SchoolFamily Voices

Join our bloggers as they share their experiences on the challenges and joys of helping children succeed in school.

Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Teenagers

Posted by on

In a recent blog I cautioned parents to make sure their teens are not overbooked. I often see students in my office upset and worried; frequently, they cannot tell me what it is they are anxious about. They often want to go home, even though they are not really sick. When I later examine their schedule and consider the extracurricular activities they are involved in, I wonder if they are feeling the results of stress from trying to do too many things. Stress is necessary, for without it we will not be alert to the world around us and push ourselves to achieve. Too much stress, though, is not healthy. Fortunately, our body tells us when it has had too much stress.

A 2013 survey of teens and adults done by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that teens today are feeling higher levels of stress than their parents. It also revealed that teens do not realize that being under too much stress is unhealthy for them. Stress can cause headaches and upset stomachs. It can cause you to stay awake when you should be sleeping at night. It can elevate blood pressure and even cause chest pain. It can also exacerbate the symptoms of other diseases such as arthritis and asthma. It can lead to serious feelings of anxiety and depression. (For more information about the physical symptoms of too much stress, read The Effects of Stress on Your Body at WebMD.)

There are some steps to take that can help relieve the stress. Of course, examining the schedule is the first step. It is possible that taking away one or two activities during the school year can be enough to make life more manageable. Teens also need to do something fun and get some exercise every day. The APA says, “School is important, but it’s not everything. When you plan your week, schedule time to get schoolwork done, but also schedule time to have fun. When it’s time to enjoy yourself, try not to worry about school or homework. Focus on having fun.” And, finally, teens need to get enough sleep at night. Everyone is different, but most doctors recommend that teens sleep eight or nine hours every night. There are times when there just is no way to get enough sleep, but that should not be a routine event.

The amount of stress teenagers are under and the resulting anxiety is a major concern in schools everywhere. Parents should not ignore the signs of stress in their children, and they should take steps to alleviate the cause, if possible. Teens tend to feel invincible, so they will not likely worry about how they are feeling and connect it to being under so much pressure. Adolescents need to learn strategies to manage their stress such as exercise, having fun, and getting enough sleep. If you are concerned about your son or daughter, talk to your pediatrician about whether the symptoms they are experiencing could be caused by stress.

Posted by on

Parents often push their children to take honors and AP level classes because they want them to be challenged and have a better chance to get into a competitive college. Additionally, they want them involved in extra-curricular activities so they have little free time to get into mischief. For some kids, I agree this is appropriate. For all kids, though, it is important to take a look at their overall schedule to make sure it is reasonable. Students in middle and high school need to have some “down time” in their life, and scheduling too many difficult classes and extra-curricular activities is not healthy for them. How do you know if your child is overscheduled?

If your daughter routinely stays up past midnight to complete her homework, she may be trying to do too much. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get from eight to ten hours of sleep each night. I frequently ask my students how much sleep they get, and most report they only get five or six hours on school nights. They get home from sports or band practice, eat dinner, start their homework, and do not get finished until very late. There are many negative effects of not getting enough sleep, some of which relate to poor performance in school.

Frequently staying home from school is another sign that your child may be overbooked. The stress your son feels from not having any fun time and not getting enough rest, often results in exhaustion and illness. Then, missing school adds to the stress because he has so much work to do to catch up after being out.

Overbooked teens often become anxious. Your daughter may worry about just about everything—pleasing her parents, doing well in school, not letting her teammates down, not having enough friends. She may ask to drop a class from her schedule, which might not be a bad idea. She may need guidance in deciding what she should drop, however. (She may not be thinking logically while anxious.) If your daughter feels anxious about school and life, it is time to take a look at her overall schedule. Consider allowing her to switch some of her classes from honors to regular level or perhaps dropping something from her schedule.

Taking too many upper-level classes and participating in too many extracurricular activities is risky for teenagers. Examine whether your child is getting enough sleep at night and attending school regularly. Note whether he feels anxious a lot. Make sure there is time for him to enjoy being with friends and family, attend social events, and have some time when he does not have to do anything at all. He needs to have some fun to stay healthy and happy.

Posted by on

Many families are getting ready to go back to school. It is important to give some thought to appropriate clothing to wear. Most schools have a dress code; and, most adolescents don’t like it! Schools have dress codes for a reason, and it helps to understand why. Here are some ideas for talking with your child if she does not agree with the school’s code. Understanding why dressing appropriately is important can make back-to-school shopping easier!

First and foremost, ask her, “Why do you go to school?” Generally, kids will say two reasons in this order—“to see my friends” and “to get an education.” The social aspects of school are extremely important, which is why attire is so important to teens. Your conversation can center on the primary reason for school—to prepare her for her future, whether that is college or career. School is her job right now, and most places have dress codes for their employees.

