Teen Mental Health: What Role Can Parents Play?

The last thing most parents imagine – or at least would prefer not to contemplate – is that one of their adolescent children will develop a mental health or behavioral disorder.

Sadly, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, of the approximately 40 million children between the ages of 12-19:

·       31% reported symptoms of depression

·       13% claim to have had at least one major depressive episode

Anxiety disorders in teens are also on the rise, as reported in the Child Mind Institute’s 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report. Left untreated, anxiety can keep kids from reaching their full potential and is strongly linked to increased risk for later depression, behavior problems and substance abuse.

As important as the data is, this post is not intended as an exhaustive overview of teen mental health, but rather a focus on what we, as parents, can do to support our kids and ourselves.

The first call-to-action is to be watchful of our kids’ behavior. Ironically, adolescence is already marked by normally disordered behavior, so it may be hard to discern the difference between, say, to-be-expected sullenness and what might be symptoms of depression in your teen. Be alert for changes in mood or behavior – and don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about what you’re witnessing. While I don’t advocate over-reaction, you don’t need to be 100% sure there’s a problem before insisting your child see a professional if you’re worried about their behavior.

Why? Like with most health concerns, early intervention is key. The sooner parents catch the onset of a mental health problem and intervene in a healthy and helpful way, the better the chance kids have to recover and learn healthy adaptive behaviors.

Now. Hear. This. Having a child with mental health issues is not shameful. Nor is it your fault. Eliminating any stigma or guilt you may have is an important first step to getting effective treatment for your kids.

It’s especially vital to identify and rectify any biases you may have so they don’t cloud the issue. For example, a friend of mine didn’t realize he considered his daughter’s depression a sign of weakness until he saw how hard she was digging in her heels against seeing a therapist. Once he unwound his own thinking, she was able to do likewise.

The most empowering thing about not turning a blind eye to our kids’ mental health is because these conditions are treatable. I don’t know any parent who would refuse to get insulin for a child with diabetes, chemo for a kid with cancer or a cast for one who had a broken bone. Getting treatment for a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, an eating disorder isn’t any different.

When it comes to deciding what type of treatment to pursue, give your kids a voice and a choice. I’m not saying they need to agree with you about getting treatment – that’s always the parents’ call. But a good fit between therapist and client is tied to better outcomes. So let them interview several therapists and/or therapeutic options to see who and what they best connect with.

When it comes to getting support for ourselves, please remember the familiar on-board instruction to put on your own life mask before putting one on your kids. Parents need support, too. Whether that means finding a meet-up or other parent support group, occasionally sitting in on a therapy session or talking to a counselor or parenting coach, do so.

Realize that you and your family are not alone. Considering the stats at the beginning of the post, the universe of parents coping with the same challenges you are is large. Find them and share your challenges and your successes.

Finally, avail yourselves of the resources available.  Here is a sampling to get you started if you’d like to learn more about teen mental health – and find the support you need:

·       Your child’s pediatrician can rule out physical conditions that may be affecting behavior as well as offer referrals to mental health professional if needed

·       Talk to the school psychologist, who can offer guidance and referrals

·       Learn about the range of possible interventions, including school- or community-based interventions including talk therapy, art, music and equine therapy, medication and even therapeutic digital platforms

·       A new study suggests a correlation between team sports in adolescence that may be linked to preventing or treating depression in young people

·       This blog post offers a primer for helping parents understand the different types of therapists that work in the field, as well as sample questions to ask a prospective therapist

·       Psychology Today website offers detailed listing for mental health professionals who work with teens

·       National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers support groups, online education, and information geared to teens and young adults

·       National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) offers hotlines, live chats with experts, resources and more

Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

The idea of taking a “gap year” – born of the independence of the post-war 60s generation that challenged themselves to create a life different from their parents – has come a long way in 70 years. Since the new millennia, it’s been taken up by parents and young people alike who have lived through the accelerating pace of the new world order – and see little chance for such an extended pause once they start college and forge fledgling careers.

