Getting Your Teen to Talk -­‐ Part II

getting teen to talk

Actually, it’s not about “getting” your teen to talk. That’s been part of the problem all along – kids feeling tugged at and interrogated and cajoled into conversations that don’t interest them. I stuck that phrase in the title because, if nothing else, it captures the urgency behind so many parents’ attempts to learn something more about their adolescent than what time he or she wants to be picked up from the mall. With kids already on guard against our familiar after-school and dinnertime questions (How was school? How was your day?), we’re not going to have much luck jump-­‐starting a conversation with yet another question. Besides, questions put it all on them, while we sit back and listen. In some families, listening becomes criticizing or leads to even more questions. No wonder why so many teens do the eat and run thing.

In a prior blog post about getting teens to talk (Part I, 1/25/14), I encouraged parents to try something different. I suggested they learn about who their teenagers are by first letting their teenagers learn about who they are. This can happen as a result of parents telling their teenagers, vividly and sincerely, about the things and people and events that affect them and that they think about. No lecture. No points being made. Just a process of becoming more transparent. I call this Going first.

Leaving space is another way parents can engender conversation with their adolescents without feeling as if they’re dragging it out of them one word at a time. It refers to resisting the urge to pounce on an opportunity to make a point, or otherwise inform, educate, enlighten, or correct. “Every single time I ask my mom a question about sex she gets a panicked look on her face and asks me if I’m thinking about having sex,” fifteen year old Kelly, a client of mine, tells me. “So I stopped asking about sex.” That’s not good. When I asked Kelly’s mom about it, she replied, “Well, I just want to make sure she knows that I think she’s too young to be having sex.” “Kelly knows you think she’s too young to be having sex. You tell her every chance you get,” I responded. “Just because she’s asking about sex doesn’t mean she’s about to have it.”

In this instance, Kelly’s mom had lost the opportunity to take their earlier discussions further. She’s one of only a handful of parents whose fifteen year olds choose them as their point person for questions about sex. In her urgency to drive home a point, Kelly’s mom lost her credibility as someone who would hear her daughter’s anxieties over her own.

Continuing to have an influence on our sons and daughters as they get older means we need to use conversation to do it and not lecture. As I told Kelly’s mom, “You stand a much better chance of having her listen to you if she doesn’t feel she has to be on guard against the points you are trying to make.“ By the time we parents are starting to really get nervous about our kids’ choices, because they are no longer theoretical but very real, most of our kids already know what we think and what we want for them. What they need from us now is something different – an even‐tempered sounding board, a witness to their struggle to balance competing needs or desires, perhaps more nuanced information. By squelching your need to make sure your teenager has heard you, and instead leaving space in between what your teenager says to you and what you in turn say to him or her, you may discover that place where real conversation begins.


Signs Your Son Is Using too Much Tech (And What To Do About It) Guest Blog by Dr. Gregory Janzt

For the next several months a group of writers focused on the issues of boys and men are collaborating through the writing and sharing of blog posts in order to bring greater awareness to the unique challenges boys and men face in the 21st Century.  Twice a month these writers will be posting the same posts on their various media formats to spread the word and to introduce their audiences to the great work of their peers.  Today’s post features Dr. Gregory Janzt,, founder of The Center, and co-author, with Michael Gurian, of Raising Boys By Design: What the Bible and Brain Science Reveal About What Your Son Needs To Thrive

Signs Your Son Is Using too Much Tech (And What To Do About It)


Boys have a hard enough time concentrating, contemplating, and reflecting — all executive functions centered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area where teenage males are naturally not as fast to mature as we may like. So the last thing we need is for our sons to spend too much time with technology that inherently encourages surface-level, multi-tasked, short-term thinking.

Signs He’s Using Too Much Tech

Would he rather spend time with technology than people?

Is he choosing technology over physical activity and time outdoors?

Does he use tech devices during mealtimes?

Is most of the time he spends with friends on tech devices (i.e., texting, playing video games, watching television)?

Is tech usage distracting from time he should be spending on homework?

Does his greatest sense of joy or accomplishment seem to come from tech usage?

Does he seem fatigued and/or irritable, particularly after long periods of tech usage?

Does he have a hard time concentrating, particularly after long periods of tech usage?

Does he get anxious if he is away from his tech devices for too long?

If you answered yes to any one of these questions, your son may be using too much technology, and it’s probably a good idea to consider new (or revised) rules for his tech use.

Introducing New Tech Rules

1) Talk to your family about tech pros and cons.

