Monthly Archives: July 2012

Shut up and listen (and 6 other ways to get your teen to talk to you)

Listen to your teen.Our twin daughters turned 13 this past Sunday, launching us full tilt into the world of teen parenting. And as I watch my not-so-little girls make their way down the path to adulthood, I’ve noticed a change in the ways they communicate with us.

Gone is the constant singing and non-stop chatter about everything and anything. We no longer get a running narration of their lives or spontaneous breakdowns of the minutiae of their experiences at school or camp (“and then she said that was silly and he said that was funny and then we ate crackers and we read that book with the tree and the dog in it and then we played tag, but he tagged me too hard and I fell over and then…”).

Drawing them out about some of the stuff that interests me as a parent — their friends, their inner world, their fears and hopes — has become increasingly difficult to do.

It’s normal, I know. And it’s even healthy. Distinguishing themselves from their parents and building their own identities is part of the serious work of adolescence.

But it’s so hard. Because just as they begin this retreat, the issues they may face get more serious. While I loved hearing about their little kid thoughts, I need to know about their teenage concerns. I want them to be able to keep talking to me, to keep those all important lines of dialogue open.

Turns out that getting your teens to talk to you isn’t impossible, it just requires some finesse and a different approach than you might have used in their elementary school years.

Shut your mouth and listen. When your teen starts talking, resist any temptation to teach, lecture, criticize or even solve their problems. Unless they directly ask for advice, what they want most of all is your genuine interest and loving acceptance.

Ask them about their music. Even if it sounds like someone torturing the cat. Even if you need to load up on Advil before you let them press play. Remember what you loved as a teen and how it made you feel understood? (Was it Duran Duran? Air Supply? Bon Jovi? English Beat? the Beastie Boys?) Music speaks to teens on precisely the emotional level we are so desperate to access as parents. Ask your son or daughter to play their favourite song or share their favourite lyrics. Be very careful not to show the slightest bit of contempt or criticism or you will lose all credibility.

Avoid direct questions. Your tween or teen will automatically shut down in the face of direct questioning. Even something as innocent as “How was your day?” may be met with suspicion or dismissal. Find something to compliment them on. Make a (positive) statement about a movie you think they’d like, a neighbour they know, about school or camp or a sale at their favourite clothing store. Ask them about a skateboarding term, or a sports team, or the complicated premise behind The Bachelorette.

Avoid eye contact. Teens (especially boys) can feel challenged when parents or authority figures make direct eye contact, and they may be difficult to draw out. Some of my best conversations with my mom when I was in high school occurred when we cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. Driving anywhere in the car is also great for conversations, or tackling difficult issues.

Keep it casual. Your kids dread the idea of a big formal “talk” about a serious topic (drugs, sex, alcohol, Facebook, etc.) as much as you do. And they automatically shut down when they hear a lecture coming. Effective communication about these issues will happen in small increments over many years. Instead of a series of serious sit-downs, try to communicate your values, attitudes and rules in more casual conversations over time.

Lie next to them at bedtime. The fabulous Scott Fried, author of My Invisible Kingdom: Letters from the Secret Lives of Teens, talks about how we all give up our secrets in the dark (which also explains the intimacy draw of teen sex). Once upon a time you lay next to your child at bedtime and read them stories. When did that stop? Your 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter are not too big for you to lay down next to them once in a while. Enjoy their closeness for a few minutes. Don’t say anything. Let the silence draw them out. You won’t be sorry.

Remember that “talk” comes in many forms. I recently watched one of our older daughters and my husband (a man of few words) sit together on our dock at the lake and play with a remote control boat. The conversation went like this:

Daughter: Wow, it’s so fast!
Dad: Yup. Pretty cool. See if you can send it all the way to the rocks.
[occasional laughter and hoots of pleasure]
Dad: Was camp alright?
Daughter: Yeah, it was good.
[Daughter rests her head on Dad’s shoulder.]

That’s it. Totally awesome. I realized I could learn something from that, given my usual tendency to constant commentary. Shared quiet company. Similar to watching a hockey game together or watching the same crappy TV show. Sometimes simple pleasant togetherness speaks volumes.

It turns out you don’t always have to be talking to communicate. And listening is actually more important (and harder) than talking. Take advantage of the slower pace of summer to try these out, and let me know how it goes.

