Tag: parenting teens (page 1 of 4)

The ultimate cheat sheet on teenagers: 7 things your teen wants you to know

Dear Wendy,

A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the Dreaded Teen Years.

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Teenzilla will eat your head for lunch. Then she will fail to clean up after herself. (Photo: A. Robert)

Once again I was struck by the terror in some parents’ voices as they contemplated their sweet little munchkin turning into Teenzilla—as though adolescence is an automatic ticket to histrionics, epic battles of will, and smelly laundry.

Okay, I’ll grant you the smelly laundry.

But seriously, I was puzzled. I know I sound like a prat when I say, “My kids were both great teens,” because so many people really have gone through the Teen Wars and have the emotional scars to prove it.

But I also know that it’s possible to minimize, if not completely avoid, screaming matches and angst during our kids’ teen years.

I’ve talked before about my basic parenting premise: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (Come on, baby boomers, you know this one—follow the bouncing ball!)

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(Photo: Joris Louwes, via Flickr)

But today I thought I’d offer a cheat sheet for parents whose wee ones are about to enter adolescence…and for those who are currently hiding their heads under a pillow, sucking back wine and wishing the whole messy hormonal sturm und drang would just disappear already. Ready? Here goes:

  1. Teens want you to be proud of them. Seriously, they do. And by “proud,” I don’t mean you think they poop vanilla ice cream. That’s just delusional.
    No, they want to know that you think they’re good people. They want to now that you approve when they get it right, and that you’ll still love them when they mess up. They don’t need you to brag to your friends about them; they just want to know that you can see they’re doing the best they can.
  2. Teens want you to be straight with them. They don’t want you to lecture at them about sex or drugs, for example—they want you to give them the facts, without embellishment or exaggeration. They want to know they can come to you for information, and that you won’t freak out and enroll them in the nearest military college to scare them straight. Just the facts, ma’am.
  3. Teens want you to set a good example. Let’s face it: teens can smell hypocrisy a mile away. I remember Mum and Dad, both raging alcoholics, trying to tell my 16-year-old self that smoking marijuana would cause me to become a heroin addict and probably a prostitute. And I remember the contempt I felt for their booze-soaked words.
    And keep in mind: you might think your kid doesn’t notice when you break your own rules. Trust me. They notice.
  4. Teens want you to understand that the times have changed. Their worlds include texting, sexting, twerking, cyber-bullying, binge drinking, earlier and earlier sex…things you and I couldn’t have imagined back in the Disco Era. Yes, you were a teen once, and yes, some things don’t change. But trying to pretend you know what your kid is going through these days? Bad plan. Here’s my advice: don’t talk about your youth. Listen to theirs.
  5. Teens want you to set limits…but not too many. Here’s an exercise I used to use when I counseled families as a social worker: stand in the middle of a good-sized room. Close your eyes, and stretch your arms out. You can’t touch a wall…what does that feel like? Notice how your heart starts to beat a bit faster, your breathing speeds up. That’s because you can’t find any boundaries.
    And that’s how teens feel when they don’t know what’s expected of them. I’m no fan of helicopter parenting, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of letting your kids know your expectations—and the consequences for breaking the rules. On the other hand, don’t set so many rules that you stifle your teen’s ability to grow. If you’re puzzled by how much is too much, sit down and talk to your teen. Remember, you’re in this together.
  6. Teens want you to understand that it’s tough becoming an adult. Their bodies aren’t the only thing that’s changing; their brains are undergoing enormous developmental shifts too. Their cognitive skills are growing by leaps and bounds, but their ability to predict outcomes for their actions tends to lag a bit behind. The transition from child to adult is hard work on all fronts, and your teen needs validation that they’re doing okay.
  7. Hugs are rarely a bad idea. Many a difficult parent-teen conversation has been defused with a hug. Go ahead—it’ll help both of you.

Okay, I called this the “ultimate” cheat sheet, but can you think of things I’ve missed? Let me know!

Love,

Karen

My biggest parenting mistake, bar none

Dear Wendy,

The other day I was reading a blog (forgive me, I actually forget which one!) by a mother who was confessing to her worst parenting errors.

It got me thinking: what’s the very worst thing I ever did as a parent? Aside from the minor stuff, that is. I mean, I’ve been angry when it wasn’t warranted, I’ve laughed inappropriately, I’ve tolerated swearing (mostly because I swear like a sailor, and I figure it’s hypocritical to insist that the kids do otherwise).

