3 Step Response to the Teenage Distress Text

Back in the day (as a 70s-era student), when something happened at school – my feelings were hurt, I’d aced a test I’d been nervous about or I wanted permission to go to a movie with a friend – I had to wait until I got home and saw my parents to talk / boast / ask permission, as the case required. Or what about when I was homesick at summer camp? By the time my parents received my snail-mailed letter bemoaning my fate, my sadness was long gone and I was cavorting with my campmates.

These days, texting places a direct line to parents in the palm of virtually every kid’s hand. And many parents have unwittingly made the mistake of buying into the cultural (and child-driven) expectation that communication should therefore be instantaneous and immediate.

 Not so fast.

It’s important to recreate the distance between the onset of a child’s every problem or negative emotion and our instinctive and understandable drive to fix it. Let’s face it: our children aren’t in dire jeopardy when their feelings get hurt or if they’re disappointed in their performance on an exam or on the soccer field. So how can we, as parents, best help our kids?

If your endgame is to help your children learn to navigate unpleasant experiences and feelings, don’t miss this all-too-frequent opportunity to help them develop resilience and agency using this 3-step approach:

1.    Acknowledge but don’t engage

2.    Empathize rather than escalate

3.    Encourage insights that leads to self-efficacy

Acknowledge but don’t engage. Some modern parenting approaches make parents feel that to prove their devotion (and fitness), their job is to be their child’s ally at every turn. But when we react to a child’s text by immediately soliciting more details or instinctively siding with their point of view, we not only shortchange what should be a face-to-face encounter, we run the risk of escalating their emotions or anxieties.

By all means, if your children text to tell you the teacher hurt his feelings or her best friend snubbed her, acknowledge the situation with a short response that promises more conversation later. It’s important to ensure your child feels heard and can count on your support, but not wise to engage in an emotionally charged text dialogue.

Plus, when we give the situation time to simmer in the child’s mind, they just might come up with a solution themselves.

Empathize rather than escalate.

To a child (of almost any age), a small slight can sometimes feel like the sky is falling. It’s an age-appropriate response. But as parents, we should not match their hysteria or emotional temperature. Our job is to acknowledge our children’s pain and give them something their minds aren’t yet capable of delivering: perspective.

By over-identifying with our kids’ emotions or probing for hidden motives by their friends / teachers / coaches, we keep children stuck in the problem. Empathize and be supportive, but ask the types of questions that help them see the bigger picture. Simple phrases such as “Tell me more” and “Why do you think that happened?” gives kids the opportunity to unpack the experience so you can help them identify the salient issues and their role.

Encourage insight that leads to self-efficacy. It’s easy to point the finger and make others responsible for our feelings. It’s typical for children to blame others and feel victimized. But psychologists note that each time a parent swoops in to fix a problem or mend a relationship for their children, they push them one more step away from self-knowledge and self-efficacy.

As a parent with perspective, your role is to help your child identify how they may have contributed to the problem and the steps they can take to amend it. For example, ask questions that probe their part in the drama. See if this is a situation that has occurred before. With that information in hand, the two of you can brainstorm about what is in the child’s control. How can they be empowered to amend the situation by changing their own behavior?

This is also a great time to model how you’ve reacted to a problem at work or with a friend. Knowing that Mom and Dad also deal with challenging relationships and negative emotions – and lived to talk about it – gives children the courage to give growing up a try and figure out the solution themselves.

In the end, we want to build resilient capable kids who will remember to text every once in a while after they have left home because they want to say hello, not because they have a crisis for us to solve.

3 Things Every Family Needs

Family – at least the construct traditionally defined as two opposite-sex parents and their biological children – was considered the norm (and by extension, the “best” for kids) for most of the last century. But no longer.

The notion of family has moved away from rigid structures and defined roles, morphing and expanding significantly. From step to extended, blended to adoptive, gay to single, multi-cultural to co-parent…what makes a family the best one for children is one in which there is the greatest amount of three vital ingredients: love, safety and acceptance.

And it doesn’t matter which adults that love and acceptance comes from. Of course kids need what “parents” can do and contribute to children, but you don’t need a “mom” and a “dad” to take optimum care of children and give them what they need to become healthy adults.

I’m not saying traditional families aren’t valuable or sound, but its not the only way to parent intentionally or effectively. No matter your current situation, it’s always a plus to invite other people into your family circle – through your community, church, school or other affiliation – who can help you create the type of family you know is best.

I tell my kids all the time – still – that the rest of the world can say all it wants about them, but they can count on the fact that our family will always be the safest place on earth for them.

