The Jedi mind tricks of raising teens, part 3

Back in 2014 I wrote a couple of posts that I (admittedly pretty ambitiously) called the Jedi mind tricks of raising teens. Unlike the Jedi mind tricks in Star Wars, these tips are not about tactics to get the behavior that you want from the teenagers in your midst but instead ways of changing your own mindset so that you look at them differently and maybe understand them from a different angle, especially in tough times.

To review, here are the previous tricks (the full descriptions are posted here and here):

  1. Time travel forward to the week they are leaving home.
  2. Time travel further forward to watching them parent your grandkids.
  3. Time travel back to when your teen was 2, 3, 7, etc.
  4. Time travel further back to when you were their age.
  5. Adjust your expectations or reframe your role ("oh, I'm my child's external hard drive!").
  6. Think of yourself as a curious anthropologist.

For your consideration, here's another Jedi mind trick to add to your quiver (which is probably not where Jedis keep their mind tricks. Hmmm, I sense that the metaphor is falling apart...) ANYWAY.

I was thinking of the coming-of-age novels I love and how we consistently cheer for the protagonist, no matter how many immature, stupid, hubris-y decisions they make. I wondered what my own kids' coming of age novel would be like, which led me to the next Jedi mind trick of parenting:  Imagine that your teen is a character in a book, a character that you're cheering for, a character who's sympathetic, charming, spunky but flawed. Compassion.

More to the point, if you are the parent to the protagonist, how would you want to be written? I would love to take a cue from Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Mrs. Weasley (Harry Potter), Kate Murry (A Wrinkle in Time), Marmee (Little Women), Ma & Pa Ingalls (Little House books) and the Cuthberts (Anne of Green Gables). I think their common characteristic is that they seem to know the hearts of their flawed protagonist children--they understand their kids' sometimes outrageous flailing is essentially a feature of good kids figuring out life.  

I mean....who wouldn't want to be looked at with this kind of benevolent amusement/compassion? 

I mean....who wouldn't want to be looked at with this kind of benevolent amusement/compassion? 

Okay, what's your favorite coming of age novel? Which fictional parents are missing from the list here?

High school, over and over and over

According to the high school powers-that-be, monogramming is the newest fad. This makes me inexplicably happy. I do love a good monogram.

According to the high school powers-that-be, monogramming is the newest fad. This makes me inexplicably happy. I do love a good monogram.

Two nights ago Sterling, Rebecca, and I were up to 1:30 in the morning completing a meter-high roller coaster made of wood, rubber tubing, nails, hot glue, and a whole lot of naive hope. We could not, for the life of us, get that darn ball to stay on the track for both a vertical AND a horizontal loop. Also, per the requirements of her physics class, Becca had to build a mechanism to move the ball from the end spot, back up to the top. Every fifteen minutes or so one of us, in absolute frustration, would shout out, "This is a ridiculous assignment for a group of teenagers!" But then we just soldiered on because the project counted for two major grades. At one point I was chanting (mostly to myself), "Joneses don't quit. Joneses don't quit!"

Sure enough, as the new day rolled in, we persuaded that darn 3/4" ball to roll the entire length of the coaster, dizzying swirls and all. All on it's own the ball mounted a large wheel and then vigorously launched itself into a cone . . . starting the loop again. Sweet bliss.

I'm not convinced Becca learned a ton about physics, but hopefully she got the message that family pulls together, that perseverance pays off, and that her momma is quite handy with a glue gun.

Three roller coasters down, one to go. Help me.




The angsty-ness & the awesomeness

A few weeks ago, we were all sitting around the kitchen table playing music for each other from our playlists. Somehow G and I started sharing all of our old adolescent 80s music, complete with accompanying interpretive lipsyncing, when we hit on a virtual musical time capsule. Has there ever, in the history of music, been a more teen-angsty song than "Somebody" by Depeche Mode?! It catapulted me back to my little dark basement bedroom in Logan Utah, hugging a pillow and wringing out every overwrought emotion that lead singer Martin Gore evoked. I'm telling you, that guy knew his audience.  And I wasn't even especially angsty in my regular, daylight hours.