Second, talk about the importance of first impressions. It can be the deciding factor of who is chosen for a job or elected to an office. I like to find pictures online of people dressed up for a party, dressed for working in the yard, dressed for a casual get-together with friends, and dressed for the swimming pool. Ask your son why the people are wearing what they are wearing. Ask him what people would think if he showed up wearing his swimming suit at school or the clothes he wears while mowing the lawn. Ask him to pick out a successful businessman and why he chose the one he did. The bottom line is that how you look makes an impression on others and that impression can affect success.

Last of all, make the point that the way we dress affects how we behave. Talk about what happens in school on “dress-up” days. We have a spirit week when students choose themes each day such as dressing like your favorite super hero or wearing school colors. Students enjoy each theme and love that the dress code is relaxed to allow hats, flip-flops, and ragged jeans. Teachers report that it is difficult to get students to take their learning seriously when Iron Man and Batgirl are sitting in class or one student is wearing a bright green hat with blinking lights on it. On normal days, when students are dressed for school, students settle down to business much more quickly.

Dress codes do matter. It is a part of our adult life as much as it is life in school. Getting an education is your child’s job right now. Dressing appropriately sends the signal to others, both peers and teachers, that your son or daughter is there to learn as much as possible and that they take their jobs seriously. Take time to examine the school’s dress code and to have this conversation before shopping for school clothes.

Posted by on

Human beings need the attention of others. We need to interact with one another and to feel accepted and loved. When teens misbehave, they often do so to get the attention of their peers or the adults in their lives. Years ago, an acquaintance talked for 20 minutes about how awful her daughter was without ever saying anything good about her. I asked her, “Do you ever just put your arms around her and tell her you love her?” She said that she didn’t do that because her daughter didn’t deserve it. To me, it partially explained her daughter's behavior. She needed to feel loved by her mother and to have her mother’s unconditional love. Since she couldn’t get that, she at least got her attention by misbehaving. There are times when parents must discipline their children, but children must know that their parents love them despite their poor behavior. How can parents let their kids know how much they love them even when they need to change their behavior?

First of all, parents and teens need to talk to one another often. Ask your son his opinion about important decisions you need to make or what is going on in his life. Ask him probing questions that require more than a one-word answer. Tell him how important he is to you and how much you care about him. If talking to each other like this is normal, then talking about his misbehavior won’t be so stressful. He will already know you love him, because you have told him so many times before.

Second, be aware that your daughter hears what you say about her to your friends. If you need to discipline her about something, do what you need to do and move forward without continuing to talk about it. Tell others about the positive things she is doing and how proud you are of her. When she gets positive attention from you and hears you telling your friends about the good things she does, she will know that you forgave her and that you still love her. This will encourage her to behave well because she gets lots of attention for it.

Finally, learn about ways to manage your son’s behavior effectively. There are many excellent books about how to change behavior without using humiliation or other extreme measures. My favorite is Joanne Nordling’s Taking Charge: Caring Discipline That Works at Home and at School. Nordling outlines a behavior management system based on consequences tied to the behavior you need to change. She also recommends that you carefully choose which behaviors get attention and which do not. Very deliberately, you effectively shape your son’s behavior in positive ways.

Teens need the attention of their parents. If they don’t get enough, they might do something wrong to get negative attention; negative attention is better than no attention. To change this dynamic and strengthen your relationship with your child, talk often, use effective disciplinary techniques, and choose your words carefully when discussing family business with others. Most important of all—make sure she knows how much you love her.

Posted by on

Summer is an important time for middle and upper school students to think ahead to what they want for themselves after high school. If the plan involves going to college, then taking action now can improve the chance of getting into the college of choice. Our college counselor meets with middle and high school students and their parents. She advises them to choose an extracurricular activity they are passionate about and to stick with it throughout their middle and high school career. College admissions people like to see this for a number of reasons.

First, colleges like to have students who are well-rounded and have passions that involve pursuits other than academics. Playing a sport, taking piano lessons (or another instrument), helping with  Special Olympics, or becoming a Girl Scout or Boy Scout throughout middle and high school all show that there is more to this student than just getting good grades.

Second, staying with a single activity not only shows that your child has passion for it, but also that she can stick with something. If she starts playing a sport and then quits, the message she sends is that she cannot follow through with a commitment. The same is true for music lessons or other extracurricular activities. She doesn’t need to limit herself to only one thing, but ideally there should be at least one that she sticks with for the long term.

Third, deep friendships develop with others who have the same passion. It is likely that your son will bond with other boys who participate in the same activity. When he leaves home to go to college, he may be able to participate in the same extracurricular activities there, where he can make new friends quickly. In some cases, he may get scholarship money because of his skill, but more likely he will participate in club-level extracurricular activities. In either case, colleges like for their students to have close friends and to participate in campus life.

