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Me and My Boyfriend

I’m in my fifties and I’m part of the first generation of parents whose children possibly knew more than we did about technology. Ten years ago, I didn’t believe my daughter when she told me she absolutely had to have MSN. I also didn’t know what it meant. What a difference a decade makes. Now I have an iPhone that takes my heart rate, provides hypnosis when I can’t sleep and among other things, it tells me when I make a wrong turn in my car. My 90 year old mother recently asked me if I was talking on my phone and I replied that I was actually talking to my phone. So Syri has become my new best friend. I count on my phone so much that I call it my boyfriend. So if you hear me say, “I’ll check with my boyfriend, I’m not having an affair, honest.” The truth is, I would rather have my car stolen than lose my phone.

In the last few years, technology has changed so much that I’m not sure where the boundaries are anymore. It amazes me to see how many people are on their phone walking down the street, standing at bus stops (perhaps because their phone is telling them when the next bus is coming) and even when they are having lunch with a friend. Actually, it amazes me when people aren’t on their phones. I especially worry about seeing this when parents are spending time with their kids! Is it interfering with their ability to be present at those times that can be so very special? Is our fixation with these amazing devices giving a message to our kids that they come second? Furthermore I can’t even imagine how to define boundaries around our kid’s use of technology.

Not only can these devices make dinner suggestions, they also make great babysitters.

Recently I was shopping in a mall and went by Mac Makeup. While sitting in a tandem stroller, a two year old was playing on and iPad, behind him his older sister about four, was playing on a smart phone. Mom was getting her make-up done. Thirty minutes later I walked by that same place and nothing had changed. Kids were still staring intensely at their devices and mom was still getting a makeover. I think I would have been tempted to do the same thing when my kids were young. I definitely would have been seduced into using the baby app that stops two month olds from crying as they stare at white moving shapes on a black background. I’d probably downplay concerns about how this might be affecting my child’s new, developing brain.

I try to imagine how I would find balance if I had my boyfriend ten years ago. I’d have to give up my Facebook Scrabble addiction because that is an ongoing pull. If I didn’t, I’d be taking a lot of trips to the smallest room of my house to make my next move. Surely I would make a commitment not to take my smart phone with me when I go to the park or go for walks, but then again, what if there is an emergency? Like, someone posting on Facebook to say that they just had a blueberry muffin straight from the oven. Come to think of it, what if I want to take a picture or a video of the kids and send it on Instagram right away to my mother and my 256 friends.

I think the dinner table is where I would draw the line. No phones at the table! I have to show some discipline with that sexy little friend of mine. Syri-ously. Where are we going with all of this? Oh, we actually don’t know. So what do we know? We know we need to unplug and connect with each other. We know that nature provides us with an ability to get grounded. We know that having nothing to do as kids made us very creative. We also know that nothing could be more important than face time with the people we love, screen free.

To Discipline or Disciple? – Cut it Out!

What is discipline?  One definition is to obtain obedience by using punishment and reward?  If you think that word still fits, you might want to, Cut it Out!  It might be time for a new word or at least a new twist to that word. Another view of discipline is to teach in such a way that encourages self-discipline. In that case the word needs to change to disciple.  To disciple somebody means that we mentor them by modeling respect, self-discipline and maturity: they become our disciple when they want to emulate us.  This requires awareness of our emotional states and the impact they have on our children.  Healthy mentorship also means we have clarity around our own personal boundaries and the boundaries of others.  To disciple also means recognizing that along with how we behave we must be accountable for how we communicate. Dicipline or Deciple

Words are powerful and we can easily harm our kid’s self-esteem by labeling them, making assumptions or putting them down.  Or even when we praise them for doing something we want rather than encouraging them to develop internal values and goals.   When this happens, our kids lose touch with the ability to learn what we might actually be trying to teach them and more importantly, are derailed from the natural course of development of conscience and responsibility. Likewise, when we don’t actively listen to our children we are role modeling what not to do!  If your kids don’t listen to you start by showing them what listening actually looks like.

Effective communication is not about a set of skills and something that you “do”.  It is a way of “being” and having an awareness of boundaries.  What issue belongs to who?  Do I really have to fix this person’s feelings?  Are they responsible for how I feel and do I blame them?  Do I allow myself to project my own fearful thoughts onto them?  When we can get clear with the deeper part of communication then the skills come to us easily.    Allow yourself to have well intentioned, messy communication.  If the skill takes over, we lose our connection because we are in our head.

So keep learning and growing yourself.  Somebody needs to disciple our children!

The Greeting Ritual

How do we connect with our teens when we barely see them because they’re so busy with their teenage social lives?  We stockpile all kinds of questions, concerns and reminders, and we blurt them out whenever we have the chance, as we see our kids in passing. Gordon Neufeld and other psychologists and educators promote the idea of “connecting before directing”, suggesting that we can’t actually guide our children unless we have a relationship with them.  This is also the basis of our approach in LIFE Seminars.

Dr. Yurgelun-Todd discovered a scientific reason for developing a connection with our kids.  She monitored the brains of adult and teen volunteers while they were asked to discern the emotion in a series of pictures of frightened faces.  While all the adults identified the emotion of fear correctly, most of the teenagers saw the faces as angry.  When examining the brain scans, Todd found that the teenagers were using a different part of their brain from the adults when reading images.  Adults processed these images with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain; teens processed them with the amygdala, the instinctual, emotional part of the brain that is linked to primal feelings such as fear and rage. These emotions can trigger a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction.

So imagine what goes on when there is tension in the parent/child relationship and the only windows of time together are when we pick our kids up in the car or wake them up in the morning.  What is the teen’s experience? They see our face, which might look concerned or afraid, but they see anger. They hear our concerns as complaints.  Now they’re in that defensive position where they don’t care what we think or say, they only want to protect themselves.  This can be overwhelming for the teen, and they really can’t help this, it is immaturity of the brain combined with hormones!