If you read my post in late 2017 about coming face-to-face with my empty nest, you’ll recall that all three of my children took a gap year between high school graduation and the start of their college career. And they did so with my blessing – and strong encouragement.

As I write, increasing numbers of high school seniors are in the process of planning their upcoming gap, which is typically defined as deferring college acceptance for a year to pursue a variety of travel, volunteer and/or non-academic activities and interests. While it’s becoming increasingly more common, parents still have a lot of questions about its wisdom and benefits, such as:

·      Will my child fall behind his grade-level peers?

·      What if they decide against college all together?

·      Isn’t it scary when your child is in a foreign country far from home?

·      Is it expensive – and is it my responsibility to fund it?

·      What does a “successful” gap year look like?

Before I elucidate why I believe a gap year is valuable (wearing my Human Development and Learning specialist hat), as parents we have to redefine success as navigating the entirety of the experiences, no matter how (or when) it ends. Ultimately, a successful gap year is about giving our children a unique opportunity to grow, developing the skills necessary for navigating our modern world and becoming resilient, capable people.

In that vein, success doesn’t mean that each program you child embarks on will meet their expectations. Nor will the people they meet along the way necessarily lead to career connections or lifelong friendships. For some families, financing a gap year is an essential part of the planning process, in part driving what the gap will look like. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to volunteer for nonprofits the world over that include room and board. 

Above all, a successful gap year certainly doesn’t mean that there will be no bumps on the road. The most amazing result in my family’s experience is what a parent might least expect. Namely this: All three of my children say their gap year was successful not in spite of the missteps and challenges, but because of them!

Clearly, nailing resiliency is just one reason to consider a gap year. Here are some others:

Developmental Maturation. Four years of college go by quickly, and all parents want their children to use their time well as they figure out their majors and navigate a different kind of independence. But not all 18 year olds are created equal. A gap year allows kids who are less developmentally mature to grow up a bit more. Then there’s this: there is both anecdotal and increasingly quantitative research that demonstrates that gap year students out perform their non-gap-year peers.

Academic Refresh. Some kids have burned the candle at both ends during high school, and frankly, they are burned out. A gap year enables them to take a break from academic pressure and scholastic demands so they can enter college renewed and reinvigorated.

Interest Exploration. Most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. A gap year can expose them to career options, internships, personal exploration and more.

World View. We live in the most interconnected and interdependent world in our history, yet many of us know little about our global community. Gap year students fortunate enough to travel or pursue an opportunity in a different country end up with greater global awareness and often develop fluency in a foreign language. 

Tool Belt. Undeniable benefits are the skills learned, the resiliency discovered and the confidence acquired. All of these get added to the metaphoric tool belt our children need to succeed in the college environment – and beyond.

Many of the greatest gains from a gap year are intangible, and some benefits only reveal themselves as a result of the experience. My youngest son completed his gap year (and documented it on his blog) before starting college in Fall 2018. Here, in his own words, he shares the surprising things he learned that year that he simply did not expect.

1) Everyone I encountered who were also taking a gap year had their own rationale, none more significant than the other, but it was interesting to see what motivated people and how diverse the population of gap year students is.

2) I was amazed at how different foreign culture really is. Though I had traveled internationally and extensively, the opportunity to really immerse myself in foreign culture showed me that my narrow American perspective is not the only way to live life.

3) I was surprised by how much I grew as a person
and an intellectual. Most people think that a gap year is a break from the intellectual and educational world, but I found myself learning more than I ever did in a traditional school. The magic of experiential learning is real.

 Enough said.

Adding Up the Reasons to Teach Children About $$$

Think about how many times you have seen a child harangue a parent at the checkout line, begging and whining about “needing” some perfectly positioned treat or toy. Well-rested, unstressed parents simply smile and ignore the beggar at their knees, sticking to their family rule about eschewing impulse buys. The rest of us? We reflexively give in because we are just too tired to argue and/or leverage yet another teachable moment.

But when you add financial literacy to the family toolbox, you won’t need to argue nearly as much.

