Annie Keeling: Teeing up for terrific teens
May 16, 2018
Loud music with obscene words, expensive brand clothing, driving, junk food, late nights, academic difficulties, friends who might not make the most respectful choices — landmarks of the teenage years.
Yet, sometimes, teen behavior becomes worrisome — even dangerous. The teens act out in ways that alarm parents, like getting drunk at a party or staying out past curfew.
It's characteristic of American culture to label teenagers as dangerous, delinquent, and not to be trusted.
Teens are often viewed not as people who need to be educated, but as societally bad. This ideology can seep into family life. Many cultures don't discriminate against teenagers as we do in American society. The teens are not viewed like that at all, therefore they behave much better.
Dealing with conflict
What are some actions to reverse this self-fulfilling prophecy and reinforce the good intentions of teenagers?
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Recently, I came across my Dale Carnegie course materials from years ago. There are some basic tenets of his book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," that can be used in adult/teen relationships, especially those in the throes of tension or conflict.
Don't criticize, condemn, or complain. These "C's" are so easy to do with teenagers that some parents don't even realize how often they use them.
Since teens often dress, talk, and act in ways that parents don't like, the C's roll off their tongue. But doing any of these three C's won't result in the behavior we desire.
Give honest and sincere appreciation. Appreciation is one of the most powerful tools in the world and brings out the best. It is not simple flattery. It must be sincere, meaningful, and done with love.
Use Positive Witnessing — notice the effort put into a behavior; show appreciation; say how an action makes you feel; or inquire how the action feels to the teen. Positive specific comments can go a long way in deepening your relationship with a teenager.
Arouse in the other person an eager want. When we forget our own perspective and begin to see situations from the point of view of others, then they become more eager to work with us. This empathy is often contagious.
Both parent and child can more easily achieve their objectives when each other's perspectives are considered.
Perspective-taking is great modeling for the teenager — who often seems to have lost all empathy. That loss can really stump parents.
Why are some teenagers unable to see anyone else's perspective but their own?
There are two kinds of empathy at play here. Cognitive Empathy is the ability to think about things from another person's point of view. Affective Empathy is recognition of and appropriate response to others' feelings.
It would be wonderful if kids were skilled at these in the teenage years because they both help with social problem-solving, managing emotions, and avoiding conflict — areas where teens often struggle.
Understanding development is key here, especially for boys. While Cognitive Empathy begins rising in girls from the age of 13, it's later for boys — around the age of 15.
There is also a temporary decline in Affective Empathy for boys between the ages of 13 and 16 years of age (which does recover in the late teens). This decline may be due partly to the increase in testosterone levels, which are associated with power and dominance in relationship — while compassion and understanding towards others takes a back seat.
Not only do the teens lack empathy, they may show outward dislike for the parent as well. This can devastate parents who have sacrificed so much over the years. They often lament the loss of their sweet child who used to shower them with affection and kisses — and was just so very cute.
Instead, parents may have a surly, hairy, smelly teenager who shows disinterest and passivity, negotiates consequences, takes unhealthy risks, badgers the parents, and argues every word.
I call this a spiral back to the Baby Self — the fight/flight/freeze part of our brains that wants what it wants now, doesn't understand consequence, and makes unreasonable demands.
Even though we know it is a stage, many parents' past personal pain gets triggered and they react with their Baby Self as well. This often ends in bitter battles, or at the least, doors slamming.
How do we parents keep our cool and not take this change personally? Let's go back to some of Mr. Carnegie's Fundamentals:
Become genuinely interested in other people. If we talk to our teens about what they are interested in, they will feel valued and value us in return. The key here is genuine.
Show interest in that rap song, even if the lyrics offend you. Ask questions. Give responses even if you are not asked — but keep it brief. (My son would really like me to add that last part.)
Smile. An outward smile will help your inner attitude, even if you're not having a happy time of it. Kids need to know that we are doing okay.
Keep the complaints to a minimum. You can be truthful with your circumstances, but don't linger on a downer state. If the smile doesn't make your kid feel wonderful, at least you will most likely feel better.
Be a good listener. To be a good listener, we must actually care about what people have to say.
Sometimes parents are so invested in their teen making a change or learning something new, they aren't able to really see their son for who he is or hear what their daughter is saying.
Dale Carnegie was a master of human nature and I love relating his fundamentals to parenting. I also greatly admire family therapist Cloe Madanes. She coined a term, "Micro Rituals," to enforce family integrity.
I recommend a weekly "Family Meet-up" after a meal together, with a structure of sharing grateful thoughts followed by planning a fun, family event. The meet-up ends with dessert or a game — or both. (We've been playing some unusual variations of Rummy.) Another idea is a music jam with drums, instruments, pots/pans, dancing, and all-around silliness. Even if your teen rolls her eyes at your uncool music or uncoordinated dance moves, underneath she will most likely appreciate the connection.
And the connection with one another is what it's really all about.
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Contact Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.