When parenting my teens, I felt the need to put together this information about the brain with what I know about the need for connection.  I devoted myself to something I called “The Greeting Ritual”.  Whenever I made contact with one of my kids, either when they came home from work or school or when I picked them up in the car, I would refrain from asking questions, complaining or talking about anything that could be seen as negative for ten minutes.  I would be positive or neutral.  I lovingly unplugged from my agenda to guide, direct and reform my kids.

My first experience was picking my very social 16-year-old daughter up at a friend’s just a little later on a Friday night than I would have liked.  I wasn’t sure whether I could stop myself from saying something that would be taken the wrong way because just about everything in our relationship was at that stage.  I decided to stuff bubble gum in my mouth, actually two pieces of Hubba Bubba, the big stuff.  I then made sure that I had something interesting playing on my car stereo, a little Frank Zappa which seemed like a good distraction.  I was armed and ready for the greeting ritual.

I will always remember that look my daughter had when she’d walk toward the car, kind of sour, cold and ready to do battle.  The first time was tough because Frank led her to stick her IPOD in both ears.  But hey, we didn’t talk and I looked happy, that was a shift.  That worked really well for her.  After a few days I noticed that she looked different walking to the car.  She didn’t have that look of dread and actually seemed more relaxed.  I soon noticed that if I just stayed neutral and pleasant, she would start to talk about her concerns regarding school.  That gave me a chance to listen and support her without taking over.   If I did have something to say, it seemed to be better received once we had that initial connection.

It helped when my husband bought into this idea as well.  I remember him walking through the front door late at night with my daughter. I expected a wave of negative energy but instead, they were laughing, she said goodnight and that was it.  Peering over my bifocals from my book I asked him why they were so cheerful.  “The greeting ritual” was his response.  “I felt like lecturing her about not calling earlier but I didn’t say anything.  Before I knew it she told me about her night and how she and her friend stayed with another friend until she got safely on the bus.  How could I get mad about that?”

I also focused on this when my son would come home from work.  I was concerned about him and knew he was struggling but my anxiety was only interfering with his confidence.  I avoided the questions about his day and gave him a chance to unwind and relax.  This was really about me harnessing my own anxiety and becoming less intrusive both with my son and my daughter.  It was a practical way to put relationship first and it seemed to build up some trust for both of the kids. That little bit of conscious connection helped them feel calm and helped me to practice some self-restraint.  It gave all of us an opportunity to have a little calmness during times that felt a little strained.  This was a small, manageable shift in behavior that led to steady positive changes in our relationships.

So – the essence of the greeting ritual is greeting our teenage kids pleasantly rather than overwhelming them with questions and advice when we have a chance to see them.  Try it – it can make a huge difference in our relationship with them.

Is this Normal?

As a Parent Educator I am often asked the question “Is this normal?” Apparently we didn’t act the same way our children are acting today. Is this really true or have our parents just got terrible memories? I really feel for parents who have someone breathing down their necks making judgments about their kid’s behaviour. It might be their own parents, a childless sibling, a store clerk or even a teacher. As parents we can feel vulnerable enough without having to defend our children’s behavior and our parenting skills. I too was the perfect parent before I had kids and perhaps I will be again when they move out on their own.

If we don’t understand behavior we tend to magnify it making it much worse than it really is. We my even label our children as being spoiled or a problem. We might assume that they have intentions to test us or make our lives miserable. When we go there with our thinking we tend to overreact. Studies have indicated that these kinds of trigger thoughts fuel parental anger. When we understand our child’s behavior we can counter damaging thoughts with more accurate ones like “This is normal for this age, he isn’t trying to test me.” or “My toddler is going through an aggressive stage right now but it doesn’t mean he is a bully” Or “I can handle this, we will get through it”. Instead of “This is too much, I can’t take this anymore”. Watch what you think about your kid’s behavior, it will effect yours!

We need to stop praising children for acting like adults and embrace the need for kids to be egocentric and think of themselves. When we ask kids to use their words we need to understand that children often don’t understand their feelings and while using your words is a wonderful goal, it takes years to develop that kind of insight and maturity. Can you imagine your three year old coming up to you and saying “Mom, Dad, I’m tired and I’m feeling anxious about the arrival of my new sibling”. Wouldn’t that be wild? For children, behavior is communication: biting, whining, hitting, spitting, pinching and screaming are a toddler’s way of saying I’m frustrated, upset, bored, hurt, tired and so on.

So what is normal? Twelve-month-old babies can be very clingy. Toddlers bite and pinch and I wish I had a quarter for every parent that asks me why his or her two or three year old still wakes up several times through the night. Many children aren’t toilet trained until four. Four year olds tell tall tales and take things that don’t belong to them while perhaps calling you a “butt head”. School aged children can be cruel to others and exclude friends one day only to be best buddies the next. They are still trying to work out the complexities of relationships and resolving conflict. Many pre-teens experience anxiety and have difficulty getting to sleep at night, and so on. These are all very common issues that I hear about on a regular basis.

In our parenting courses light bulbs go on for parents when they share their stories in small groups with other parents who have kids the same age. They are often telling slightly different versions of a similar behavior in their children. Parents start to realize that they aren’t the only ones and that their kids are on track. Nobody said it would be a cakewalk but actually now that I think about it, nobody said anything to prepare me. Maybe there is wisdom to that!

I spend a lot of time reassuring parents that their children are on track. In my early years as an educator I used to feel pressured to come up with answers to help parents deal with “that pesky behavior”. I used to be intimidated when a parent would yell out, “I don’t care if it is normal, what do I do with it”? Now, seasoned through the years, I can say with confidence that how we think about our children will effect our behavior significantly and that is the behavior we can work on – our own.

