Letting Teen Make Own Decisions

Q: I feel like I am in a quandary of sorts. My youngest child, who will be 17 next month, wants desperately to go with her best friend to a haunted castle. My oldest went to this when he turned 18 because we felt he should start making those decisions on his own. What is your opinion on this regarding older teens?

I hate anything remotely dark or evil and have always despised anything like it, but I also don’t want to be one of those over-the-top helicopter moms who shelter their child so much that they rebel when they are on their own. Can you give any advice for us teen parents on this topic? Is it time for me to let go and just start letting her make these decisions?

A: This fall, we allowed our 15-year-old 9th grader go to a haunted walk with a friend (and the friend’s dad). Not something I ever wanted to do (and her younger sister—who’s the same age as the friend—didn’t want to go either), but sometimes, it is time to let them make those decisions as teens. What we ended up doing with my daughter was to tell her that she had to pay for half the ticket price herself. That meant if she really wanted to go, she’d part with some of her cash.

What we did was talk about it ahead of time, making sure they understood what they were getting into. And we regularly discuss evil/good, what we should watch, what God says we should or shouldn’t do, pray together, etc. It’s our job as parents to impart our family values to them as they grow up so that when they reach the teen years, they have a firm foundation upon which to make their own decisions.

When kids are teens, it’s time to start letting them make these low-impact decisions. It’s a haunted castle, so things will be gory and scary and, well, kind of fun if you like to be scared (which some kids do), but in a controlled environment.

I also find that my husband is a good counterpoint to my own inclinations, because I’m with you on avoiding that sort of stuff because of how it impacts me. But it doesn’t affect my husband nearly as much, nor does it my oldest daughter. It’s important to offer guidance but to let them make their own decisions in these types of things.

Yes, it’s hard sometimes to let go and let them experience the joys and trials of making their own decisions, but for teens to be ready to make those decisions in the real world, they need practice in situations like these. Will they make bad decisions? Of course they will (didn’t you as a teen? I know I did), but from the safety of the family, we’re there to help them recover and move on.

 

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is inspired by Jennifer Rossmiller of Grand Rapids, Mich. Jennifer’s then 10-year-old daughter Annabelle Leigh paid for a $2 ice cream with a twenty, but told the ice cream driver to keep the change.

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

A “Death” Wish?

Q: I have a 7 year old son who just happily started second grade. He is extremely bright and normal in every way. No major discipline problems, no unexplained behavior. Maybe a year or so ago he started occasionally say to me “I’ve lived too long” or “Life feels like a dream to me” completely out of the blue. I passed it off as an immature way of explaining a feeling of déjà vu or something like that.

But recently, he came home from school with a writing worksheet where he was to fill in sentences starting with things like “I am…”, “I want…”, etc.  He had written “I dream to die,” “I try to die” and “I wish to die.” When I (as calmly as possible) asked him to explain he first looked abashed, and then said “I’ve lived too long.”

He got extremely frustrated when I asked him to explain a different way because I didn’t understand. He said he didn’t know how else to explain it, and he stormed off to his room. Later he came back out and said he doesn’t like his life. Again I asked for clarification and eventually he told me that his brother talks too much and I ask too many questions. 

I told him that we all love him and don’t want him to die, and left it alone for the rest of the night. I have sent the teacher a note asking her to take a look and give me her opinion but I am wondering if I need to seek counseling. His normal behavior is incongruous with these kind of statements, but there’s always that nagging feeling that the “I’ve lived too long” comments are not quite normal either.   

A: My youngest son (we’ll call him “Sam”), now 9, went through a phase around your son’s age where Sam said on a daily basis that he “wanted to die at age 19.” We quickly realized that he didn’t have an explanation as to why he said this—by all other accounts, he was a happy, well-adjusted child—he just had this “thing” about dying when he reached 19.

We decided the best course of action (as it is with most child obsessions) was to monitor his behavior from afar and ignore the “dying talk.” We did impose one restriction: He was not to talk about death or dying at school, because it freaked out his teachers (who have been trained to notice when any kid mentions death/dying as a suicide prevention method). We told Sam this because he had written something like “I want to die” on a class assignment.