While he will likely be resistant to a conversation that suggests limiting his tech usage, you are best served bringing it up within the context of your tech usage as a family. Explain to him that as grateful as you are for all the ways technology helps improve your lives, you want to look closely at your tech usage to be sure there is a healthy balance of things.

As a family, brainstorm a list of pros and cons. All the ways technology helps improve your lives — like providing information, connecting you with friends, and providing services of convenience. And all the ways it can threaten your quality of life — like distracting from homework, making you tired, taking time away from family and friends.

Note, going forward, make it a point of performing the same tech assessments, and subsequent (applicable) limitations, on all members of your family. After all, the vast majority of us would be better off spending less time with technology. Plus, this way your son won’t feel singled out.

2) Assess your son’s tech usage.

Even if you already believe your son is too dependent on technology, consider the fact that he’s probably using it even more than you know. Spend a week paying attention to how your son is using technology, including computers, smartphones, video games, and television. Keep a journal, making note of what he’s using and for how long.

Think beyond the boundaries of your own home. Reach out to his childcare provider, teachers, and parents of his friends. Ask them what technology he is exposed to when he’s with them, and for how long. And if your son currently is allowed technology in his bedroom, don’t forget to include in your calculation of a guesstimate of how much time he’s on tech devices in the privacy of his room.

Note, it is helpful if you can perform this tech usage assessment on all members of your family so that your son doesn’t feel as though he is being singled out.

3) Limit tech time.

Once you have a good idea of just how much time your son is spending with tech devices, talk to him about limiting the amount of time he will be allowed to use technology going forward. The more control you can give him over his new tech schedule, the more he will welcome the change. For instance, if you want to cut down his overall technology use by 10 hours a week, let him choose the how much time he would like to eliminate from tech device. That said, make sure there is an even distribution of things. For instance, the last thing you want is him eliminating time on his computer and smartphone just so he can spend all his tech time playing video games.

4) Keep tech out of the bedroom.

If you haven’t already, prohibit the use of technology in his bedroom. This means no TV, no computer, and no smartphone. He won’t be happy about this, but explain to him that this will give him an opportunity to use his bedroom as it’s intended — to rest and recharge.

5) Monitor his tech activity.

Play his video games. Watch his television programs. Visit the websites he frequents. Read his texts, emails, and posts to his social media pages. This need not be done in secret. Let your son know that the privilege of using the tech devices you provide him with is your right to monitor his activities. The more accustomed he already is to his tech independence, the harder he’ll fight you on this. Don’t give in. It is your right, as a parent, to do this. And there are plenty of computer monitoring programs and apps to help you do just that.

6) Hold off on a cell phone.

The sooner you allow your son a constant tech companion, the sooner you introduce the possibility of technology dependence. Try and protect your son from the tether of tech addiction as long as you possibly can, at least until he starts middle school.

7) Say no to new tech toys.

Parents invariably feel the pressure to give our kids the latest and greatest of everything, particularly the newest tech devices. Resist at all cost! Your son does not need a new smartphone every time a new version comes out. (None of us do.) An upgrade is perfectly fine now and then — in a smartphone, computer, or television, for that matter — but wait until the waning performance of the existing device actually warrants a new purchase. In this manner, you can teach your son how to appreciate what he has, how to wait patiently for what he wants, and how to be a responsible consumer who doesn’t perpetuate society’s increasingly “throw-away” mentality.

8) Set up consequences for violations of tech rules.

Your son is going to make mistakes, like sneaking extra tech time or using inappropriate language in texts, emails, or social media posts. So before you initiate tech limitations, set up a clear set of consequences should these rules be violated. The most effective consequences are those in which you confiscate the device for a specified period of time.

9) Revisit the rules now and then.

Finding just the right amount of tech usage requires a learning curve. You may find your initial rules don’t do enough, or maybe they do too much. Plus, as your son grows and changes, so do his habits, interests, and needs. For this reason, it’s a good idea to revisit your tech rules now and then. Maybe once a month for the first six months, then very three months thereafter. And if you happen to forget, congratulations, as what you’re doing is probably working.

Find more insights into raising boys in today’s tech-intensive world in Raising Boys By Design: What the Bible and Brain Science Reveal About What Your Son Needs To Thrive by A Place Of Hope founder, Dr. Gregory Jantz, and Michael Gurian.


“Like Pulling Teeth…” Getting Your Teen to Talk

monosyllabia – a reactive disorder of adolescence characterized by the tendency to speak only in one syllable words

boy on stairs

Just kidding. I made up that thing about monosyllabia.  But the following story is true.

Fifteen year old Katie walked in the front door of her home and dropped her book bag on the ground.  She entered the kitchen where her mom sat doing paperwork, and rummaged for something to eat. Katie glanced over at her mom briefly and forced a quick smile before heading toward the stairway. “How was school?” her mom asked after her. “Good,” Katie replied, and scooted upstairs to her room.

