Is Your Teen Stressed or Normal?

Q: My 17-year-old daughter claims to be anxious and depressed due to lack of best friends. She was homeschooled until junior year when she enrolled in the local community college full time. She’s getting straight A’s, held down a job, and participates in high school and community theatre. She is still somewhat of an “outsider” with high school kids but tries to initiate social events. Her anxiety and depressed moods usually occur when she’s overly busy or has been ditched by her peers. She’s not an attention-mongering teen by any means, and is an extremely kind and compassionate child.

Isn’t this normal teen angst? How can I tell if it’s serious enough to have her seen by a counselor?

A: Teens are suffering from depression in record numbers, and it’s wise not to ignore cries for help—even when you’re not sure the teen really needs it. A couple of things come to mind that might help you navigate the older teen years with your daughter.

First, don’t belittle her feelings. I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve told her that you don’t think her anxiousness or depression is “real,” so I hope that you’ve kept that to yourself. It’s important for us to listen to our teen’s struggles, and to provide a safe place for them to vent. It’s a fine line between encouraging and listening, so be careful not to provoke prolonged emotional outpourings, but being available and willing to listen without criticizing or offering advice is crucial, especially during the teen years.

Second, teens face real stress in their lives. Pressure from peers, teachers, themselves, and social media can make them feel anxious, stressed and depressed. It’s important for the adults in her life to be supportive, not dismissive, of her and help to mitigate the stress in her life. I recently wrote an article on teen stress you might find helpful.

Also, point out to your daughter during non-stressful periods how she acts and what she says when she’s stressed. Helping her to see the bigger picture will help her navigate the stressful ones better.

So yes, some of what your daughter’s facing is probably typical teen angst. Your best course of action is to listen more than speak, suggest but don’t force, and provide a safe haven for her to vent and make changes. If she does want to talk with a counselor or therapist, then help her find one who specializes in teens. If your daughter is depressed, you want to get her professional help sooner rather than later. Remember, therapists and other medical professionals can assist teens (and adults) in learning how to navigate the stresses life throws at us.

May Parenting Thought of the Month: Stress-Free Transitions

Need some practical ways to help your child switch gears between home and school, home and leaving, library and home, etc.?

First, it’s important to first understand how kids view change. In a word—they hate it. Children thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. It’s not that they can’t change—it’s just that they’d rather not, thank you very much. As adults, we’ve gotten used to change—we know we have to expect it, that we have to roll with the unexpected. We carry on little dialogues in our head that help us through change but a child hasn’t developed that internal dialogue yet, so that makes change even more difficult at times.

Second, establishing regular routines help a child feel safe, secure and loved. So if you haven’t taken the time to work on a daily routine with your kids, make that a priority. I think you’ll find transitions easier if kids know what to expect on a regular basis.

But we can’t always stick to the same routine every day because of a little thing called life. By giving kids the tools they need to manage the anxiety that comes with change, to stop apocalyptic thinking and keep their eyes on the positive, they will be happier and less stressed.

Here are 10 ways you can assist your children in adjusting to change—whether it’s a small one, like stopping by the store on the way home from preschool, or a major one, like moving to a new home.

Know how your child handles change. Some kids are more flexible when it comes to change, while others act like if we’ve done it this way once, it’s set in stone. One of my daughters prefers things to stay the same, and even at 13, I strive to not spring trips or visits on her at the last minute. We live in a fluid world, and sometimes we need to go with the flow, so to speak. A trip to the store takes twice as long as anticipated and now your child has to miss his favorite TV show. Or someone gets sick so planned trip to see grandmother has be postponed. By expressing that you, too, are sad about the change in plans can help your child handle it.

Be calm yourself. When we are frazzled, our kids pick up on that and sometimes can be as stressed as we are. Figure out how you can approach life with more calmness and less chaos, and you’ll find that transitions go a little bit smoother.

Think about what hampers your child from handling transitions easily. Is it around nap time? Meal time? Is it after school or before a soccer game? Discovering what might contribute to fussiness about changes will help you counter those and not be surprised when the balking starts.

Let him express his feelings—up to a point. A child should have more leeway when the change is a big one than when it’s a small one. By allowing him to say he’s sad or cry when disappointed can be a good thing, as long as we don’t then fuss too much over his feelings. A child, even a young one, needs to learn how to control his emotions. I’m not saying that he won’t have them or has to keep them bottled up, but rather it’s part of our job as parents to help him master his emotions—or they will control him.

Don’t over-schedule yourself or your child. Too much of the time, we try to pack too much into too short a time. We sign up our children for too many activities and sports, leaving precious little down time and time for play and being at home. Sometimes we create our own stressful transitions by packing too much into our days or weeks. Make sure you have regular intervals of time for your children to be at home without anything on the agenda but play and fun.

Give a 5- or 10-minute warning. This allows the child to begin to mentally prepare. I know when I’m caught off guard and need to leave right this instance, it throws me off, so I usually tell my kids, “In 10 minutes, we’re leaving for the library.”

Get yourself ready first. This seems too simple to have much impact, but if you’re not rushing around gathering things together, then you’ll be much calmer when readying a recalcitrant child. Have a staging area near the door that you can put all the things you need to take to the car, and have a place for your child’s things, too.

Outline the steps. For younger kids, give only one or two verbal steps at a time—more than that and the child won’t be able to remember. Use the Short and Sweet principle. For example, don’t say, “We’re going to the library for story time and to check out books. You want to get that dinosaur one, right? So you need to get on your shoes, go to the bathroom and get on your coat.” Way too long for a preschooler and most kids, frankly. Instead say, “Get on your shoes right now.” After that has been accomplished, tell him the next step. As your kids get older, you’ll only have to inform them where you’re going for them to know what they need. But be available for questions that might come up.

Set a timer. For young children, the concept of time has yet to become concrete. They have no idea how long things take or how long they’ve been “getting dressed.” A simple kitchen timer can be of enormous assistance in getting kids ready. I used one frequently for my kindergartners, who loved to race the clock. The timer keeps the child’s focus on the task at hand in a quest to beat time itself. So remember that the timer is your friend!

Build in extra time. Figure out how long it will take to get to where you need to be when you need to get there—and then add an extra 5 or 10 minutes. That way, when your son can’t find his shoe or your daughter decides today is the day to make mud pies, you’ll still have time to deal with the crisis and still be on time. There’s nothing more stressful than running late, so adding an extra cushion of time can help make you calmer and thus your children.

These steps should help you get out the door and home again. You can easily apply them to larger transitions, such as school to summer or summer to school as well.

Who Should Set a Teen’s Bedtime?

Q: Is it unreasonable to tell a 16-year-old boy he should have lights out by 10 p.m.? He works hard on school, despite not liking it, but often stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework or reading. He has plenty of time in late afternoon, evenings and weekends to do it, but has created this odd schedule for himself.

Now he is also doing part-time work, about 7-10 hours per week, and his (very kind) boss has commented about him being crabby. He wants to go on a weekend retreat with our church that always wears out the kids by Sunday evening, so we told him to adhere to this bedtime before we decide if he may go. He is NOT happy with this, ripped up his retreat registration form and is generally hostile about the whole idea.

A: The short answer to your question? It’s not unreasonable, but it might not be enforceable.

Of course he’s hostile—he doesn’t want to be told when to go to bed as if he’s a toddler and not a teenager. The fact of the matter is, even if he complied with lights out at 10 p.m. each evening, that doesn’t mean he would actually get more sleep. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep, no matter the age.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set guidelines for him to follow that could help him go to bed earlier. For example, he must turn in his electronics by 9 p.m. each evening (central place for charging personal devices, laptops/PCs/tablets shut down, etc.). The TV goes off at a set time as well. The kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. each evening (no midnight snacks, etc.). Those general restrictions should assist with homework not being done late, since so much of it is done online in high school.

As for his boss saying he’s “crabby,” well, that’s up to his boss to address if son’s attitude is getting in the way of his serving customers. So I’d leave the crabby comment in the workplace arena and allow his boss to take action if necessary. That’s a natural consequence that your son can solve if he wants to—and better coming from an adult with authority over your son than your trying to solve the problem for him with an earlier bedtime.

For the church retreat, even if your son goes to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the retreat well rested. He will be tired and out of sorts after the retreat no matter what. Sometimes, teens need to find their own sleep limits before they’ll value sleep. I know my two teenage daughters know when they need to go bed because they’ve had to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Often, they will put themselves to bed earlier than usual because they’ve realized they need a little more rest ahead of a big test or after a sleepover, for example.

Overall, having in place home policies, like for electronic devices, is better than micromanaging a bedtime for a teenager. Model good sleeping habits yourself, discuss why sleep is important and let natural consequences happen when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on “Why you need to pay attention to your older kids’ sleeping habits” that has more info on this topic.

Incorporating Joy Into Your Parenting

Note: On the fourth Tuesdays, I’m starting a new blog series on the Fruit of the Spirit, taking us through the nine character traits and applying that to raising kids.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

A few years ago, Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, attempted “to look at the experience of parenthood systematically, piece by piece, stage by stage, in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Her premise is built on the fact that many parents today have little joy or happiness in parenting because we’re so worried and concerned about our kids.

One of my goals as a parent coach is to help parents recover their joy in raising kids. I’m not talking about some Pollyanna-esque mental state of constant, relentless joy, but the quiet, inner joy that radiates from your heart at the sight of your children. That delight we have in our children’s happiness—not in our making them happy, but in their expressing their happiness. This isn’t about how we can make others happy, as that’s a losing proposition from the get-go. This is about rediscovering your own joy in the midst of the sometimes frustration, sometimes hard, sometimes trying, sometimes difficult path along the parenting journey.

How can we have joy in the messiness of raising kids? Here’s how I experience joy, even when I feel like crying or screaming, in my parenting.

Enjoy the moment. When I’m really paying attention to my kids, and not giving them the once-over as I dash by to complete the next item on my to-do list, I can experience joy in their own joy. Seeing a son’s face light up as he talks to his brother about something that happened in a book he’s reading makes my heart light. Hearing my two teenage daughters laughing over a K-pop video brings a smile to my lips. Watching my husband tell an awful pun at dinner that makes everyone groan, then laugh, warms my inner core.

Remember each day is brand-new. One of my favorite quotes from Anne of Green Gables is “Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it.” Let’s make a pact to not over our anger or hurt into the next day. Let’s start each day with the idea that we can do better, our children can do better, and that we can find joy in the day’s tasks, activities and challenges.

Let go more than hang on. When we parent with open hands, not holding onto our—or our child’s—regrets, mistakes or missteps, our hearts will be lighter, our responses more positive, and our outlook rosier. That’s not to say we forget about the past, but it does mean we try not to bring up things that have been resolved, and we don’t measure the future by the past or present.

Ditch perfection and settle for okay. Don’t chase after having the perfect house, raising the perfect kid or being the perfect mother. Be okay with average. Embrace being “good enough.” When we do our best but don’t sweat perfection, we breathe easier and relax more—excellent ways to allow joy to bubble to the surface of our lives.

Smile or laugh every day. Kids are funny, and raising them can be even funnier. When you have those moments where you want to laugh or cry, choose laughter. Not at your kids, but with your kids. A smile will soften any hurt. A shared laugh will knit you closer together. So smile more, laugh more and your heart will feel more joyful.

These are just some of the ways that I find to bring joy into my parenting and my life. Whenever stress, challenges, discouragement or frustration beats down my joy, it’s usually because I’ve let these five simple things slide. If you haven’t been doing any of these things and want to have more joy in your life, then pick just one to start with—you’ll be amazed at what difference a small change can make.

Until next time,

Sarah

A Boy’s Early Curiosity Alarms Parents

Q: When my son was 5, he tried to search for “girl’s pee pee” and other related terms on his tablet, which luckily was on the child setting. We talked to him the best we could even though he denied it happened. We put extra tight restrictions on his already very limited tablet use. When he was 7, we discovered that he tried searching for much more explicit content (sex, sex with kids) on my husband’s computer, knowing he’s not allowed to use the Internet without an adult around. He was swiftly and severely punished for breaking that rule.

I was an utter mess about what he may have seen, and why and even how my little boy was so interested in this topic. I probably did too much talking, and he said nothing but “I know” in response. We are always reminding him that he can come to me or his dad with questions. But, he doesn’t ask us questions or come to us ever. And he is smart and sneaky about getting what he wants.

We bought an age-appropriate book about boys growing up/body changes, and my husband read it to him and our 10-year-old son (who has never been found to be involved in anything related to this.) Now, at age 8, I saw that my son wrote the word “sex” all over our shower door, while showering. He mostly plays with one other 8-year-old boy in our neighborhood, and sometimes is around other 10- to 11-year-olds, with his brother. Our boys have very limited screen time and no Internet access on their tablets, and only use it in a shared room with permission. He has no history of abuse. I’m sure the kids “talk” on the school bus, and it’s a curious topic for boys, but being that it started so young and he already has some graphic thoughts in his head, I’m worried about where it came from and how to stay ahead of things from here on out. Should I be worried?

A: I don’t mean to alarm you, but yes, you should be worried. You say “he has no history of abuse,” but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s rare that a 5-year-old would search out something like that on his own initiative. My initial, gut reaction is that someone older than him—a boy on the bus, a teenager or an adult—said something or showed him something that triggered that search.

If you’re absolutely, positively sure that he’s had no unsupervised time with an adult man (even a family member other than your husband), then my guess is that he’s viewed pornography. Either he stumbled upon it on his own or someone showed him something at school or the neighborhood. Even at his tender age, the fact remains that pornography is frighteningly easy to come into contact with—even without meaning to. Kids as young as your son who have seen pornography often don’t realize exactly what they saw, and that sparks curiosity, confusion and shame (hence, his not wanting to talk to you about the incident or incidents).

As you’ve seen, your son will deny viewing whatever it is he saw. He’s 8 years old—he barely knows what it is he’s seen, but he’s curious or intrigued. He’s been leaving you clues—sex written on the shower door, searching for “sex” on the computer he’s not supposed to touch—so act on those clues now. And by act, I don’t mean further punishment for your son.

What to do going forward? Eliminate all electronic device usage—no tablets, no computer time, no video games—for both boys. Just stop cold turkey. Lock up your own devices to help him avoid temptation.

Wait a few weeks before broaching the subject again. During that time, rebuild your connection with your son. So often our kids don’t want to share things with us because we’ve let the connection with them dissolve or fray. Spend time with him without bugging him about this topic, etc.

You will need to talk with him again, but do more listening than talking. Maybe your husband could take the lead and talk about his own foibles into sex (crushes on girls, other boys who talked about sex, etc.). Nothing graphic, but sharing more how hard it is to say no or “un-see” something. He shouldn’t push your son to share, but a series of conversations will likely get your son to open up about what he saw or someone showed him, etc.

Finally, if, after reading this answer and reflecting on the past few years, you have doubts about whether your son has been abused or could have been in a situation where abuse could have occurred, then please, please, please act immediately. There are professionals out there—medical, psychological/counselors, law enforcement—who will help, who are trained to assist and protect kids in these situations.

3 Ways to Hook Your Kids on Devotions

By JP Robinson

Last week, I told my kids that I’d have to cancel our devotions that evening because a family activity had run later than expected. Their response was typical: a resounding chorus of “oh no’s! and something on the lines of “Pleasssse, can we have devotions tonight?”

I call this response typical, and it is…for us. Perhaps it’s not typical in most homes but I’m blessed to have kids who literally beg me for devotions. This post identifies three ways to help you get my kind of problem—kids who are disappointed when devotions are cancelled!

  1. Show your kids that God is the Best. Thing. Ever.
    Devotions don’t begin when you gather your family together. They are an ongoing expression of commitment to God. Getting your kids “hooked” on Jesus, is something that every parent needs to do 24/7. If we limit our dedication to Jesus to 15 minutes a night, then we send a message to our kids/tweens/teens that God is not the center of our lives.

Remember: your kids won’t buy into devotions if you’re not showing them that you’re “devoted” to God. I love the word devotion. It entails commitment, love and sacrifice. When we show our children that God doesn’t revolve around our lives, but our lives revolve around God, we’re setting the stage to hook their interest in time spent in the Bible.

Think: How can we expect our kids to be excited about God if we parents are too busy to go to midweek service or too tired to read our Bibles every day?

  1. Get creative. No, you don’t need to spend money or do acrobatics in the living room. What I mean is, don’t limit the format of your devotions to simply talking about Scripture.

Remember: Kids of all ages learn best when they’re doing or seeing things. Classic example: I was trying to teach my kids how just a little sin can contaminate their spiritual health. A few drops of purple food coloring in a cup of water produced a lesson that even my youngest remembered weeks later.

Think: You’re competing with school, friends and social media for your child’s time and attention. To be effective, devotions need to be engaging and—to a certain extent—fun.

Try dramatizing a Biblical lesson (no costume needed) or enhancing a biblical discussion with a short movie clip. If all else fails, a quick Google search on “Devotion ideas for busy families” produces almost 4 million results.

  1. Let the kids run the show. This is perhaps the most effective strategy of the three. Too often, parents feel that devotions mean that they talk while the kids sit and absorb the information. As a high school teacher, I can tell you that engaged kids are the ones who really learn.

Remember: If you feel guidelines are necessary, that’s fine! Just keep it loose so they’re free to express their creativity. Not only does this take some pressure off of you, but it also engages your children from the onset.

Think: No matter how old your children, assign them each a devotion night. Let them take ownership and run the show their way.

I hope that these tips place your family on the road to power-packed devotions. Keep up the good work and God bless your efforts to nurture another Christ-loving generation.

About JP Robinson
JP Robinson began writing as a teen for the Times Beacon Records newspaper in New York. He holds a degree in English and is a teacher of French history. JP is known for creating vivid, high-adrenaline plots laced with unexpected twists. Born to praying parents who were told by medical doctors that having children was impossible, JP Robinson’s writes to ignite faith in a living God.

Early Riser Plagued by Fears

Q: Our 6-year-old son is an early riser. He is to stay in his room until 6 a.m., then allowed to come downstairs to play quietly. Lately he has been waking up mom and dad because he’s scared. We try not to talk to him about this because it’s probably more about him being lonely or wanting attention. We tell him to go find something quiet to do, but he comes back. Going to his room after dinner and to bed early on days when he bothers us this way has worked in the past, but is there a better fix for these tired parents, so we can get off this roller-coaster?

A: Ah, the joys and challenges of an early riser! There’s nothing more frustrating than kids who get up early when you want to sleep. Having boys myself who rose well before I wanted to get up, I understand your tiredness, but since there were two of them in my house, at least they had each other to play with, so I didn’t get the “scared” aspect.

I recommend a two-pronged approach to solving this dilemma. First, I would move his bedtime up earlier because 6-year-olds need more sleep than you think, and that might help alleviate some of his fears—when you’re tired, everything is scarier.

Second, when he leaves his room to play downstairs in the mornings, have a CD player he can pop in a CD, like his favorite music or audio book. That will “keep him company” while he plays by himself. Sometimes, just having a little background noise can help chase away feelings of uneasiness.

Finally, be sure you have touch point connections throughout the day with him. It might be that he’s not getting enough of those interactions, which don’t have to be long, but more speak to him directly. Some kids like snuggle time while reading a short book. Other kids like having mom or dad listen as they tell about the newest dinosaur they like. Still other kids enjoy sharing jokes or sitting in the sun singing a silly song. If you fill up that bucket during the day/evening, your son will be more likely to feel content—and less likely to let his fears run away with him.

Teaching Kindness

Q: How can I teach my 10-year-old daughter to have a kind heart? Her 7-year-old sister is always doing sweet things for her without prompting, and she sees it modeled between her dad and I doing selfless things for each other. We are just out of ideas to get her to think of others without being told.

A: I love that you’re asking this question because it’s important for us to teach our kids how to be kind and generous, tenderhearted toward one another, whether siblings or friends or classmates. As you’ve noticed yourself, some kids are born with a more generous, outgoing personality that spills over into little acts of kindness. This is how your 7 year old is (Younger), and that’s a wonderful thing.

However, I’m wondering if your 10 year old (Older) senses that you approve of her younger sister’s actions more than you do of her. In your question, you’re comparing the two—Younger is “always doing sweet things” while Older is not. I suspect that you’re probably either commenting about that in Older’s hearing or using nonverbal cues (smiles/fawning over Younger’s “sweet things,” while subtly judging Older for not doing spontaneous acts of kindness).

So first, please check your own heart and actions to ensure you’re not judging your girls the same. It also sounds like you and your husband are naturally good at these types of expressions, which can color how you look at Older and her seeming lack of kindnesses.

Second, remember that your children are different and have different personalities that express themselves in different ways. I encourage you to write down five things you see Older excel at and struggle with, then do the same for Younger. It’s important to realize Older has her own strengths and weaknesses just like Younger does. You might find that Older has other ways she shows kindnesses or a helpful spirit that you haven’t really noticed because it’s not as visible as Younger’s “sweet things.”

Now for teaching kindness, focus on both tangible and intangible expressions. For tangible, it can be helping kids to notice opportunities to be kind, such as picking up toys without being asked, volunteering to help with a chore or task, or helping to pick up something someone spilled or dropped. For intangible, it can be talking to the new kid during lunch, making sure to include everyone in the game at recess and being aware when someone’s upset and trying to comfort them.

Books help too, like Horton Hears a Who, The Invisible Boy, many of the Berenstain Bears books, The Giving Tree, and Anne of Green Gables. Reading and discussing characters who are kind and ones who aren’t can assist children in learning what kindness looks like and how to be kind themselves.

One thing we’ve done from time to time is ask each family member questions at dinner that touch on little kindnesses throughout the day, like

  • What did you do today that made you smile?
  • What did you do today that was kind to someone else?

Overall, it’s more about focusing on building character in both of your girls than in teaching only Older to be kind.