1) Go slow to go fast. Don't fast-forward this season of your life. Treat every breath, opportunity, moment, lesson, challenge and success as a gift. As you progress toward and into high school, many peers will be moving at speeds (socially, academically, relationally) that do not feel comfortable or compatible with your age and stage of life. That's okay. Let them go at their own pace, but be true to yours. Sit down in your season and learn as much as you can from it. Fearing being left out or isolated is normal, but as you stay true to your moral compass, you will find your people. If you skip seasons of life, you miss the valuable life-lessons they hold.
2) Process over product. Focus on small steps rather than big leaps. It's easy to become consumed by big-ticket items (think GPA, level of a sports team, social tier of friend group). However, focusing on the big picture only takes much-needed energy away from your daily efforts; efforts that when done with dedication and care, will ultimately take you to your final destination--earning the grades you want, the team you desire, and the friends you are seeking. Spend your mental energy working smarter not harder by creating a steady study structure, cultivating communication skills, forging positive and healthy relationships with teachers, peers, and parents. Score your victories not in the finality of the product, but by your daily commitment to giving your full effort.
3) Communication is key. Learn to communicate your needs, fears, aspirations, and gratitude. Turning to teachers, administrators, coaches and parents only in times of high stress or high need tends to foster alienation and creates a one-way relationship. Take time to learn about those in your life. Who are they beyond their title? We are all people, and connection is key to meaningful relationships. After all, the adults in your life are more likely to help you in those inevitable times of stress when they see you as a person, and not simply as the role you play (student, athlete, child etc.).
4) Be the friend you want to have. The older you get, the more you will realize that quality always trumps quantity in the friend department. Challenge yourself each day to limit the shade you throw, the flames of gossip you fan (intentional or otherwise) and focus on being the kind of person you are seeking as a friend yourself. That said, don't be afraid to walk away from routinely negative or toxic relationships that make you question your value or require you to fast-forward to the next season of life in order to be included.
5) Sacrifice optics for authenticity. Don't let social media define you. It's easy to fall into the trap of chasing the perfection you imagine is on the other side of a Snap-story or Instagram post. Similarly, think before you post. Social media is a dangerous game that can create significant mental health issues as you traverse your teenage years. Your social media transgressions, once posted, create a digital footprint that lives on for eternity in the form of screenshots, reposts, comments, and can come back to haunt you in the pursuit of future endeavors (think leadership groups, employment, internships and college admissions). Take time each night to unplug and give your brain and inner-child a chance to recalibrate with quality sleep and peace.
6) Stay coachable. Like it or not, the adults in your life have the advantage of time and life experience. While certainly we adults don't know it all and can get it wrong, remaining open to feedback and suggestion is important to your overall growth and progress. Constructive criticism and learning to agree to disagree is a life skill requisite to any successful career or adult relationship--mastering it in your teenage years will pay dividends in adulthood. If you feel unheard or marginalized by adults in your life, learning to advocate for yourself is extremely vital to the process of being heard. Learn to (re)open lines of communication with your parents and teachers. Soon, you will discover, as you become better at assertively and regularly articulating your needs, fears, aspirations, and gratitude, less coaching will occur.
7) When you get clear with life, life gets clear with you. Keeping a journal is (in my experience) one of the most powerful change agents in the game of life. Not the kind that includes a burn list, invite list or similar, but one where you write down your goals and small snapshots of your life. What is your vision? Where do you want to "be" in one week, one month, one year etc? A simple recipe: 3 successes from the day, 3 aspects of improvement from the day, and 3 elements of gratitude from the day. Write these under your goals. As you change, your goals change--and that’s okay. As you accomplish one, replace it. If a goal seems irrelevant, replace it. The funny thing about setting goals is, when you write them down and look at them every day, they have a funny way of coming true.
8) Pay attention to your whole health. Mind, body, soul. You are a whole person--so act accordingly. If you had a broken leg, you wouldn't keep it a secret, or walk around seeing if it gets better on its own. Similarly, if an element of your mind or soul is ailing, treat it with the same tenacity with which you would immediately go see a doctor for your broken leg. Speak up; seek help. Learn to embrace the resources that can and will help you heal from the inside out.
Teenagers are talked at all day long: in school, at practice, by the tutor, coach, teacher, bus driver, etc. That said, many teens develop an aversion to conversations with adults. And while I won’t advise you go radio silent on your teen, I will ask you to avoid one big trap: ill-informed questions.