Making Good Cents to Your Kids

In this world of fancy packages, machines that spit out money and easy finance, how do we teach financial responsibility and the value of money to our children? How can we prepare them for the day that they step out with a few boxes to begin a life on their own?

One sure way to learn about money is to have it, on a regular basis. Allowance is a great teaching tool. A set income that children can count on is essential to developing financial cents-ability.

Many parents believe that an allowance is a privilege that is earned for good behavior and completing regular household tasks. Because of that, lots of children are in the hole with no spending money! This can become nothing more than a power issue. Money is held back until the child performs or the child doesn’t perform until they see the cash. “What are you going to give me for it?” One big problem with paying kids to do chores is that once they have their own source of income, they stop helping. After all, if you were paying them to do the job then it really wasn’t their responsibility. I believe children should have a basic allowance which they always receive regardless of behavior and chores done. If they do not have this, they do not learn how to budget or to spend money wisely.

If you have a child that won’t help out, find other privileges to remove. Things such as television, computer time or free time to hang out with buddies. It might sound like this. “When you have emptied the dishwasher, then you can “watch your show, or go out the front door and invite your friend over.” “When our family has finished with our weekly clean-up time, then we all get to go off and do something we enjoy.” Keep the money out of it unless it is a responsibility that goes beyond the normal expectations.

How much money and when? I believe the saying goes “When they are old enough not to eat it.” I say four is a reasonable age to start. How much depends on what you expect them to buy and your comfort level. As children get older, they need more money. I like to use the equation of giving a child their age in dollars every two weeks. If they are six, they get $6.00 every second week. To be consistent, correlate it to your payday. This eliminates sibling disputes about who gets what and provides them with enough money to suit their needs. As they move into the teen years, they can be given a larger budget for clothing, school supplies and so on.

All responsibility is given gradually with practical hands-on teaching about banking procedures, sales tax, savings and other related topics. Of course a four year old won’t understand the math but watch how quickly they learn when money is involved. There comes a point when parents need to step out and let their children make their own decisions about what they do with their money. It might be hard watching them spend their money on dumb things, but have some faith that eventually your kids will figure this out for themselves. Best to experience the natural consequences of overspending as a child of 10 than at 25 with a high limit credit card. By the way, don’t become a Visa mom or dad. Lending money between allowance payments just gets them used to borrowing rather than waiting it out. Avoid the temptation to give children more money as a loan or a gift if they have spent all their allowance on treats or movies. They won’t learn to budget if you keep bailing them out.

Children really appreciate something when they buy it for themselves. It gives them a sense of ownership and pride. Kids really do think twice when the money is coming out of their own wallets. I believe giving an allowance helps us step out of this overindulgent trend that is so easy to get pulled into. Let’s face it, kids have a lot of stuff today. If they aren’t buying it with their own money, you must be footing the bill. Allowance builds in delayed gratification. Sure, you can pay half for those bigger items.

Buying a child something when you can’t afford it and resenting it later will have negative effects. Overindulgence is a sure-fire way to set your child up for financial disaster. Many parents of adult children state their regrets of having overindulged their children. One father commented that while his daughter (27) worked hard at two jobs; she would spend her money on elaborate things and beg her dad to bail her out when she couldn’t pay her rent. He confessed that as a divorced dad he raised her with a large dose of parental guilt.

What is your relationship to money? Children will learn a great deal from you. Watch the messages that you pass on. Do you impulse buy or do you plan your larger purchases? Do you overspend and then stress about it later? A child may feel frightened when they see you getting upset about money matters. Children need to know your doing okay and that they will be taken care of. Keep heated discussions about money away from the kids. Those are adult issues.

Finally money and teenagers. Giving them a living budget to work with will prepare them for the years ahead. Sit down with them and discuss their needs. Negotiate a budget and stick to it. They will learn to work within that framework. They may think twice about the $160.00 running shoes. This also eliminates ongoing battles about money (hopefully). At some point, they may take on a part-time job and you can pull back on your contributions. There may even come a point where they pay you a little rent.

I don’t agree with forcing a child to save part of their allowance. I really believe that it is important for children to get to that place themselves. Having a bank account of their own can be very empowering. My son asked for one at the age of 9. By the time he was ten, he saved a couple of hundred dollars and earned himself a debit card. With this new responsibility came some external rules and slowly he gained full control. Now both my children have bank accounts and cards. They wait for their bank statements to arrive in the mail as eagerly as I used to wait for the ice cream truck. We didn’t force them to save a percentage of their allowance. This is coming from an internal desire to watch their money grow and have a sense of independence.

As far as charity goes, introduce your children to the concept of a spectrum of wealth. The concept is this: There will always be people richer than we are, and there will be people poorer than we are. What can we do to help those who have less? It may not be a financial offering. It might be an act of good will like cutting an elderly neighbor’s lawn or volunteering for a worthwhile cause. I find children have generous hearts and when they make choices to contribute it is genuine and fulfilling.

Remember that children are not fools, just younger people. Teach them, give them time and trust them.

Parenting Teens

Recently I gave a lecture on parenting teens to my Monday night class. Many people asked for my notes so here they are.

