Adolescents need adults

We read a newspaper article the other day that talked about “why your teenager needs to be defiant.” That’s been conventional wisdom for quite a while, with current brain research often cited to support the idea.

But the situation is more complex and more hopeful than that. We’ve just attended an international conference where we gave a keynote speech about adolescent emotional development. Some of the world’s foremost researchers in brain functioning, genetics, and behavior were also on the program. They reported fascinating findings, like the way adolescent brains keep changing until they are 25 or 26. Along with that ongoing plasticity, well into what is usually considered young adulthood, there is growth in the need for novelty and stimulation. Increased risk-taking correlates with a dip in neurological control mechanisms (see our companion blog posting “Check in before you check out!” for more on supporting the development of good judgment in teens).

Another strand in adolescent growth is a surge in the wish and need to connect with other people. These affiliative needs are there from birth, but teenagers feel them very strongly and are capable of putting them into action. Adolescents need friends to practice the relationship skills they will use lifelong; friends are an important source of emotional nourishment, reality-checking, and pleasure.

One problem is that kids take many more dangerous risks when they are with others than they do when they’re alone. So how do we help teenagers balance the complex forces operating inside their developing bodies, brains, minds, and feelings?

Grownups can supply the needed counterbalance to the built-in changes that teenagers are going through. Instead of backing off and abandoning kids to an indiscriminate search for stimulation and novelty, parents and teachers should stay involved in teenagers’ lives.

It isn’t always easy to stay open and interested in the new pathways teenagers may lead us into. Parents really need to call on their emotional muscles of flexibility, patience, and respect to avoid knee-jerk negative reactions to new styles of music, clothes and activities. It steadies kids if you have standards for mutually-respectful ways of talking with each other, letting each other know where you are going to be when, and so forth. It’s a two-way street.

When you share your enthusiasms with your teen, you are providing safe channels for her need for novelty. Going on a hike in new terrain, seeing a movie in another language, learning a new skill together – these keep your teen connected to the whole range of relationships and possibilities, rather than restricting her only to the knowledge base of peers or the unstructured stimulation of the internet, partying, or substance use.

In a way, your teenager needs you even more than she did earlier, in order to take inside and practice her own emotional muscles of balancing her different needs, regulating her feelings, making good judgments, and using relationships with people of all ages to expand her personality.

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Because I said so!

Telling children to do something just because an adult says so is an authoritarian way to parent. It uses adults’ superior strength and power to overwhelm or intimidate children into obedience, submission and socialization to rules we enforce.

The alternative is what we call authoritative parenting. Parents are adults with experience, knowledge, thoughtfulness, support, and the intention to offer their children their best love, guidance and care. Their authentic authority comes from that base. But it isn’t easy – it takes the parental emotional muscles of persistence and sustained effort. And then it rewards us with good feelings of pleasure, mastery and growth throughout life.

Authoritative parenting includes acknowledging mistakes and imperfections and apologizing when wrong. Authoritative parents accept the reality of change and transform their relationship with their children over time while always retaining their identity as the parents.

Punishment stems from authoritarian parenting and mobilizes angry and frustrated parental needs to retaliate against children who make us feel helpless or like failures. Discipline, on the other hand, uses situations of conflict between parents and children to discover and teach alternative solutions. Children can then build on these experiences to do better the next time and parents can begin to trust their children’s capacity to make good choices.

Jared’s mom described how angry she got when her 4-year-old had a tantrum about a rained-out picnic in the park. Part of her wanted to spank him and another part of her wanted to comfort him and make up for the disappointment. She said she realized she just wanted to get rid of the bad feelings in both of them. Punishing Jared would get rid of her bad feelings, but would probably give him more.

Jared’s mom said that the next time it rained, she would tell him, “I’m disappointed too, but I’m not angry because no one is in charge of the rain. Instead, I’m going to figure out with you something else fun to do.”

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Solving childhood mysteries with the work of imagination

Little children often do things that mystify grownups. They change their behavior, change their minds about what they like, or sometimes seem unable to do things they could do just the day before.