Take some time to talk with your child about how important it is to choose something of interest to her and to stick with it throughout middle and high school. It can be almost anything—from community service to taking art lessons or playing sports. Whatever it is, if your child can demonstrate her commitment to it, she will increase her chances of getting into the college of her choice and make some lifelong friends along the way.

Posted by on

Many experts warn children about the dangers of the Internet. We teach our children to never give their name, address, or phone number to anyone online. We watch them while online to make sure they do not visit inappropriate websites. As children become teens, we tend to back off and trust them to be careful while online. There are great risks for teens, however, and parents need to continue to watch diligently what their adolescents are doing online. The risks do change, but are just as dangerous as when our children were younger.

Teens often know as much or more than their parents do about their electronic devices. Step number one for protecting your teen is to learn what the risks are and what control you have over them. Here are some of the risks I often see affecting the kids I teach.

Lack of sleep. If adolescents take their tablet or smartphone to bed with them, they are likely communicating with their friends throughout the night. The culture now is to answer every tweet, posting, or message the second it goes online. Lack of sleep leads to poor performance in school, drowsiness while driving, and even to depression. It might not be easy to get him to agree, but your teen should turn the devices over to you before bed, and you should keep them with you overnight.

Online bullying. Bullying used to happen during the school day or before and after school. Now, it can go on 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. The effects of bullying are deep and devastating. It is important to monitor your teens’ online communications with other kids, and keep an ongoing dialogue about their activity there. If possible, connect with them on their social networks so that you see the comments as they are posted. Parents of all the children involved need to work together in positive ways to resolve the issues.

Becoming addicted to online video games. When your child needs more and more of something and it affects his ability to function normally, then he is addicted. We tend to think of drugs and alcohol addictions, but I have known teens and adults who are addicted to video games. For kids in school, their grades suffer, they are sleepy in school, and they frequently get into trouble because they are using their devices inappropriately in class. One defense for parents is to cut off the supply of funding for the games. To be really good at most of these games, the player must spend money to buy the advantage to win. If there is no money available, the game is not as much fun. Additionally, keeping the electronics away from them at night is important. If your child does not respond to these restrictions, he may need to see a psychologist who specializes in adolescent addiction.

Parenting teens is hard work. It is important to maintain diligent efforts to monitor your teen’s activities online in order to prevent serious consequences. Your child can perform poorly in school, have serious health consequences, or become addicted to online games. If you do not feel that you have adequate skills to know how to protect your child, sign up for a class or form an alliance with other parents of teens. Contact your child’s school to see if they are offering support, as well. Kids are healthier and happier when their parents work together with other parents and with the school.

Posted by on

Recently, a student shared a poem he had written with me. I was totally amazed at how beautiful and thoughtful it was. He was involved in a creative writing class, and the poem was an assignment. This made me think about the summer as a time to expand writing skills in a fun way. Teens could see writing as something to enjoy instead of a chore to do for school.

Often, teens get stuck on the first step when trying to write—thinking of something to say. This is true for all writers, not just beginning writers! If your child feels this way, my advice is to encourage her to write about her passions. If she has something she really wants to say, it is much easier to get going. It is also important that she does not feel that her work has to be perfect the first time through. I often write, rewrite, let it sit overnight, and revise again before submitting my work. Six Ways to Start the Writing Process might help her get started.

Creative thoughts often come to us when we are relaxed and not focused on any one thing. It might help your child to get away from electronic devices that interrupt his thinking. Many writers say their ideas come to them while in the shower first thing in the morning when they are well-rested. He could take an afternoon walk in the park or sit outside one night and watch for a shooting star. The trick is to give himself plenty of down time when there is nothing scheduled except relax and enjoy life.

Encourage your children to take some time this summer to explore their writing potential. They might find that they enjoy getting their thoughts down on paper. Your children might find out that they love sharing their passions through writing. This is especially true if there is an easy way to share what they write with the world! Teen Ink is a website devoted to sharing writing, reviews, photos, videos, and art submitted by teens. There are more than 65,000 works published on the site. It is fun to read the work submitted by other teens and to rate their work. Perhaps your child will be inspired to submit work for publication this summer, and she will begin to see herself as a writer with important things to say.

Parents need to be mindful of how their children are feeling when the news is full of frightening events. Stories about violent protests, natural disasters, and political turmoil are prominent on every news source. Adolescents are at an emotional point in their development, and parents need to be aware of the effects these stories have on their teens. It is very important to talk to your children about these events and others they worry about. Here are some tips for how you might approach these discussions.