“Good.” “Fine.” “Okay.” The words might be different but the story is still the same: teens fending off the queries of curious (or worried) parents with one-word responses.

Katie and her mom are real clients of mine (their names have been changed). I’m using their story to introduce the topic of how teens and parents talk with one another – or don’t. In fact, here’s what Katie’s mom said when we met for the first time: “That’s pretty much all I get from her these days. In some ways she’s become a stranger to her dad and me. I miss her. She treats us as if it’s an invasion of her privacy for us to ask how her day at school was.”  Does it sound like something you could find yourself saying about your own teenager? If the answer is yes, read on for ideas about how you can change the way you and your teenager converse.

Most teens rely on friends or close siblings for conversation and stick to the basics when talking with their folks. Others volunteer so little about their lives that the only way their parents learn anything is by asking questions, which their kids then say are annoying. I believe the majority of teenagers really would like to be communicating more with their parents, but I also think that we don’t always make it inviting or easy for them to do it. That’s why I stuck the word “reactive” in my made-up definition of that made-up disorder, monosyllabia. Along with our teenagers, we too are accountable for the scant communications that come our way.

If we want our adolescents to come to us and talk to us, then we need to change the way we talk to them. And one of the best ways to start is by ditching all those questions we typically assault our kids with when they come home from school, sit down for dinner, or get into the car.

Questions are boring. Questions are predictable. Questions will never jump start a conversation the way you’re hoping they will, because they’re a one way street.

Try this instead: try telling your teenaged sons and daughters something about yourself they don’t already know. Let them get to know you as someone more than “just” their mother or father. Describe experiences you’ve had that are similar to something they’re going through – experiences where you were overwhelmed or lost your confidence or desperately wanted something you couldn’t be sure you’d ever get. Share with them your funny habits that you keep hidden from view.  Tell them what moves you in this world, or where you still experience whimsy, wonder, and awe. Don’t tell them things just to get them talking. Tell them things so they become interested enough in you as a person that they actually want you to know them.

One day Katie and her mom came together for therapy. I listened as Katie’s mom described how moved she had been by the kindness of strangers toward an elderly couple she saw that afternoon having trouble navigating a touchpad screen for ordering food.  “It took a little while before the couple got it but the people helping them were so patient, and the look on their faces was, like, they were happy to have been the ones there to help! It made me realize how little we have to do to make someone else’s life easier, and also a little sad that we don’t do it more often.” Touched, and a little bit disarmed by her mother’s candor, Katie looked her mom and said, “I never knew you thought about stuff like that.” Staring down at her hands, Katie’s mom responded by nodding vigorously. Then she looked up at us both and smiled. “Yeah, you know it’s nice,” she replied. “It’s nice, your kids seeing you as more than this person who drives them places and threatens to take their cell phone away.”

If we want the current dialogue between our teens and ourselves to change, then we may need to lead the way toward something different. We may need to be willing to say, “I’ll go first.”

Sex and Depression: A Gender-Specific Approach to Healing Guest Blog by Jed Diamond, Ph.D.

For the next several months a group of writers focused on the issues of boys and men are collaborating through the writing and sharing of blog posts in order to bring greater awareness to the unique challenges boys and men face in the 21stCentury.  Twice a month these writers will be posting the same posts on their various media formats to spread the word and to introduce their audiences to the great work of their peers.  Today’s post features Jed Diamond, whose latest book is entitled: Stress Relief For Men: How To Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well.

Sex and Depression:  A Gender-Specific Approach to Healing

By Jed Diamond, Ph.D.


Depression runs in my family.  I became aware of that fact when my father took an overdose of sleeping pills when I was five years old.  Growing up I had little understanding of what had happened or why he was hospitalized and disappeared from our lives.  But I did grow up with a hunger to understand depression and a terror that I would become depressed myself and face my own suicidal demons.

When I was 40 and going through my own bouts of depression, I found a journal he had written in the year before he was hospitalized and I got a better understanding of his suffering and my own.  Here are a few of the entries:

June 4th:

Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work,  Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.

August 15th:

Faster, faster, faster, I walk.  I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family.  I try, try, try, try, try.  I always try and never stop.

November 8th:

A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out.  Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried.  All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.

Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.

Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to end his life.  Though he survived physically, emotionally he was never again the same.  For nearly 40 years I’ve treated more and more men who are facing similar stresses to those my father experienced.  The economic conditions and social dislocations that contributed to his feelings of shame and hopelessness continue to weigh heavily on men today.