After working with teenagers for the last 10-15 years, I've realized that every last one feels different at some point: outside of the perceived crowd, other-than, left out. As Robert Sapolsky noted in his awesomely titled recent article "Dude, Where's my Frontal Cortex?": "One brain-imaging study reveals the neural depths of adolescent pain in not belonging. Put someone in a scanner to play a video game with two other individuals, and manipulate things so that the subject believes they are being ostracized. In adults, this social exclusion activates the amygdala along with other limbic regions associated with pain, disgust, anger, and sadness. But then the frontal cortex kicks in—“Come on, it’s a stupid game”—and the limbic structures quiet down. Do the same with an adolescent and the frontal cortex remains silent and that agonized limbic network of teenage angst wails."

But this hyper-awareness has a positive side, too. Sapolsky goes on to note that "adolescence isn’t always as dark as it’s made out to be. There’s a feature of adolescence that makes up for the stupid risk-taking and hideous fashion decisions. And that’s an adolescent’s frenzied, agitated, incandescent ability to feel someone else’s pain, to feel the pains of the entire world, to want to right all its wrongs. Adolescents are nature’s most wondrous example of empathy, where the forcefulness of feeling as the other can border on nearly being the other.

"This intensity is at the intersection of so many facets of adolescence. With the highs higher and lows lower, the empathic pain scalds and the glow of having done the right thing makes it seem plausible that we are here for a purpose. Another factor is the openness to novelty. An open mind is a prerequisite for an open heart, and the adolescent hunger for the new readily presents opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes."  

Case in point: when Sapolsky's young daughter performs in a heavy play about Bosnia, he notices the effect the performance has on some teens in the theatre:

"Some high school kids had come to a performance as a group outing for an English class. About halfway through the play, my daughter’s character appears for the first time, cautiously emerging from a ventilation duct in her kitchen where she’d been hiding, unaware that the soldier who had just left the apartment after killing her mother was going to return. Up until that point, she had only been hinted at as a character. The soldier had his ethnic-cleansing to-do list of names of Bosnians in the building to kill, and kept demanding of the mother, “Where’s your daughter? It says you have a daughter.” “I don’t have a daughter,” the mother repeated up until her death. So as the girl begins to emerge from the ventilation duct, the realization sweeps through the audience: there is a daughter. As my daughter began to crawl out, the teenagers in the audience did something you’re not supposed to do in a theater, something no adult with a developed frontal cortex would do. After a moment of hushed silence, two or three voices called out, “No!” Another called, “Go back in, it’s not safe!,” another, “He’s coming back!” After the play, the teenagers clustered around my little girl when she came out of the stage door, hugging her, reassuring themselves that both she and her character were OK. 

Oh, the feels, as the kids say. I try to remember how powerful and vivid those emotional rapids felt and that they're intensified by brain development and hormones and The teen behaviors might keep screaming Dude, where's my frontal cortex? but we parents have enough to spare and share until our kids find their own.

 The whole Sapolsky article is a good read on teen brain development. (Thanks, Tona!)

Okay, friends. Here's what I need to know: What were your go-to angsty songs as a teenager?

The tango

Drawn to The Song of the Lark , Karin Jurick

Drawn to The Song of the Lark, Karin Jurick

"You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn’t know the outcome for a long time.”  

Meg Wolitzer, The Ten Year Nap

. . .

I've been thinking about proximity and parenting. In the early years my closeness to my kids was primarily on their behalf. I mean, of course I enjoyed it, or at least abundant moments of it. But in the early years proximity meant their survival, safety, some element of insurance. I was enlisted to deliver these young, blooming humans to adulthood and I will admit that sometimes I sighed in the service of irrationally demanding infant sergeants and capricious toddlers whose needs sometimes felt a tad at odds--if not inverse--to my own. Sometimes the only time away from them was the moment or two in the bathroom, with a child crying and jiggling the doorknob on the other side. One of the essential tasks of that early relationship felt like a tango, with their pull for closeness and my tug encouraging a little independence in them, a little space for myself. 

These years, right now? I love them.* They are my mama payday: the wry observations and witty banter and deep conversations and giddy discoveries and big dreams and good question-y envelope pushing. I relish these times; I want to inhale those last "ambient gold shavings" of their growing years. It strikes me that, in some ways, the proximity equation has flipped for us as parents and children. It becomes our job (and our joy, usually) to seek them out: Where are you going? When will you be home?  Want to come down from your room and join the family for a while? (Of course this varies with each child and parent and there are many ways older kids and teens still seek proximity. But remember when the worst thing for a young child used to be time out, away from us? Now in adolescence typically the gravest punishment is grounding, having to stay close.)