Little sends teenagers into a non-listening mode more than parents who require the same, basic, foundational information prior to what should be (in the mind of the teen) be a simple conversation. This happens when you (the parent) lead with questions that have already been answered several times. However innocent, this repetition substantially decreases your teen’s willingness to engage with you. Who’s Becky again? What’s your history teacher’s name? You know, your math class, what level is it again? What day do you have X? I’m confused, what did you already email them?
To avoid this, be low-key proactive:
Take notes, make a flowchart, login to the parent portal on the school website, rehash with your better-informed spouse or even another child.
Work smarter in your parenting. A bit of homework on your end will expedite conversations and increase their frequency and depth of communication.
If your teen thinks you don't know, that's where they'll keep you: on the outside. But, if they view you as informed, they will share with more frequency and detail.
And once in conversation, engage in unobstructed listening. The more you want to know teenagers, the more you need to listen.
Listen as if you 100% believe everything they’re saying: reserve outward judgment or belief levels for another conversation. For now, simply listen, and note their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes—as if you have never met them and they are telling you this for the first time.
Don’t give advice or commentary: The hardest part about unobstructed listening is resisting the temptation to insert your own personal anecdotes or opinions. When you interject, the talk becomes a comparison between their reality, and yours. It showcases the divide between the two of you. By simply listening, you preserve ownership for them, and the more they own the conversation, the more they’ll say.
Articulate your active listening with expressions of sympathy, empathy, and belief: Of course, you shouldn’t just sit there in dead silence while they talk and talk. They might think you’re not interested or listening. Small statements of affirmation and understanding suggest engagement and allow you to further expand the talk. Now don’t haul off with over-the-top, inauthentic hems and haws. Be simple and succinct.
Ask follow-up (open-ended) questions. If you want to participate in the conversation, do so by asking questions, rather than giving feedback. Just ask away, cautiously, and with purpose.
Limit drawing parallels from your own life into their story. Try to leave the five miles in the snow for another time. Certain parallels are valid, and have a place (think times when you made a mistake or faced a similar challenge)...but teens are territorial about their talk, and a shift from them to you, can lead to an abrupt end to your time.
Avoid filling the silence with your own words and interjections. Awkward silence is okay. Silence leaves space for them to find words, clarify and feel into their thoughts. A big mistake is caving to the silence and speaking for the sake of filling the time. If you need to say something, make it an open-ended question.
Depending on where you live, summer vacation is either here or right around the corner. Here are some potential considerations for your teenager’s summer schedule.
Employment: Jobs are an excellent way for teenagers to build independence, strengthen communication skills, and differentiate their view of the real-world. Working has become somewhat of a lost tradition, but even working part-time for two or three months, provides tangible and intangible dividends. Much value stems both from a paycheck as well as the process of being held accountable to a third-party adult.
Job Shadow: Many teenagers have a general sense of what they might want to study in college or pursue as a career path. There’s no better way to test the waters of these potential endeavors than by experiencing the environment first-hand. While many businesses do not offer formal internships for high school students, many do offer the opportunity to shadow within the setting. I’ve known corporate parents and small business owners to arrange a trade, where one working parent/adult agrees to foster that experience for another family’s teen and vice versa.
Remediation: It’s not uncommon for a student to experience this need at least once during middle school or high school. Perhaps they fail a class (F), or nearly fail (D), or squeak by with passing grade but minimal understanding of the material (C-). For students who have failed a class, the summer is an ideal time to take remediation classes either through the school district, or an approved online or in-seat alternative. For students who passed, but lack foundational understanding, it’s also a great time to brush up or solidify requisite skills in preparation for future courses.
Enrichment: With college requirements looming, teens often discover little room exists to take a class simply because it looks interesting or speaks to their passions. However, during the summer, many community colleges, high schools, and organizations offer classes and camps that are specified by interest (STEM, coding, business, theatre, music, film etc.). These classes or camps, taken simply to be taken, often stoke the flames of authentic learning, as teens discover what it’s like to pursue learning for personal growth and expansion as a person, intellect, artist, athlete and so on.
Service: Perspective cannot be parent-lectured into the heart of a teenager. Rather, perspective best evolves from experiencing new paradigms, socioeconomic and cultural realities that push comfort zones and challenge core beliefs. Of course, parents best know the degree to which these need to be addressed. Regardless, summer offers time freedom allowing teenagers to become involved with a local, regional or international service efforts. Service learning heightens appreciation for inequities and decreases tones of entitlement.