Adults have a different view of the world than toddlers, because we have so much reality knowledge and experience to use to fact-check our conclusions. Toddlers don’t actually think in a different way from us, but they often come to different conclusions because they don’t have as much to check their ideas against. It’s our job to respect their efforts to figure things out and also to teach them what we know of the world. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know what explanations they need.

That’s where imagination comes in. it’s a big effort to put ourselves in a little child’s shoes and imagine how she is seeing the situation. For instance, 2-year-old Abby, who had just recently mastered using the toilet, was very upset when the toilet at her house became blocked and overflowed. At first her parents thought they could unblock it themselves; then they called the plumber who said it was a problem in the sewer connection to the street.

Big diggers came to unearth and replace the pipes and Abby’s parents were very stressed about all the time, money and disruption from the job. Abby immediately insisted on going back to diapers and demanded that no one should use the toilet. Once the pipes were fixed and everything was back to normal, her parents expected that she would calm down and again feel good about using the toilet. But Abby wouldn’t.

Her parents explained that no one had put anything too big in the toilet after all and told all about the pipes under the ground and how they now worked, but Abby insisted that she had been the cause of the trouble. Her parents had to make a big leap of imagination to realize that Abby had been distressed not only by the actual problem, but also frightened by seeing her parents helpless, anxious and annoyed. Making herself the center of the problem gave Abby a sense of agency and control. When her parents talked to her about how upset they had all been, but that they could feel better now, because they had been able to figure out the problem and fix it, Abby calmed down and regained her toilet mastery.

The crucial insight and effort for Abby’s parents, and for all parents struggling to make sense of little children’s variable behavior, was to include more than the objective facts of the situation. They had to make the leap with empathic imagination to the idea that parents’ feelings and reactions are part of reality in children’s lives and have as big an impact on them as outside events and circumstances.

Parents also need to use their emotional muscles of honesty and bravery when they make the effort to imagine themselves into their child’s shoes – it’s not always easy to admit we were angry, upset, or helpless. But children learn to accept themselves and others when we are sincere in sharing our feelings and demonstrate the ways we find to deal with them. And we are setting a good example of empathic imagination when we credit the role of feelings in behavior.

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Change a diaper – change your brain!

Family patterns have changed dramatically in the past 30 or 40 years, as both partners generally work outside the home. The theoretical goal has been for spouses to share housework, parenting, and wage-earning. But the reality has been that women (or the designated caretaker in same-sex relationships) still do the bulk of both housework and child care. That’s not particularly fair or ultimately the most practical arrangement, but there are other good reasons to pursue a more equitable setup.

Recent neuroscience research finds that full participation in the physical care of a baby leads to significant changes in the structure and functioning of the grownup’s brain. Men who regularly take care of babies show changes in the amount of vasopressin their bodies manufacture. That is a hormone that contributes to protective and caring behavior. It will be interesting to see if longitudinal research can demonstrate that dads who take care of babies are less likely to be angry or violent with children.

So the bottom line is that fathers (or the non-caretaking parent) can and should be enlisted in babies’ regular physical care. Everyone will gain – mothers can discover that sharing the pleasure and work of childcare feels good; babies will have the benefit of stronger, safer relationships with both parents; and dads will forge a strong bond with their family and feel even greater commitment to protecting their children.

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Telling and tattling

For many kids this is the beginning of the school year. And kids of all ages may already have come up against a terrible social and moral dilemma – what do you do if another kid does something wrong? Do you “tell” or not?

There is a powerful tradition in our society against ‘tattling;’ movies and books describe the badness of ‘ratting someone out;’ the culture of ‘sucking it up’ is very strong. This seems to come from the idea that it’s more important to generate peer loyalty than implement shared moral standards. And yet we say to our children that they should ‘tell a grownup’ if something bad is happening or they need help. Children are getting a mixed message. How can we help them sort this out?

The challenge for grownups is to teach our children to gradually take more responsibility for themselves and learn the skills they need to handle conflict and interpersonal tension. We want them to have the emotional muscles to stick to their own sense of what is right and trust in their own strengths. At the same time, we don’t want them to suffer intimidation in silence; children cannot be expected to defeat bullies alone – they need a supportive culture of zero tolerance for bullying. Maybe first the grownups have to build the emotional muscle to face the complexity of the issue and be prepared to talk to their children about making hard choices.