That’s why I sat down with a friend and expert in finance who has coached over 3,000 people through bankruptcy. He knows the value of financial literacy – and the downside of ignoring this crucial life skill first-hand – and he agrees that it is never too early to start teaching our children about money.

He shared his three-step approach with me, which I’ve filtered through a parenting lens. But first…let’s turn that lens on ourselves and explore what a good parental mindset about money looks like.

BE CONSCIOUS.  Before we can teach our children about the value of money, it’s critical that parents are clear about our own relationship with it. Here’s how:

Know your values.  Being clear about your parenting values is the first part of the consciousness-raising equation. Your values serve as a sort of built-in parenting guide, so extending those values as part of your decision-making around money will make every financial choice clearer and easier. For example, if your children’s education is an important family value, you know you will need a plan to save enough to pay for private school and/or college.

Be mindful of emotions.  Be attentive to emotional spending, which gets many parents in trouble. Impulse buying, whether in the checkout line or online, can easily blow a budget – and you won’t even remember where the money went (or probably have anything to show for it).

Communication is central to being conscious about money. Have ongoing conversations about financial compatibility and financial decision-making with your partner. With financial infidelity on the rise, you also want to be sure that you and your partner are a money match. Don’t wait for a problem to arise to discuss financial issues because it can make the conversation unnecessarily dramatic.

BE DISCIPLINED.  Start with an assessment of your needs – and be sure to separate your needs from your wants. An assessment can also help you identify short-term, intermediate and long-terms goals. A simple assessment begins with tracking all your expenses (fixed, variable and periodic) for several months so you get an understanding of where your money is going.  

Make savings a family affair. Let’s say you need to save for retirement and you’d like to plan for a family vacation this summer. Set your goals and make them explicit. Agree on areas to pare back so that larger goals get met, and then create a spending and savings plan that makes the entire family accountable. Be sure to put it down on paper in black and white. Remember the Chinese proverb, “The palest ink is stronger than the sharpest memory.”

Another important tip: create an emergency fund. People get into trouble when they don’t account for unanticipated expenses like unforeseen home repairs or medical bills. 

BEWARE. We are bombarded with seductive advertising everywhere we go: the gas pump, online, backs of buses, on the train. These retail tricks are designed to get us to open our wallets – and they work! Protect yourselves by being conscious of the ways in which you can be influenced by media and empower yourself to stay on track.

So how does this approach relate to how we talk to our children about money? Let’s take being conscious. What are you modeling for your children? Do you mindlessly toss items into the grocery cart? Does Amazon regularly drop off packages filled with your impulsive purchases? How does your metaphoric checkbook reflect your parenting and financial values?

BE A MODEL AND MENTOR. This is my addition to my finance pro’s advice.

Beyond what your kids observe you doing, begin having an active conversation with them even when they are young. Recent studies show that children as young as 3 and 4 can understand the basic financial concept that you need money to buy things. Believe it or not, they can also learn the difference between the things they want and things they need.

There are myriad opportunities to engage our kids in age-appropriate ways that teach them about the value of the dollar. Give them an allowance and have them allocate their money into three buckets: save; spend; donate. Get children involved in philanthropic endeavors big or small. This could mean having them donate an outgrown toy or coat, a family outing to serve food at a shelter or service agency or coming up with a proposal all their own to present to your family foundation.

Kids will respond to a financial education if it’s consistent. So take advantage of everyday opportunities to involve your kids in age-appropriate financial discussions. Ask them to tally the grocery tab while you’re going through the aisles. Task them with researching vacation destinations when provided with a budget. Make them calculate the tip when you are out for a meal.

When I was a teen, my currency was cash. And when my wallet was empty, I was done spending. I had to wait until the next allowance or baby-sitting job to fill my gas tank or head to the movies. Today’s kids rarely see or use cash. They live in a Venmo, CashApp, and ApplePay world. Most of their financial management is conducted on their phone, not in a bank. This makes financial literacy all the more crucial because money is often invisible to them – especially understanding the difference between debit and credit.