The concept of free-range products and branding is spectacularly successful in the culinary world. I must admit I appreciate and buy into the concept of free-range in that arena. In the context of parenting the concept of free-parenting is associated with granting children with substantial amounts of autonomy and independence; through this freedom (in theory) comes a greater understanding of self, responsibility, and accountability. One crucial tenet of this parenting philosophy is that said freedoms are delivered in age-appropriate increments. In fact, when I first introduced my theory regarding a rogue branch of free-range parenting, the free-range purists from the Internet came unhinged and unleashed their chat-room fury into the comments section of my article. How dare I confuse their vintage concept with modern day reality?
So, yeah, free-range parenting in its traditional and pragmatic sense is wonderful, but there’s a glitch in the matrix. This once well-intentioned approach to parenting has experienced a split. As such, an off-shoot has morphed into its own branch of ineffective parenting: rogue free-range parenting. While I do appreciate the original stance on independence and autonomy (especially as a welcome breath of fresh air when compared to helicopter parenting), I do not support the concept of new morphed free-range parenting as a parental strategy.
Rogue free-range parenting exists when a child's needs are provided in-excess of typical freedoms and entitlements (in either scope or sequence), typically both. It exists when the freedoms and access granted to the child accelerate them ahead in life into time-and-life experiences for which they are not designed for nor prepared for. And too much too soon produces teenagers unable or unwilling to leave the nest.
For many teens, earlier-than-needed freedoms come in the form of a ride-sharing account, an inconsistent or not-at-all curfew, permission to use, have or carry a fake ID, or a wristband to a music festival or a week of partying over spring break. These examples might sound extreme (or totally crazy), but they have become increasingly normal, as high school is taking over (experientially) as the new college.
These tangibles have become status quo and symbols of status. Ride-sharing, Fake ID, all-access wristbands. They are social capital. In the same way, I was given an allowance by my parents, many of today’s teens are provided an allowance in the form of social capital and access. The college experience delivered in advance; but like a payday advance loan, the high interest paid on the back-end will overwhelmingly outweigh the initial benefits. Adult situations granted prematurely are dangerous to our teens and damage the still-developing adolescent brain.
In the past several years there has been a substantial uptick in the number of college freshmen who return early from college. Certainly, each student’s experience is unique, and I’m not judge and jury as to whether they should return--nor devalue them for returning--as in many ways, it's not their fault. For many early-returners, home is simply the more viable option. Within a few months in an unfamiliar environment, a realization is formed: they are unable to cope with their new reality. Or they simply aren’t ready. Which leads to the important question: why?
Common landmines for a new college student from these upbringings are professors who won’t excuse missing class; peers who won’t share their homework; roommates who prioritize around academics instead of parties; and realizing there is not standard extra credit or re-dos after back-burning long-term assessment preparation. The return home from college is undeniable evidence of the unintended consequences of free-range parenting gone rogue.
Traditionally the allure of college is newfound freedom: both intellectually and more so, socially. But parents are producing products that are more advanced than the environment they are entering. When I went to college I had significantly fewer rules and restrictions. Now our college freshmen are finding the opposite. Colleges have non-negotiable consequences regarding alcohol and behavior. Non-negotiable standards regarding intellectual property and plagiarism. Professors are not interested in why they missed a class or a test.
Systemically our children are being failed by the rogue free-range parenting systems in place at home in affluent communities. Why could we expect these children to want to live in an environment with more tangible consequences and less tangible access than the home they left. Certainly, they have already had the college experience. Unfortunately, their college experience happened in high school, thereby establishing an unquenchable thirst or unattainable bar (to pun intended) to which most college experiences will not (under healthy or lasting circumstances) provide.
Build the fence and they’ll play in the yard. Again, this is not to promote the advent of overly sheltered kids. Parenting is crazy. It is exhausting. It is hard to say no, and excruciatingly painful to hear I hate you and be emotionally beaten down a hormonal teenager. But more painful will be parenting them at that level for the rest of their lives, devoid of coping skills as they remain ever-grasping to the concept that you, as a parent, owe them anything beyond the roof over their head, the clothes on their back and food on their plate. The rest, as they say, is gravy; just make sure it’s organic.