And just for the record, our family isn’t just the 4 of us.

For starters, it’s me, my 3 young-adult kids, my ex-husband and our two extended families, which include stepsiblings. Add to that my ex’s wife, her parents, my boyfriend and his family, plus a coterie of adult friends and their kids who have been welcomed into our family (and us into theirs) over the years, and you get a sense of just how broad my notion of family has become.

Here are a few real-life examples of how that works:

Because of my ex-husband’s schedule, he was unable to attend our youngest’s recent parents’ weekend at college. So his wife joined me instead and the 3 of us had a great time exploring the campus and town together.

Then there’s our holiday plan. Since there is a finite amount of time all 3 kids can be together over the winter break, we’ve decided all of us, including the kids’ father and his wife – will go on an unbelievable cruise to Antarctica together! 

This one I just love: A couple of years ago, my youngest son Quincy and I were at an event and we were introduced to a gentleman. When he found out my son’s name was Quincy, he said, “How unusual! You’re the second ‘Quincy’ I’ve heard about this week.” It turned out that Quincy had sent his stepmom an email requesting donations to a charitable organization with which he was engaged. She had forwarded it to her father. “Grandpa” not only made a donation himself, but he forwarded the email to his vast list of contacts. The man at the event? He was one of those contacts and he, too, made a donation to Quincy’s cause!

So if you feel constrained by society’s once-meager definition of family – broaden it! For sure, kids need what “moms” and “dads” can do and give to them – but those roles needn’t be defined by gender or biology. So go ahead and welcome in trusted people who will model and bestow the love, safety and acceptance every child needs to become a loving and accepting adult.

There is so much in life we cannot control – but we can control who we let into our children’s lives and our homes. The best part about it is that we each get to choose who’s in our family, making sure our kids get the maximum amount of love, safety and acceptance available.

Now that’s a family I want to be a part of.

 

Thankful for Friendship

Gratitude is a big part of my life and my happiness.  I spend time actively thinking about what I am grateful for and find the practice lifts my mood and enhances my life. Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to write about gratitude; this year I am thankful for friendship.

I have collected friends my entire life.  I met my oldest friend in kindergarten and we have shared a 46-year friendship (and counting). I have an amazing group of friends from middle and high school who know the secrets of adolescent shenanigans; college friends who helped edit papers and now read my blog.  My friend from graduate school who I connected with on day one has remained my friend for 26 years. Friends met through my children; friends made while volunteering in my community; family members who are also friends; colleagues that became friends.

Friends are the family you choose.  And I have chosen well.  My friendships have sustained me through the hardest times in my life and added to my joy in the best times. My friends have stood by me; taken care of me; laughed with me and cried with me. Friends have challenged me to be my best self; helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel; hated my enemies.  My friends have loved my children; supported my ideas; answered my calls.  Friends have given me the benefit of the doubt; forgiven bad behavior; agreed to disagree.  My friends have championed my efforts; celebrated my successes; acknowledged my feelings. Friends have lent an ear, offered a shoulder, and provided a hug. My friends have enriched my life beyond measure.

And…my friends have made me a better mom.  Thank you for loving my children like your own.  Thank you for seeing their strengths and challenges; for celebrating their successes and supporting them when they have struggled.  Thank you for being adults they can count on; thanks for being advisors, mentors and role models.  It takes a village and I am profoundly grateful for mine.

Thank you friends.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Smartphones Can Contribute to 'Dumb' Parenting

According to a body of research increasingly robust in in the last 5 years, it appears a collective parental wake-up call is in order. Although researchers are still studying the effect of screen time on children, they’re now turning their trained eyes on us to see how our tech habits impact our parenting and our children. While no researcher is claiming causation between parental smartphone use and poor child outcomes, there is enough correlational evidence for parents to take notice.

·      Frequent social media use is one of the risk factors for “higher levels of maternal depression

·      According to the Center for the Digital Future, people report feeling “increasingly ignored by others in their own family households because of smartphone use”

·      A 2015 study of caregivers and kids on playgrounds demonstrated that children have a harder time getting the attention of parents distracted by smartphone use

·      Even teenagers – who you’d think would be delighted by distracted parents – reported “less parental warmth” and 11% said they “struggled quite a bit or a great deal to get their parent’s attention when their parent was on their cell phone or tablet” in a 2017 study

I raised my three now-young-adult children pre-digitally. These days, its fairly common to see a dad at the playground, benched and engrossed in his phone while a child desperately tries to get him to witness their feat on the monkey bars (admittedly, for the 10th time). Equally distressing is seeing moms pushing prams or strollers, deeply engaged in conversation with someone on the end of a headset rather than with their small child.