Parenting Teen Girls

One thing I hear from parents over and over again is concern for their young girls and their body image. It isn’t unusual for a slim nine-year-old girl to express concern over her weight. What is going on? We know the media plays a huge role in all of this and I too have heard the same concerns voiced from my very petite daughter as well. I have concluded that there are several important areas to focus on:

  • Health first, educating our daughters about the radiance of health is a good place to start.
  • Do some media busting and counter that powerful force with some education about the tools used to make people appear beautiful.
  • Give positive messages about your own comfort with your body shape.
  • Spend time with massage and brushing your daughter’s hair to help her feel good and comfortable with her body.
  • Never comment on her weight or state concerns about eating too much.
  • Role model self-care and healthy living.
  • Try not to over-react when you hear your daughter complain about her weight, avoid saying things like: “Don’t be silly, you aren’t fat.” or “You look fine.” Dismissing doesn’t help and she may not believe you after a while. Listen to her and let her express her thoughts and feelings. You can say something like; “It is difficult living in a culture where looks are emphasized so much. Most people struggle with this issue no matter how they look.”
  • You may share times where you felt self-conscious too and how did you work through it?
  • Give her specific and sincere positive feedback spontaneously about her strengths.

The strong bodies that girls enter into puberty with slowly start to soften and spread just at a time when our culture tells them that thin is beautiful. Girls feel enormous pressure to be beautiful and are painfully aware of the constant evaluations of their appearance. Many girls are afraid of their bodies changing and feel a loss of control; they would just like to stay young and avoid the pressures of growing up.

While walking through the mall with my twelve-year-old daughter I couldn’t help but notice the sideways glances from other young girls walking by. I stayed behind her and observed her reaction. She seemed to stiffen a little and adjust her hair, as she too was aware. I could understand why the getting ready time was getting longer. As a mother, I want her to be relaxed about her looks yet I am also aware of how painful not feeling attractive can be. I made an oath to myself right there and then to refrain from being judgmental about the perceived shallowness of this age group. I vowed to myself that I would support her with the fake and not so fake piercing, the streaks in the hair and the clothes that look too low or too high to me and acknowledge that they are a part of her world. Instead of moving into fear and trying to control this powerful force I surrendered fully at that moment to faith or at least trust that she knows what she needs to do and that I have what it takes as a mother to support her (I hope).

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t taken time to teach her. We have had and continue to have open dialogue about sexuality, how men think in comparison to women about sex and relationships, the pitfalls of premature sexual experiences, the value of being in a respectful relationship, media and the messages right through to sexual safety and health. We can overdo the teaching so we need to listen and be available to our children’s agenda rather than our own. One day in the doctor’s office while waiting for an appointment I was thumbing through a magazine and saw a model whose image had been stretched so much she was missing the middle of her body. When I pointed this out to my daughter she replied, “Mom, does everything have to be a lesson?”

For a while I thought her pants looked a little too low but I buttoned up my lips as much as I could and within a short period of time she commented on how uncomfortable the low riders really are. She asked me why anyone would want their butt hanging out of their pants. I have learned not to be too gushy and enthusiastic when she gets one of these great insights. I have developed that kind of expressionless, neutral yet pleasant look that many mothers seem to wear through this stage.

What are the messages in our culture around looks? We’re all aware of how a girl feels if she loses in the constant “beauty contest” of the peer group. But it’s also true that if a girl is too beautiful, she’s seen as stupid or ditzy, or identified as a sex object. Beautiful girls often doubt that they are liked for reasons other than their packaging. Being beautiful can create a lot of rejection, as girls are jealous and boys write the beautiful girl off as a snob.

Many girls, whatever their looks, seem to lose themselves in the shuffle. They stop asking important questions like “Who am I?” “What do I want?” and instead ask “How can I please my peers?” It is as if the authentic self gets buried under the junk values of our culture. I have heard my own clients at the young age of twelve tell me how they lose themselves in the tight tunnel of being nice. Be nice or risk getting called a bitch. Or parents may say, “Smile when you tell me about your bad day.”

Depression or the blues?

Hormones can have your daughter seeming high one day and depressed the next. This emotional volatility can have parents walking on eggshells. While estrogen actually makes the brain cells more active, progesterone makes them more inhibited. Progesterone has been compared to anesthesia because it seems to put the brain to sleep. While there are many other contributing factors that control mood such as personality traits and cognitive factors it is helpful to observe the swing effect of hormones.

Mary Pipher, in her book Reviving Ophelia says, “All girls experience pain at this point in their development. If that pain is blamed on themselves, on their own failures, it manifests itself as depression. If the pain is blamed on parents or peers; it shows up as anger. This anger is mislabeled rebellion or delinquency.”

Besides hormonal effects, the teens can be a time of getting tossed around emotionally by social, school and family pressures. How can a teenager stay strong with who she is when at the same time she is so painfully aware of her flaws and shortcomings? How can she bask in the support of her family when it is a time for being independent? How can she fit in when she doesn’t agree with what she has to fit in to?

Watch your daughter through the dips and turns and look for times where she is experiencing joy, a sense of success and an ability to communicate with somebody in a meaningful way. Does she care about herself even though she may feel discouraged? Is she still moving forward and taking an interest in things? If so, chances are the down times are simply the blues. If you aren’t seeing any peaks then get her some help. An adult mentor, a counsellor or a group experience can be an emotional lifesaver through these years. It isn’t a time to bury our heads in the sand even though we may feel like it when we are on the receiving end of the three D’s; distant, defiant and down. Stay calm, stay cool but watch her.

What helps the blues?:

  • Exercising regularly is a very important tool in fighting depression.
  • Help your child with her image, shallow as it may seem, it matters.
  • Help your child focus on making a few new friends if need be.
  • Ask your child what kind of relationships she wants. What would she like to be appreciated for?
  • Help your child be aware of how she behaves when she feels empowered and then suggest she borrow that behaviour when she needs it.
  • Ask your younger teen daughter to think of boys not as dates but as friends. Allowing these friendships de-sexualizes the relationships and gives her a chance to figure out what she might look for in a partner down the road.
  • Help her be true to herself. Validate her feelings and teach her to ask for what she needs.
  • Help her separate thoughts from feelings.