But none of those things seem to have caused the wee mites any lasting damage.

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Don’t all big brothers sit in the wading pool with their clothes on?

So…what’s the biggie, then? The thing I wish I’d done differently, better, or at all?

It’s this: I believed my kids’ teachers over my kids.

And not just once—I did it twice, one for each child. And this, despite my deeply ingrained belief that my children and I knew best what was good for them, and that we should question authority and not just willingly go along with any goofy idea the boss cooked up.

With Adrian, it happened in high school. Despite his stratospheric IQ test scores (or perhaps because of them), Adrian was profoundly disinterested in most of his classes. The only exceptions were math and computer networking, so when he had the chance work half-time as a Linux programmer through the co-op program, he grabbed it. The company loved him, he loved them, all was grooviness. You know, except for the part where he had to attend school in the afternoons.

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Yeah, high school? Tell them I’m napping. Or dead. That’s cool too.

Unfortunately, his co-op teacher was pretty Old School…literally. She’d been a particularly inept guidance counsellor at my high school in the 1970s, but had somehow been bumped along through the system. Now she was in charge of monitoring Adrian’s co-op placement.

Wait, did I say “monitoring”? I meant “nitpicking, harping, scolding, and humiliating.”

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I said I wanted that form in TRIPLICATE, you fool!

I knew about it, and it made my blood boil.

What did I do? Exactly nothing. I tried to encourage Adrian to keep his head down and just get through it. I patted him on the back, uttered soothing words, and sent him back to school each day to face that miserable, abusive woman.

By the end of the year he seemed so disheartened by school that I actually encouraged him to drop out instead of completing his final year. His co-op company hired him in a flash, and he never looked back.

Rachel’s experience was just as stark.

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Rachel on the cusp of Grade 3

She was a dreamy kid, who seemed to have trouble staying on track in class, rarely completed work on time, and couldn’t keep her desk neat to save her soul. In Grade 3, her teacher decided to “break her” of these habits.

Her method: divide the class into groups of 4. At the end of each week, tally up all the members’ infractions—untidiness, tardiness, talking back to the teacher. Each child with a “perfect” week gets a candy. The group with the lowest number of infractions wins a large bag of chips.

And hey, surprise! Since Rachel could never get through a week with a perfect record, her group was always docked points. Guess who no one wanted to have in their group?

Again, I didn’t approve…but I didn’t intervene either. Then the teacher singled Rachel out for her messy desk: she dumped the desk’s contents on the floor and ordered her to clean it up—in front of the entire class. We called for a parent-teacher meeting, expressed our extreme displeasure, and insisted that this never occur again.

It didn’t. Until the next time. And the time after that.

By the end of the year, we’d all had enough. I told Rachel we were taking her out of that school; she’d be attending the local alternative school from now on. She cried with gratitude. And I felt like shit.

Because I could have acted earlier. I should have acted earlier. As with Adrian, I saw what was happening, but on some level I simply accepted that the teachers knew what they were doing…and that my kids, not the system, were in the wrong. Maybe it was some residual fear left over from my own school days—don’t challenge the teacher, keep your head down, just survive it and get out. But those aren’t lessons I wanted my own children to learn.

By the way, when that teacher found out we intended to put Rachel in the alternative stream, she was horrified. “They dance on the desks over there,” she said. “You’ll be ruining your child.”

She couldn’t have been more mistaken. Rachel entered Lady Evelyn as a shy, tentative kid who hated school; she left Summit Alternative as a confident, happy young woman, excited about the challenge of high school. All her teachers were magnificent, and she’s still in touch with some.

Yes, all’s well that ends well, but still. I wish I’d listened more carefully, assessed more critically, acted more decisively…and a lot earlier.

I can’t help thinking I’m not alone in this—I’d love to hear from others who’ve gone through it, or who are struggling right now.

Love,

Karen

5 things you should know before your kid goes to university

Dear Wendy,

As the college year screeches to a halt, I’m getting ready to head to Toronto to collect Rachel, load our poor long-suffering Jetta with her belongings and assorted junk, and bring her back home for the summer. It’s the end of our first full academic year apart, and I’m feeling like we both did pretty well.