You needed some plants. There you were buying your first plant. Upon purchase, it came with a tiny white insert in the soil telling you exactly how much water and sun it required. You soon discovered it needed full sun, plenty of water...and as for the spacing...irrelevant as it was your only plant. You loved your new plant and bought another, slightly different one. It seemed close enough, so you tossed the small white insert. You did everything the same as the first, but this one didn’t grow. What went wrong with the new plant?! Nothing. The plant’s not the problem; you are. You assumed it was just like the last plant, and it's not.
I know what you’re thinking. My children are not plants and you, sir, are not a botanist. Correct. Two times. I am, however, positioned in a job where I interface with many second siblings flailing through life, suffering from parenting strategies applied to them that yielded remarkable results with the family’s first child but are not suitable for their unique needs. As a family coach, I interface with many second-siblings who are disenfranchised, misguided, misunderstood, mildly to extremely angry, uninspired, lost, behind, down-and-out. They all have something in common: their behaviors are simply manifestations of being parented as if they are their older sibling.
A shift in thinking is required. It’s totally normal to compare your children; it has its time, place and life within the realities of parenting. I urge you to recognize comparisons for data’s sake, but strongly advise against verbalizing the contrasts directly to your children. For example, I imagine you know which of your children began to walk or talk earlier than the other; but no one remembers (besides you) who did what first; they each got there eventually. I urge you to celebrate your second child for who they are and not for who you were anticipating them to be.
Critical life and academic decisions should be driven by maturity and not age or typical hierarchical order. No sibling should be expected to embrace a particular sport, activity, or lifestyle simply because another child did it first. It is vital to determine who they are, what they like, what inspires them, and what natural limits are in play. Let them carve their own slice of the family pie; and do it with their best effort, your full support and within a well-defined family plan. Communication is key. It is the water and sunlight to your relationship and their success.
There’s a reason gardens have more than one kind of plant. Your second child is their own person, their own plant, with unique qualities, needs, likes, strengths, weaknesses, beauty, size, shape, future and so on; treat them as such. If they seem wilted, try moving them to a new window, or adjust their sunlight, or water. For the same window that gave your first such astounding growth may be unintentionally shading a plant that requires full sun.
Look for ways to reach your teen: Everyone has a pathway to communicating; the challenge is finding it when it comes to your teen. Discovering this will largely occur through trial by fire. It may be a topic, a subject, a team, a memory, a game, a space, an activity, or an event. The goal as the parent is to persevere long enough to find that connection. For me, as a teen, it was tennis. Tennis was the safe, neutral space where my dad and I could communicate and interact regardless of the current state of our relationship. It was known (without being stated) that when we talked or played tennis, it was civil, polite, and friendly, even if we were none of those things in any other context. You are the parent; you have a premium vantage point and the proximity, and thus, are best positioned to uncover and dig for potential topics, outings, events, activities, sports, games, or memories that will disarm and engage your teen. But discovery is a process.
Go slow to go fast: Haste makes waste. It’s vital that you’re not peppering your teenager with a myriad of topics. Too much, too soon, or too often will drive them away. Instead, pick one avenue, commit to it, and see how it goes. Use that as a barometer; for example, if the attempt was talking about sports, and it flopped, opt for an experience for your second attempt: instead of talking about sports, go watch one.
Use the power of silence to elicit words from your teenager: One extremely obvious but often overlooked fact about kids is that they hate silence. They want to fill it with noise. So, here's a tip for your next car ride: try no music, no parent questions, and no mobile device … the product will be somewhere from a few words to a full-blown conversation; I don't care if they're 5 or 15 years old. When the car is filled with silence, the weight of it sits on their chest and forces out words. Any words. They. Can’t. Help. It.
Don’t smother your teenager in communication: Often teenage words generated by the desperation of silence are defensive and mean, or funny and dismissive, but every so often they are a glance straight into their soul. The tradeoff is worth its weight in Bitcoin. I would love to possess the secret to skipping the meanness and dismissive snipes, but I can’t. The first two eventually lead to the last: open communication. To achieve relevant and honest channels of communication with your child, you must practice the process of talking. And no one wants to talk to Debbie-Downer (ya know, with those grades you’re not going to get anywhere in life …) and no one wants to hear you brag about your glory days (ya know, when I was in school I played three sports and had a 9.0), so stop it already.