During that period my mother also became depressed, but it was quite different than my father’s experience.  Where he was often irritable and angry, she was more often sad and weepy.  While he pushed people away who wanted to help him, she drew close to her friends and neighbors.  In working with men and women over the years I’ve found other differences in the ways males and females deal with their pain and suffering.  Here’s a chart that summarizes my experience.

            Males are more likely to act out their inner pain and turmoil, while women are more likely to turn their feelings inward.  Certainly there are depressed men who fall on the female side and vice versa, but generally I’ve found these differences to hold true for most depressed men and women I’ve worked with over the years.

Female depression

Male depression

Blame themselves Feel others are to blame
Feel sad, apathetic, and worthless Feel angry, irritable, and ego inflated
Feel anxious and scared Feel suspicious and guarded
Avoids conflicts at all costs Creates conflicts
Tries to be nice Overtly or covertly hostile
Withdraws when feeling hurt Attacks when feeling hurt
Has trouble respecting self Demands respect from other
Feels they were born to fail Feels the world is set them up to fail them
Slowed down and nervous Restless and agitated
Chronic procrastinator Compulsive time keeper
Sleeps too much Sleeps too little
Trouble setting boundaries Rigid boundaries and need for control
Feels guilty for what they do Feels ashamed for who they are
Uncomfortable receiving praise Frustrated if not praised enough
Finds it easy to talk about weaknesses and doubts Terrified to talk about weaknesses and doubts
Strong fear of success Strong fear of failure
Needs to “blend in” to feel safe Needs to be “top dog” to feel safe
Uses food, friends, and “love” to self-medicate Uses alcohol, TV, sports, and sex to self- medicate
Believe their problems could be solved if only  they could be a better (spouse, co-worker, parent, friend) Believe their problems could be solved if only  their (spouse, co-worker, parent, friend) would treat them better
Constantly wonder, “Am I loveable enough?” Constantly wonder, “Am I being loved enough?”

Chart found in my books, Male MenopauseThe Irritable Male SyndromeandThe Whole Man Program.

Gender-Specific Medicine Saves Lives

For too long, we’ve assumed that sex and gender differences are not important in health care.  But a new field of gender-specific medicine is emerging that can save lives.  We now know that there are differences in everything from rheumatoid arthritis to Alzheimer’s.  For instance, it was once thought that symptoms of an impending heart attack were the same for women and men.  Now we know that women often have different symptoms than men and millions of women are getting proper treatment as a result.

Likewise, understanding the difference ways that men experience depression can save millions of men’s lives who might otherwise be lost.  We know that the suicide rate for males in the U.S. is 3 to 18 times higher than it is for females.  Many men die and suffer from undiagnosed and untreated depression because we haven’t understood the ways in which male depression manifests.

I have made it my life quest to help men, and the women who love them, to live well at all stages of their lives.  At MenAlive our team brings together people and resources from all over the world to help people realize their dreams of a fulfilling life.  I hope you’ll join us.

Jed Diamond, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., is Founder and Director of MenAlive, a health program that helps men, and the people who love them, to live well throughout their lives.  He is a pioneer in the field of male-gender medicine. Since its inception in 1992, Jed has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network.  He is also a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP), the International Society for the Study of the Aging Male and serves as a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Gender and Men’s Health.  He is the only male columnist writing for theNational Association of Baby Boomer Women.  He also blogs for theHuffington Post, The Good Men Project, Scribd, Menstuff, ThirdAge, and other venues.

He is the author of 11 books, including international best-sellers, Surviving Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome:  Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression.  His new book Stress Relief for Men:  How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well will be available in April, 2014.


I Feel Sorry for the Month of January

bleak 3

I feel sorry for the month of January. Everybody’s so unhappy when it finally comes around. It means the end of “the holidays.” It means you have to start worrying about all those things you said you’d worry about after the holidays. Not even New Year’s Eve is left. I’d hate to be something so dreaded, especially when you’re dreaded for being bleak and boring and cold. If people dreaded me, I’d at least want it to be because I was some kind of bad-ass.

Every other month has at least one day about it that’s special enough to send a card. Maybe not August. Not even Hallmark has figured out what to do with August. But August is summer, so it doesn’t ever have to worry about being unpopular. January has MLK Day, sure, but nobody goes out to Target to look for a “good MLK Day card.” It’s just not the same.