  • There are many people who protest in peaceful ways. The media often does not focus on these protests; perhaps you can spend some time with your child showing him news stories that are focusing on the peaceful, more effective protests. Also, read about Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 amid the racial tensions of the 1960s.
  • When natural disasters occur, adolescents need to learn that their actions can help alleviate the suffering of others. One person might not make a huge dent, but many working together can. You can encourage your kids to lead or participate in an effort that will directly provide aid to the people they are hearing about in the news. This helps change your child’s emotional response to the news from fear into compassion for others.
  • People can disagree about politics (or anything else) and still like one another. Unfortunately, that message is not the one portrayed by candidates running for office. With my own children, I tried to point out that there are risks and benefits for every choice we make. During political campaigns I encouraged them to read each candidate’s platform before deciding who they support. In this way, they can have an informed discussion with their friends who support a different candidate. This same approach can work when discussing any news story because the chances are great that you are not hearing the full truth. One must seek the other side of each story before deciding what to believe.

Adolescents in particular are affected by events they hear on the news or read about on the Internet. Parents can help alleviate their fears by talking about them with their children, helping seek the full story in each case, and providing some guidance for positive ways to make a difference in the world. I believe that most teens are good people. With parental help, teens can become analytical thinkers who are equipped to make a real difference in the world.

Posted by on

Students from the school where I teach are off this week to do internships. They are allowed to choose where they want to go, and we have students in several states (and a few out of the country). The students try to find a placement that relates to a career interest they have. We have students working in law offices, government agencies, research facilities, markets, lawn care businesses, veterinarian clinics, nonprofit organizations, and a host of other businesses. This program is one of the most rewarding and beneficial activities we do.

It isn’t easy running an internship program during the school year. Most of the frustrations occur before the internships begin. Students procrastinate in finding a place to intern, and then find it is nearly impossible to get in where they want to work. Students who want to work in hospitals or doctor’s offices often need a physical checkup, a tuberculosis test, and to attend an orientation before being allowed to work. This can take weeks to arrange, which means students need to plan ahead and get their internship set up early enough. Our students are asked to set up their internships themselves rather than relying on their parents to do it for them. This is difficult for them, but it is a good experience that prepares them for college and the workplace. Finding an interesting place that will allow them to intern can also be difficult. Many organizations and businesses accept college students for internships but not high school students. Most of them want the intern to work longer than a week which is not possible for us.

Despite these frustrations, the benefits of doing an internship are unbelievable. When students write about their experiences, they say things like, “I now know for sure that this is what I want to do for a living.” Equally important, they may tell me they know that they do not want to do it! I have heard, “I never worked that hard in my life! Now I know that when my father gives me spending money, he worked really hard for that. I appreciate it so much more.” One student said, “I understand more about food production—from the farmer all the way to the store.” Another, “I just cannot sit that long in front of a computer. I thought I would be up doing active things.” I heard, “I didn’t know that a workplace can be a fun place to be. Everyone had a great sense of humor, and they enjoyed being there!”

These are lessons that cannot be taught in the classroom. Organizing and keeping up with an internship program is a huge job—but, it is definitely worth it for the experiences the students have. If your child’s school does not have a program like this, consider an internship during the summer months when your child is out of school. The lessons your child will learn will last a lifetime.

Posted by on

When students smoke marijuana, they typically do not do well in school. I was curious about whether the recent state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use have affected the number of teens who smoke it regularly. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health analyzed the results of the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey taken before and after the laws were passed. This study determined that the use of marijuana by teens did not change significantly after the laws came into effect. What surprised me, though, was the number of students who report using marijuana in the last month is around 21 percent—two out of every 10 students!

Many teens feel that marijuana helps them deal with the stress of being an adolescent, and it is not dangerous. There is a lot of research that suggests otherwise. Marijuana affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain where certain types of learning occur. This can lead to problems studying and learning new things, and it affects short-term memory. Recent studies show that regular use causes a significant drop in IQ which does not come back after quitting. Marijuana also affects the cerebellum which is the control center for balance and coordination. This causes poor performance in activities such as sports and driving. The third area of the brain that is impacted is the prefrontal cortex, where high level reasoning and problem-solving occur. This explains why people under the influence of marijuana can make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviors.

The effects of smoking marijuana start quickly and last for several hours. Long-term use may impair brain development and lower the IQ. If your child changes from a sweet, cooperative teen who cares about himself and others into one who seems more argumentative or paranoid, it is possible he is smoking marijuana. Other signs are a sudden drop in grades and uncharacteristically poor hygiene. (For more information, see NIDA for Teens.) If you suspect your child might be using, it is important to find out. The first step is a visit to his doctor. Once you know, you can get professional help for your child to help him learn to cope with normal adolescent stress in healthy ways.