When it comes to kid-specific money strategies, I believe that once a child is old enough to be out and about without parents, they should have a debit card to use for emergencies as well as for expenses that everyone agrees on. With this privilege, of course, comes the responsibility of reviewing their spending with you regularly. If it aligns with your values and you are able to do so, provide teens and college-age kids with a low-limit credit card in both their name and a parent’s. When they are earning their own money, let them get their own credit card so they can start to build their credit rating.

NOTE: Experts suggest separating a joint card from your primary card and opening individual cards if you’re providing this for more than one child. That way if a card is lost or stolen, it only impacts one child – who also gets to experience the natural consequences of not being mindful.

Talking about money and finances with kids should not be taboo. Nor do you have to share the cost of your home or the balance in your savings account to start having real money conversations with your children. Remember, transparency and honesty are not synonymous. You can be honest with your children without disclosing private information that is not age appropriate. 

The most important takeaway is to start teaching financial literacy to children as early as possible. It is never too late to start and the benefits are huge and relevant for their lifetime.

 

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.

 

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.

Four Issues that Call for Co-Parenting 2.0

So here you are. You’ve been divorced for several years…the kids are growing up and doing well…and all’s well with co-parenting 1.0, right?

My guess is that like most divorced couples, your co-parenting arrangement underwent a bit of tweaking once you started living the realities of the plan you made in the mediator’s or attorney’s office. A co-parenting arrangement that worked for a couple of toddlers doesn’t always meet the demands and desires of school-aged kids with busier lives filled with extra-curricular activities. Then there are those unexpected life events that require an on-the-spot adjustment, like grandparents or good friends who announce a surprise visit on a weekend you don’t have the kids.

In healthy relationships post-divorce, co-parents willingly extend flexibility and consideration, especially when the “ask” is in the best interests of the kids. In fact, that’s the most important tenet of any co-parenting relationship: the mutual and agreed-upon desire to keep the kids front-and-center whenever there is a decision or alteration to be made.

Coparenting 2.0 issues generally fall into four categories:

1. Custodial

2. Medical

3. Financial

4. Relational.

Let’s take them one by one.

Custodial.  Healthy co-parents know that in terms of attachment, in terms of feeling safe, in terms of learning to trust…it is in the best interest of children to have a healthy relationship with both parents. After all, a child’s relationship with his or her parents is the fulcrum on which many of their adult decisions will rest. So when it comes to changes to who-stays-with-whom-and-when, every parent should advocate for an arrangement that considers the long-term effect on kids if they don’t have substantive time with both parents.

Problems can arise when co-parents get confused between what’s right for them versus what’s right for the kids. Even if your desire is to have the kids 100% of the time and your ex is fine with it – reconsider. Obviously parents need to assess their feelings about their spouse’s competencies as a parent. But simply because one parent was working while the other cared for the kids is not reason enough to insist on primary or sole custody. The “working” parent, with some coaching and trial-and-error, will likely turn out to be an effective parent.

If you and your co-parent are struggling in your relationship, I know it can be challenging to respond fairly when the unexpected arises. And yet I’m going to be emphatic here: Do not let your personal ill feelings or a punitive mindset affect your decision-making.

Let’s say your ex wants to take the kids on a fun camping trip, but the only weekend he could reserve a campsite is for one of your weekends. If you’re still smarting from a real or perceived slight, you may think refusing to accommodate is punishing your co-parent. But it’ll be the kids who bear the brunt of the punishment – not your ex. The question is not, “Why should I go out of my way for him?” but rather, “Is what my ex is proposing a good experience for my kids?” Deal with your feelings with your spouse – by all means — but don’t let them get in the way of making the right choice in the end.

Medical.  When it comes to the health and safety of our children, most co-parents get on the same page stat in an emergency or with a life-threatening illness; there’s just too much at stake to quibble. There are a couple of outlier situations that can arise, however.

The first has to do with parental decisions regarding important but non-emergency medical interventions such as physical or occupational therapy, vaccines, or other elective interventions. These issues can be challenging even for married couples whose values may not align, but are often exacerbated post separation.

