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Thoughts about teens, tweens, parenting and this adventure of living on Earth in the 21st century.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Guest blogger: Why Kids Listen to their Parents or Don’t

April 1, 2013

by Rick Ackerly, M. Ed.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 45 years experience. He’s served as head of four independent schools, speaks to parent and school groups across the country and at education conferences. Rick is the author of The Genius in Every Child. Visit his blog to learn more about his innovative approach to education and parenting.

Rick Ackerly knows about the genius in children

Last month, waiting at gate B22A at O’Hare a parent told me how frustrated she was with her teenage daughter.

“I’ve tried everything with Julie. I read the parenting books and tried it all, and it’s just not working.”

“What did you try?” I asked.

“You know. I confronted unacceptable behavior; I acknowledged her feelings while insisting on what I wanted. I tried not take it personally, but nothing worked.”

“How do you know it’s not working?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I were either goading her or simply an idiot. “She keeps doing the very things I tell her not to do.”

“With teenagers,” I said. “That is not a sign that it is not working. Adolescents are not constituted to obey. They are wired to disobey. Well, not exactly disobey. They are wired to make their own decisions—not necessarily good ones, but to make them. It is essential for their survival that they practice making decisions and noticing results.”

She, of course, was not relieved to hear this. Raising teenagers can be a nerve- wracking experience, and I have never known a parent who is in the throes of this enterprise to be easily pacified. And anyway, I never got the chance to attempt further consolation, because the boarding process began just as I was delivering my shocking message that “They are wired to disobey.”

I wish I had had the time to tell her about a conversation I had with 18-year-old Allison as I drove her home from a basketball game one Wednesday evening several years ago.

“I listen to my father,” said Allison, “because I have found that he tells me things that turn out to be true. Like ‘Never go out without money,’ he says.”

Allison had needed someone to talk to. Last Saturday night there had been a party where some of her classmates got drunk and trashed the house of a classmate.

She went on: “I wish I could talk to the parents of my friends and tell them how to talk to their kids. I wish they would tell them things like ‘Never go out without money.’ There we are at Starbucks and they’re all, ‘Allison, can you pay for this? I didn’t bring any money,’ and I go, ‘Sure.’ But it get’s annoying. They do pay me back, but it’s annoying. Parents ought to be careful what they tell their kids, so that when they give them advice, the kids will listen. What those kids did to that house was gross.”

“But you don’t always do what your father says, do you?”

“No, but when he talks, I do listen. Sure, it makes me mad when he tells me to get off Facebook and to start doing my homework, but I know he is telling me the right thing. That’s the point. I know it is the right thing for him to tell me. It makes him mad when I don’t do it right away, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be between parents and their teenagers. I know he’s right. I just have to do it myself. He has become like an authority. When he speaks I listen.”

Don’t all parents want to become “like an authority?” Listen to Allison. She is on to something very important.

Until age five, it is important for parents to back up their statements—with force if necessary. If a parent says: “No, you can’t have a candy cane before dinner,” then it is very important that the child does not eat a candy cane before dinner. “Eight o’clock bedtime” has to mean: In bed by eight. Period. If a parent says it’s bad for you and then let’s you do it, how can you trust such a parent? Why should a child listen to such a parent?

However, by age thirteen, the human brain is working to develop and consolidate the part of the brain that makes decisions—the pre-frontal cortex. By 18 the teenage brain has all the circuitry of an adult brain, but not enough practice. They know drinking to excess is not good for you, and that trashing a house is very bad, but the adolescent mind is open to other possibilities which must be tested to be “known.” Close relationships with adult authorities are important for helping kids know which end is up. If kids listen to parents it is because parents have proven that they are authorities worth listening to.

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Mom, I don’t wanna talk about it!

January 30, 2011

The classic standoff

Clinical research shows the hairs on the heads of parents of teens get noticeably grayer on Friday and Saturday nights. (Assuming previous teen shenanigans haven’t already caused you to pull out all of yours.) I probably should have written this blog on Thursday so you’d have it in advance of the weekend. But no worries. There’s no expiration date on advice for dealing with a teen’s poor judgment. If you don’t need this now, save it. It’ll come in handy sooner or later.

I recently got an email from Distraught Parent describing how Teen Daughter had purportedly gone to a friend’s sleepover (Just us girls). In the wee hours of the Saturday AM Parent receives call from local law enforcement reporting that Daughter and two equally Clueless Friends have been picked up riding in car driven by Drunk Teen Boy. Daughter comes home, announces: “I don’t want to talk about it!” and proceeds to sleep for the rest of the day. Parent describes how Daughter’s had a “rough” semester, has been “sad” for months and how her grades have plummeted from A’s to C’s. What to do??