Don't worry, I'm not in danger of embodying the semi-creepy I'll Love You Forever model of parenting (yes, it's a sweet children's book but does that part, when the mom climbs a ladder, creeps into the adult son's bedroom and rocks him at night, strike anyone else as a little odd?). It's just that both ingredients to healthy attachment and development need advocates: Team Proximity, Team Independence.  The occasional, necessary tug-and-pull tango still happens; we've just somehow, instinctively, switched directions along the way. I don't know when it happened but I sense we're dancing toward the door.

. . .

*Yes. I hear you. Though I completely love this stage, I will be the first to add that the issues and heartbreaks of this later, mid-stage mothering period are much more complex and less easily resolved than a midnight feeding or a sandwich cut on the diagonal

Letter to a Young Parent: Guest post

We're happy to have Christie guest posting again today, back by popular demand for an encore after her terrific week of posts last year. This one goes out to all of our readers whose kids aren't quite at the teen stage, especially the parents who may have a bit of fear and dread about those looming and mysterious years. In the tradition of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, we occasionally try to bring insights and reassurance from other parents who are slightly further along the parenting path. (For instance, remember this post about going easy on the oldest? Or this one about show me who you are?) I love hearing what works for different families. Christie has seven great insights to reassure you that things are going to be fine...maybe even magical. I wish I had read them about ten years ago!

I occasionally get asked by mothers of young children what the secret is to raising great teenagers.

My initial response is that I have absolutely no clue.  My kids are who they are IN SPITE of having me as a mother. [The young moms don't find that answer too helpful.] The next thing that I will tell you is to disbelieve the myth that teenagers are sullen, angry creatures who slam doors and hate their parents.  Some do that, but the overwhelming majority do not.

Every one of my kids' friends are just as happy and fun as they are, so I know that it's not just us.

Teenagers are incredible.  They are funny, smart, eager to please, and up for just about anything as long as food is involved.  They have the most generous hearts and want desperately to be loved and validated.  They are quirky, and messy, and have the best sense of humor.

I would say my number one rule is to love them fiercely.  Love everything about them, even the annoying stuff.  Love them for their actions AND their intentions.  Let them know in word and deed how much you adore them.  Daily.  Love their wrinkled shirts and Axe-body-spray-covered selves.  Love their bad handwriting and pimpled cheeks.  Love their scattered brains and long limbs.  All these seemingly insignificant details are an amazing, magic process at work.  It's like being witness to the miracle of a diamond mid-formation.  All this imperfection is going to one day yield a responsible, serious adult.  A loving husband and father.  Or a wonderful wife and mother.  It's a privilege to be witness to such glorious growth.

Feel that way.  See your teenagers as a privilege.  Don't see them as a burden.  They're more perceptive than you can imagine.  How you feel about them will be no secret.  So just love 'em.

Number two:  Listen and pay attention.  When they walk in the door after school, you have a precious few minutes that they will divulge the secrets of their day with you.  Be excited to see them.  Put down that cell phone.  Don't waste this time making dinner or taking a phone call.  Look them in the eye and hear what they are saying.  Make their victories your victories.  Be empathetic.  It is really hard to navigate high school and middle school.  Don't offer advice at this time unless they ask for it.  Don't lecture.  Just listen.  It makes them feel important and valued. We all need to feel that way.

Number three:  Say yes more than you say no.  The world is forever going to tell them no.  For the rest of their lives, they will be swimming in a stormy sea with wave-after-wave of you're not good enough and you can't do this crashing down on their heads.  If nothing else, I want to be the opposite voice in their lives for as long as I can.  I want to instill in them the belief that they are not limited, and that they can do anything if they're willing to work hard enough for it.  I want to be the YES, YOU CAN in their life.  I want them to leave my house every day feeling invincible.