Mothering Teen Daughters

There is no greater insult in our culture than to be told you are acting just like your mother. Yet to hate our mothers is to hate ourselves. Girls can become painfully critical of their mothers. Mothers are asked to love completely and yet know when to distance emotionally and physically. This is harder than I imagined and I find myself going through a grieving process while my youngest child moves closer to her peers and ever more distant from me. My inner child comes out often feeling rejected, geeky and very hurt as my adult mind says “Don’t be silly, you teach classes on this, you know it is normal.” “Talk to me!” I hear myself saying as my daughter stares right through me. Where did she go? Those panicky times of hearing our mouth say things we wish it wouldn’t are often more frustrating than our child’s behaviour. The truth is, my inner child can be much more volatile, irrational and insecure than my daughter can. Learning to walk away, breathe, run around the block or take up belly dancing are all good options to get through these years with some dignity.

Being a mother comes with a lot of uncertainty during these years. Mothers want their daughters to date but are terrified of date rape, AIDS and other diseases. They want their daughters to be independent but are aware of how dangerous the world is. Many girls have difficulty being close to their mothers during Junior High and High School. They too feel sadness as they reject the help of the one person who wants most to understand their needs. Healthy mothers model self-sufficiency, self-respect and can be responsive to family members rather than responsible for family members.

Fathering Teen Daughters

Fathers have one of three kinds of relationships with their daughters: supportive, distant or abusive. Many are distant because they don’t have the skills to deal with their turbulent daughters. Fathers who see nurturing or emotional closeness as wimpy may well never have closeness with their children. Yet, the role of a father can be extremely powerful. Supportive fathers tend to have daughters with high self-esteem. Good fathers are nurturing, physically affectionate and involved in the lives of their daughters (and sons). Fathers can often lend a voice of reason while mother and daughter struggle to define their relationship.

A father has an important place in discussions of sexuality with his daughter. He can help his daughter understand the nature of male sexuality, so that she can make educated choices about how she dresses. He can validate her strength, intelligence and creativity and show her that these traits are very appealing in a woman. He can allow his daughter to have an assertive voice in the safety of their relationship. He can develop an ability to discuss feelings and resolve family conflict for the good of all, most likely a skill which he did not learn in his childhood.

Teen Boys

My son is half way through his fourteenth year as I write this and I am really pleased to see that there isn’t this immoral spirit taking over his body as many parenting teen books would have us believe. He has creatively skirted around some of the typical trouble spots such as shop lifting, smoking pot and setting the teacher’s porch on fire at Halloween. Now I know I can’t get too cocky here there are more years to come but what I am seeing is someone who has great moral values and who makes good choices for himself, actually, better ones than I made at that age.

I am watching him while he navigates through these tender years. As the abstract thinking comes in I can see him struggling and questioning the adults around him. It is kind of intimidating because he sees through a lot of bunk including mine! Have you ever listened to teens at this age talk about their teachers or adults in general? They pick up on everything from the two bit lectures to the two faced comments about abusing drugs and alcohol.

It seems that as their minds start to move in the world of abstract they also seem to lose their ability to make simple decisions. Teens can become overwhelmed with daily choices and can surprise parents with their need for direction or assistance in making these choices. The fun part is being asked and then having your great suggestions rejected.

I notice that my son still talks about his feelings but in comparison to his sister, he talks about them less, where I couldn’t say that even one year ago. I have learned to watch my expectations around how much my son should share. I actually think I have been disrespectful of who he is when I have called him to the plate and looked him in the eye to talk about feelings. It is overwhelming for him at times and I need to respect that. I think that without this kind of respect we can actually neglect our young fellows. Michael Gurian writes about this extensively in his book “A Fine Young Man”.

While I see this neat person emerging with his long hair and tall slim body I’m watching closely to see that he’s okay. I watch to see how overwhelmed he is with school work and friendships. I observe how much time he spends in his room or in front of a video game. Is he staying active? Does he have close friendships? Is he having fun and finding joy in life? Is there something he feels passionate about? Does he know what he needs and can he ask for it? I’m trying to stay out of the way while showing him that I really care. Watching without being intrusive and supporting without fixing.

Boys aren’t so tough:

Boys are much more fragile than they appear. Gurian’s book says “Boys have a greater risk of suicide (four to one) and for mental health disorders (six to one). While girls are more overt with their emotions, boys tend to mask them. The feelings can easily go underground. Only one out of six adolescents diagnosed with ADHD are females. This may be why boys have a history of more accidents.”

Blanenhorn and Reichert state that, “An MRI scanning shows that a male brain is much tidier than a female’s. On average they have higher spatial concepts. A boy’s emotional cycle is not controlled by hormones. He also has a lot less brain activity around emotions because of the way his brain is formatted. It doesnt mean he won’t have ups and downs, he will. It does mean that he won’t have the same fluency as a girl when it comes to discussing emotional issues. So we know that the reason boys talk less than adolescent girls is because of how the brain is constructed. He may be very verbal about a cognitive issue like how best to set up a tent or put a puzzle together. He may debate issues with verbosity, but he will be less likely to talk about how he is feeling.”

Blanenhorn and Reichert studied the self-esteem of boys and found that they had exactly the same plunge during the middle school years as girls. Like girls, they suddenly become aware of all of their flaws. Boys tend to cover up their insecurities with the male bravado. They act tough, get a little louder and can engage in somewhat cruel or aggressive behaviour. This type of posturing can have boys lose their focus as they get caught up in the act. It is especially tough on the tender hearts because rolling with the punches is that much harder.