I like January, but not only because I feel sorry for it. I do happen to like a lot of other things because I feel sorry for them—stuff on clearance, stuff left by the curb, stuff people give away to Goodwill. Seeing stuffed animals without “forever” homes is the worst. I once saw a stuffed pink poodle in a dumpster all by itself and dove in to retrieve it. I felt like I was rescuing an animal from a house fire. I brought it back to my place, and promised the pup he’d never be abandoned like that again. No, I like January because it’s a homebody’s  dream—a long stretch of cold, wintry weather that makes people forego making plans for events to which I might be invited. I scare myself sometimes, thinking these things. I worry I’ll end up like that banker guy in the Twilight Zone episode — the one where he wanted to be left alone to just read his books. So he goes down to one of the vaults during his lunch break, and ends up being the only survivor of an atomic cataclysm. And he’s actually okay with this, once he sees that the NY Public Library is still standing. But then he accidentally steps on his reading glasses.

So when January came around this year I thought maybe it could use a little extra love, and that’s how this post was born. Maybe other people out there like the month of January, too, but keep it to themselves. I understand that. Not too many people want to hear that you actually like this time of year, especially if they’re feeling depressed by the cold and the barren landscapes and the lack of sunlight. I don’t know why it’s different for me, but I’m not complaining. I even love the end of Daylight Savings Time, when we get to set the clocks forward and it gets all dusky by 4:30 in the afternoon. But sharing that little bit of information has gotten me quite the the evil eye from folks, so I’ll save that post for some other time. Maybe August, when everyone’s in a better mood.

Michael Gurian: If I Were a Parent of a Boy…

For the next several months a group of writers focused on the issues of raising boys to become men are collaborating through the writing and sharing of blog posts in order to bring greater awareness to the unique challenges parents and the community face in the 21st Century.  Twice a month these writers will be posting the same original article on their various media formats to spread the word and to introduce their audiences to the great work of their peers.  Today’s post features New York Times best-selling author, Michael Gurian, whose book,The Wonder of Boys, is credited with launching the modern boy’s movement.


If I Were a Parent of a Boy…

By Michael Gurian, Author of THE WONDER OF BOYS (

In working with her family therapy clients over the last twenty years, my wife, Gail, has said, “If I were a parent of a boy, I would really be worried.”  She is referring to her fear for the social, economic, emotional, and spiritual lives of America’s boys.

As we raised our daughters, we asked our girls what they thought of the gender landscape around them.  Gabrielle (then 16) came home from school in 2006 and said, “We had a discussion in social studies about boys and girls—everyone was talking like girls had it hard but boys had it easy.  They were in denial.”

Davita (then 19), came home from college for the holidays last year and reported a discussion with her college friends.  “I’m really glad I’m a girl, not a boy.  The boys aren’t sure what to do, but the girls are doing everything.”

These discussions were anecdotal, of course. Both girls and boys, and women and men, can experience suffering in our world.  Girls don’t have it easy.  Women don’t have it easy.

But it is also true that boys and men are in substantial trouble today.  They increasingly fill our principal’s offices, ADD/ADHD assessment clinics, and rolls of the homeless and unemployed.  Boys and men are more likely to be victims of violence than girls and women, commit suicide at four times the rate of females, and suffer emotional disturbance, behavioral and other brain related disorders in higher numbers. They are suspended or expelled from school in much higher numbers than girls, receive two thirds of the Ds and Fs in schools, and lag behind girls in standardized test scores in all fifty states.  They abuse substances and alcohol at higher rates than girls and are incarcerated at exponentially higher rates (for more data in all these areas, please see

Especially telling, the majority of government and philanthropic funding for gender friendly-programming goes to programs and innovations to help girls and women. The existence of this funding is to be celebrated, but the disconnect between the reality males face and the social justice attention males get needs to be examined by each of us.

We are in denial about our males.

I believe this denial will continue (and we will ultimately rue and mourn the dangerous, socially debilitating consequences) unless we change our academic, media, government, and philanthropic programming to include a new ideological truth:  just as the traditionalist paradigm regarding girls and women needed to be deconstructed and replaced by the feminist paradigm in the last century, the feminist paradigm, especially as it regards boys and men, needs to be deconstructed and, at least in part, replaced now if we are to meet the needs of both genders.

Why does it need to change?  Because it posits that females are victims of a masculine society that oppresses them systematically, and this isn’t true in the developed world anymore.  While individual girls and women can be dominated and demeaned by individual boys and men (and vice versa), we do not live in a culture that systematically teaches girls and women that they are second class citizens and boys and men that they are superior.

While some areas of life are still male dominant (mechanical engineering, senior leadership at some corporations and some areas of government), other areas of life and work are female dominant (management, medicine, education, mental health professions).  The original feminist paradigm posited systemic male dominance in our culture, but male dominance is only systemic in small pockets of the culture and female dominance also exists in others.