With little children in preschool and kindergarten, our task is to teach the words to use at first, and then instruct children to seek grownup help if that doesn’t work. But the grownups have to see their job as fostering conflict-resolution skills, not just stopping the kids and punishing in order to move on. Grownups have to take the time and have the patience to listen to both sides of the story and practice the new skills with all the children involved.

Schoolchildren have more experience, but may be struggling with the new scale of big school and the size of the group, as well as a longer day to cope with. Parents and teachers can work together to set up an atmosphere of safety and some guidelines for children to follow. Experienced teachers will quickly spot those children who seek attention and reassurance by constantly whining and complaining about other kids. Instead of becoming impatient and negative, they can try encouraging that child’s strengths, nurturing the emotional muscle to solve problems creatively. “What would happen if you told Johnny that you thought he could be a good player in the game if he followed the rules instead of trying to be the boss?”

Teenagers struggle particularly with what they think is loyalty to their friends. Teens often ask each other to keep secrets, whether it’s about staying out too late or which kids they are spending time with. They are vulnerable to a societal bias that there should be distrust between adults and adolescents. This usually has negative consequences for the ongoing transformation of the relationship between parents and teens, but it can be more dangerous than that. Adolescents need an unequivocal message from parents and teachers that they have to talk to a grownup if they are worried that a friend may harm herself or be suicidal. No youngster should have to carry such a burden alone. It is not tattling and may be life-saving to share concerns about a friend.

Whatever your child’s age, this is a good time to raise the topics of honesty, frankness and sharing and relieve your child of the whole burden of deciding when to “tell.”

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Use your imagination

Parenthood doesn’t only take time, energy and money – it also takes imagination. Imagination is a crucial parental emotional muscle to develop and exercise throughout the span of being a parent, before, during and after the active parenting years.

Transitions are a time of change, with old expectations and routines often not working as well and new demands on the horizon. Pregnancy is one such transition, where imagination is needed to prepare with pleasure for the tasks to come.

Growth is so rapid in the first year that parents are constantly challenged to keep up with their baby. Instead of feeling confused and frustrated when the old methods don’t seem effective, try imagining yourself into your baby’s situation and find a creative solution.

For instance, the relation between feeding and sleep patterns shifts markedly in the second three months, as babies spend more time awake and active between naps. Just when parents thought they had settled into a nice pattern of nursing or feeding as soon as their baby wakes up, they may find that she won’t settle back to sleep as easily the next time.

This is frustrating and worrying for parents. But it’s not a sign of failure or something wrong. Instead, the frustration can be a signal for problem-solving, invoking the muscle of imagination to figure out a new plan.

In the first three months, babies usually spend most of their time feeding and sleeping. But, as their capacity to stay awake and alert and interested in the world around them grows in the second three months, playing is just as strong a need. Interactive games, like peek-a-boo and singing songs and handing a toy back and forth, start to be just as important to babies.

Playing is hard work for babies and it makes them hungry, often too hungry to go back to sleep without feeding. So parents may have to put themselves in their baby’s shoes and realize the new priorities. The sequence may have to be rearranged, so that it includes both the feeding and the playing needs. Your baby may want to wake up, be changed, then play for a while, and then have a nice feed before going happily back to sleep.

When parents use their emotional muscle of imagination, it’s easier to negotiate the development transitions that babies go through. And it feels very satisfying to solve the problem.

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Back-to-school rhythm

One of the joys of summertime is the change in routine. The long days make for long evenings. Most families are more flexible about bedtimes and chores – everything seems more relaxed and easier in the summer. Many kids also leap forward in skills with more time for practice and mastery.

I had a note from a mom recently about how happy she was that her 6-year-old has become a real reader this past summer. But her daughter has been staying up kind of late at night reading. The mom was wondering how she can help her get ready for school without dampening her enthusiasm.