Often parents talk about the mood swings of girls. Boys are dealing with testosterone, an anabolic steroid. Testosterone helps the body to produce calcium and phosphorus in order to make big bones. Testosterone is a physical hormone that propels the male to display physical and social aggression. Testosterone creates a push for action and solution and puts the emotional processing off to the side until later. As an aggression hormone, it links with the brain system to create efficient methods for reaching goals. Gurian says “For the male, emotionality is very often synonymous with danger, and danger is the very thing testosterone exists to contend with; by causing him either to persevere over it or to quickly solve issues and therefore deflect it. Once again, testosterone cuts off emotional opportunity.” When the male kicks or curses people distance. When they spit (yes boys spit more than girls) and show dominance patterns it doesn’t exactly make people want to run up and hug them. A lot of male behaviours cut off emotional connections, unlike those of the female, who cries four times more than her 15 year old male friend. Crying brings people to her and elongates the emotional process.

We have known the effects of testosterone on male emotionality forever and without getting into the science of all of this can we accept that we need to acknowledge and respect the differences? Expecting boys and men to talk about and process feelings with face to face contact is intrusive at the best of times. Yet we need to stay connected. How do we do that?

WHAT DO WE DO?

Tips for parenting boys:

  1. Make a point in one or two sentences, not much more
  2. Tell a story or anecdote to illustrate the point
  3. Ask for a response. If none is forthcoming, try asking for a story
  4. Listen for feelings when he talks and feed them back respectfully.
  5. Asking about what he thinks or what is important to him can help identify his needs and why he feels as he does.
  6. Don’t be afraid to allow silences in the conversation. But help a young man see that silence is not permission to get up and leave.
  7. As much as possible taper the conversation to allow him to have the last word.
  8. Don’t sit across from a table trying for eye to eye intensity. Do something side by side. Ask him to help you fold laundry or carry and stack wood or something.
  9. Bring it up again later to see if he got it.

How we can show respect for men:

1. Honour how men show compassion. Men can sacrifice their own bodies and sometimes their own souls to take care of other people.

2. Men show immense compassion by problem solving and are often condemned for it. Males problem solve so that the emotional flow of a group situation remains manageable. They problem solve hoping to relieve stress from the female. Be gentle when you reject their advice.

3. Males show compassion by leaving others alone. Men will often stand by wordlessly waiting. This action is a way of showing compassion. The words may not come easy so watch your expectations. The caring is there, it just might look different from a woman.

Pointers for parents of teens:

  • Encourage another loving adult to be available.
  • In our homes give kids both protection and challenges.
  • Set firm guidelines and communicate high hopes.
  • Practice negotiation rather than having rigid rules; love and respect are most important.
  • Listen and give them as much parent time as toddlers had.
  • Don’t be too eager to talk or they will back off.
  • Listen for what you can respect and praise.
  • Good communication encourages rational thought, centered decision making and conscious choices. It looks at options, risks, implications and consequences.
  • Congratulate teens on good judgment, maturity or insight.
  • Convey a reassuring message that says “You are strong enough to deal with this but I’ll be here if you need me.”
  • Give reassuring messages that say “Tomorrow is another day.” “Nobody is liked by everybody.” “Nobody is perfect.” without minimizing their feelings.
  • Keep your sense of humour.
  • Don’t take things too personally.
  • Parents need to stay calm through the storm, calm parents hear more.
  • Use a sandwich technique for feedback focus on the positive first and last.
  • Encourage teens to have friends in both sexes and desexualize the relationships
  • Read teen magazines and books to stay up on things.
  • Know your child’s teachers
  • Discuss important issues like alcohol, drugs, violence, social pressures and appearance.
  • If they share their drug experiences listen for how much (???)

Mealtime Blues

In my travels I come across a lot of parents who struggle with their young and mid year children around mealtime.

Mealtime is one of the most stressful times of the day. This is an area where a lot of old belief systems create problems for families. Many parents expect their young children to sit still at the table and eat all their food. We also teach them to stuff food into their bodies by bribing them with dessert.

What we get are kids who sit at the table with their mouths tightly shut, often refusing everything but dessert. The table can be a stage for negative attention-getting behaviour, and therefore a battle night after night.

There are many beliefs at work that can keep us in horrible power struggles:

  • Children should be able to sit still at the table before the age of 7.
  • Children must be taught good manners.
  • Children should eat when we tell them to.
  • They must finish their food.
  • Dessert is a reward for eating.
  • Children can’t think for themselves about their own hunger or fullness.

How much is enough?

Nursing babies aren’t told how much to eat, or forced to keep nursing when they have had enough. They know exactly how much their bodies need. As soon as they are eating solids and the amounts can be measured, the parents somehow assume that responsibility.

I have watched parents chase their children with two-hour-old hot dogs asking them to take one more bite. Yes, I know that they are just hungry later and want to eat between meals. Eating small amounts more often is actually a healthier way to eat. Don’t make an issue about how much! Serve small amounts and know that children, when not forced, will choose a healthy balance for themselves. Your job is to provide the food but their responsibility is to eat it. Trust them, they won’t starve themselves.

How long should they sit?

A lot depends on the child’s activity level and of course their age. Allowing children to sit at the table for a short period of time doesn’t teach them poor table manners. Children under three can’t sit for more than a couple of minutes. You may end up eating separately or at different times during the young years. As they get a little older they will begin to sit for short periods of time. They will be more likely to sit if they are also part of preparing the meal or setting the table. If however, it is a tense experience, this process will take longer. Keep it pleasant and they will want to join you when they are in the mid-years.
Now that my children are young teens they enjoy cooking and have been part of the process for many years. They are the ones insisting that we come to the table.

With older children you can insist that conversation is respectful at the table. That means no talking about green slugs and no fighting. That is a boundary violation to you and crosses over the line. If they choose to fight or disrespect the boundaries, they can take their food elsewhere. Maybe you have an area where you can eat peacefully if this happens. Kids won’t like it but taking action and protecting your needs is important.