See Help Kids Learn To Manage Stress for ideas about healthy ways to deal with stress.

Posted by on

In the last few years there seems to be an increasing number of kids who suffer from anxiety. I wanted to learn more about anxiety and how to help these kids. My journey began with a workshop with Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, a professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and reading his book about adolescence and anxiety. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Nancy Macconnachie, an expert on working with teens who are anxious. Dr. Macconnachie explained the biological basis of anxiety and her strategy for working with these adolescents.

According to Dr. Macconnachie, when information enters our brain it first goes to the limbic system, which is the emotion-regulating center. From there it moves to the prefrontal cortex, where we reason and problem-solve. If too much information enters at once, the emotion center becomes overwhelmed and the information is not sent to the thinking system. This is a biological description of anxiety. An anxious person is emotional and cannot reason through the situation. Once this happens, everything becomes a crisis because the student is overwhelmed by emotions. Dr. Macconnachie says we have to teach our students how to handle these emotional times in order to allow the thinking brain to do its job. She says we must “give students a bag of tricks.”

There are some fundamental tricks that all of us need. Number one, according to Dr. Macconnachie, is to get plenty of exercise or active play. Exercise increases the oxygen level in the bloodstream and relaxes tense muscles, both of which reduce adrenalin levels and allow us to function. The second “trick” is to develop a social network of support. Perhaps a parent or close friend can provide emotional support that helps get through the tough times. Other strategies include things like having a creative outlet such as art or music, caring for pets, participating in a spiritual activity like church, or doing community service. Every person’s “bag of tricks” is different. When Dr. Macconnachie works with adolescents, she has them begin to explore what relaxes them and helps them to get through the emotional crises and move to rational thinking and problem-solving.

Being an adolescent is difficult.  Physical changes occur, and teens begin to seek independence from the adults around them. All adolescents are emotional because of these changes in their lives. It is important to develop healthy ways to handle the emotions such as exercise and spending quality time with friends and family. If your teen is experiencing anxiety, it is important to help them develop their personal “bag of tricks” to handle their emotions. Too much anxiety can lead to serious depression.  If you feel your teen is overly stressed, seek the help of a professional who knows the best ways to help.


> How To Reduce School Anxiety

> Help Kids Learn To Manage Stress

Posted by on

Time spent enjoying family meals can pay off in stronger connections. When possible, it is important to sit down together to talk and find out how everyone is. It's also a time when your children learn manners and respectful behavior toward one another.

Families can really benefit when dinnertime is established as a family value. Remember, too, that your children learn the most by watching what you do. Here are some suggestions for making family meals more meaningful.

First, it can be helpful to establish a “no phones” rule for dinner time. Unless there is an emergency, calls can wait until everyone is finished eating. Teens in particular seem to be absorbed by their phones at all times. But mealtime should be an occasion when you ask open-ended questions and discuss what is happening in each person’s life. (See Getting Teens To Open Up  if you need ideas for how to do this.)

Second, practice basic table manners together. I can remember my mother reminding me to chew with my mouth closed, to make sure there is plenty to go around before taking a second roll, or to ask politely for someone to pass what you need rather than reaching over their plate. These fundamental skills are not taught anywhere else, and poor manners can hurt your child socially and, at some point, professionally.

Spending time together like this brings a family closer. Even during adolescence, when teens act like they don’t want to be a part of the family, they really do need you to show how much you care about them. Most of us are so busy there is very little time for this kind of interaction. I encourage you to sit down together to eat a meal at least once each day. Of course, every family has weeks when activities and homework make dining together difficult. On those hectic days, find other ways to connect, like playing a game in the evening or even just sitting together and talking.


> Make Family Meals Count

> Recipes for Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinners

Posted by on

Several times in the last couple of years, parents have asked for a conference with me. I am always happy to meet with parents, because I see myself as a partner with them to help take care of their child. What these parents really wanted to know was whether the things they were seeing happen with their child were normal. Developmental psychology textbooks don’t really answer the specific questions they asked. The books explain that the teen years are when children begin the process of turning from children into adults, but they often fail to tell you what to expect in terms of family dynamics.

Here are some FAQs about adolescents in middle and high school.

Is it normal that my child doesn’t want to spend time with the family? Your child wants to be independent from you. Every chance he gets, he will isolate himself in his bedroom and play video games, watch television, text friends, or do a myriad of other things that don’t include the rest of the family. The truth is, he still needs you desperately. Physically, he looks like an adult, but he is still a child in many ways.