Here’s what we said:
How exciting to be able to use a new skill, especially with the independence you describe your little girl enjoying! It’s not hard to imagine how much pleasure she is getting from reading until late at night. The challenge is to support that pleasure (you wouldn’t want to discourage her reading!) while getting her back into a routine that meets your concerns for her sleep and prepares her for the school year.

Children are in charge of when they fall asleep, but parents are in charge of bedtime. Parents need to flex their emotional muscles a bit to make sure they are adequately preparing their children for the demands of the school year. To avoid turning bedtime and lights-out into a battle, I suggest you talk together as a family about how you are all going to make the transition from the "summertime pattern" to the "school-year pattern." You can ask your children for ideas about what will be the same and different. You can talk about how you think beforehand what you will take to work and things like where you put your keys to make sure you can find them without delay. It starts to get fun to plan what to pack in her backpack together the night before, where you will put it to be ready to leave in the morning, how she will decide what to wear the next day and which shoes will be suitable for the weather.

Moving both bedtime and waking up back 10 or 15 minutes every day in the weeks before school starts is an important part of getting our bodies and minds back into that rhythm. Explaining how we get ourselves used to a new pattern takes the issue of bedtime out of a power struggle into the area of life skills learning. Parents can share the effort and successes: "Wow – it was hard to get out of bed yesterday, but it was easier today. I guess I'm beginnng to get used to it and it helped to turn off my light a little earlier. How did it feel to you this morning?"

Soon everyone will be back on "school time" and ready to roll. Have a nice beginning to first grade!

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What gets spoiled with spoiling?

Little babies have plenty of built-in frustration in their lives, since no parent can be there instantly every time to feed them or pick them up at the first whimper. So there’s no such thing as “spoiling” a tiny baby. But even a 6-month-old who bites her mom needs a firmly-spoken “No” to begin to teach her what is and isn’t acceptable. As she begins to move around, no mater how much childproofing you do, there are still limits to set to keep her safe.

Health and safety are the bottom line priorities for limit-setting. They are an important practical model for the more complicated task of knowing how to create emotional safety for children. Spoiling a toddler or older kid does more than just create a whiney, constantly dissatisfied child. It also can make children very anxious.

If parents are afraid of their children’s upset feelings – anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness and so forth – they give their children the message that there is something dire or dangerous about those feelings. When parents leap to relieve any level of distress instantly, children take on that worry and start to believe that they have to have the cookie immediately, or the new toy, or someone’s attention, or the sky will fall. Something terrible is bound to happen.

Alternatively, parents sometimes bribe their children with things to stop them having hard feelings. This gives kids the idea that they can’t manage without constant supplies of stuff. If they don’t have more and more toys (or gadgets and electronics for older kids) they feel exposed or unequipped to deal with the world and distract themselves from any emotions.

Instead of letting children think that their inner and outer worlds are just scary and bad, parents can help them gradually develop the emotional muscles to notice and feel their feelings, name them, scale them to just the right size for the issue, and use them as internal signals for creative problem-solving together. When you come right down to it, important as feelings are for making sense of our experience, they are only feelings – they don’t make anything happen.

The opposite of a spoiled child is a kid who can manage his feelings in a way that matches his age and stage of development, who can be kind to others, occasionally putting his own needs aside, who has the muscle of persistence to work for something, and who trusts that people will listen to his needs and help him try to meet them. In other words, that is a child with parents who have strong emotional muscles, and who have taught him to use his strong emotional muscles.

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Figuring out (and living through) pre-puberty

Dear Kerry,
My 11-year-old daughter has recently begun wanting only to read her old books from second grade and snuggle with her baby quilt on her bed. She has become surly and defiant with me. I can’t seem to do anything right. Should I be worried about this?
ST, Maryland

Dear ST,

It can be pretty hard when your cooperative and friendly schoolchild starts to snarl at you and retreats to her room and babyish-seeming pursuits. Just when you felt you could rely on her growing sense of responsibility and capacity to pull her weight in the family, she seems to turn around and reject you and all the new growth. If this is indeed how it feels to you, then you can tell from my description that many girls go through this patch somewhere between 10 and 12.

