Tag Archives: school

Are you only as happy as your least happy child?

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.

Parenting pledges for a great school year

This morning, my 12-year-old twins had their very first morning of high school. My youngest would be starting third grade if it weren’t for the fact that she had a really high fever last night (score an extra day of summer for her, an extra day of childcare for me).

Like many families, we are in serious back-to-school mode. Supplies, uniforms, clothing and new shoes have been purchased. Items have been labelled. Student bus passes are ready to go. Desks have been organized. Backpacks are packed.

It’s a lot of work, and a fair bit of expense. But it’s also very exciting, a time to reflect on transitions and growing up. It’s made me think about the kind of parent I want to be to my kids, especially now that they are entering their teenage years.

So I’ve come up with a list of back-to-school resolutions. My intentions are good, but my will and patience are not perfect, so I fully intend these more as a set of self-imposed guidelines, and not an iron-clad code. I find it useful to have these kind of things to look up to, especially in the darker moments of parenting (and we all know what those are like!).

Know when to say no, and when to say nothing. Sometimes the word “No” has to be enough. I don’t have to justify all of my parenting decisions to my kids, and what passes for explanation is really their attempt to negotiation. If I think those shorts are too short, or they are too young for a school dance, or they’ve been Skyping for too long, that’s all I need to say.

Conversely, sometimes I need to bite my tongue. They don’t need to hear my opinion of everything. They don’t always want to know what it was like when I was 12 (really? That’s a shocker). I don’t need to pass along my issues from adolescence. This is their turn.

Take advantage of natural consequences, when appropriate. I’m a big fan of Barbara Coloroso. When my kids were toddlers, I went to hear her speak, and was particularly impressed by her adamant insistence on kids learning things for themselves. As long as it isn’t immoral, illegal or unhealthy, they’ll learn more from their own mistakes than our rules or lectures.

Let them go outside without their jacket and realize how cold it is.  Let them goof off instead of studying for a test and get a bad mark. Let them forget their lunch and go hungry for one day. It may sound harsh, but none of those things are immoral, illegal or unhealthy. The stakes aren’t particularly high and the consequences are tolerable and contained. If we do everything for our kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. And we are reduced to shrill, nagging parents. Sure, if any of these things become more than one-off problems, we need to step in with guidance and supervision, but most kids, most of the time, will quickly learn their lesson.  (Another amazing parenting book with this philosophy is The Blessing of a B Minus, by Wendy Mogel).

Set firm boundaries for technology use. How much screen time total can you (and they) tolerate. At what point does it eat into their time for exercise, family interrelationships, homework, sleep? A recent study found that one-third of American teens sleep with their cellphones by their bedside or under their pillows, and text well after their bedtimes. Many said they set the phones to vibrate so they will wake them without alerting their parents. Phones, laptops, iPads should all be outside of their bedrooms when they go to sleep. Teens already have enough issues with sleep without this extra distraction.

Get them to eat breakfast. This is one of the hardest pledges to keep. My older girls are simply not hungry in the morning. They feign nausea at the mere sight of food. Chalk it up to their adolescent circadian rhythms or their natural metabolisms, but I struggle to get anything into them at all. Going to school hungry pretty much guarantees a lack of energy and focus for the first couple of hours, so that’s no OK. We’ve tried smoothies, Greek yogurt, cereal.

Out of desperation, I’ve given up on my usual insistence on whole-grains, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugars. I find myself buying the crappy processed crap that used to make me all self-righteous at the grocery store, like “What kind of parent would serve that to their precious children?”

Me, that’s who.

At this point, even Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes are looking pretty good. If they want pizza or a chicken sandwich, fine. My minimum requirement is a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and a cereal bar.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for now. I’m sure I will stumble a few times (feel free to call me on it, but remember that thing about people living in glass houses…). I’m sure there will be more pledges necessary. What resolutions do you make in your household?