Can our culture open its mind to our new reality?  To answer yes, we will need to make a distinction between gender issues in the developed world and the developing world.  In many countries in the developing world, systemic and brutal patriarchy does prevail and the feminist model of male dominance/female victimization is essential for encouraging social justice.  My own parents, while they served in the State Department, helped build schools for girls in Afghanistan against impossible odds.  In that world, systemic degradation of females was and is prevalent.

But in the developed world, we can’t keep operating out of a gender lens that blinds us to reality.  If we do continue to remain blind, we will continue to avoid fulfilling our most human of imperatives:  to take care of our children.  If we do not fix what ails our sons–if we do not love them in the ways they need to be loved–we will create an increasingly dangerous society for girls and women, too.  No parent of either gender wants that.

Copyright Michael Gurian 2013

Children with Disabilities Have a Right to Be Held Accountable Too

Autism_Awareness_RibbonIn his blog, Lost and Tired: Confessions of a Depressed Autism Dad (, a father recently wrote about why he believes it’s important for him to hold his boys—all three of whom are on the autism spectrum—accountable for their actions. Justly referring only to behavior he knows the boys can control, the dad explained that having autism shouldn’t mean his boys get a free pass when it comes to abiding by the rules that help keep our families and schools and communities intact and civil.

I agree strongly with this father, and wish more parents would recognize the value for kids in being held accountable for the choices they make, no matter what their handicap. Too often, these kids—as well as those without any recognizable handicaps—are given the bye because it’s mistakenly assumed they can’t control themselves, or because one or both parents feel they’ve been through enough extra hardship. Rather than burden their child with a standard of behavior and level of responsibility they believe will be stressful, these parents choose instead to lower the bar, and make the kinds of accommodations that indeed alleviate stress but offer no opportunity for the child to build the skills he or she will need to function outside of the home.

Problems can develop inside the home, too, though. I remember listening to sixteen-year-old “Roxanne,” a client of mine, talk about her younger brother, “Eric.” Eric had Asperger’s. This girl loved her brother dearly, but had grown to resent him as well. Eric was intrusive and demanding at home, and had grown accustomed to the kid glove treatment he received from his parents. They had made a habit of accommodating the discomfort and anxiety Eric typically experienced when asked to compromise or try something new by asking him to do only the things he felt comfortable doing. That’s how the family wound up eating at the same two restaurants for years. Over time, these accommodations had less to do with his Asperger’s and more to do with his expectations, and his parents’ wishes to avoid a tantrum-filled afternoon. Roxanne tried to tell her parents that Eric’s biggest liability wasn’t his Asperger’s; it was that he wasn’t pleasant to be around. But they couldn’t hear her yet, and assumed that she was just jealous of the additional attention he got.

Everyone loses when over-accommodation is mistaken for compassion. There is nothing unkind about holding children with disabilities accountable for behavior over which they have control, and for its impact on the people around them. I actually think of it as an act of respect, and the antithesis of patronization. You recognize together with your child, collaboratively, that certain things will always be harder for him or her, and some may prove impossible. At the same time, you help your child adapt to a larger world that will treat and evaluate her by the same measures used for everyone else. You can clamor all you want for a level playing field, but there is no such beast. Don’t let disillusionment blind-side your kid just as he or she is stepping out and exploring life as a young adult; there’s already plenty loaded onto that plate.

Have a Moody, Oversensitive Teenager? What to Do When You’re Tired of “Walking on Eggshells”


“Julia is so sensitive I can’t say anything to her without it causing a big blow-up!” exclaimed Julia’s mom. “How am I supposed to raise this kid? I’ve got to be able to talk with her—she’s only fifteen!” 

Julia’s mother had a good point. She did need to be able to “parent” her daughter without worrying what the fallout would be.

Julia was typical of many teenagers who feel entitled to impose their moods and frustrations on others simply because they feel, well, moody and frustrated. Kids who’ve not learned to regulate their emotions, or who don’t care to, grasp pretty quickly that they can exploit their parents’ wishes to avoid a bigger, louder problem. In turn, their parents, feeling a need to calculate the “cost” of speaking out, become a little tentative or self-conscious about addressing their teen’s behavior or attitude. The teen, now picking up on his or her parents’ hesitation, ramps up the drama, and the parents, trying to avoid an even worse argument than the one they’re already having, back down. And so it goes.

Breaking out of this vicious cycle takes time, some self-discipline on a parent’s part, and the employment of what I call counter-intuitive parenting. Parenting counter-intuitively means responding to your moody or acting out teen not reactively with what you feel you should do in that moment, but reflectively, by taking a few moments to understand what your teenager is actually trying to make you feel or do.

