Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Teens and tweens may not come out and tell you, but there is a lot they want you to know about their lives. Yes, sometimes adolescents have surly attitudes. However, they still need your help as allies, guides and consultants. Here are some of their thoughts I’ve gleaned from my teen and tween clients, along with guidance for parents.
I’m lonely and alone a lot
Your kids may seem engaged with their friends in person and online yet, from what I am directly hearing, there is an epidemic of loneliness among tweens and teens. Some of them go out alone in order to evade parental radar. Some claim to be Snapchatting or texting with friends when they are actually watching Netflix or listening to music in solitude.
Our teens and tweens need us to check in on them often. Make sure they are engaged with peers through groups, clubs or sports. I’m told that reliance on occasional get-togethers and online connections don’t fulfill their social needs.
QUICK TIP: Sit down with your child and watch their show or video with them, grab an earbud and listen to their music, or play their video game. Talk to them about their interests. Then, brainstorm ways they might pursue those interests with peers.
If your child is still struggling to make meaningful connections, read through psychologist Kyler Shumway’s “The Friendship Formula,” preferably together.
You don’t know what’s on my mind
All too often, teens and tweens are not particularly forthcoming, so parents are left guessing what their kids are thinking. And the guesses are often well off the mark. Our children’s inner lives are complex. Adolescents are navigating many identities all at once: their identity at home, at school, with friends, with teachers, online and with themselves. Kids’ internal lives are complicated and, because they compare themselves to others, they are often sad as well.
Our kids are also struggling emotionally. More are suffering from depression and anxiety than ever before, judging themselves in the negative light through which they assume others judge them. Scrolling through digitally altered images of their peers enjoying themselves online compounds their insecurities. The combination of these factors often leaves our kids feeling overwhelmed.
Instead of being dismissive, trust that managing this “identity traffic” can be emotionally taxing. I find that by just lending an ear parents learn a lot. They will hear about bullying, social issues, feeling left out or unliked, and even drug use and abuse. Then, with the lines of communication open, parents can begin to problem-solve with their kids.
Parents need to place their own fears, judgments and egos on the back burner for these conversations, so their kids feel free to share with them openly. It’s also crucial that you find a positive light through which to see them, and reflect back to them the intelligence, strength, humor, beauty, irreverence or other qualities you admire.
QUICK TIP: Watch “Eighth Grade” on Amazon Prime to get a true feel for what’s on the minds of kids today. Better yet, watch it with your teen or tween, and pause to talk about relevant scenes.
I actually care about school
Your kids may seem ambivalent about school and avoidant about discussing the upcoming year. They may be reluctant to sign up for extracurricular activities. Many are also nervous about the unknowns of this coming school year, arriving in the midst of a possible resurgence of Covid-19 and renewed mask mandates. The combination of these factors may read like laziness, an omen of battles to come over grades and homework.
All of my young clients are clear that they care a great deal about school. Some are overinvested and become disappointed when their grades aren’t perfect. Others seem to opt out altogether, skipping assignments and blowing off studying for exams. The kids in this group often fear they won’t be able to perform as well as their peers. They all want to do well but can’t juggle all of the requirements for academic success.
We parents can start to help before that first bell rings. First, let your kids know you have every faith they can be successful. For your Type A kids, encourage them to relax a bit, and they may find that the drop in stress may improve their grades. For your kids opting out, a sincere vote of confidence from you will carry them a long way.
Then, get them to sit down, briefly, to organize their school days. How much time will you protect for homework? For practice? For sleep? Kids typically have more energy to commit to these habits early in the school year, so engage in these discussions now.
Finally, offer a note of hope. These last couple years have been odd, to say the least. The beginning of this school year will offer them a blank slate and clean start for moving forward.
QUICK TIP: Read one of the following books, based on where your student falls on the motivation scale:
If your child seems unmotivated, try “The Myth of Laziness” by the late pediatrician Dr. Mel Levine.
If you’ve got an anxious, Type A child, try “Helping Your Anxious Teen: Positive Parenting Strategies to Help Your Teen Beat Anxiety, Stress, and Worry” by psychologist Sheila Achar Josephs.
I’m not always good to you, but I need you
The world our kids inhabit can be quite harsh. Their insecurities about the present and fears about their futures can be overwhelming. And parents tell me that, too often, kids bring that unpleasantness home via a bad attitude toward the family. Try not to take that personally, but rather as an indication of the stress they are under. Kids often target their parents with their negative emotions because they know they can trust that their parents love them unconditionally and are not going anywhere.
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Instead, recognize that most teens and tweens need some time to regress and be taken care of, often right before bedtime. As a counterbalance to their harsh day, allow your kids the gentleness of a hug or cuddle. This will reenergize them for the days to come.
QUICK TIP: Have a listen to this episode of the “Zen Parenting Radio” podcast for some insight into your child’s state of mind.