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5 responses when your teen says “Why don’t you trust me?!” [Insert rolled eyes]

Rolling eyesWhen my then 12-year-old twin daughters got their first cellphones last August, I was crystal clear about the conditions of responsible use, especially the ones about passwords shared with mom and dad, texts and messages to be subject to our occasional supervision.

It was the same deal with Facebook and other social networks. I don’t read their diaries or private written correspondence, but anything one of my tweens or young teens puts into digital format is a whole different story. They don’t yet have the judgement or experience to know how the words they write can potentially end up hurting them — or someone else.

We hear about these stories all the time: otherwise good kids who get into trouble because they don’t fully appreciate how texting or Internet use can be taken out of context, be modified without permission, get forwarded or copied to the wrong people or used against them. Or they share their passwords with someone they thought was a friend (but wasn’t). Or someone tags them in an unflattering picture. Or they post a video without their friend’s permission.

At any rate, having explained and established these rules, I naïvely thought we were all on the same page. As time went on and they showed consistent, responsible use of these communication tools, we’d give them additional small increments of the freedom they had earned. I thought I had it all figured out.

Turns out I was wrong. Each exercise of my supervision brought on more urgent protests, all variations on the same theme: “Why don’t you trust me?”

Why on earth? Why shouldn’t I trust them? More objective sources than their mother will certainly attest to the fact that they are genuinely good kids, mature for their age, top-notch students. They (mostly) help around the house and (mostly) do their chores.

So what kind of horrible mother am I, to put them through such invasions of their privacy? Am I excessively controlling? Totally neurotic? A social media-obsessed helicopter parent?

While all those things are possibly true, I’m more inclined to say I’m primarily a realist. Also, I’m a mother who also happens to have done a lot of research into kids’ use of technology. And high-risk behaviours. One who knows that effective parenting is more about establishing firm limits than about indulging their passionate whims.

I’ve always been a big believer in letting them learn from their own mistakes, of the value of natural consequences. Skinned knees and B minuses and all that jazz. But the stakes are much higher when it comes to mistakes made online – the consequences are potentially much more serious. I wouldn’t leave my 12-year-olds alone for a weekend, so I’m certainly not going to turn them loose on the Internet.

And you know what? Almost every time I review their texts or posts, I see something we need to discuss, or something I file away as a parental “need to know.” As much as they fight it, we’ve had some good talks, and learned from their own and others’ actions the finer points of texting and social media etiquette.

Just to be clear, this kind of supervision is not an overly frequent occurrence. In the year since they got their own iPads for school and cellphones for their personal use, I have done it less and less. I’ve mostly seen responsible behaviour from them, so I now allow them to use them in their rooms (doors open) and sometimes to even charge them there overnight (as long as they go to sleep).

It’s also not something I do in secret. I don’t sneak their phones away from them or read their Facebook news feeds when they aren’t looking. I do it with them, with their knowledge.

But if I ever had an inkling that something was truly wrong, that bullying or drugs or a health issue were involved, I would have no problem doing it without telling them. That’s why I need their passwords. And they know this. Failure to inform me or their father of their passwords means they forfeit the phones, the iPads, the Internet access.

So when they roll their eyes and say “Why don’t you trust me?” I have these five responses ready. Sometimes I only need to get to two or three and we can move on. Some days I need to repeat all 5 and they are still angry and annoyed.

But you know what? That’s OK. If we don’t occasionally anger and annoy our teenagers with our calm logic, we have failed to properly do our jobs as parents. (Click to Tweet).

I’m doing this because I love you. If I didn’t care, I would let them make terrible mistakes and get into trouble without any supervision at all. This response won’t get you any superficial recognition or appreciation, sort of like imposing curfews. But they will be secretly, unconsciously relieved that we impose limits out of love.

I’m doing this because you don’t yet have the developmental capacity to exercise consistent good judgement over your actions. You can explain teenage brain development until you are blue in the face (check out this excellent article for a quick primer on how your teen’s brain works), but they are unlikely to accept it. After all, they feel really mature, so what are we going on about?

I’m doing this because the way you use Facebook (and other social media) can be tied to other high-risk behaviours. Heather Shoenberger, a doctoral student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, found that those individuals who liked high-risk activity tended to update their status, upload photos and interact with friends frequently.  Those who were more reserved tended to read others’ news feeds but didn’t post much about themselves. It’s hard to know exactly what this might mean for our teens, but it is arguably helpful to know about their personalities and penchant for riskier behaviours.