Food Fads

Problems will arise during the toddler years when the child’s appetite drops with their growth rate. Parents see their child eating less and begin to worry if they are getting enough. Most kids go through stages where they only want one thing. This is normal and it does pass. Don’t make a big deal about it.

Sensitivities & Allergies

Be aware of the possibility of food sensitivities and allergies. The best way to discover whether your child is allergic to something is to remove suspect foods and then slowly re-introduce them into the child’s diet. Food allergies can create changes in your child’s behaviour. Kids sometimes dislike foods they are allergic to, and sometimes (in “addictive allergies”) crave them.

Creative Meals

Variety is the spice of life, and a little creativity sometimes helps introduce new foods to your children. We used to set up a tablecloth on the living room floor and have picnics in there in front of the fireplace. Putting a variety of foods on their plates in small amounts can keep mealtime interesting while introducing new tastes.

Mealtime Help

  • If they are not hungry after a few mouthfuls, don’t feed their dinner to the dog! Put it in the fridge for later in case they get hungry before the next meal.
  • Let children help select the dinner menu.
  • Make food attractive and serve small amounts so you aren’t stressed over wasted food.
  • Let the child serve their own dinner onto their plate.
  • Avoid having a running commentary on how much your children are eating. Keep your eyes off their plates!
  • Teach children about nutrition so they can make healthy, informed decisions.
  • Don’t reward a child for eating or punish a child for not eating.
  • Never use food (including desert) as a reward or withhold it as a punishment.
  • If you know they don’t like the food, make them a simple alternative, like a sandwich, or let them make it and clean up the mess themselves.
  • Have the child clear their plate and put it in the dishwasher so you don’t have to judge their consumption
  • Let them cook! And, the sooner the better! Get them involved in cooking and they’ll be more likely to eat something.

Encourage Self Help

  • Keep a container of freshly chopped veggies and fruit in the fridge so the children can help themselves throughout the day between meals.
  • Have plastic glasses in a bottom drawer and an easy-to-pour container in the fridge.
  • Teach them how to cook and let them prepare meals for the family. Increase their skills as they grow older. (Be prepared to eat some weird stuff.)
  • If they are stuck on one food, tell them they can have it three times that week and let them plan the weekly menu. (Be prepared to eat noodles for breakfast.)
  • Allow them to listen to their bodies and respect their inner voice. That voice needs to be trusted, especially where their bodies are concerned.

The Framework of Limits

At LIFE we talk about the framework of limits. Inside the framework the child takes on responsibility for himself. He is given responsibility slowly by explicit teaching and guidance. Once old enough, these responsibilities become kid issues. Children can exercise freedom of choice within this framework along with the lessons that come with these choices. Parents don’t interfere by rescuing, nagging or lecturing. As the child grows, the framework expands and contracts. Two steps forward as they push for autonomy and independence, one step back as they cling for reassurance.

Outside of this framework we as parents support limits. Limits represent safety, respect, responsibility and values. When the child crosses over the boundary, he enters into the territory outside the framework. This is where family issues exist. For example, a kitchen left in a mess by a child is a family issue because it effects everyone. A child’s messy bedroom is a kid issue as long as there are no dying hamsters or rotting food on the floor. Here is an example of what this looks like for an eleven year old girl:
boundaries

Supporting Limits

Limit setting can become clear when you break it down to two questions: What is the limit that we want to set? How do we enforce it?

Respect: “Your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins!” In other words, I will ignore some of the normal, stage related mouthiness, rolling of the eyes, defiance and so on but when you cross my personal boundaries, I will let you know. Get clear with where your nose ends! To figure that out, you need to consider the child’s age.

How do you teach respect? While a “time out” may be necessary at times, the true teacher of respect is empathy. Talking about people’s feelings and how our behaviour can have an effect on others.

If a child acts aggressively or rude we can go into the child’s feelings and find out what their viewpoint is. Why did they act that way? What was going on for them? If we put our agenda aside temporarily and really listen, we can come to a place of understanding our kids. When we do this we can often feel the judgment we have of our child wash away. In most cases when dealing with children, their feelings need to come first. They don’t have the maturity to put their needs aside if they have big feelings going on. When the child has had a chance to get those feelings out and have them reflected back then they might be ready to hear how you or the other person is feeling. This is how children learn about respect at a level that goes beyond punishment and reward. There may be a consequence in place but the true learning comes from having an honest open exchange.

The Gift of Owning Feelings – Allowing children to own their feelings and in turn owning our own, develops healthy emotional boundaries. We provide structure by setting limits on behaviour which harms others; we provide nurture by accepting a child’s feelings. Children need both. This isn’t easy if we grew up in families that didn’t accept negative emotions in children. “Say you’re sorry.” Is a classic line that tells children to feel something other than what they are really feeling. Rather than reflecting their true feelings of frustration or anger, we are telling them to feel remorse. When children can have anger or frustration validated, they will often come to a genuine place of feeling sorry and express it sincerely. We can say, “It is absolutely not okay to hit your brother even if you feel really, really angry. Come and tell me how angry you are.”

Telling children what they should enjoy or when they should be hungry is another way of insisting that they feel the way we want them to. “What do you mean you didn’t have fun at the birthday party? There was cake and balloons and lot of kids to play with.” Everyday in many ways we can talk children out of their feelings, which sadly chips away at their own inner guidance and sense of self. The discipline for the parent is to learn to let go of this emotional control and replace it with acceptance and understanding. This kind of respect will guide children to a deeper level of moral development.