Let’s look at Julia and her mom.  When Julia’s mom responds the way she feels like responding—walking on eggshells around her daughter—the situation actually gets worse. Julia realizes that her mom is afraid of upsetting her, and takes advantage of that by finding ways, both verbal and nonverbal, to remind her mom that she’s just this close to freaking out. Julia’s mom could begin to change this interaction cycle by saying to Julia,

“Look, I can appreciate that you’ve had a bad day, and are in a bad mood, and if I can help in some way please tell me. But it’s not okay to make us all suffer as well, which is what happens when you go around sulking and snapping at everyone. My tendency is to try to not make it worse, so I end up walking on eggshells around you, something I need to change. So you’re going to hear me insisting that you be more considerate of the people around you, and not impose your moods on us, and if you get even more moody, well, we’ll deal with that. Anything will be better than me feeling like I can’t open my mouth in my own home.”  

Some final thoughts about talking with adolescents who use strong emotional or behavioral reactions to get their parents, as well as other adults, to “cease and desist” …

Keep in mind that getting you to back off is exactly what your teenager is trying to do. She does this in order to escape accountability for her mood, attitude, or behavior.

Instead of backing off to avoid conflict, see how you can better appreciate and sympathize with your teen’s genuine grievances and dilemmas. Many of the things they complain about can sound superficial, but have real significance in their lives and matter tremendously to them even if they don’t to you.  Parents insult their kids when they react dismissively to their problems, making it seem as if the only problems that matter are the ones adults have. Some issues your teenager brings up may have real merit and deserve your attention—although it’s true that in the delivery of the message many angry teens chase away what could have been a willing listener. Nonetheless, consider that maybe you are a little quick to criticize or do let your youngest get away with everything. Those things would bother me. Why shouldn’t they affect your son or daughter? Get as good at apologizing as you want your own child to become; it’s the best way to teach sincerity and grace.

Each time you take a pass on a problem that your teenager’s behavior raises, you chip away at your credibility as a parent committed to teaching her right from wrong.

Don’t repeatedly look past problems or undesirable behaviors because they are too small, too infrequent, or too inconsequential. Little things do matter, and by addressing them in a timely, non-dramatic, and consistent manner, you send your teenager the message that values are not conditional upon how exasperated or, conversely, how well rested you are.

Accommodating repeatedly to your teenager’s sullen mood or unpleasant attitude allows her to avoid becoming aware of—and more sensitive to—how her behavior affects other people. It is an unfortunate lesson she will likely take with her into adulthood.

Everyone gets unhappy. Everyone gets miserable. But most of us try not to make it ruin everyone else’s day. Hold your teenager accountable for doing likewise. She is capable of managing her feelings—she probably does this very well in school, and among her friends, and in front of her friends’ parents. If she thinks that the adults around her believe “she can’t help it,” then she won’t help it.

The idea that kids are hard-wired to become moody and self-absorbed once they hit adolescence has got to be one of the most destructive self-fulfilling prophecies ever perpetuated by our cultural beliefs about teenagers. Adolescents are so much better than that, and deserve to be held to a better standard. We sell them short when we hand them exemptions from being good citizens—conscientious, responsible, capable of caring deeply—just because of a collective, and I believe largely unexamined, conviction that they can’t control themselves. The romanticized image of the raw and impassioned adolescent whose brain has yet to fully mature is a compelling one, if for no other reason than it allows us adults to sidestep the question of what our contribution is to the appearance of lippy, insolent behavior in some of our teenagers. If we want our kids to value and demonstrate such things as personal accountability and an awareness of the impact of their choices on other people, then there’s no better place to start than by modeling—authentically, consistently, unconditionally—the kind of reflective thinking that allows a person to come forward and say, This is my role in what happened; I own it and will change it.

Yelling at Your Teen: A Big Disrespect

It’s a sad day in America when we need a study to tell us that yelling at teenagers to discipline them makes them more depressed and their bad behavior worse. Teenagers themselves would have told us the same thing, for a lot less money.

Most parents yell at their kids because they’re frustrated, not because they think it’s a desirable way to communicate. Often they’re feeling helpless to get through to their adolescent son or daughter, to affect their teen. It’s a strange and sad feeling, especially when the choices you see your teen making are lousy ones.

The study also found that the effects of screaming at one’s teenagers were comparable to the effects on kids of physical punishment. That’s a huge finding, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Screaming, not unlike hitting or slapping, is a violation of one of the most fundamental assurances that kids need from their parents, namely, to know their parents cherish them and will take care of them and never intentionally hurt them.