Frankly, I get it. Although I was late to the smartphone game, and was initially mystified when told my phone could take pictures - why would I need a phone to do that?  (I currently have 43,963 photos on my phone!)  I am very dependent on my phone and had to add an external case to get through the day. The other day I walked into the office building where I had a meeting only to realize I had left my phone in my car. Given my level of distress (“OMG, I don’t have my phone!”), you’d have thought I’d left a toddler locked in the back seat.   And yes, I went back to get it.

If ever there were a moment for intentional and mindful parenting, this would be it.

There are vast bodies of research on early-child brain development that point to the vital link between parent-child conversation and language development. As a young mom, I considered every walk and outing a chance for a complete conversation with my kids. Even when kids are pre-verbal, there is tremendous value in little ones being part of the conversation. As I found, it’s never too early to begin describing the wonders of the world they’ll soon come to talk about first-hand.

Famed child development researcher Dr. Edward Tronick spent his career “trying to put his feet into the shoes of an infant” to better understand how they function in the world. His research shows – in achingly painful detail – what children experience emotionally when parents aren’t responsive to their attempts to connect and communicate. Infants, even newborns, he says, endeavor to “make meaning about the world.” And they’re looking to us to help them.

So – given the stakes - what’s an intentional parent to do?

Inventory your tech habits when you’re with your children and take objective note of what you find.

Remember that this is about your kids’ well-being, not your (or your employer’s) needs.

Be mindful about what we – and our kids -- lose if we’re not present and available when we’re with them.  

Pivot. If you’re spending too much family time otherwise distracted by your phone, make and set some rules for yourself – and stick to them.

Finally, know that we are always modeling for our kids – even when we’re engaged in behavior we don’t want our children to emulate.  So be mindful of what you do, and teach your children by example.  Remember, its never too late to do better!

My First Podcast

I had the great privilege and pleasure to join my friend, Teri Turner from @NoCrumbsLeft, to do a podcast on parenting. Teri is an extraordinary food blogger, chef, and mom; she shares so much of herself through her Instagram stories, her blog, and her podcasts. I was invited to join her to talk about my practice, my philosophy about Intentional Parenting, and our shared paths through divorce to effective co-parenting and more.

I hope you will take the time to listen in!

Click the link below and select the “Intentional Parenting” podcast.

INTENTIONAL PARENTING PODCAST

Intentional Parenting

IMG_8412.JPG

In my first-ever ELI Talk presented live at Repair the World in Detroit, MI on June 19th, I shared my journey from the initial days of motherhood – completely overwhelmed, frustrated and exhausted – to my current life as the successful parent of three young adult children.

While my blog generally presents a secular perspective on parenting with intention, I wanted to offer my practical experience and professional grounding in intentional parenting through the lens of Judaism. In this short video I explain how mastering the “pivot” is one of the most essential skills any parent can possess.

Are Your Kids Ready for High School? Are YOU?

Parents…being the smart, mature and capable adults we are… likely think we’re aces when it comes to preparing our teenagers to begin or return to high school this month. And we’d be right.

What we might fail to do, however, is prepare ourselves for the ongoing rigor of helping teens navigate the newfound independence of high school without losing sight of our parenting values – or our commitment to intentional parenting. So here’s a primer for just for you!

Stay out of the way but not out of the picture.  High school is the time when teens need to build self-efficacy and resilience – in matters both academic and social. When parents rush in with a fully realized solution at the first blush of conflict or struggle, it undermines a teen’s ability to figure solutions out for themselves. So give them appropriate tools and language and let them have the first pass at fixing a problem they’ve encountered. After they’ve tried, failed and reached out for more support, then you can intervene with alternative solutions.

Of course there’s a middle ground, here. You want to give them the autonomy to flex their problem-solving muscles, but stay present enough so that you know what’s going on. Regarding school, for example, many parent portals let you set a threshold for when you’re to be notified of dipping grades or problematic behaviors. So stay present…just don’t hover.

Another way to help your kids develop adult chops is to exercise your listening skills more than your talking skills. Sometimes, kids just want and need to vent. When you reflect back to them what they’ve said, they might just find the answer themselves.

Get OK with not being the “cool” parents.  Recently a client expressed concern that he’d lost control of family time this summer once his son graduated from middle school. His son was “informing” his parents about his weekend plans – as if he was the boss of himself.  Adolescents navigating greater social freedom and increasingly central peer relationships still need to ask, not tell, parents about plans.