Shelve the shame: There is a lot of pressure to appear to be a perfect or capable parent. But communication breakdowns are painful, and many find embarrassment in them. There should be no shame in reaching out to your people, your parent friends for help and advice. Plenty of parents do in fact communicate well and often with their teens; pick their brains, ask how they do it, seek suggestions like you do for other things, like a good Thai restaurant or landscaper. I find the best answer is typically in the room—only asking for advice will get you options and suggestions to try.
Patience is a weapon, too: Establishing or reestablishing open lines of communication with teenagers takes time; it’s not easy and it’s tempting to give up. Don’t. When they were little, and they threw a fit, you let them kick and scream and cry on the kitchen floor. In time, their fit passed. Now, they’re big kids, and instead of the kitchen floor, the fits are silent, passive-aggressive, mean or hostile forms of communication. Remember, they're still kids and patience is your best weapon.
Contain your excitement upon a breakthrough: You did it! Your teen finally engaged with you. You found a strategy that disarmed and engaged them. Perfect. Now, don’t blow it by immediately getting into the weeds and talking the heavy talk. Invest in simple conversations, build equity, and cash it in for the real talk in critical moments. The objective is an increased frequency of communication outside of intense or critical or important conversations. So, go you! You’re communicating; now build on that success and ride the wave of momentum to a healthier relationship with your child.
Don’t be alarmed: It is very typical for teenagers to have poor communication skills with their parents. While this is frustrating, it is critical to find a workaround, and not allow that roadblock to cause unnecessary stress or emotion.
There’s an alarming sense of normalcy settling firmly behind the practice of accepting, allowing or turning a blind-eye to teenage drinking, so long as teens keep their grades in order. Teenagers are aware of this trend and work hard academically to get the longer leash required to consume heavily, often, and dangerously. More than not, I hear that teens can drink, as long as they have A's.
But why do parents seem to attach access to alcohol with grades? From my experiences there seem to be a few factors...so here they are:
By accident: You had no idea they were partying; their good grades and clean discipline record rendered a long leash and you trust them. There is no indication that they might be up to no good and engaging in adult behaviors.
Out of convenience: Your kids are no cause drama when cooped up in the house. You know that their friends drink sometimes, but you don’t know what to do about it. It’s okay for them to be around it, as it frees up your own time to relax, work out, be social and spend time with your spouse or friends.
Path of least resistance: You tried long and hard to stave off drinking and parties. But, inevitably, they reached a certain age and it became more work than it was worth to prevent it. You do your best to contain it, monitor it from afar, but all seems okay and they are simply a teenager doing the same things you did as a teenager.
Focusing on the wrong success markers: Grades and college are the priority. You cannot stop them from doing what they will do, so long as they fall in alignment with the academic standards set forth in your home. They are allowed (actively or passively) to engage in drinking because they’ve earned it with good grades and admission to a top-tier college.
So, what are the dangers of allowing grade-based partying?
The inevitable toll on long-term health: Consuming alcohol regularly, and binge drinking occasionally deprives teenagers of much-needed sleep. It dehydrates them, affecting their athletics and intellectual capacities. Alcohol is a known to serve as a depressant that may cause anxiety in teenagers and lead to isolative and erratic behavior.
The eventual collapse of academic performance built on haphazard habits: When students only work in short, sporadic increments to attain social privileges, they forgo building skills that endure over time. Study habits and a sound sense of academic integrity are forfeited in lieu of a quick fix to repair a low grade. As they progress through the academic channels of high school and then college, higher standards and more expected output from teachers and professors are hard to maintain without the proper habits. Eventually, your student will hit a ceiling—no longer able to wing it. And when it comes crashing down, it will crash hard, fast and dramatically.
The next-level substance use and abuse born of social partying: What begins as recreational often leads to habitual. The buzz of a beer, stone of a joint, or fix or a vape shifts from a chosen action to a needed one when use increases. Having heard many first-hand accounts of addiction, the stories differ. Some recall being hooked from the very first instance of use, whereas others recall more of a crescendo, where frequency and dependency gained strength overtime until its appeal was valued over everything else.
Rewarding the wrong kind of success doesn’t translate into expected results: Earning a 4.0 GPA or admission to a university means little when the student lacks functionality and autonomy to thrive in that environment. Either the students have developed a chemical dependency that stonewalls their ability to succeed at the next academic level, or they lack the basic, intrinsically driven tools to handle the rigor. So, while they were able to have their cake and eat it too in high school, it is often a recipe for disaster in college.