Number four:  Say no often.  You need to say no to experiences and situations that will set your child up for harm or unhappiness.  Don't let them go to the parties where they will be forced to make a choice at age 16 in front of their peers about alcohol.  Don't let them stay out until three in the morning with a member of the opposite sex.  Be the parent.  Set up rules for their safety, both physical and moral.  You would think this rule goes without saying, but we have known a shockingly large number of parents who don't.  

Number five:  Feed them.  A lot.  And not only them, but their friends, too.  These bodies are growing and developing at an astonishing rate, and need fuel to do so - most of which they prefer to be loaded with processed sugar and hydrogenated-something-or-others.  When their friends know your pantry is stocked to the gills with treats, they will beg your kid to hang out at your place.  This allows you to not only meet and know their friends but to keep an eye on your teen as well.  Make your house the fun house...Your return on investment will be greater than any other options out there.

Number Six:  Don't sweat the small stuff.  When living with teenagers, it can be so easy to see the backpack dropped in the middle of the living room as laziness.  Or the bedroom scattered with dirty clothes as irresponsible.  Instead, and before you open your mouth to yell at them, put yourself in their shoes.  Find out about their day first.  Maybe they are feeling beaten down, and they just need to unwind for a minute and tell you about it.  Maybe they're tired from all that growing, learning, working, and hormone-ing.  If you waste your chance and yell at them about the backpack or shoes or [insert every other possession they own], they will not open up to you.  Breathe.  Ignore it for a bit and put your arms around that big, sweaty kid and give him a hug.  Talk to him about his world.  Find out what he did, wants to do, and dreams of doing.  THEN ask him to pick it up and put it away.

That being said, do I completely ignore the state of my boys' bedrooms all the time?  No, I do not.  But I pick my battles, and I pick the appropriate time to fight them.  Once every seven to ten days or so, I tell them their bedrooms need to be picked up.  Which they do happily, because it's not the running loop of a nagging mom.  They know when I ask, it needs to be done. 

I will not have a bad relationship with my kid over a pile of clothes on the floor.  It's. Not. Worth. It.   I love my kid more than I love a clean house.  I am confident that I am raising humans capable of picking up after themselves, and I know as they mature and grow up, these things will sort themselves out.  I have taught them how to do it.  They will not be in college and literally unaware of how to bend down and pick up their socks.  

Number Seven:  Last, but not least, stand back and watch the magic happen.  If you let them, these glorious creatures will open their hearts and love you more fiercely than you could possibly imagine.  They are brilliant, capable, strong spirits who bring with them a flurry of happiness.  They are hilarious and clever.  They are thoughtful and sensitive.  They want us to adore them.  They need us to adore them.  They love deeply and are keenly in touch with the feelings of others.

Certainly every family's different--unique personalities, different needs. What would be on your list of insights about parenting teens to pass along to other parents just starting to think about those years?

You can find Christie at her blog Stie's Thoughts, where she's been keeping track of her family's adventures and hilarious sagas since 2006. She and her family have lived in Utah, Minnesota, Seattle, Boston (where thankfully my path crossed with hers), San Diego, St. Louis, and now lucky Dallas gets them for the foreseeable future.

Last year she posted about Grandma June's apple bars, being new in town, and all that I can give.

"Youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit"

I love this TED talk where the late Peter Benson shares his vision and research on how youth thrive. (Thanks and hat tip to my friend Aerika for sharing this. She shows it to her adolescent development class each semester.) 

I highly recommend watching the whole thing but if you don't have 20 minutes right now, here are a few takeaways from his talk based on the youth research that the Search Institute has analyzed and assembled over the last decade:

Petrarch said "youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit." When we ask youth "what animates your life, brings you joy and energy? What is your spark?" 100% of them get it--and most can name at least one thing that brings them meaning and joy. Some name a skill or talent (e.g., music, writing, leading), some a commitment (e.g., social justice, environment), and others a quality (e.g., empathy). 

Thriving = spark + 3 champions (at home, school, or community) + opportunity

Sadly, we don't often pay attention to spark, finding 3 champions is rare, and opportunities for many youth are scarce. When a young person names their spark to you, they are inviting you to be a champion. You can:
- say it back to them
- tell them you see it in them
- thank them for sharing it
- find opportunities and resources for them to kindle the spark

The spark may or may not be a part of their future work, but human development is about today, about now. The best development is from the inside out. Helping youth find their spark helps teach a life orientation for discovery. It's a way of being present and nurturing and naming what's internal.

