By: Susan Sugerman, Adolescent Medicine Physician | Contributor
From the time our kids are born, we parents work tirelessly to love and protect them, knowing there will come a day when they have to fend for themselves. When that moment comes, we hope that they will love themselves as much as we love them. We pray that they will take as good care of themselves as we have tried to do for them. But even normal, healthy kids will struggle. Even great kids will make a mistake, or find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No one raises their kid to be a bully. We are surprised when our independent child has trouble standing up to peer pressure in 8th grade. We are incredulous when our beautiful daughter can’t see the value of her body and refuses to nourish it. We become angry when our former straight-A students don’t their homework because “it’s stupid.” We are mystified when our responsible son feels trapped in a relationship he can’t get out of for fear his girlfriend will kill herself if he leaves.
But if we look deeper at why these things happen, we can begin to help our children start to help themselves.
Why does bullying happen? Not because kids wake up in the morning intending to do evil to their peers. They are often normal (or stressed) young people trying to feel accepted themselves. Why eating disorders? Because our society has laid explosive minefields for at-risk children wanting reassurance that their bodies are “normal” or even just “healthy.” Why should we care about those who learn differently? Because our educational system ignores their strengths while making them feel defective, setting them up to “give up” and even “self-medicate” using destructive behaviors. Why does relationship violence happen? Because feeling accepted and valued by another person is one of the biggest “highs” we can experience as human beings. But when those involved lack the skills for safe boundaries and healthy emotional intimacy, both hearts and lives are threatened.
What’s a parent to do? Start with a deep breath, and a little perspective…
Parents and teens want the same thing. They both want for kids to grow up to be good people who understand, accept, and love themselves and who have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to protect and take care of themselves. Getting there? That’s the complicated part.
Teen tasks. Adolescence is framed by a quest for answers to two essential questions: “Who Am I?” and “Am I Normal?” The “job” of teenagers is to develop a sense of identity (understanding who they are as opposed to how their family has defined them) and to learn to value their place in the world. They have yet to realize that discovering who they are takes decades (many of us “grown-ups” are still trying to figure that out) and that, in truth, no one really knows what normal is.
Adult obligations. Until children become mature enough to understand and care for their own needs, parents must ensure their children’s safety while teaching them to become decent human beings. Despite their new skills and increasing maturity, teenagers need more, not less, support from their parents during these pivotal years.
What’s normal and what’s not. In general, most children (even most teenagers) want to please their parents and teachers. Most children (and especially most teenagers) want to be happy. When moods or behaviors range to extremes that affect a child’s ability to function, it is time to consider why these things are occurring rather than focusing exclusively on what has happened.
Shift from blame to insight. Whether a young person struggles with learning problems, body image anxiety, social and relationship issues, or problem behaviors, adults would be wise to recognize these concerns as symptoms rather than causes. We need to keep in mind that if they could have fixed it themselves, they would have done so already.
And keep your eye on the goal—Raising children and teens who grow into resilient, self-sufficient adults
Resilience (noun): the ability to bounce back from stress, tolerate discomfort, and succeed in the face of adversity
Have you ever planted a baby tree? You can pull the top of the tiny sapling down toward the ground, bending it until it almost breaks, but it doesn’t. You let go, and it bounces back, shaking its branches and losing all 3 of its little leaves. As that tree grows, it becomes taller, thicker, and stronger. Over time, the tree becomes capable of standing independently and of providing shade and shelter for others. With strong roots, a tree can withstand almost any storm. Resilience is what we want for our children—not a problem-free life, but rather the ability to bounce back from things that are hard.
Now What: Pointers for Parents
Neither trees nor children grow up overnight. The ability of children to take over the rights and responsibilities of real life takes time to develop. They will make mistakes. Be patient; they’re just learning.
Run, don’t walk? Development progresses in fits and starts. Rather than a slow, orderly walk in the park, we are more likely to find our teens taking a few steps back as they gear up for the running leap over the next hurdle of adolescence.
Most of us turned out okay despite our own mistakes. A little humility goes a long way.
Beware of the “D” word. Children fear disappointing their parents’ more than just about anything else in the world. While you should let children know when their behavior is dangerous or wrong, be very clear that there is nothing they could ever do that would make you stop loving them. Reassure them that after your blood pressure comes down, you still want what’s best for them and you will see they find help when they need it. Avoid getting into situations where their fear of your disappointment or anger keeps them from coming to you when they need you the most.
Teens in trouble need to get help, not to get in more trouble. Ongoing participation in risky behaviors signals a young person’s maladaptive (or inappropriate) responses to stress. Things like school failure, drug abuse, or inappropriate sexual activity are effects, not causes, of deeper problems. They certainly are not attempts to punish parents.
Never give up on your child. It’s your job to love them more than anyone else in the world.
When you don’t know what to do…
Take a deep breath. When all else fails, put on your own oxygen mask first.
Assure safety first. Otherwise nothing else matters.
Buy time to collect your thoughts and calm down, and allow your child to do the same. Get the facts as best you can (not assumptions or stories).
You have two ears and one mouth. Ask open-ended questions and say as little as necessary. Letting children think out loud often helps them to come to a reasonable assessment of the situation on their own without your saying anything at all.
Keep your eye on the goal. Focus on teaching children how to understand and solve their own problems (rather than solving their problems for them). Ask them how they think you can help, rather than telling them what they “should” do.
Asking for help is a sign of strength. It is never a sign of weakness. Not a one of us has all the answers. Show your children that seeking and accepting help is the ultimate sign of resilience.
We all need a little help …
General Child and Adolescent Health
www.youngwomenshealth.org General health for girls/women
www.youngmenshealthsite.org General health for boys/men
Learning Differences/Disabilities and ADHD
www.nichcy.org Helping children with disabilities
www.chadd.org Children and adult AD/HD resources/support
Bullying, Social Aggression, Peer Pressure
www.thecoolspot.gov Resisting drugs, peer pressure
www.stopbullyingnow.com Bullying prevention activities
Nutrition and Eating Disorders
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org Eating disorders/body image
www.TheElisaProject.org Eating disorders support/education
Relationships and Sexuality
www.loveisrespect.org Teen Dating Violence Helpline
www.loveisnotabuse.com Teen dating violence info/curriculum