My contribution to the Spring 2018 Pegasus Magazine:
Being a teenager is arguably harder now than at any time before. Social media, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, constant peer-to-peer contact, academic rigor, online grades, college admissions, access to substances, medications, and overt adulting norms pummel our teenagers and strike fear into the hearts of the parents attempting to raise them. I’m here to tell you, though, that we don’t give teenagers enough credit. Teenagers are smarter, stronger and savvier than we allow them to be in outdated educational and parenting models. It doesn’t have to be this way, and as adults, it must be our job to help teenagers tap into their limitless potential. Parents have the opportunity to become fluent in the language of teen; to channel their innate love for teenagers into a proactive, assertive parenting model, that will inevitably instill opportunities for vibrancy, authentic success, and happiness for our teenagers.
The Assertive Parent is a practical roadmap for parents seeking to build autonomy, authenticity, and resilience in their teenage children. I’ve drawn on my fourteen years working as a high school teacher and administrator, as well my experience as an educational-centered parenting and teen life coach. This book strives to empower parents and teenagers, alike, to become their own advocates, armed with practical solutions, a refreshed and optimistic mindset, to effectively change the landscape of their daily lives
The structure of this book was carefully designed to support both proactive and reactive parenting--read in advance to reduce stress, conflict, and heartache, or after the fact, when putting the wheels back on the adolescent wagon. The Assertive Parent tackles four significant sectors:
- Drugs, alcohol, nicotine
- School and academics
- Social media and social currency
- Family communication and systems
Readers will experience a solution-oriented, judgment-free, plug-and-play resource that provides a framework for successfully modifying their approach to parenting teenagers.
My book is an invitation. I champion you to help yourself help the ones you love. As a parent, coach, teacher, counselor, neighbor, aunt or uncle; whatever the case, whomever you are, you have the power to better understand today’s teenagers, their reality, their norms, their world--information that will be transformative in our collective efforts to allow teens to become the unique soul they were put on this Earth to be.
Join me. Let’s change, together.
Presales soon! Available everywhere books are sold May 29th!
Treat your child as their own person and unique student: Little derails a productive conversation with a younger sibling than an opening statement by a parent highlighting all the ways their older brother or sister has outshined them. Honestly, if there was ever a time to pretend you have no other children, it’s when talking to the younger ones about the changes you would like them to make in their academic world. Use any other example you want, any, just not their siblings. Please.
Listen, don’t advise: Your conversations will be more effective if it assumes the identity of active listening. Easier said than done; many teens simply don’t want to speak to their parents and love utilizing simple statements like I don’t know or anything equally frustrating. But one saving grace about teenagers is that they love talking about themselves. Let them air their grievances and excuses free from outward judgment and instant advice. This warms their engines, validates their thinking, and when done properly, can open the floodgates of receptive communication.
Include your child in emails, meetings, conversations: By the time you have yourself a high school-aged child, gone are the days of excluding them, or shielding them from correspondence. It is, after all, their life. A common trap is to insulate teens (or attempt to) from negative feedback. Well-intentioned insulation tends to backfire in the long run. It’s important for them to be part of the conversation—to hear the feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable, to resolve or confront the issue hindering their academic success. The biggest change-agent in the school-equation will be your student, not their teachers or guidance counselor. Those stakeholders are integral in gathering data points, observations, ideas, interventions, but change is contingent on the willingness and buy-in of the student to get ideas and interventions out of the idea-phase and into the action-phase. If meetings feel like an ambush and not a problem-solving conversation, progress halts.
Focus on targeted conversations (think laser, not shotgun): By the time many parents get to the point where they’re sitting down, dissecting their child’s academic shortcomings, they are armed with a multitude of ammunition (grades, attitude, study habits and so on). Tempting though it may be, it’s vital that you don’t unload the entire arsenal in one conversation, or even several for that matter. Before you begin the process, make a list of what seems to be the underlying issues that need addressing. Steamrolling your teen about their report card grades, or test grades, or quiz scores do little to drive the conversation forward. Conversely, it squashes productivity. Here are some suggested targeted topics:
Study habits: how they are preparing, the amount of time they prepare, where they study, what resources they are utilizing or underutilizing, who they are studying with etc.
Communication skills: how they are communicating (if at all) with their teachers, what they are doing to (actively) seek information or solidify concepts that are giving them trouble?
