-lining. Here’s the first one:

It is not necessary, or even beneficial, to have no fear. Fear is an essential emotion that helps us keep ourselves safe and respond effectively to danger. What we need to be able to do is to distinguish between fear of actual danger and anxiety about imagined threat and when faced with anxiety, to push through it. Over lunch, I made a point of telling the kids how anxious I felt on that first platform, how much I doubted that I could go through with zip-lining, how I questioned their dad’s and my decision to make them go. And then I shared with them how I had talked rationally to myself and reminded myself that thousands of people zip-line every year, how the company we chose has an excellent safety record, and how the many friends who told us about zip-lining issued no warnings about its perils.

And here’s the second:

Many a great opportunity is lost because of anticipatory anxiety, the worry that precedes a dreaded event or situation. A socially anxious kid forgoes a birthday party because she feels nervous about separating from her parents. An athletic middle schooler passes up the opportunity to practice with a varsity team because he worries he is not good enough. A teen with stage fright feels sick and misses school on the day of auditions for the play. In virtually every instance, when individuals push through this anxiety, they end up feeling glad that they did. The anxiety peaks when the child first arrives at the party, for the first few minutes of the varsity practice, and when the teen actor first walks onto the audition stage. Or, in the case of zip-lining, for the first few seconds of flying through the clouds. After the peak, the anxiety lessens gradually and is often virtually forgotten.

So, this adventure was a parenting success (not all of them are!). We all lived to tell the story and those of us who had to push through anxiety to allow ourselves to get pushed off those platforms feel braver and more empowered than ever before.

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No Free Passes

Many of the kids I see in therapy are the kinds of kids adults often refer to as “good kids.” They work hard in school, they are well-liked by peers and adults, they are active in arts or athletics or community service or all three, and they don’t cause much trouble for their parents. Many of them are in therapy because they are experiencing mild anxiety or depression or because they are going through a difficult experience such as a rupture in their friendships or a parental divorce.

Parents who are blessed with one or more of these kids have every reason to feel grateful. While good parenting is of utmost importance, kids come into the world with a great deal that will affect outcomes, temperament and genetic risk factors, for example. There is a certain amount of luck in having a “good kid.”

Before I go on, I feel compelled to point out that the opposite of “good kid” is NOT “bad kid.” There is no one useful label for all the other kids. Some might be “challenging;” others might be “spirited.” Or “worrisome” or “troubled.” And just like the easy ones, all kids are complex, multi-layered, nuanced human beings. I’m sure it goes without saying that ALL kids need love, acceptance, support, and guidance.

Paradoxically, I have noticed a tendency for many parents to expect less, rather than more, from the kids who are most securely on the right track, the ones who cause them less distress. Here are two recent quotes from parents that illustrate this paradox:

He’s a great kid. He gets good grades, works every weekend, and everybody loves him. Why would I get upset over something stupid like borrowing my car without asking? – Father of 17-year-old Vance

She’s a really easy teenager, not like my friends’ daughters. She doesn’t use drugs, she’s not having sex, and she’s not a mean girl. What’s wrong with me rewarding her by buying her a new cell phone to replace the one she lost? – Mother of 15-year-old Vanessa

Put simply, this father and this mother are not doing their kids any real favors. Just like everybody else, kids like Vance need to be taught to follow the rules and to be held accountable when they don’t. Good kids like Vanessa need to learn about responsibility and natural consequences. In fact, if Mom and Dad don’t hold their good kids to high standards, the kids may come to believe that they are somehow above the rules, entitled to a free ride, and/or exempt from the expectation that they work hard and treat others with kindness.

Sometimes I talk to parents about the importance of teaching kids that they are special AND that they are not special. Kids are special in the sense that they are unique and that their parents love them above all else. At the same time, they are not so special that they deserve any more than anyone else or that they get any free passes.