Why does my child argue with just about everything I say?
This is again part of the process of changing from a child into an adult. She wants to make all her decisions for herself. She is old enough to find herself in situations that can be dangerous for her, yet her brain is not fully developed in order to make the best choices. Arguing with you is her way of letting you know she wants you to see her as an adult. You will have fewer arguments if you allow her to make choices when the consequences for those choices is not too great. (See Adolescents Should Solve Most of Their Problems Themselves for some ideas.) You must stay involved, however, and help her to make the right decisions when the consequences could harm her. Raising teens is hard work! 

Is it normal that my child stays up really late and doesn’t want to get up for school?
The normal sleep patterns for teens shifts later into the night. They frequently stay up past midnight and are sleepy in their morning classes at school. This sleep pattern is perfectly normal. You should encourage her to get to bed earlier, but she may not be able to go to sleep right away. There has been discussion about whether school should start later in the day for adolescents. There are, however, a number of reasons for keeping it the way it is. The current schedule more closely mirrors parents’ work hours, and after school activities like sports and music practice would go too late into the evening hours if school started later. 

My child carries everything he owns in his book bag and doesn’t use his locker. He also forgets to do all his homework. Is that normal?
The part of the brain that governs planning ahead and time management does not fully develop until the early or middle twenties. It is very normal that teens find it easiest to take everything with them rather than to figure out what they can leave in their locker and pick up later in the day. Some teens have a very difficult time with this. (See Executive Functioning—How It Affects a Student in School.)

If you wonder whether your son or daughter is behaving in an unusual way, talk to other parents who have children the same age. It is sometimes hard to tell whether they are behaving like teenagers or whether there is really something bothering them. Talk to them every day, ask good questions, and stay involved despite their desire for you to leave them alone. Once they leave home, they will appreciate that you were always there for them! In the meantime, tell them how much you love them and keep trying to include them in all family activities.

Tim Elmore, an expert on growing leadership in today’s youth, recently wrote, “…students who are emotionally fragile often struggle with addictive behavior…[a]ddictions [that] often begin as coping mechanisms. In fact, most of us would admit to a small addiction to help us get through our day: coffee, chocolate, television, Coke Zero, alcohol, cigarettes…” [From Addictions: One Reason Not to Take the Easy Road.]  Dr. Elmore is not speaking primarily about drugs or alcohol addiction. He is speaking of addictive behavior. His concern is that we are not teaching our youth how to cope with life’s stressors in healthy ways, so they take actions that quickly relieve the stress. We are allowing them to rely on unhealthy habits or on parents to rescue them. Parents respond so that their children never have to suffer even the slightest discomfort or embarrassment.

Recently, I learned of a student who in the middle of class sent a text message to her mother. Shortly after, someone from the office brought her the textbook she had left in her locker. Her mother had called the school office to ask someone to go get the book and take it to her. I think this is wrong on several levels: First, the student broke the rules by text messaging during class. Second, her mother rescued her by calling the school. Third, the office personnel allowed it to happen. The student learned she does not have to be responsible for bringing her book to class, because her mother will rescue her from suffering the consequences of her actions. Mom has become her coping mechanism—her “addiction.”

Here are three important strategies for developing stronger adolescents who can handle daily struggles in healthy ways.

  • You should expect your child to do a fair share of the chores at home. At the very least, he should keep his own room clean and help with cleaning the shared family spaces. There are other chores he can do, and he should have firm responsibilities at home that he does without fail.
  • Your child should resolve her own conflicts with her friends. Most of the time, teens can do this if they are encouraged to talk with one another. If parents intervene in every squabble, children will never learn to resolve their own differences.
  • Allow your child to suffer the natural consequences of his actions. If he forgets to do his homework, he should be honest with his teacher and admit that he forgot. He can ask for another chance (if it hasn’t happened too many times before), and maybe the teacher will allow him to turn it in late. If the teacher does not, you should not try to rescue him.

When you require your children to do chores at home, resolve their own conflicts, and suffer the consequences of their own actions, you are teaching responsibility. Your children learn healthy coping mechanisms rather than blaming others when things go wrong (“Mom didn’t make coffee this morning.” or “Dad wouldn’t bring it to me.”). They become healthy and emotionally strong—ready to take on life’s daily struggles.


> Kids, Stress, and How Parents Can Help

> Summer Chores Teach Kids Responsibility

Posted by on

One of the most common questions parents ask me about their teenage child is, “Is she normal?” They are usually concerned because their child, who used to be talkative and cheerful at home, is now surly; she answers questions with as few words as possible and no longer wants to participate in family activities.
Conversations go like this:

“How was school today?”
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
“Do you have homework to do tonight?”
“What’s happening with Maria these days?”

At home, their child stays in his bedroom most of the time and acts like he is very unhappy. The same kid at school hangs around with a lot of friends and constantly laughs and makes jokes. He eats lunch with five or six classmates and is an active participant in extracurricular activities.