When kids are 14 – parents are still the boss. And while it may not be “cool” to insist on knowing where your kids are, one of the unspoken pacts you made with them when they were born is that you would keep them safe.

Whatever your family rules are for being kept informed about where and when, it’s important that there are consequences for kids who veer. It’s enough to say, “If I can’t count on you to be where you say you will be, then you’ve forfeited your privilege to spend time with your friends next weekend.”  Many kids will learn that lesson with just one correction, but be prepared to have to dish it out more than once if necessary.

The start of high school is also a prime opportunity to restate your values regarding the importance of family time, too. Most every parent wants their kids to have good times with their friends, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of family cohesion. Now is the time to restate that – aloud. (This, too, will likely bear repeating)

Bottom line, transition back to school is hard – for teens and parents. Staying flexible, being observant, pivoting when necessary and listening to your teens will go a long way to making the school year manageable and enjoyable for all.

5 Reasons Why I'm With HER (Julie Lythcott-Haims, that is)

 

Seconds into Julie Lythcott-Haims’ talk from the stage a few years ago, I knew I was hearing from a kindred spirit. An advocate of raising our children to become competent adults, this former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen, attorney, author – and mother of two teenagers – reflected on her surprise at just how ill-prepared she had found the young people on Stanford’s campus to be.

She’s written a New York Times Bestseller on the topic and accompanying TedTalk garnered 3.2 million views. I admire her greatly – and agree with her wholeheartedly. In fact, her thesis, that we hamper our children’s development and their futures when we hover over them, smoothing every bump in the road lest they trip and have to figure out how to right themselves, is the way I raised my children, as well as the foundation of my parent-coaching practice.

What kids need most from parents is unconditional love, that’s a given. Parents also have the fundamental, irrefutable and powerful job of educating, protecting and nurturing our children.

But also tops on the list of parental to-dos is this: We must get out of our children’s way and let them fall, fail and falter so they can figure out how to succeed.

Believe me, I understand the urge to step in. It’s much easier and more efficient if we tie our toddler's shoe rather than wait the interminable 20 minutes for her to do it herself. Yet being bigger, faster and stronger than our kids doesn’t give us the right to rob them of the most important lessons that failure and hard times can teach. 

If we do everything for them, we’ll have reared a generation sadly and seriously ill equipped to take on the essential jobs of running our countries and saving our planet.

Let’s set our kids up for true success in life by adhering to these 5 ways to raise competent, compassionate and resilient adults.

1.    Let them do it themselves (even if it’s not perfect).  It doesn’t matter if that’s tying their own shoelaces when they’re toddlers or negotiating what they consider to be an unfair grade with a teacher, mastering a skill gives children the confidence to face the next challenge that comes their way. If you’ve assigned them a task and they do it – but not up to your adult            standards – let it be. By redoing their work you undermine their sense of pride in accomplishing the task.

2.    Let them fight their own fights. Intentional parents let their children resolve their conflicts – or learn valuable lesson by trying. Of course, if there is a risk of grave harm you need to intervene. But generally, getting in the middle sends the message you don’t believe your kids are capable of navigating and negotiating a conflict on their own. A wound like that may never fully heal.

3.    Let them fail. Watching a child fail is probably one of the most excruciating things a parent can do. But it’s also a priceless opportunity for our kids. I remember when my eldest, then a sophomore in college, fell behind and was poised for academic probation. He was a bit frantic when he realized the predicament he was in, but having been allowed to fail multiple times during the course of his young life, he knew what he had to do. And he did it.   

4.    Let them struggle with things that are hard.  In an animated video about helicopter parents shared by The Atlantic magazine, Lythcott-Haims notes most parents are enthusiastic about letting their kids struggle with learning how to walk, but generally start stepping in soon thereafter. Don’t. They eventually learned how to walk, didn’t they? I promise they’ll learn how to do most of the other stuff they need to survive without constant parental interference masquerading as loving support. 

5.    Let it begin today!  Even if you failed to do the previous 4 things when your kids were 2 or 4 or 10, begin today. Better to realize you’ve handicapped your child and pivot than to keep on making the same mistake! It won’t be an easy transition for either you or the kids, but with practice everyone will get the hang of it. Best yet, your children will bear the fruits of their labor, even if they’re cranky about the extra effort in the short run.

 

By the way, if you haven’t read Lythcott-Haim’s book, get yourself to your library, neighborhood bookstore or favorite online vendor. It’s one of the best parenting books around.  And for more reading on the subject, check out my HuffPo piece from 2014 https://bit.ly/2nnlpW5