The second issue is when one co-parent’s religious or other beliefs radically change post agreement, resulting in them no longer believing in treating even grave illnesses and/or preferring an untraditional (or unproven) approach. Since the ethics and repercussions of such decision can be far-reaching, co-parents may need to work with a mediator or even the courts to come to a sound decision.

 

Financial.  There are two reasons that can make finances a source of friction for co-parents:

1.    Money is a fraught topic for many – married or not

2.    Kids get more expensive every year

Co-parents generally agree on the big buckets in their initial agreement: spousal support; living expenses; gift buying; college funds. As kids age, however, they often uncover unique talents, expensive interests or develop special needs, all of which begs the question: Who pays for what?

Then there are issues like these:

·      Your ex gets a new job or a big bonus payout, is it appropriate that he or she pick up more of the extraneous childrearing expenses?

·      Your parent dies and leaves you a larger-than-anticipated estate. Do you owe any of that to your ex? Or should it impact your contributions to expenses?

These are a few of the financial reconsiderations scenarios that may affect your co-parenting agreement as time passes. If you can hash them out with your ex over a cup of coffee, that’s great. If need be, though, a conversation with a mediator or therapist can be helpful – particularly if, as with all things co-parenting, you keep the best interests of your children top-of-mind.

Relational.

When your kids become teens, sometimes even co-parenting 22.0 won’t help. At 16, kids can vote with their feet (or request an Uber). In truth, parents need to honor teens’ desires to make decisions about where they want to stay. If they’re responding to a packed high school schedule and simply can’t afford the time to schlep and readjust at parent #2’s house, give them some slack. But if they’re being intentionally injurious to the other parent and can’t or won’t work with you to figure out a plan to deal with their feelings, then it’s likely time for a therapeutic intervention of some sort.

Be mindful of your own projection, too. One client believed she was “supporting her kids feelings” when they didn't want to go to their father’s for the agreed-upon weekends. To her credit, she eventually realized that it was her own rejection of her ex that was motivating her.

The other huge relational variant is when one or both co-parents begin dating. A 2.0 agreement setting some basic parameters you can both agree on can be really helpful in avoiding surprises. For example:

·      If kids are younger than X, no partner visits or overnights when the children are present

·      No introducing partners to the kids until 6 months into relationship

·      “My house, my rules” rules

Sometimes non-dating co-parents feel badly when their exes start to see other people. Here more than ever, whenever you’re faced with a decision be sure to ask yourself “Who’s interest am I really thinking about…mine or the kids?”

While it can be hard to believe in the first few years post-divorce, I know many people who have become friendly with their exes once again – and who even like and appreciate their ex’s new partner (myself included).

If you keep a few basic truths in mind when in discussions with your co-parent, I promise it will be best for everyone:

·      Treat your co-parent with respect – just as you want to be treated

·      Even if you can’t stand your ex, remember that you both love your children and want the best outcome for them

·      Know your kids are watching you and developing their values about relationships by your actions

·      Don’t trash your co-parent in front of the kids. I guarantee you’ll never regret not telling your kids how you suffered in the marriage

Being a co-parent can certainly be more logistically complicated, but when you are mindful and intentional about your decisions and actions, everyone fares better. 

3 Rules for Acing the College Selection Process

If you’re the parents of a high-school junior, right about now your family is gearing up for the trip to crazy town that is the modern college-selection process. Determining the right set of colleges to apply to when senior year rolls around can be harrowing if you follow the crowd and fixate on securing a spot at one of the elite schools that only a teeny-tiny fraction of applicants achieve.

As an alternative, I offer the Dana Hirt Promise: You can help your child navigate (and master) the process with relative ease – and distance yourself from its nuttier aspects – by following three key rules:

Rule #1.  Understand that crafting the perfect resume guarantees nothing…except potentially an overwhelmed, burned out kid.

Rule #2.  Empower your teen to take the reins.

Rule #3.  Make “fit” – not college ranking -- the focus of the selection process.

Bonus Advice: Consider this recommendation you may find surprising.