No one knows for sure why this happens, but the hypothesis is that teens are beginning to seek independence from their parents. They want their peers to think that they are totally in control of their lives and don’t need their parents any more. They are preparing for the day when they will be leaving home and be completely on their own.

Understanding why teens do this doesn’t make it easier. Parents want to know what is happening in their child’s life, and one word answers aren’t helpful. They want to know their child is happy and has friends.

I encourage parents to ask questions that can’t be answered with one word. Here are some conversation starters:

“What was the most interesting thing that happened today in school?”
“What is your favorite movie of all time? Why do you think so?”
“Why do you not like your math class?”

If your teen seems surly and unhappy, it is very likely that he will eventually start talking to you again. In the meantime, keep an eye on his activities. Talk to his teachers and coaches to make sure he seems happy at school and has friends (or at least one good friend). Most of the time, what you see is normal adolescent behavior. If you should find that he is unhappy at school, too, you may need to seek the help of a professional for advice. You will need to figure out the source of his unhappiness and make a plan for how to get him back on the right track—the insolent, quiet child who is driving you crazy at home track, that is.


> Adolescence: A Time of Change and Self-Doubt

> Brain Development in Teens: Help Them Deal With Peer Pressure

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, once said, “Out of life’s school…what does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” I recently heard someone talking about school and how hard it is for so many students, and I thought of this quote. It made me somewhat philosophical myself. Generally, I write about specific problems in this blog, but today I “wax philosophical” (as my father used to say).

When I was little, I thought that someday I would know what to do when problems arose. I wished I could grow up faster, so life would not be so hard. Then I grew up. To my surprise, I find myself not always knowing what to do! I tell students this all the time—mostly when trying to help them understand their parents. (Parents are completely unreasonable and place impossible demands on children.) My answer always starts with, “Your parents love you so much. They are doing the best they can to help you grow up to be a successful adult. I will tell you a secret—grown-ups don’t always know the best way to do things. They just do the best they can.” I follow that with the story of myself as a child thinking that when I grew up I would always know what to do. I encourage them to have a heart-to-heart talk with their parents, too.

When talking with parents about their adolescent child, I tell them that teens are seeking independence from them. Many of their decisions are in response to what they feel are unreasonable requests. I usually advise that together we search for what will help their child decide for himself he wants to do better in school. And then I advise them to have an open and honest talk with their child.

Adolescence is difficult, but it’s also tremendously fun. When I walk down the hall at school and hear students talking with one another, I always wind up smiling (or laughing out loud). I encourage you to stop and think about the best parts of life with your kids. And remember that the tough parts are there to make us stronger. We have to experience failure, learn to argue and resolve differences, become internally motivated, and begin caring about others more than ourselves. This is tough and sometimes miserable. But it is important and what adolescence is all about.

Posted by on

It would be hard to say whether teens communicate more digitally, such as texting or through social media, or by talking face-to-face. Judging from the noise I hear each day in the halls between classes, I would vote for face-to-face! I have heard concerns from many adults, however, that kids are losing their ability to communicate effectively because they spend so much time sending instant and text messages. There is research that suggests that teens use texting to avoid any kind of uncomfortable communication (See Teen Texting Soars; Will Social Skills Suffer?). How can parents help their children learn to communicate better?

First, families need to spend time together when they do not allow interruptions from their smartphones. We are all guilty of checking our email and text messages or even taking a call during dinnertime with our family. The message to the family is that whoever or whatever is on the phone is more important than time with them. I suggest that everyone agrees to put their phones on silent at least during dinnertime. Spend dinnertime practicing communication skills by talking to one another. Dinnertime should be sacred family time.

Second, purposefully teach communication skills, especially those that help resolve problems. I teach students who are having a disagreement to use “I feel” statements. They go like this: I feel [name the emotion] when [tell when it happens] because [explain why].

For example: “I feel angry when you take things from my locker without asking me first, because it seems like you don’t respect my property.” When students explain what is bothering them to their friends using “I feel” statements, it opens the door to a conversation that usually ends with the problem solved. Kids need to practice this technique, and it needs to be done face-to-face rather than through text messaging or emailing.

With these two simple tips, children can begin to build their communication skills which will help them not only now but also in the future. Much has been written about the importance of social skills to success in a career. Create a family time each day when all communication is face-to-face, and teach your children how to use “I feel” statements.

For more ideas about communication, read Improve Communication Skills With Practice Games.

Posted by on

There are some fundamental skills students need to learn that aren’t normally taught in school. On several occasions through the years, I have been responsible for collecting forms for an event such as a field trip. Typically, the forms ask for specific information such as the student’s name, address, and telephone number, as well as a person to contact in the event of an emergency. Students often select from a list of choices and sign the form stating they are aware of safety concerns. Normally, the parent or guardian also needs to sign the form. I am always surprised at the number of middle and high school students who do not correctly fill out the forms. They forget to fill in important information or forget to get the appropriate signatures. Additionally, they fail to meet the deadline for turning in the form.