In families we can ask our young people "What is your spark? Who knows it? How can I help?" And wouldn't it be amazing if parent/teacher conferences began with a conversation about the student's particular sparks first?!

"You shall know them by their sparks." Changing the focus of youth development to kindling their sparks will reframe how we, as a culture, view our young people and will help support them in developing from the inside out. 

Much more about sparks here. And there's a book: Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Inner Strengths of Teenagers.

What was your "spark" when you were 16? What is it now? 
Do you know the "sparks" that energize the young people you know? 

The jedi mind tricks of raising teenagers

You've probably noticed that I'm practically a card carrying member of the life-with-teens-can-be-awesome club. We hope the blog kind of gives that overall vibe. Teens tend to get a bad rap and an exaggerated reputation for chaos and disobedience; we really wanted to counter that prevailing image here.

Still. That's not to say it's all sunshine and daisies or to deny that it's tough sometimes. Into every family a little conflict must fall. Arguments. Door slamming. Power struggles. Truthiness. Etcetera. We've all been there, stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it, as the Irish bard poet Bono likes to sing. Sadly, there's no magic wand to suddenly bring kids in line. As the purported adult in the situation, it's more up to the getting myself together side of things; I've gradually realized that I really only have control over my own response in these situations. So along the way I've collected a few jedi mind tricks to play on my own mindset in order to ease the moment and turn the compassion dial up a bit:

  1. Time travel forward to the week before they're leaving home. Instant perspective for the irritations of today, I'm telling you. Whatever's happening in this moment--difficult and irritating as it is, won't really matter then. (Or at least it will remind you there IS an end in sight in the middle of those double-strength tough moments.)  
  2. Time travel further forward to when you're watching them parent your grandkids. What do you want your teen to learn about parenting from this moment? What would you want him to say/do to those practically-perfect in-every-way future grandkids of yours in this situation?
  3. Time travel back to when your teen was 2, 3, 7, etc. and remember every age has its version of tantrums and developmental challenges. Teens just have their own tantrum language (which may or may not resemble the way they were when they were two). Look at your teen with the same kind of compassion you'd give a two-year-old in meltdown mode--or even better, an overstimulated infant. Aw, poor kid. She doesn't have the wherewithal to cope with everything that's being thrown her way right now. You may not have to swaddle her, pat her back and walk the floorboards for hours to support her in her misery but underneath the attitude or the misbehavior I guarantee you she still needs your support. 
  4. Time travel further back to when you were their age. Every once in a while G will tell me some story about when he was a teenager. He's a wise, kind, even-keeled, loving guy so when he describes the rushes of sheer anger and rage that used to flood him in the teen years as the testosterone kicked in--I'm pretty amazed at the power of puberty. Then I remember the dramas and emotions and friend sagas I experienced but didn't always talk about to my family and I recall that a slammed door sometimes has nothing to do with family or respect and everything to do with the uncomfortable proximity of hormones and a rotten day. Think about your own teen years. What was your world like, socially and emotionally? How much did your parents know about what was going on below the surface? How clueless were you to the goings on in the family? I was so clueless, I couldn't be bothered to admire and marvel at the Grand Canyon. Exhibit A:

And this one, sullen and impatient on a fun family trip (as well as many undocumented moments I cringe to remember but try to use here with trick number 4):

5. Adjust your expectations or reframe your role. I heard a talk on teen brain development once. The presenter, a developmental neurologist, gave a lot of technical explanations about brain maturity and frontal lobes and executive function, ending with the conclusion that the brain doesn't reach maturity until much later than you'd expect--more like mid20s than early teens--and the frontal lobe is especially slow, which is the part with all the planning, motivation, ability to choose right and wrong and anticipate consequences. One mom in the audience had a lightbulb moment. Her hand shot up and she said "OHHHHH! So I am my teen's frontal lobe during these years!" Yes. Exactly. They might look like adults and talk like adults but they still need parents helping to give feedback and support while they're waiting for their adult brains to kick in fully. And somehow that biological explanation helps add a measure of compassion now and then.

What about you? What mind tricks work to give you a little compassion and perspective in those horn-locking moments?