Rule #1 is self-explanatory – and I implore you to take it to heart. Why? Because much of the time, the college admissions process is an exceedingly subjective and arbitrary one. Idiosyncratic and institution-specific, there’s just no way to game the system. This is not to say that achievement of all kinds in high school is not important. Naturally good grades, club involvement, leadership activities and all the rest are great! They just don’t guarantee acceptance letters. 

Rule #2 is a win-win-win. First, empowering teens to take the reins of the college investigation and selection process gives them the opportunity to work to the limit of their developmental ability on a long-term, multi-faceted endeavor.

The second win is this: The more students have a voice and vote in determining the schools they apply to (and ultimately attend), the better their chance of success. In my personal and professional experience, students who had a true say in their college selection had a higher tolerance for the tough times that inevitably surface during a college career.

Lastly, parents win by keeping your family off the roller-coaster. Your role, strategically, is to help your teen develop a structure for the project and offer guardrails when he veers off course.

Here’s the most important rule of all: Leverage your experience and expertise by helping everyone keep their eyes on the prospective student’s temperament, interest and abilities – the essentials for Rule #3’s all-important idea – “FIT.”

Considering there are approximately 3,000+ 4-year colleges and universities in the United States alone, finding the right schools to apply to is a daunting task.

But not if you and your teen put ‘fit’ at the top of your agenda.

Parents and teens alike need to ignore the plethora of lists that rank a university’s cache and desirability and focus on FIT. Here are the most fundamental and personal criteria:

Personality and interests. Challenge your high schooler to write down the key aspects of their personality and interests. After outlining their temperament, interests, and wants and needs, the things that matter in this category are setting (suburban, rural or city-based); geography (distance / ease of travel home); social scene (love Greek life or hate it?); and culture (religious school, traditional institution, liberal/conservative). Campus visits are hugely instructive when it comes to finding a school that “fits.” I remember my eldest son was on one campus for just 10 minutes before he knew it wasn’t for him. The school he eventually went to? He felt “at home” immediately. Empower kids to trust their instincts and ‘listen’ to how they feel on campus.

Make campus visits more economical by viewing “like” campuses closer to home. For example, a large state university campus looks and feels a lot like all the others (flora and weather aside) – certainly enough alike to give your teen a sense of what to expect. Likewise with a technical college. Better to save your traveling dollars for specialized schools, as well as those your child has a strong interest in.

Academic interests. When kids know what degree they’re after, then the smartest option is to pick the schools with the best academic department in that field that he or she can get into – even if the school’s overall ranking is lower. If your teen is unsure of a major, consider Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of “relative deprivation,” which he describes in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. From a college admissions standpoint, the theory purports that students who end up in the top 10% of a lesser-tier school fare much better than those who end up at the bottom 30% of a top-tier school they just squeaked into.

Money. Finances are always a part of the equation. That’s why I advocate looking far beyond the top 100 schools to the expansive range of options that will better fit your teen – and likely, be more affordable. Ultimately, your teen’s choices of where to apply will come down to the best combination of fit and finances.

A Few Additional Tips

I googled “college selection process” and immediately received about 10 million hits. Who’s got that kind of time? In addition to you and your teen asking a trusted few who’ve been through the process for their preferred resources and favorite websites, here are a few of mine:

·      Given the ratio of students to guidance counselor at public high schools, many parents pop for an independent consultant to aid the search

·      Many parents, myself included, consider College Confidential an invaluable resource. Check out their parents’ forum.

·      Education First’s Explore America website provides a thorough overview of the college visit

·      The Fiske Guide to Colleges is also a must-read resource

And finally, the promised…

Bonus Advice

Consider the value of a gap year. I outline the many benefits of a gap year and how it can be important for a teen’s development in my blog post on HuffPost, but if you’re time-stretched, here are the highlights:

·      It will help your child become more independent, resilient and capable of weathering and thriving during high times and low

·      Most colleges will accept deferrals for a gap year – and will even defer scholarships

·      The benefits of expanding one’s world view are immeasurable

It may be a tad bumpy, but enjoy this ride. Trust me – your nest will be empty before long.