The funny thing about kids is that they often don’t know why certain thoughts pop into their minds—and at this age, they rarely have the maturity to delve deeper into their subconscious to figure out what they mean by death or dying.

But the other funny thing about kids is that the more a grownup talks to a child about an obsession (or fear), the more that child clings to that obsession or fear. In other words, we adults—as well-meaning as we are—can escalate these things when ignoring and not trying to get a child to explain or “get talked out of” or see “reason” allows the fear or obsession to die a natural death.

Already, you’re feeding the obsession by asking him lots of questions—to which, he doesn’t have any answers (or, probably more accurately, any answers that will make sense to you, as an adult). Children are illogical beings and what goes on in their minds often won’t make a lick of sense to us.

So what to do? As long as your son appears to be behaving as usual—no deviants from his usual demeanor, etc.—then don’t worry about his dying talk. In fact, just ignore it completely. When Sam would say, “I’m going to die in my sleep when I’m 19,” we all shrugged and changed the subject.

Remember, kids get weird thoughts and are strange creatures! It sounds like your son is just in a dying phase and I suspect he will outgrow it as he gets focused on other things and matures some more.

As for my Sam? He hasn’t uttered those words about dying in a very long time.

Taming the Christmas Gimmees

From the commercials on TV to the displays in stores, everything this time of year is designed to create a green-eyed monster of envy in our kids. Today, with the holiday season starting either before or immediately after Halloween, there is more opportunities for children to get wound up about the December holidays. With so much focus in stores, in commercials, in product catalogs, etc., on getting what you want for Christmas, kids become overly focused on themselves, and thus become more stressed or bratty because of that mindset.

We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can. Kids are bombarded with the message that they should have—and deserve to have—anything they want. Children compile wish lists that run to pages and pages of often high-priced toys and gadgets, and many kids demand gifts that are not practical (like a pony) or not affordable (like the entire American Girl doll collection).

For parents, helping kids develop a more giving, rather than getting, attitude towards Christmas is to manage holiday Christmas expectations in themselves and their children by thinking and discussing the holidays now. Keep in mind that if you ask adults today what they most remember about Christmas, it’s usually not the presents but the time spent doing something with their family and friends.

How can you guide your child toward more reasonable gift expectations?

Get to the why behind the want. What is it about this present that appeals to your child? Figuring that out will help guide you in what to get your child.

Reign in the wish lists. Set a dollar limit (we do $30 or under for most gifts), plus a number of items. We also didn’t allow kids to send grandparents or relatives a list of items that individually cost more than $20 each.

Think about less costly or more practical alternatives. Maybe instead of a pony, you could offer a child riding lessons or take them to see a horse show.

Quality verses quantity. There’s a time in a child’s life when more gifts is important. One year, I bought lots of little gifts, mostly under $5, for my four kids and wrapped each separately. They will thrilled, it was affordable and fun. But as the kids get older, you can talk about the fact that sometimes the price tag of one gift means that’s basically it.

Experiences versus tangible gifts. Sometimes, you might consider offering a child an experience over a present he could hold. For example, last Christmas, my two girls wanted to see the musical Wicked, which was coming to a local theater near Christmas. Given the price of the performance tickets, we opted to make that their big gift and only gave them a few smaller presents to open on Christmas. Some families opt to go on a special vacation together around the holidays rather than open a lot of gifts.

Communicate expectations ahead of time. If it will be a tighter holiday financially, let them know that but in a way that doesn’t cause additional worry. Instead of saying, “We can’t afford a big Christmas,” try, “This year, we’re scaling back on actual presents, but we’re going to do more family things to celebrate.”

Involve them in giving. This time of year especially, it’s important to direct kids’ outward rather than inward. Adopt a family, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, and other ways to get a child excited about helping others.

Above all, remember what it is you enjoy as a family around Christmas, and try to make that your focal point, rather than run yourself ragged with piling up gifts.