Apparently only a small percentage of parents refrain altogether from using harsh verbal discipline with their children, probably a mix of those who bring to bear more effective (and respectful) ways to guide their kids, and those who have thrown up their hands and abandoned post altogether. Respect, to me at least, is the sine qua non of genuine dialogue, the enzyme that helps kids — and especially teenagers — digest a message that might otherwise be unpalatable, and a major reason why some will listen to certain adults and not others.

It gets a little tricky though, because parents will think they’re being respectful when in fact they’re not. Disrespect is pretty unmistakable, especially when intended, but it can also fly under the radar, muted and shadowy. A kid feels it, and responds in kind, albeit more coarsely to the parent who then wonders where the heck that came from.

Raising teenagers who you enjoy being around and who enjoy being around you involves more than not screaming at them. But few things are as corrosive to a relationship between a parent and child than repeated attempts on the parent’s part to “prompt” good behavior by muscling points across with harsh language or hurtful words. I think if given the opportunity many teenagers would say that, in more situations than not, their seeming defiance or surliness has less to do with wanting to deliberately incite a parent than it does their efforts to save face or preserve a dignity they feel has been threatened. What happens, then, when we are more careful to preserve our children’s dignity along with them while we speak to them? How much more of what we say might they be free to hear?


Why I Go to Summer Camp


Articles and essays by parents attesting to the merits of summer camp for their children abound. I want to write one about why I go to camp—me, a fifty plus year old psychologist and single mother of three grown boys, who probably has no business taking time off from her practice or the myriad unsettled affairs having to do with home and family life.

The camp I go to is in Fryeburg, Maine, a small town at the edge of New England’s White Mountains. It’s what’s considered these days to be a traditional, even “old-fashioned,” summer camp, offering every sport and activity imaginable, and only a four or a seven week option. There are people who’ve come as campers or staff and who have never left, and this year the camp is celebrating its ninetieth anniversary with a big reunion and lobsters for all.

I don’t actually go to camp as a camper, although I did for many years as a child and then as a teenager — and to this very same one. I go as a staff member now, my role a blend of psychologist, staff trainer/support person, and camp aficionado/historian. My days are spent talking with homesick kids or helping counselors manage the dynamics of their particular group of eight children, all of whom are learning to live together under the same, smallish, roof. I find the kid who’s preoccupied with worries about a sick relative back home, and the one who is trying too hard to be cool in an environment that values different things than the ones that make you popular at home. In between, I do what the kids do: I get up for flag raising and show up at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I hike mountains and act in ridiculous skits and swim in the river and ride horses and sometimes get up at dawn to go swimming while riding. I dress for Orange Day and Tube Sock Tuesday and the All-Camp Dance, and let them stick a fish costume on me to break Color War.

I go to camp because it’s where I can still play. I pull pranks and get in trouble and play four square in the main office with a hamburger hat on my head. But I also go to camp because it’s where I am part of a community that I have grown to cherish. Just going to a camp wouldn’t interest me, and certainly wouldn’t be enough of a pull for me to pack up every June and head north. It’s this camp and its people that I love, in the same way I imagine devotees of other camps love their camp and their people, and believe them (mistakenly, of course) to be the best, in much the same way that I know mine to be. My camp friends and I all joke about waiting ten months every year for the two during which we reunite. That first evening every year in mid-June when all the staff arrive at camp—it’s one of my favorite days of the year. We hug and laugh and are delirious with joy and the anticipation of another camp season. And now, especially, with my parents and brother gone, and my youngest two (twins) leaving for college in the fall, I’ll find a needed comfort in recognizing that there is at least this one community to which I belong, and to whom I matter

And what a community it is—simultaneously nostalgic and embracing, magnetic and transformative. I see the transformation every summer. Campers may know only that they’re making up cabin skits for campfire, but they see what it means to be inclusive, to find a way for everyone in a group to be useful, and to discover the joy of being a part of something larger than oneself. Campers may think only that they’re singing an old camp song, but what I recognize is that, out of respect for a place and a tradition, they’ve learned to suspend judgment and appreciate something that would in any other setting have been seen as corny, something to be dismissed. In the process each summer of resurrecting this extraordinary community, these three hundred or so kids become bigger human beings.

And so do the rest of us. Few leave these two brother-sister camps—Forest and Indian Acres—untouched. It’s different up there. I’m different up there. In that climate of leisure, whimsy, vigorous activity, and boundless affection, I became a bigger human being, too – more generous, more patient, more present. In between the middle of June and the middle of August for those summers that I am able to get to camp, my heart swells to twice its size, and I become, once again, my best self. This is why I go to summer camp.