I’m doing this because giving you unrestricted access to these powerful communication technologies would be like handing a 15-year-old boy the keys to a Ferrari. Most full-grown adults don’t fully understand the power of the Internet, so why assume kids will? I’ve made some of my own cringe-inducing errors on the Internet over the years, out of ignorance, carelessness or lack of tech savvy. There’s a learning curve here that educators and experts are only starting to appreciate.  Facebook is the largest de facto sociological experiment in the history of humanity, and yet we don’t think much about recording all our intimate personal data for others to see.  What will this mean to us in 20 years? What will it mean to our kids?

I’m doing this because if you know I am watching, you may be more careful and less likely to post the wrong things. Eventually, the self-censoring parental presence (the one that is currently whispering “I can’t post that – Mom and Dad will kill me!”) will hopefully be assimilated and internalized into their own voice of moderation (“I shouldn’t post that, it might prove embarrassing/ hurtful”). Actually, it’s interesting to note that kids eventually seem to forget their parents are watching, unless they go through the occasional exercise of reviewing their posts together.

So how long do you have to do this? At what age can you just relax the reins and let them have more privacy? The answer is that there is no magic age. You know your own kid better than anyone. The acid test is whether they have consistently demonstrated responsibility and good judgement in this area. Gradually step back as a reward. If they make a mistake or overstep their bounds, step in a little closer. Over time  most kids quickly learn. But until they are old enough to show the kind of care these tools deserve, don’t fool yourself into thinking everything is OK just because you aren’t paying attention.

Because love and trust aren’t necessarily the same thing when it comes to raising our kids.


Sites that Misuse Bullying Facts and Figures In Lots of Wrong Ways (For the Wrong Reasons)

Sad phoneIce cream sales rise dramatically in warmer months. So do incidents of sexual assault. Therefore, we can argue that eating ice cream causes assaults, right?

Wrong. We can’t make this connection because correlation (when two variables appear to relate) doesn’t imply causation.

In this case, there’s clearly a third variable at play. In this case, that would be hot weather. We know people eat more ice cream in the summer. And we know that the rate of sexual assaults (and of domestic violence and other kinds assaults as well)  also rises during warmer weather. But there is no other plausible linkage between frozen treats and rape.

Statistics for dummies. This is covered in the first class of every intro course on statistics. And yet we regularly see numbers being twisted to prove all sorts of theories. The correlation fallacy is just one of the many ways that can happen.

What am I so worked up about? This infographic, featured on Mashable July 8th. Some of the information (such as the suicide statistics) seems quite frankly out of whack with what we know about the subject. In other cases, the information is twisted to imply causation where none can be scientifically established (such as the claim that rising Internet use has caused a rise in teen suicides when CDC data actually shows a drop since 1995). It doesn’t say anything about the ways kids have used the Internet to reach out to others in danger of attempting suicide or self-harm, or even to save someone in imminent danger.

On the whole, the infographic builds an alarming argument about bullying and teen Internet use based on spurious / or unproven connections. And like many oversimplified arguments, this one omits a lot of positive connections as well, such as the ways technology can build online support communities for isolated LGBT youth or others or offer sound, non-judgmental information about teen sexuality, mental health issues and more. There is no mention of how kids can use technology to learn animation, advocate for causes they support, or connect to others in positive ways.

A highly respected member of an online group of youth risk experts reached out to the marketing team behind this infographic and expressed her concern. Happily, she was reassured that the errors were unintentional and the infographic would be revised. We are waiting to see if and when they do this, but at the time of writing it was still featured on Mashable and almost certainly going viral. I will post the revised infographic when it is released.

Whenever someone offers inaccurate information like this, you need to wonder why. In this case, the infographic was sponsored by an online educational organization unconnected to bullying. It seems they want to benefit from click-throughs to their site by using hot search terms like cyberbullying and teens. This could be a genuinely socially responsible move if well-researched and handled in a responsible way. But it’s so frustrating to watch those with unrelated motives and social agendas trying to profit from the genuine concern parents, kids and educators have with the issue of bullying.

Another site (whose URL I refuse to post, because I don’t want to drive any traffic their way) fills their site with all sorts of ambiguous anti-bullying talk as a way to sell anti-bullying “powerbands” and concert tickets at $20 a pop. No mention is made of how the money collected will contribute to bullying prevention or awareness.

It’s so dispiriting to see how a hot social issue like bullying gets subverted to the marketing of unrelated things or gets used as a money-making initiative. This kind of profiteering goes beyond bad judgement — it also fans the flames of hysteria when clear-headed thinking is most needed.