Trick or Treat: A look at teen attitudes
Amy Birchill Lavergne, M.Ed., LMFT-S, LPC-S
Recently I was talking with a parent of a teenager about the mine field that parents walk every day with their growing children. Some days asking a teenager what they want to eat for dinner can be met with the response, “You’re always judging me!” How does a stunned parent respond to that? That may seem like an extreme illustration, but many parents understand the “trick or treat” response challenge they have on a daily basis with their teens. Is there anyway to elicit more “treats” than negative responses?
As a parent you want your kids to be able to talk to you when they have questions or problems, but when they do, how do you respond? Your reaction to what you hear them say determines whether they will ever come to you with their issues and questions again. Your parental instinct tells you to keep your teen safe, teach them right from wrong, and make sure they develop a moral compass that is in line with your values and one that they can apply when faced with challenges. But immediately responding to your teen with “the right thing to do” is often heard by them as either 1) “you’re not capable of making these decisions yourself,” or 2) “I’m judging the way you responded to this as wrong.”
Receiving a judgmental response is the reason why a lot of teens (and adults for that matter) stop talking to others about their feelings and experiences. Most people just want to be heard, and aren’t really looking for someone to “fix” the situation. This is true for your teenagers as well. Parents that force-feed solutions can be implying that their teen doesn’t have the skills to solve situations themselves. Always trying to “fix” your teenager’s problems often results in them not wanting to share their problems with you. They still need your guidance, but they don’t want to always feel like you are telling them what to do in every situation. They need to learn the skills to solve interpersonal problems on their own. Otherwise, they may never learn how to have healthy relationships, complete with being able to deal with conflict in healthy ways.
So how does a concerned parent respond to their teenager? Avoid replies that begin with “Why did you” or “Why didn’t you,” because those reactions can feel accusatory and incite defensiveness, excuses, anger -- or can distract them from actually focusing on finding solutions to the issue at hand. A more positive response might involve: exploring different dynamics of a situation, talking about what happened or recapping what words were said, gaining different perspectives, encouraging your teen to explore a problem and what their role is in it and, ultimately encouragement empowering them to solve the challenge themselves. Some things to remember:
- Don’t ask too many questions. Your interest alone may prompt them to continue sharing with you.
- Don’t rush to answer questions, ask your teen, “What do you think?”
- Show respect for your teenager’s struggle; it may seem insignificant to you, but may be extremely important in their world.
- Let your teen develop the ability to make a healthy choice on their own. Positive interactions will open the door for you to share your wisdom and experience and empower your teenager to develop their independence and personal responsibility.
From an early age, children need to know their parents’ values and beliefs in actions more than words. When leading by example and coaching rather than dictating, parents can pave a solid relational foundation and one that will invite healthy interaction during the teen years. For more ideas on effectively communicating with your children of all ages, take a look at How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
Helping Kids with Holiday Loss
By Amy Birchill Lavergne, M.Ed., LMFT-S, LPC-S
The holiday season can be a difficult time for people experiencing the death of a loved one. Regardless of the time of year, many of us hesitate to talk about death, particularly with youngsters. What we say about death to our children, or when we say it, will depend on their ages and experiences. It will also depend on our own experiences, beliefs, feelings, and the situations we find ourselves in, for each situation we face is somewhat different. When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message - “If Mom and Dad can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.
Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. For example, preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion. You can help your preschooler by keeping routines and physical setting as familiar as possible. Provide constant nurturing. If parent is too distraught, seek a caring adult substitute. Look into the child's eyes and touch the child gently when discussing a death. Shorten time away from the child. Be sure he knows where you are and how to reach you. Avoid words such as sleeping, resting, loss, passed away, taking a long trip. Talk about what it means to be dead in concrete terms such as someone doesn't breathe, eat, go to the bathroom or grow. Repeat simple, honest explanations as often as the child asks. Reassure the child of his or her own safety and your plan for continued presence. Share the fact that most people die when they are older. Allow expressions of feelings such as drawing pictures, reading and telling stories about death or the loved one, or reenacting the funeral service.
Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to realize that death is final and that all living things die, but still they do not see death as personal. They harbor the idea that somehow they can escape through their own ingenuity and efforts. During this stage, children also tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton or the angel of death, and some children have nightmares about them. You can help by being a good listener. Correct any confusing ideas the child may have. Provide play opportunities and routine. Reassure the child the death was not their fault. Provide opportunities to open discussion with a quiet child by reading stories related to death. A child who chooses not to talk about the death may be comfortable writing or drawing her thoughts in a journal.
From nine or ten through adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die some day. Some begin to work on developing philosophical views of life and death. Help by assuring him or her that the person didn't die because he was "bad." Talk about the ways in which things are different and how they are the same. Reassure the child that they did not cause the death.
Teenagers, in particular, often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some youngsters react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary chances with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming their “control” over mortality. Help your teen by talking without criticizing or judging. Express your own feelings about the death. Guard against letting the teen assume adult responsibilities. Reassure the teen that they did not cause the death. Continue to support and listen to the teen's feelings although they may appear to be handling it. Allow time for solitude and reflection. Be available to talk on the teen's time frame.
There are many books available to help parents learn how to process death with their children. There are also many wonderful children’s books at all different developmental levels to assist the discussion. It can be very useful to access the services of a therapist trained in working with grief and loss at children’s developmental levels to support parents and children on their grief journey. If you or someone you know could use assistance or resources this holiday season, please call for a consultation, 830-629-2300 ext. 707.