While these forms may seem trivial, they are not. Teachers spend hours going through them before taking a field trip with students. They make phone calls, email parents, and look up the missing information. More important, these skills are necessary when filling out a job application or an application to college. Because jobs are scarce, a mistake like leaving out information can make the difference in whether an applicant is considered for the job or not. And it would be a shame to miss getting into a specific college because the application is not complete!

As a parent, you can help. Your child should fill out these forms himself. If he does not know specific information, rather than telling him, suggest where he might find the information. Teach him that he should not sign his name without reading what he is signing. Encourage him to write legibly (including his signature). And tell him that every piece of information must be filled out even when it requires him to do some research to find it.

It can be a nuisance to have to fill out forms for school events, but think of it as a teaching opportunity. The skills are important even though it might not seem so at the moment!


> Make Sure Teens Know How To Fill Out Job Applications

> Take Advantage of Real-Life Learning Experiences

In nearly 30 years of teaching school, I have seen hundreds of cases where parents involve themselves in their adolescents’ problems. Sometimes, that’s the right thing to do because the problem is too great for a teen to handle alone. But most of the time, the problems are minor—like when to start doing homework, whether to go to the late basketball game, or who to take to the dance. If kids are allowed to make decisions on their own and suffer the natural consequences of those decisions, they will be better equipped to handle bigger problems when they arise (like whether to smoke that cigarette or drink that beer).

Let’s pretend that Maria decides not to wear leggings, boots, and a heavy jacket to school because she is hoping for warmer weather in the afternoon. The weather does not get warmer. Instead it gets colder and windy. Maria gets chilled when she goes outside. This is the natural consequence, and it will not hurt her. Next time, she is more likely to pay attention to the weather forecast when getting dressed for school. (By the way, it is a myth that you catch a cold from getting chilled. Colds are caused by a virus.) Parents often involve themselves in these decisions which lead to arguments in the morning before school, and their children do not learn about consequences of their actions.

A few weeks later, Maria’s friend Alex tries to talk her into leaving campus during lunchtime even though it’s against the rules. Because Maria’s parents have allowed her to make lots of decisions by herself (like what to wear to school), she thinks through the possible consequences of going with Alex and decides she doesn’t want to take the risk. If Maria’s parents make all her decisions for her, she might not think about consequences of her actions.

The most frequent parental involvement I have had as a teacher is after a student does poorly on a test or project. The parent will call to find out why. This is a student and teacher issue, and in most cases the student should handle this by himself. Instead of getting involved, encourage him to go talk to his teacher himself. It is fine to coach him on how to do it. He should make an appointment to talk to the teacher alone instead of when other students are around (perhaps before or after school). He should ask for help to understand what he missed and why he missed it. He might ask if his teacher can show him an answer that got all the points. He should tell his teacher he would like to do better next time and ask for advice on how to improve. This approach teaches him that he can solve problems on his own. He is a capable person who can figure out how to do better in school. He will earn the respect of his teacher who will be impressed with how mature he is. He is a step closer to independence and self-discipline.

Posted by on

Most adolescent students have doubts about themselves. Your child may feel that everyone around him is smarter, has more friends, looks better, or is a better athlete. He might think he doesn’t have much chance of succeeding in life. You can help him learn how to handle these feelings and gain more control over what happens to him.

Adolescence is a time of change. It is when your children change from being dependent on parents or guardians to being self-reliant. It is difficult, and often teens feel inadequate. But even though they feel awkward and ugly, others see them quite differently. This is a time when parents can be most helpful, yet teens often do not talk about their concerns. Parents can initiate this discussion and can assure their teens that their feelings are normal.

I have written many times about success in school and life. If your child is willing to work hard, study, and turn in all the work she owes, it is very likely that she will do well in school. It is important that she accepts responsibility for her actions and acknowledges when she makes a mistake. If her first thought is "My teacher didn't tell me," then she needs to give some thought to what determines success. Parents can help her to understand the importance of a good work ethic. Parents should also allow her to suffer the consequences of her actions by not rescuing her from failure. The same is true whether talking about success in academics, sports, art, music, or even friendship. (On the other hand, if your child is working hard but still not succeeding, then it may be time to seek help.)

When you hear your child say disparaging things about herself, encourage her by explaining that her feelings are quite normal and a part of adolescence. Help her to be her very best and encourage her to take charge of her life and work. Help her to connect her hard work to success by praising her efforts rather than her intellect. In this way, she will be successful now in school and later in life after school. She will gradually feel better about herself and realize how special she is to many people.


Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?