If, however, she cannot rouse herself ever to have fun with friends, almost never has any loving, cheerful interactions, seems hopeless or says that her life isn’t worth living, her mood may indicate a deeper problem that warrants professional assessment.

Most of the time, however, 11-year-old girls are striving to ward off the inevitable by trying to grow down instead of grow up.

Let’s think about how it feels to be told that your life, even your very body, will soon change and there is nothing you can do about it! One girl said, “Nobody asked me!” Puberty is on the horizon; girls have attended health class and had conversations with their parents and peers. Some in their class may already have started their periods. No one likes to feel helpless – why should your daughter be any different?

Whenever we feel helpless we try to do something about it. Many pre-teens wish to stop time and stay in charge of what is happening to them. They fondly recall when they were little kids and days seemed all the same. That isn’t true, but memory can make it seem so. They think that, if they do the things they did as younger kids, it will somehow make them younger again. Hence reading the little-kid books. You might want to try enjoying the nostalgia with her, so that you stay together in some ways, as well as finding some really interesting age-appropriate reading to tempt her to stay in the present.

But that may be hard in the hostile climate. The anger and resentment comes from an understandable place too, even though it’s very hurtful and unpleasant for parents. Children look to their parents as the source of everything. Moms are especially nominated as the ones who made things the way they are – after all, you had me as a baby, so you formed me, right? So you must be the villain who mandated that I have to become a woman, have to have a body that will change unpredictably, have periods (which sound very yucky to a schoolchild), and so forth.

The pathway out of this prickly place is acceptance, but that can take various forms, some more constructive than others. Many girls, with a solid base of feeling valued as people who are girls, go through this phase pretty quickly, pass through puberty and embark on adolescence fairly sturdily. Some struggle in middle school, with mixed feelings about themselves, but are able eventually to master enough skills to gain confidence and comfort with who they are. Others decide to deal with it by rushing forward, accelerating the process and embracing too quickly their teenage identities, converting their uncertainty into excitement about clothes, makeup and boys.

Acceptance and patience are also the answers for parents. Hard though it may be, cultivate patience – your daughter will come out the other side of this. Biology and time will inevitably come to your aid. If you understand your child’s dilemma, how she both wants to and fears growing up and is protesting about having no choice, it will go a long way to helping you tolerate her forays into babyishness and her surly interactions. Remember too that she loves you as well as resenting you and speak to that side of her.

And don’t forget to set an example of enjoying being a grownup woman. Your visible experience of pleasure and fulfillment will be the best evidence for her that there is good life after puberty!

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Lessons from “The Sound of Music”

Last week our local refurbished 1920’s movie palace had a sing-along showing of “The Sound Of Music.” It was a great experience and the tradition of booing the “bad guy Nazis” took the fear away for the young children in the audience. We of course loved the film and loved sharing it with the new generation.

As we watched we were struck by how the Mother Superior could “solve the problem of Maria.” She’s a “Flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown.” But the Mother Superior, unlike some of the more punitive nuns, understood that this was in the range of a normal high-spirited, fun-loving young woman. She realized that perhaps Maria should be out in the world and not escape into a nunnery.

But the play and movie were written over fifty years ago. How would we now handle a girl like Maria? I’m afraid that many would now take her to a doctor who would diagnose her with ADHD or a Bi-Polar disorder and medicate her into a passive, compliant state. Our society seems to have forgotten about character development and how we can help genes and environment work together to produce complex, fascinating individuals.

One of the things our book is about is building “emotional muscle” as an alternative to medicating children. Building muscle of any kind takes effort, practice and pleasure in the work. That is what we see in the film as the seven Von Trapp children change from robots into competent, happy, and loving people under the emotional and joyful, but demanding guidance of Maria.

In EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN we emphasize the importance of early experience for strong character development. Rodgers and Hammerstein said it beautifully in the words of the moving duet “Something Good,” when Maria and the Baron realize their love for each other:
“Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good”
Parents and teachers can offer children “something good” to help them build lifelong strengths for happiness, creativity and productivity.

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