Here’s my reply:

I’m relieved to hear your daughter’s choice to ride with a drunk driver didn’t end in tragedy for her or anyone else. I’m sure you are too! Sounds like something’s been going on with her for a while and this is the capper. (So far!)

Yesterday she didn’t want to talk and that’s OK for yesterday. It’s not an option for today.

She needs to talk and you need listen. (I mean really listen.) If you lay into her with The Lecture she’s going to shut down. She knows she blew it, but the real question is WHAT’S GOING??

Have the fact-finding conversation today. Let her know how you felt when you got the 4 AM call. Let her know that your TRUST in her honesty, her ability to make good choices and to keep herself safe has been shredded. Let her know that you know things haven’t been easy for her lately. Let her know you love her and it’s your job to keep her safe and to help her sort through the challenges she’s facing. Let her know she can talk to you anytime and that you will NOT throw anything she tells back in her face.

Do your best to help her figure out why certain choices she’s making aren’t in her own best interest. That’s the best you can work towards. You are her mentor, teacher and guide but you can’t live her life for her.

Your daughter deserves a meaningful consequence for her irresponsible and dangerous choice on Friday night. And you both deserve some professional help in rebuilding the trust and improving the communication between you.

Like I said at the top, teens aren’t known for their prescient decision-making. In the best of situations, their “still-under-construction” brains often works against them. Add alcohol/drugs, sexual tension, peer pressure, sleep deprivation and a whole host of other stressors and it’s tough for them to do the right thing, which often includes resisting the wrong thing!

The more we calm down, tune in to our teens and listen to them attentively and compassionately, the more likely they’ll let us know the kind of support they need from us during a rough semester and beyond.

Filed under: Parenting,Tips — Tags: , , , , — Annie @ 7:20 pm
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Just a minute, sweetie

December 2, 2010

How much longer, Mom?

I’m not an idiot. I know it’s not always possible to drop what you’re doing to listen to your kids. But let’s be honest: not many of us do open-heart surgery or negotiate international crises at home. So when our kids need to talk, we could take a break and focus on them if we chose to. But most of the time we don’t. We keep doing whatever we’re doing and shift into an unconscious auto-listening/responding thing (“Uh, huh. Uh, huh”). If you feel like it’s more pressing to fold laundry or do your online banking instead of having a real conversation with your teen, that’s your choice, but at least be upfront about it. Auto-listening is a bad idea for these reasons:

  1. It’s not healthy. In a healthy relationship trust and respect have to flow in both directions. Want your kids to respect you? Then you’ve got to respect them. Auto-listening is disrespectful.
  2. It’s not fooling them. Even toddlers have been known to turn Mom or Dad’s head to get their attention. If an 18 month old knows that no eye contact means you’re preoccupied, how can you hope to fake it with a teen? And why would you want to?
  3. You’re showing that “other things” are more important to you than your kids. You and I know you don’t really feel that way, so why would you send that message? Your teens don’t get 100% attention from their teachers or their friends. Let them at least get it from you while you’re having a conversation.
  4. Auto-listening is poor modeling. Our kids don’t listen to us for a couple of reasons: a) they’re teens and they need to shut you out so they can build their own identity, and b) we haven’t spent enough time showing them what active listening looks and feels like. You can’t do much about their developmental need to shut you out, but when you make a real effort to listen to your kids (with eye contact, 100% of your attention, and an open heart and mind) you’re setting the stage for them to listen more attentively to you and others.

Don’t assume an increase in listening is going to increase the common ground between you and your teen. (We’re working on communication here, not cloning.) But if you focus more on listening you can reasonably predict there’ll be less confusion about what was actually said in a conversation. That means less arguments studded with gems like: “I never said that!” “You never said that!” and “What are you talking about?!”

Nothing is more important than showing your son or daughter that you’re always available to help, guide, and support. If your kid is troubled enough to come to you, this is when you need to be great. Personally, I can’t imagine anything that would take precedent over my desire to help my child. But if you’re truly involved in something that can’t be interrupted (even for 5 minutes) then at least stop momentarily, make eye contact, and say, “Sweetheart, I really want to hear this, and you deserve 100% of my attention, but I can’t give you that right now. Can this wait until 8 o’clock*?” (NOTE: You can’t use this excuse very often otherwise your kid is going to think “You never have time for me.”)

*When 8 o’clock arrives, don’t forget your promise. Don’t leave it up to your child to restart the conversation. It’s up to you to knock on your child’s door and say, “I’m ready to listen now. Is this a good time for you?” The intensity of the emotion that brought your son and daughter to you initially may have passed. You may have missed an opportunity to help. But by coming around as you said you would, you’re showing your child that you really do care. And hopefully, they’ll give you other opportunities to focus on them.

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