When parents make comments like the ones above, here’s what I tell them:

Dad, here’s what I would say to Vance. “Vance, you’re a great kid. You do well in school, work hard at your  job, and everybody loves you. I am very proud of all of that. But, you made a very poor choice and there have to be consequences for doing so. Give me your car key; you will not be allowed to drive my car, or your mother’s, for the next two weeks.”

Mom, here’s what I would say to Vanessa. “Vanessa, you are a really great kid. You stay out of trouble and treat people with kindness. For that, I am both grateful and proud. But, you were not responsible with the cellphone Dad and I gave you for your birthday. I will take you to get a new one when you have the money to pay for it. Let me know if you want some extra chores to do around the house to earn the extra money more quickly.”

By holding kids to high standards and by effectively addressing the occasional moments when the kids screw up, parents can assure that their good kids grow into excellent adults.

[Names and other potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Brokenhearted Teens

Broken hearts are as much a part of adolescence as pimples and piles of homework. As my wise mother (who, by the way, married her high school sweetheart and recently celebrated 60 years of wedded bliss!) is want to say, You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the handsome prince. I would add, or princessI’m not sure what made her such an expert, but she is certainly right.

Most people don’t get relationship right the first time they try. For most, a series of breakups and failed relationships is a necessary part of learning how to be in a relationship: how to communicate, how to handle conflict, how to be intimate, how to treat an intimate partner, how to expect to be treated by a partner. While breakups can certainly be painful for one or both parties, they are part of a developmental process that, when all goes well, results in an adult who is prepared to navigate the challenges that even the strongest, healthiest relationships bring.

So what is a mother to do when her son is moping around, not eating, and uninterested in schoolwork or ballgames, all because someone has broken his heart? What can Dad do to help a daughter who is in pain because she was dumped by her first true love?

Let’s start with what not to do. The list might surprise you.

  • Don’t minimize your child’s experience. You know that it’s “just” a high school relationship, that she will survive it, and that her broken heart is a normal part of growing up, but to her, it feels like the end of the world. If you don’t recognize the magnitude of her loss, she will assume you are not hearing her.
  • Don’t talk about your own experiences at your child’s age or with a failed relationship. Your story may be helpful when his heartbreak is less acute, but in the throes of a breakup, telling your story signals that you are not listening.
  • Don’t badmouth the ex. No matter how much you want to throttle the ex, remember that your child’s heart is broken. Criticizing the ex is highly unlikely to convince your daughter that she is better off without him (or her) and may, paradoxically, push her into defending him and his actions. If she’s crying because her boyfriend broke up with her, clearly she believes she has lost someone worth having.

The “Do” list is much shorter, not really a list at all. Here it is:

  • Listen empathically. Listen to his story. Over and over, if he needs to tell it. Reflect back his thoughts and feelings without judgment and without reassurance. Simply being with him in this way is the best gift you can offer in this moment.

I’ve written often about the power of listening. For more on this topic, read Lonely Lunches and Listening Parents  and Inside My Head, for example.

Just this week, I saw a heartbroken teenager, Ryder. He had come in for his first session, and it became evident immediately that I was not going to be gathering much information from him. As soon as I found out his age (17) and his grade in school (senior), and I asked what brought him in to see me, he started to cry and tell me that his girlfriend had broken up with him because she wants to be free to date new people when she goes away to college. I then spent the remainder of the session listening to Ryder tell me the story of the relationship and the breakup. Even though it was obvious to me that his girlfriend had been treating him badly for several months, I kept that opinion to myself. Here’s a sampling of the comments I made:

  • It sounds like you really, really care about Angela.
  • You’re trying hard to understand her decision, but it still really hurts.
  • You don’t know how you’re going to get over this.

The session lasted about 45 minutes. About a half hour in, Ryder dried his tears. We continued to talk about his thoughts and feelings about Angela. We didn’t solve any problems, and except for reflective comments, I said nothing especially “therapeutic.” At the end of the session, Ryder shook my hand and thanked me. He commented,

Thanks, I feel a lot better. – Ryder, age 17

To which I responded, Glad I could help. Then, Ryder closed the session by saying

Yea, thanks for not telling me to get over it.