How do you teach responsibility?: One of the best ways to teach responsibility is to let kids experience the bumps and bruises of real life consequences. Of course we are there to support them emotionally but they need to learn to pull their own wagon. That means getting clear with kid issues and stepping out of the framework. If it is a kid issue, get out of there! An eleven year old needs to forget his homework and experience the embarrassment or frustration of not having it – forgetting lunches, sleeping in and missing class – smelling bad and having a friend tell him or being cold without the coat. Parents take that learning away too often and the end result is that they (the parent) will be blamed when something goes wrong. Get out of there!

Kids need to learn that when they take responsibility they create freedom in their lives. Freedom is exactly the consequence that you use to teach that. When we all chip in with the Saturday morning clean, we can all take off and have some fun. When, then. Use the positive consequence of giving freedom to a child who has taken responsibility.

“Because you come home on time and let us know where you are if you are going to be late, we can be flexible with your curfew.”

“Because you got dressed on time this morning, we can stop at the park on the way to pre-school.”

The flip side is that when they don’t take responsibility, there is less freedom.

Take time to teach -Remember to take time to teach your child to take responsibility so that they feel confident. We have outlined four stages for taking responsibility on:

Level 0: The child is too young to have the responsibility but the parent includes them by explaining what they are doing and letting the child help. The age depends on the task.

Level 1: This is a time of explicit teaching and practicing. Let your child know they are at this level and explain we are all level 1’s when learning something new. This can apply to anything such as washing dishes, riding a bike, being home alone, babysitting … the list goes on.

Level 2 : The child has learned the skill involved and now needs some guidance and perhaps a reminder. Some people feel their kids stay stuck at this stage and that may be true with family issues but if it is a kid issue, they can progress the next level.

Level 3 : No parental intervention or nagging! This disciplines the parents more than anything to stay out of that framework. Let the child take over the task. Natural consequences will teach him here, you can let go.

How do you teach values? : We come into parenthood with all kinds of values from how we sit at a table, manners, style of dress and much more. These values were probably learned in our own childhood and we learned them from our parents. Many of these values need to be examined carefully. Do we really think a three year old should sit at the table for half an hour and say please and thank you while keeping her elbows off the table? If we do, we could have many power struggles on our hands. Sometimes values need to be challenged and our children will be the first ones to do so. For example, why is it okay for girls to wear hats inside and not boys? These kinds of values will be challenged and if they don’t make sense, perhaps we need to relook them. This requires flexibility and a willingness to take an honest look at our own belief systems.

Values are taught by our modeling and while children may rebel against them, they will often come back to them as adults.

How do we enforce safety? : Safety is the one area where logical consequences need to be discussed ahead of time and carried through with. Matters that concern safety such as riding a bike with a helmet, a limited number on the trampoline, not playing with sticks or driving a car responsibly are the types of limits that need to be supported by a parents willingness to take action. Taking action means simply following through with the agreed upon consequence. It doesn’t mean yelling, lecturing or getting angry. As a matter of fact, when we do that, we take away from the consequence. It becomes “all about your anger” versus “a bad choice made by the child”.

This is where you get to practice what we call “dead head responses”. This is how it might sound with a seven year old:

Parent: “Gee son, I’m sorry to see you riding without your helmet, we discussed this and now I am going to have to remove your bike privileges for three days.”

Child: “Oh come on, give me another chance. I’m going to look like a geek if I don’t have a bike.”

Parent: “Maybe so.”

Child: “My friends will all leave without me and I won’t have anything to do.”

Parent: “Maybe so.”

Child: “Fine, be like that. You are the meanest dad in the world.”

Parent: “Maybe so.”

Having a dead head answer stops the parent from “biting the bait”. It gives the parent a little safety line to hang onto instead of jumping in and getting into an argument.

Anger Chart – Healthy Process for dealing with Strong Emotions

In our chapter titled The Intelligence of Emotions, it features an Anger Chart that shows a healthy process for dealing with strong emotions. While doing the radio show and discussing anger and the chart, many people called asking for a copy. Many people find themselves feeling very intense emotions while parenting their children. Parenting can certainly raise the stress levels to an all time high. What Dr. Miller and I talk about in this chapter is the importance of paying attention to underlying feelings. Those feelings are there to tell you what needs aren’t being met. If you can catch them and try to meet some of those needs, there is a much greater chance of controlling behaviour when the strong emotions come up.

Our chart uses the word anger as an acronym and encourages people to pay attention to the early warning signs. When you notice yourself going there, get out, gear down and don’t deal with issues until you have reached the voice of reason!

Steps to awareness: How this can be effective:
A Attend to your early signals of anger. What do you feel in your body? How do you behave? You can catch anger before it escalates. When you increase your awareness of the early signals, you can create choices around your behaviour.
N Negotiate with those around you about your anger, not about specific issues. Choose distance and time. Discuss this strong emotion with your family. Come up with a signal that means you need time out: Give me five, Grumpy guy alert, Bag lady alert. Or negotiate with yourself and just choose distance until you have calmed down. Even turning your back and breathing can be effective.
G Gear down from behaviours to exploring feelings, and identify them if you can. Pay attention to your own triggering thoughts that may provoke anger. G = Get alone
E = Express your emotions
A = Analyze your thoughts
R = Re-examine your beliefs This process can take time. Articulate your feelings. Ask yourself whether they are old or new. Use your feelings to explore what your needs are. Catch negative trigger thoughts and replace them with healing ones.
E Express your feelings and needs assertively. When you _____,
I feel_____
because _______.
I want/would like you to _________.
R Resolve issues if possible. It may be as simple as making a positive request. It may mean engaging in conflict resolution. It may mean resolving the issue within yourself. Resolving conflict stops the circular motion of old issues and patterns from constantly recurring. Resolution doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can’t exist without the preceding steps. Often we need to feel anger to know there is a boundary that needs to be addressed.