I’ve been thinking back to last year, when it was all a great unknown to us—she knew she had a talent for designing and building furniture, and she’d worked with professional woodworkers and designers, so she had a general sense of the direction she wanted to take.

But would college offer her the best opportunity to grow and learn? Would a program in Interior Design give her the skills and knowledge she’d need to launch her career? We all had our fingers crossed, but ultimately, we would have to wait and see.

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Humber College North Campus

I know so many parents whose kids are getting ready to make that giant leap into the great unknown of college or university. They’re doing what we did last year: assessing the programs, trying to match them to their kids’ interests and aptitudes, sending in the applications and resumes and personal statements…and waiting to hear which institute of higher learning will be The One.

So many factors to consider:

  • How far away will they be?
  • Will the kids live on-campus or off?
  • How much will it all cost?
  • Is my child ready for this?
  • How does this program/college/university compare to others in the same field?

    alt="IMAGE-education-choices"

    What should you choose? Depends where you want to go!

And of course, the biggest question of all: “Is this the right direction for my child to go?”
(Supplemental question: “And will they be able to get a job once they graduate?”)

As someone who spent more than a decade of my social work career working with university students (and who started her work life, years earlier, in the Registrar’s Office, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), I have a slightly unusual take on the matter.

Here are a few of the things I learned. Buckle up, this might be a rough ride:

  1. Only about 10% of students are 100% sure that they’re in the “right program.” Think about it: how many of the kids you knew in high school were dead certain what they wanted to be when they graduated? I know I sure didn’t! I can only remember a couple of kids in my graduating class who had careers in mind; the rest of us just kind of muddled along, hoping we’d find some direction…eventually. And eventually, most of us did.
    But parents whose kids worry that they’re not totally thrilled with everything they’re taking? Don’t worry. They’re in the majority.
  2. Most university courses aren’t meant to prepare kids for the world of work. I know, this is a controversial statement. And yes, some professional programs are supposed to stream their graduates straight into careers, or at least internships—engineering, journalism, medicine, and law spring to mind. But an undergrad degree in psychology or English or sociology? Not so much. These programs give kids a basic grounding in the subject matter, but they’re not meant to catapult them into successful careers.
  3. There’s no such thing as “forever” when it comes to program and course choices. Not to say that it doesn’t matter which program a student chooses—because most of us would rather not spend our hard-earned cash on a year’s worth of “this sucks and I don’t want to be here”—but ultimately, if a kid is in the wrong program, this is why faculty and course changes were invented. There’s always room to change your mind.
    And in the worst case, if university just isn’t the right place for a student, there is absolutely no shame in deciding to drop out and find another path.
  4. Universities don’t expect everyone who enters first year to graduate. In fact, they expect a relatively small percentage of students to stick it out all the way to fourth year. This sounds harsh, and it is.
    The grim reality is that most universities admit many students to first year, in the full knowledge and expectation that they might not make it through. This is no skin off the university’s nose—a fee-paying student is a fee-paying student. And whose fees help underwrite those expensive graduate programs? This is why a first-year psych class might contain 300 students, while a fourth-year one might contain 30.

    alt="IMAGE-crowded-first-year-class"

    First year class: Yes, you are just a number.

  5. University students who do graduate from their chosen program will frequently choose to continue their higher education—at a community college. See previous remarks about university not preparing students to join the work force. In Canada, at least, “university” means “academic,” while “community college” is often synonymous with “practical.”
    And many middle-class families, who want only the best for their kids, will steer them into the seemingly better choice. After all, we’ve learned to associate “practical” courses with the kids who can’t hack the academic stuff. They’re the losers, the ones who hang around the auto-body shop, smoke dope outside the high school basement doors, and eventually wind up in dead-end jobs or on welfare. Right?
    Wrong. In fact, these days, colleges often offer students a much better chance of post-graduation employment in their chosen field. Which, in these days of high youth unemployment, is nothing to turn your nose up at.

I realize I’ve painted a bit of a grim picture here. And I’ve used a very broad brush, so my description shouldn’t be taken to apply to everyone whose kids are planning to head off to university next September.

I don’t want to terrify anyone out of sending their kids off to university—it’s the right choice for many—but I do want both parents and students to go in with their eyes open. They should know about the challenges they’re facing, and about the reality of what their tuition fees will ultimately buy.

And I would also encourage anyone who’s sitting on the fence to consider whether university is really the only path.

Rachel was one of the only students in her high school graduating class to choose college rather than university, right out of the gate. We encouraged this choice, because we felt her chosen program would both challenge and satisfy her.

It turns out we were right. She’s spent this year working like a demon, pursuing her dream with passion and commitment. She went into her final exams this week with some exceptionally high grades, and she’s already looking forward to her second year.

And ultimately, that’s what these years are supposed to be about, right?

Love,

Karen

Health crises and the college student

Dear Wendy,

Well, Rachel’s departure for college didn’t go exactly as planned.

We’d intended to set out on Sunday around noon, take a leisurely drive down Highway 401 (hahaha… just my little joke there), land in Toronto around supper time, haul Rachel’s massive duffel bag full of clothes and books up to her room in residence, maybe eat something together, say our fond farewells, and retire to a nearby hotel for a Monday a.m. departure.

Not quite.

Saturday night, Rachel came down with A Bug. Cold? Flu? Hard to say, but she was shivering and headachy, and the two-week-long sniffles she’d just begun to shake had returned with a vengeance. Mitchell and I looked at one another, made the secret parent sign for “we won’t be leaving tomorrow after all,” and sent her straight to bed.

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I could have taken a shot of Rachel, but I’m not that cruel.

By Sunday morning, it was clear this was no ordinary cold. She had a fever, she was weak and dizzy, and best of all, her life-long asthma had decided to join the party. Never a happy sign. I won’t go into all the gory details, but the upshot is that after about 12 hours of increasing misery (and worry on our part), Rachel made the call: it was time for a visit to the emergency room.

They took one look at her and whipped her away to the acute care unit, and after three hectic hours of IV steroids and fluid replacement, plus multiple inhaled bronchodilators, they declared her fit…to go home. Not fit to travel, but considering the options, home sounded just fantastic to all of us.

She’s recovering just fine, and we’re actually in Toronto as I write this.

But this brought home to me just how important it is for parents and grown kids alike to figure out a detailed health emergency plan—especially if the kid has any ongoing health issues or chronic illnesses like asthma.

We’re just lucky that when she got sick this time, Rachel was home with us, and we could monitor her condition, drive her to the hospital, sit with her during the treatment, and most of all, know what was going on. It was a potentially scary situation and I’m glad we were all together for it…but I’m now thinking of it as a dry run for future emergencies.

Anyone whose kid has had moderate to severe asthma can tell you all about the “asthma action plan”—it’s a written plan to help manage and prevent asthma attacks. We’ve had one for years, and now we’ll be sending it to Toronto with Rachel, since it doesn’t do her much good pinned to our fridge!

A typical action plan contains

  • A list of triggers that cause symptoms, and how to avoid them
  • A list of routine symptoms (coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, excess mucus production) and what to do if these occur
  • Names and doses of daily medications that must be taken even when symptoms aren’t occurring
  • Name and dose of quick-acting (“rescue”) medication to take when symptoms do occur
  • A list of more severe symptoms (very fast heartbeat, very fast breathing, dizziness due to lack of oxygen, inability to speak more than a couple of words at a time, cessation of wheezing as the condition worsens)
  • Emergency phone numbers and locations of emergency care
  • Instructions about when to contact a doctor, what to do if the doctor isn’t available, and a list of places where you can get emergency treatment

    alt="IMAGE-asthma-action-plan"

    Our asthma plan looks a bit like this.

For students living in residence, I’d add “the name(s) and contact info of residence assistants (RAs),” who might be able to accompany the ill person to the hospital. As Rachel found out Sunday, it can be scary and disorienting when symptoms come on quickly, and it helps to have a friendly hand or two to hold. She’ll be talking to her RAs this week to ensure they know what she needs, and what they can do to help in case of emergency.

And its important to alert professors to the health problem early; that way, if classes or assignments must be missed, profs are more likely to be understanding.

Of course, students should keep their parents informed of any flare-ups. We can’t be there, but we can offer support at a distance. And if complications arise with things like health insurance, we can help sort them out.

Having a comprehensive plan in place won’t stop parents from worrying (go ahead, ask me how I know this!), but it does help to know that in case of emergency, our kids aren’t completely lost and unable to cope. And for those with ongoing health concerns, this first step away from the safety of home is important. After all, we parents can’t always be there for our kids, and they need to know that no matter what happens, they can cope with their own health emergencies.

Love,

Karen

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