[Names and  potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

Posted in High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Balls and Baked Ziti

As I do on occasion, a few weeks ago I put out a request on Facebook for suggestions for blog topics. This time, I asked grandparents what would be of interest to them. Most of the suggestions I received were about navigating the sometimes tricky mother-in-law – daughter-in-law relationship. I have been thinking about this and doing some research and promise to address this topic in a future post. One of my friends, who is about as lovely a human being as I have ever been blessed to know, responded with the following:

I would love to read your thoughts on how competitive sports, especially all those travel teams, are impacting family time. – Penny

Unlike the first topic, which I have little direct experience with given that my mother-in-law and I were separated by 6 states and if she had opinions about my parenting (which I am certain she did!), she kept them to herself, Penny’s topic is near and dear to my heart both as a mom and as a family therapist. Based on my experience in both of those roles, here is what I have observed.

Little kids play on intramural sports teams. These teams practice once a week and have one game a week. Pretty reasonable. By the time the athletes get to be in the later elementary school years, there is pressure to make it onto a travel team. If the athlete is talented, the pressure may come from coaches. Sometimes the pressure comes from parents or peers. Kids figure out pretty early that they are being sorted into two tiers: the “real” athletes and the “casual” athletes. My clients often have less benevolent names for the latter group. Who wants to get stuck on a team full of dorks or losers? Kids who don’t make travel teams often opt out of sports altogether. Maybe they weren’t that interested. Maybe their bodies are not developing the “right” way for their sport. Maybe they have developed a passion for theater or robotics and there simply isn’t time to do it all.

Travel teams tend to have more practices, and games are longer propositions because they are not right in the neighborhood. Some games and many tournaments require overnight hotel stays. I remember the ignorant bliss I felt when my son reached middle school and joined his school’s teams. I assumed this meant the end of travel teams. Alas, I quickly learned that in order to keep up with the other athletes on his teams, he had to do both school sports and travel sports! What had been a busy schedule during the K-5th grade years, all of a sudden got even busier.

I am a big proponent of organized sports. Kids learn essential life lessons when they are members of a team: how to collaborate, how to compete, how to win, and how to lose. They learn about hard work, commitment, and reaching goals. Sometimes they are coached by excellent role models who teach them the best lessons sports have to offer. Sometimes, they learn about dealing with jerks and they learn about nepotism. In today’s screen-driven world, they get regular exercise and, depending on the sport, fresh air and sunshine. Sports can be a great point of connection for parents and kids. At their best, sports can really empower kids who struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self-confidence.

But, here’s the rub. I, and all the other professionals out there who deal with kids and families, are also proponents of family meals. If you aren’t familiar with the research on family meals and outcomes for children, I strongly encourage you to visit the Family Dinner Project’s website here. Briefly, regular family meals are associated with the following benefits for children:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
  • Lower rates of obesity

Research also tells us that a lot of delinquent behavior takes place in the hours between the end of the school day and dinner time. After-school sports keep kids involved in positive social and physical activities during those hours. Add to that all the above benefits of family meals, and it is easy to see how both organized sports and family dinners set kids up for success.

So how do parents reconcile the benefits of participation on sports teams with the importance of regular family meals? Creatively, that’s how. Here are some suggestions that parents of busy athletes can use to minimize the negative impact of sports on family life:

  • Make family meals a priority. If you have to eat earlier or later than usual to accommodate a practice or game, that’s okay. If it’s been an especially busy week with few family meals, then sit down together for an extra meal or two on the weekend. While the research has focused mostly on dinners, I am fairly certain just as much good stuff can happen over a plate of pancakes and bacon as burgers and fries. Limit discretionary social plans that interfere with family meals.
  • Keep family meals relaxed and upbeat. Even if you have brought work home from the office, linger over a family meal as long as your kids will sit at the table. When our kids hit the tween years, my husband and I vowed that whenever possible, we would not be the ones to end dinner; we wait for one of the kids to ask to be excused because he has a lot of homework or because her boyfriend is going to call soon. Don’t ask about grades or homework over dinner, and don’t deal with behavioral issues. If kids know that a family meal is not a time that parents will address problems, they are much more likely to hang out after their bellies are full.
  • Listen more than you talk. Ask more questions and tell fewer stories. If your kids are talking, make eye contact, listen reflectively, and ask occasional open-ended questions. It’s okay to share, but what makes family meals so enjoyable for kids is the full attention of their parents. Avoid lengthy conversations between parents which can be real yawners for children.
  • If not everyone can be present because of outside commitments, whoever is home can still enjoy a family meal. Don’t think of a family meal as an all-or-none endeavor. I have enjoyed many very engaging and lengthy meals with just one of my kids or with my husband and one child. For a child with siblings, what could be better than the undivided attention of both parents!?
  • On occasion, make the sporting event a family activity. This has to be done judiciously to minimize the risk of upsetting siblings or causing friction between the athlete and his or her sibling(s). Go as a family to the 6pm game, for which the athlete likely has to arrive at 5pm. Then, go for a quick dinner on the way home. It may not happen at the kitchen table, but it still counts as a family dinner and creates an opportunity for connection.
  • Make family meals electronics-free zones. Park the cell phones and tablets and hand-held games in another room. Ignore the house phone if it rings. Whatever it is can wait until dinner (or breakfast or lunch) is over. The value in family meals comes from connection and conversation, neither of which can happen if there are frequent interruptions and distractions.
  • Unless the kids are really bogged down with homework, engage them in meal preparation and/or clean up. Kids learn important life skills when they help with cooking and cleaning up. Pre-meal and post-meal activities also lengthen the time of family engagement. Let the kids play their music during the before and after activities which you may not enjoy but will make the time more enjoyable for your kids.
  • Be willing to say no to coaches. The best coaches keep sports in perspective and understand that players will have to miss an occasional practice or game because of a heavy homework load, a family event such as a birthday or wedding, or a school or church event such as a jazz band concert or choir rehearsal. Some coaches penalize kids for missing practice by not allowing them to start in a game or by reducing an athlete’s playing time. Don’t let your kids play for highly punitive or critical coaches, and accept the limits set by the more reasonable ones. If a kid sits on a bench a few extra minutes because he attended a wedding or a religious service, so be it. That kid is learning to keep sports in perspective.
  • Be willing to say no to your kid. Say no to a practice, game, or tournament when something more important conflicts. This is a toughie, one I am debating about at this very moment. Is Mother’s Day a good enough reason to tell my son he can’t play in this weekend’s basketball tournament? Am I willing to take a rain check on our annual Mother’s Day traditions? I am not sure what I will decide, but what I am clear about is that parents who make the commitment of time, energy, and money to enable their children to participate in league sports must be willing to say no to some practices and some games and stick with their “no,” even in the face of their kid’s anger and/or disappointment.

I just proofread this post and realized that this whole time I have been writing about family meals when Penny’s question was actually about family time. I almost hit the delete button and started all over, but then I realized that my comments still make sense. By the time kids are old enough for travel teams, a lot of family time has already been lost – to school, to homework, to viola practice, to electronics, to trips to the mall, to hanging out in the neighbor’s basement media room. Family meals provide the best opportunity for family members to connect, without distraction, on a regular basis. Family movie nights, hikes, bike rides, board games, etc. are also great, and, by all means, keep doing all of those things whenever possible. And, since everyone has to eat, make the very best use of mealtime as frequently as you can.

For more on this topic, check out these earlier posts: Values. There, I Said It and My Most Unpopular Post to Date.

Posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments