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.

 

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.

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.

Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

What’s Your ‘Mom’ Thing?

We all have at least one—that mom thing we like to do for our kids. That little gesture that we use on a regular basis to communicate without words that we love our kids. For example, one mom makes her kids’ lunches for school every day. Her mom did that for her, and she enjoys passing on the tradition to her three children.

I do hair. Each morning, I brush and braid my two teenager daughter’s hair. Once a month or so, I cut my two boys’ hair. Sure, the girls could do their own hair, but I enjoy it and they enjoy having me do that in the mornings before school.

It’s wonderful that we each have a regular way we connect with our kids. The trick is not to have so many “mom” things that your kids aren’t doing things on their own.

Please share your “mom” thing!

Sleep Isn’t Just for Babies

With the school in full swing, the pressure to pack more into each day accelerates, which usually means sleep, especially for kids, can be sacrificed. “Bad sleep habits affect the whole chemistry of a child or teen’s day,” says Dr. Anayansi Lasso-Pirot, pediatric pulmonologist and interim head of the division of pediatric pulmonology, allergy and sleep medicine at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. At her practice, she sees “tweens going to bed at midnight or later without the parents realizing their children are not sleeping enough….We learn some kids are sleeping six hours a night or less, which is not enough sleep even for an adult.”

My article “Why you need to pay attention to older kids’ sleeping habits” in the Washington Post On Parenting outlines the importance of sleep for older kids and suggests ways parents can encourage good sleep habits. Here are some additional ways parents can help their kids and teens develop healthy sleep patterns.

Model good habits. Parents should place a priority on sleep themselves. “There have been several studies that show a parent who leads by example when it comes to sleep is very effective,” says Dr. Robert S Rosenberg, board certified Sleep Medicine Physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety.

Have a set bedtime. Most nights, our 8-year-old goes to bed at 8 p.m., our 10-year-old at 8:30 p.m., our 12-year-old at 9 p.m., and our 14-year-old at 9:30 p.m. “A consistent bed time aids in the development of healthy sleep habits,” says Terry Cralle, a nurse and certified clinical sleep educator.

Turn off all electronics an hour before bedtime. Again, parents should set an example in this area. “What you do before bed can make it harder for you to fall asleep,” says Lasso-Pirot. “For example, if you’re playing a video game, it’s hard to go to bed right afterwards.”

Keep electronics, including cellphones, out of the bedroom. Have a central docking location or basket for devices. “If your child is getting texts in the middle of the night, know that it is a sleep distraction and can affect performance,” says Lasso-Pirot.

“Sleep is important for all of us and the younger you are, the more sleep your body requires to recharge the brain and process information,” says Christine Stevens, a certified sleep consultant with Sleepy Tots Consulting. “Parents must prioritize sleep for their families and set the example for their children with healthy sleep habits of their own.”

High Schoolers & The Internet

Q: Please help me navigate the Internet access issue for high schoolers. I know it’s recommended for kids to do their homework in their own rooms (so they know they are responsible), but I also know they shouldn’t have TVs and Internet access in their rooms. We don’t have TVs in bedrooms, but high schoolers require laptops with Internet access to check homework given, do research, and some online program/assignments. I know my teenagers also view content that is not beneficial and is time wasting in addition to homework. What do you recommend?

Image courtesy of tiniroma/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: We’ve never required our kids to do their homework in their rooms simply because with four kids, each share a room and there’s simply no space for a desk or other surface conducive to homework in their bedrooms. But we still apply the principle in that we ignore their homework—it is their responsibility completely. As soon as they were reading well (sometime in first grade), we stopped helping them on a regular basis. We do allow the occasional question, and have clearly communicated that we will not run out and buy X, Y or Z for a last-minute project.

So our kids do their homework at the dining room table (we have an open floor plan) and the computers available to our middle schoolers for homework are centralized to the kitchen/dining /living room area. This allows us to keep an eye on what they’re doing, looking at, etc., but we steer clear of involvement. This has helped immensely with them not trying to sneak watching things and it has helped us monitor computer usage in general.

Our computer usage rules are simple: Three hours a day to include homework time and the computers are off limits at 7 p.m. each evening (well, we allow a little extra on Friday nights!). This means that they must have homework that needs to be done online finished by 7 p.m. each evening.

I share that to help you devices your own computer/electronic device policy. In my experience, having a set “off” time each evening will be more effective than telling them when to do their homework. Have them move their laptops to a central area so you can keep an eye on what they’re doing (or not doing). Also have a docking station for all electronic devices to be plugged in and left overnight to avoid the temptation to check who’s texting who at 3 a.m.

They may complain that it’s not enough time for them to do their homework, to which you shrug and say that you hope they will figure out how to make it work because that’s the new shutoff time. Then stick with it, even though they will probably come to you in a panic a time or two saying they haven’t finished. When they do, point out that they can certainly get up earlier to finish before school!

And practice good device usage yourself. It’s one thing to insist on down time from electronics for your kids and another to not put down the devices yourself. Develop technology free zones, such as during dinner and on Sundays, to help kids stay connected to the family and the real world.

Should Parents Seek Counseling for Socially Inept Ninth Grader?

Q: My son’s a 14-year-old ninth grader. His principal has mentioned to me a couple of times that he thinks my son could benefit from counseling on social issues, as he is socially not doing too great. By not great, I mean his interactions with others are often tense and negative. However, he has plenty of friends and enjoys hanging out with them.

The principal said he’s heard murmurings from other students that my son stirs up tensions. But there isn’t anything that can actually be pinned down, like “You lose all privileges until you go four weeks without punching and hitting.” It’s much more subtle.

His teacher also mentioned something along the same lines. I’ve already been advised three times to take him for counseling (once from the teacher and twice from the principal), but I have little to no faith in the profession (based on past experience).

Just wondering if you have a good idea how to handle such a vague situation?

Image courtesy of nenetus/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A. There’s nothing worse than trying to combat rumors, especially in a high school where things can be easily distorted and murmurings take on entirely different meanings. I don’t blame you from feeling confused.

Remember, recommending counseling is their default position—it’s one that’s probably drilled into them as necessary for liability issues, etc. They’ve forgotten that most of the stuff like this can be resolved in the home with parents who are aware and who care about their kids enough to do some of the hard work. To many parents, counseling is the easier route because it doesn’t involve them directly.

If Son has plenty of friends, why is the principal concerned? What, exactly, does he think Son is doing to “stir up tensions”? And what does the teacher think Son is doing to stir up tension?

First, I would press them for better examples aside from rumors from other students because that, to me at least, has shades of the telephone game, where something someone said gets so distorted it has no relation at all to the original sentence. Since by your account, he has friends and enjoys doing things with said friends, I would question what they think a counselor would do. Most of the time, counseling is recommended for kids who have NO friends and refuse to do things with anyone (no activities, social events).

To have a 14-year-old boy who has some social issues is, well, normal, right? I mean, 20 years ago or more, no one would have been concerned if the boy had friends but made some social errors from time to time. Who doesn’t in ninth grade?

Once you have more concrete examples, then you can address it directly with Son. I would take him out for ice cream or coffee, shooting basketballs or whatever he enjoys doing, and just mention one or two incidents, that his teacher or principal is concerned, and get his thoughts on what happened. If there’s a clear pattern (like he defaults to sarcasm, for example), then talk about how that can be perceived by others. Then ask what Son could do differently in that situation. Help him think through how his own solutions would solve the problem.

For now, I would stress to the principal and teacher that you appreciate their concern—that you welcome their observations about Son—but since the school year is nearly over, you’re going to address this with Son yourself and see how he matures over the summer before considering counseling. You want the principal and teacher on your side even though you disagree with their conclusions.

Just Because It’s the Right Thing

Q: I have a soon to be 15-year-old son in ninth grade. He is in a scholar program at a private school, and he has earned a partial scholarship based on his academic abilities. He also is in his third year of a gifted math program at a local college. His grades have begun to fluctuate. He is not earning good scores in the math program. He seems to only care about playing his computer, the shooting games popular with his age group. He has only been allowed to play on weekends if his grades are up to par (above a 90%).

He is capable of these grades. So now I have taken all technology away for this upcoming quarter. He says that he doesn’t care anymore if he loses everything. He is not going to improve his grades. I am worried that I am being too excessive. Is the consequence appropriate?

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: The short answer is yes, taking away technology for the quarter in order to motivate your son to improve his grades is appropriate. However, what your worry indicates is that you assumed that would “make” him change his tune about his grades/schoolwork. He’s doing what any teenager does—testing to see if you’re really serious by saying “he doesn’t care” about the consequence.

You’ve run into the paradox that is parenting: A parent can do the right thing and the child can still do the wrong thing, but that doesn’t mean the parent stops doing the right thing.

You are doing the right thing by taking away his electronics. Now he has a choice—he can continue to thumb his nose at schoolwork and fail even more or he can buckle down and get back to business. He might *say* he doesn’t care, but stick to the plan and he might come around on his accord. Fold now, and he’ll know that you don’t mean what you say or say what you mean. That will cause many more problems in the future than a few dismal grades in the present.

And be prepared that he might flame out entirely. But at 15, he’s old enough to face the academic consequences of that choice. Yes, those consequences could be far-reaching at this stage in his academic career but again, that’s on him, not you. It’s his life and his choice to do the best he can with what God has given him—or to waste it all by not applying himself.

I know this is tough for you to watch, but you’ve done the right thing. Now it’s up to your son.

Is Middle School Bad for Moms?

NPR recently ran a story entitled, “Being Mom To A Middle Schooler Can Be The Toughest Gig Of All.” In it, the author quoted a study that found during the middle school years, moms experienced the “lowest levels of maternal happiness and are even more stressed out than new parents.”

One mom quoted in the piece said, “Parenting a tween is harder than mothering an infant,” adding that when her child was a baby, “I worried about his sleeping and eating schedules, but those were things I could kind of control. Now, I obsess over how much freedom I should give him when he’s playing Pokémon Go with his friends, and how I can monitor what he’s doing online. In many ways, he’s more on his own now, and I have to trust him to make the right choices.”

The study authors said moms of tweens “reported feeling the most unhappy or depressed when their children are in middle school, but that the transition begins when children are 10 years old. Parents of teens are actually happier than parents of middle schoolers.”

Image courtesy of stockimages/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How can moms feel better about their tweens and young teens? Here are 7 suggestions.

  1. Don’t take it personally. I know, it’s hard to pull back after you’ve been so involved in your child’s life (that’s a whole other blog!), but you need to distance yourself from your tween’s life and your own. Yes, there will be ups and downs, drama and tears, but reminding yourself (daily, hourly, minute-by-minute if necessary) that this is not your life will give you perspective.
  2. Don’t project your own middle school experience onto your tween. I’ve rarely met someone who had a fantastic middle school time; mine was really horrendous in a lot of ways. But I had to push those memories aside and view my daughter’s entry into seventh grade more optimistically. My experience wouldn’t necessarily be her experience—and it hasn’t been. Both of my girls have made a fairly easy transition to junior high.
  3. Give space but stay close. Easier said than done, right? Start giving your tween and young teen more autonomy but be present physically and mentally. Check in with them on a daily basis, but don’t push too hard for details.
  4. Up the love. Yes, I know we love our kids, but was easier to hug, squeeze, kiss and cuddle when they were three than thirteen. Find ways to show and tell your tween/young teen that you love him. Keep those physical connections, although you might have to curb some of the more gushy gestures. They may protest, but secretly, they love to be loved on.
  5. Have an open house. Make your house be the one the kids congregate at after school by being around but not intrusive. A few girls come over to our house so often, they call themselves our “other daughter,” which is fine by me.
  6. Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Tweens and young teens are figuring out so much, that they often don’t have the answers to life’s questions on the tip of their tongue—but they will get there eventually if we can keep our mouths shut long enough to let them. Sure, we have advice and it’s usually spot on, but wait for them to ask for it before giving it.
  7. Focus on the positive. This is an awkward age all around, growth spurts, hormones, harder classes, possibly friend troubles, social anxiety—the list can go on and on. But a parent who notices the extra effort, who comments positively more than negatively, will have a better connection with their middle schooler.

Overall, remember to keep your eye on raising adults, rather than raising middle schoolers. That should help to keep these years in perspective.

Until next time,

Sarah