A Teen and Her Five Year Old Brother

Q: My question is about sibling conflict between my 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. They are constantly fighting! And they are basically just rude and disrespectful towards each other so much of the time. I have read articles that say to let them work it out, but the hard part for me is the age gap between them. I feel frustrated when my 13-year-old gets rude to my five-year-old because I feel like she should know better and she should teach him better.

At the same time, my son gets extremely ugly in his behavior towards her, which also frustrates me because he’s not like that with other people. I feel like he’s still learning and she should already know not to say or do certain things to a little kid. The truth is she does. She is great with everybody else’s kids. She’s super-sweet and patient and loving. But to her brother, she’s not at all. She’s quick to get angry with him, and super dramatic about everything that he does. He will just go up and do certain things to her like grab something from her, and he’s even lied to get her in trouble.

Like I said, I know the articles say that I need to let them work it out, but there just seems to be so much tension between them and the age difference is what makes it really hard for me to know what to do. How do you suggest handling conflict of all types between children who are so far apart in age and development? A teenager and a preschool age child are so far apart!

A: I know how much this must hurt your mommy heart! But don’t despair—this can be turned around. A few things come to mind to help this situation.

  1. For now, don’t expect your teen to babysit her younger brother. I know, we rejoiced when our oldest hit 13 and we could leave her in charge of her three younger siblings and didn’t have to pay a sitter. But the dynamic here has gotten out of whack, so stop leaving her in charge (if you did before) until things resolve into more pleasantness between them.
  2. Be careful you’re not asking the teen to do too much to help her brother. Sometimes, we slip into the habit of relying on the older sib to help the younger one, and we do it too often—that can breed resentment and contempt on the part of the older sib.
  3. Separate them as much as possible for a while. In other words, they should interact as few times as possible while you help them work on a reset to their relationship.
  4. Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with each of them, talking about the child in front of you, not the child at home. Kids act out when they don’t feel a connection with their parents. We take turns taking our kids to breakfast, for example.
  5. Take each one aside (not during your one-on-one special time) to check in with them about the sibling. Ask what’s going on, that you’ve noticed their relationship is frayed. Don’t accuse the child of doing something—your goal is fact-finding. Listen more than you talk. Empathize with the older one that her little brother can be annoying, and with the younger one that his sister can be snarky to him. Don’t try to fix it, don’t tell them what to do, just listen to get the tenor of what’s going on. Do this a few times over a week or so.

6.Then ask each one separately what would make their relationship better. Again, don’t jump in and defend one child to another, or don’t immediately dismiss the solution. Then ask the child/teen what they could do to make the relationship better.

  1. Call a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed how each of them treat the other (they should be less likely to jump in defensive since you’ve already talked to them separately) and that’s not the way families act. Say the new rule is that for every put down, name calling, rude or disrespectful thing they say about the other sibling, they have to say at least three things they like or appreciate about that sibling. Tell them they each have to do at least two nice things for that sibling (like make lunch or hang up their coat, or bring them a pen because they asked for one and the cat is on their lap) each day before dinner, and that you’ll ask them at dinner what those things are.
  2. Do things together as a family, play games, read a book, start with small increments of time (like 15 minutes) so that you can end on a happy, rather than fighting, note.
  3. And don’t expect too much of your young teen. Sure, she should know better, but in many ways, she’s just a kid too.

More Tips on Staying Sane During December

I asked for advice on Facebook about how to not be overwhelmed during the holidays. Here’s what friends had to say:

Teresa Danner Kander says, “I try to do most of the stressful stuff, like the shopping, before Thanksgiving, so that the time from Thanksgiving to New Years is filled with fun stuff, family time, and occasional me time. And I don’t let myself build up unreachable expectations for get-togethers.”

Trinity Jensen cuts back on her expectations in regards to things like shopping, baking and decorating. Dianna Francis suggests treating Christmas as just another day to value.

Laura Ferratt echoes that thought by encouraging us to “stop in the middle of the craziness and ask yourself if today was my last day on earth, what would be important? Keep your focus on those few things and let the rest go, at least in your mind, if not in your schedule. I’ve been forced to think this way throughout my husband, Brion’s, illness, and it has been freeing and a blessing amidst pain and suffering.”

Carol Miller Huttar recommends doing ahead as much as possible. “I get everything done early, before Thanksgiving. Then I enjoy lots of fires in the fireplace, cups of hot cider, and carols.” Erin Unger is also a fan of shopping early. She even wraps all the presents by December 10. “That takes a huge weight off my shoulders during the holidays.”

April Six Wise says “no” to more things than she says “yes” to this time of year. “For example, if I’m stressed, I buy store bought cookies for the party instead of making them myself (this one is hard for me to be okay with!) and make easy meals for dinner the whole holiday season. I have to say ‘no’ to events if it messes with kiddo bedtime—or my bedtime. I’m also limiting the kids’ Christmas lists this year to one thing they want, one thing they need, something to wear, and something to read. And I’m going minimalist for decor and kid crafts. Clutter makes me super, super stressed!

John Chase agrees with April, adding “by ‘things,’ I mean anything that is contrary to the message of Christmas. Christmas to me is celebrating the advent of Emmanuel through all the music written over the centuries and the sacred events that occur in local churches and by spending time with family. All the rest can be chucked.”

Cheryl D. Hammond reminds us to slow down. “One of the biggest changes I made was to have Christmas Eve and Day sacred. We attend a candlelight service together as a family, then go home together and wake up the next morning to unwrap presents together. Christmas can be celebrated on any day, so extended family get-togethers are scheduled after Christmas Day. I used to wake up at my house, do Christmas there, then drive to my parents’ house to do it again with my side of the family. That was too crazy.”

Above all, keep in mind why you enjoy this season of the year: Family, friends and fellowship. Everything else isn’t as important as holding onto those things.

Adjusting to the Arrival of a Second Child

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After our firstborn arrived, my wife, Maryam, refused to leave her alone with anyone. On rare occasions, I might watch her, but almost no one else. As she drew closer to delivering our second child, Maryam’s attachment to her firstborn became a concern.

The night before the new baby arrived, Maryam had trouble sleeping. She went into irregular labor early in the morning, but her labor did not move towards regular contractions every 10 minutes, as parents are told to expect. We had not taken a child-birth class and did not know how to respond. After having labor pains all night, by five o’clock in the morning I became concerned. We debated calling my sister-in-law to watch our child, but Maryam refused to call. By five-thirty, I called my sister-in-law.

My sister-in-law came over right away. Maryam and I called ahead to Inova Fairfax Hospital, then drove there. On arrival, we checked into the natal unit and we settled in for a long wait, expecting a lengthy delivery as with our first child. However, the doctors examined Maryam briefly, announced that she needed an emergency Cesarean delivery, and whisked us immediately into the delivery room. The delivery went fine and our second child was born—a beautiful baby girl—but Maryam had to stay longer in the hospital than planned.

When our oldest and I arrived at the hospital the next day to visit, she held onto me rather than running immediately to her mother. Maryam was not happy!

In the following months, the family division of labor changed dramatically. Maryam could manage one child by herself, but having two required teamwork. A single child gets a lot of attention that cannot be sustained with two, because one of them always moves around or needs something. When our first arrived, I bought a new 35 mm, single lens reflect camera and filmed her every move, but when our second arrived, we seldom had time to photograph.

Adding to our adjustments, our second child experienced more colic than her sister, which left us tired all the time. No one wants a crying baby around. I remember being told undiplomatically one Sunday morning to move to the back of the church, because our firstborn was making too much noise. Unlike the 1950s, churches today mostly lack a cry room and expect parents either to disappear during worship or to delegate care to someone else, which we never did.

Instead, we learned to cope and adjust, as all new parents do.

This blog post was abstracted and edited from Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir by Stephen Hiemstra. (T2Pneuma Publishers LLC, 2017). Used with permission.

About Stephen W. Hiemstra

Stephen Hiemstra lives in Centreville, Va., with Maryam, his wife of more than 30 years. Together, they have three grown children.

Stephen worked as an economist for 27 years in more than five federal agencies, where he published numerous government studies, magazine articles, and book reviews. He wrote his first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality in 2014. In 2015, he translated and published a Spanish edition, Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad. His second book, Life in Tension, focuses on Christian spirituality. This year, he published a memoir, Called Along the Way. Correspond with Stephen at T2Pneuma@gmail.com or follow his blog at http://www.T2Pneuma.net.

 

 

Freshman Blowing (Vaping) Smoke

Q: My 14-year-old freshman has been telling me how he vapes in the high school bathroom with friends. My husband and I do not smoke or vape, and we have made it very clear that he needs to wait until he no longer lives in our house to do either. However, he keeps talking about it, telling us which vape pen he wants to buy, and today he even showed me a video of him vaping!

Why in the world would he be doing all this when we would never find out otherwise? We are not sure how to handle thing because obviously we cannot keep him home from school (where this is happening.) We can punish him when he tells us—this may stop him from making these confessions but I am not even sure about that. Why would he feel the need to tell us? It is almost like he is showing off! Any suggestions?

A: He’s telling you because he’s a young teen, he needs to confess, and he wants to connect with you. For which you should be grateful on all counts, yes? He’s not showing off to his parents, per se, but vaping is something that excites him, that has captured his interest, and that his crowd is into. And a young teen excited means he has to talk about it…even to his disapproving parents.

What can you do about it? That depends. First, I will point out that many states have laws that prohibit young teens from vaping, so check yours to see if he’s breaking the law by using electronic cigarettes. Regardless of that, I’m fairly certain his high school has rules about use of electronic cigarettes (and regular cigarettes) on campus anywhere, so find out and then inform your son that you will be turning him to the school authorities for breaking the rules. If he thinks he’s old enough to vape, then he’s old enough to face the consequences.

As to what you should do about all his vape talk, have you tried engaging him? What about vaping does he like? Does he think it makes him look cool? Is this what his friends do? See if you can have honest, interested conversations to delve beneath the surface of the vaping talk and get to the heart of the matter.

Then establish house rules. Some that come to mind are no illegal substances in the house, no smoking or vaping in the house, and no underage consumption (tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, etc.). Go over the house rules with him to ensure he understands. But also tell him that these are for the good of the family and for him as well. Remind him that he can call or text you anytime to be picked up and you’ll do it without question (those can come later).

And reconnect with him on a more positive level, such as engaging in his favorite outdoor activity or trying a new one. Find ways to show him how much you care about him. I don’t think we can spend too much time with our teens showing them our love in both word and deed.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is from K.W. of Tulsa, Okla. She says, “I don’t know why my nearly 5-year-old daughter thought it would be a good idea to sneak off with a piece of raw chicken breast. This is the same child who refuses to eat meat normally.” Her daughter suffered no ill effects from eating the raw meat.

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

Can a Toddler Learn From Consequences?

Q: What is an appropriate way to punish a 17-month-old for being bad, i.e. deliberately disobeying when I tell him not to do something? Is time out appropriate for this age? If it is how do I even get him to stay put in a time out spot?

A: The only way to discipline a toddler is to remove and contain. A toddler doesn’t have long-term memory, so he can’t connect a consequence to the misbehavior. A toddler can know something is wrong, but the “I do this, so this happens” isn’t there.

Time out isn’t an effective tool to change a child’s behavior at all—not for toddlers, not for preschoolers, not for any child, so eliminate that from your consequence toolbox. For toddlers, the most effective way is to remove a toddler from the situation (like a playdate when the toddler starts hitting, for example) and containing him (like putting him in his crib when he’s has a temper tantrum).

My favorite tip for handling toddlers is one that really works. Don’t tell a toddler: “Don’t climb on the table.” Instead say: “No climbing on the table.” For some reason, the “don’t” contraction trips up the toddler, obscuring the message you’re communicating. Using a simply “No” instead is much more effective.

And finally, remember not to negotiate with a toddler—just stick to your guns and deal with the temper tantrum that’s sure to follow when you tell your little tyrant in short pants “no.”