Work/play ratio: the amount of time they spend being social versus time spent delegated to homework, studying, sleeping, working out etc.
Long-term goals: parents often like to get point out what their kids are doing that won’t get them to college, but spend less time helping their teen craft what the teen wants for themselves. Attaching academic performance to tangible thoughts like a specific college (even if it’s totally unrealistic based on their current results) will heighten that child’s efforts. In other words, let them self-identify college goals, it will improve their work ethic!
Avoid saying: You never study!
Instead, ask: How much time do you think you could be spending on your test preparation to earn a B rather than a C?
Avoid saying: Do you even get help from your math teacher?
Instead, say: Let’s identify what, exactly, is giving you trouble in math so we can email your teacher to arrange a meeting for extra help.
Avoid saying: With these grades, you can kiss college goodbye!
Instead, ask: Where would you like to go to college? Let’s look up information on that school so we can see what kinds of classes you need to take in high school, and what grades you should be earning to get admitted.
Ride-Sharing: Ride-sharing apps and services have changed the game of teenage freedoms. It can sometimes take precision-like logistics to get all family members to the appropriate place, at the appropriate time. In fact, ride-sharing apps are wonderful for trips to the airport, when a car breaks down, or to navigate times when your kids are double-booked yet no parents are available to get them to their required destinations. In other words, ride-sharing apps have viability within many benign circumstances. Ride-sharing, however, has done an excellent job subtly eroding the long tradition of young teens getting to-and-from social gatherings via their parents, and older teens responsibly driving themselves to and from social events. So, let’s take a few minutes to review the pros and cons of ride sharing.
- Makes a busy life more manageable
- Great for family logistics and multi-child problem-solving
- Provides supervisory data like real-time geo-fencing and location, pick up/drop off points/times, cost etc.
- Great for busy, working parents
- Reduces conflict regarding teens attending social events based on logistical limitations of parents or siblings
- Teen’s become unavoidably mobile—which is often too tempting and ends in trouble
- Curfews get pushed, tested and omitted more frequently
- Parents may become more social, less accountable and unable to support a teen in need based on their own unavailability
- The teen is more vulnerable than if they were being transported by their parent or the parent of a friend
- The ease of use generates a habit of use, and a credit card bill to prove it
Tips regarding ride-sharing:
- Use them responsibly, as needed, but avoid nighttime transport. A 3:00 pm ride dropping a teen at an appointment is very different than an 11:30 pm drop-off to a house party.
- Monitor your teen’s financial transactions for overuse or abuse. I knew a teen who had an account for 8 months prior to his parents finding out. His method was impressively strategic—frontload and follow-up trips with purchases of a comparable price...so they would seemingly blend-in on a credit card statement. And it worked! In fact, the only reason he was caught was after ordering an SUV for a trip to the mall and racking up a big charge which was immediately suspect on the credit card statement.
Teens are capable beings who can accomplish most academic feats with the right combination of effort and focus. But their academic eyes are often bigger than their stomachs. So, as students begin the registration process for next year’s courses, it’s vital to approach it with the mantra they can do anything, but not everything.
So what does that look like?
Have a plan. A common trap when selecting courses is making hasty choices rather than slowing down to take a look from 30,000 feet. Effective academic planning consists of big-picture thinking; it outlines all course progression scenarios (think dominos). Specific courses open doors certain doors in the future that others cannot. For example, challenging courses generally leads to more, while less rigorous classes lead to less. Plans are fluid, but mandatory to fully understanding how today’s choices impact tomorrow’s opportunities.
Play to strengths. Students typically have specific subject-areas that compliment their natural interests and abilities. A student may prefer math-science courses over English-history courses, or vice versa. When students select honors or AP level courses in one area, they may scale back in another to increase the likelihood of success in those courses. Not to say that students shouldn’t extend their academic comfort zones, but taking difficult courses void of passion and simply to line-item a resume is risky. Yes, AP level courses are important for college admissions, but taking too many or not doing well in ones taken ultimately damages the applicant’s overall academic package and their love of learning.
Factor extracurriculars into the equation. Students are knee-deep in sports, theater, dance, leadership groups, church and community service; it is crucial to acknowledge these obligations when building an academic schedule. It’s delicate: do too much and risk not keeping up, but do too little and run the risk of becoming pigeon-holed as a one-trick pony. Finding and remaining committed to a few meaningful activities far outweighs a frenetic spattering of activities over the course of high school. That said, these activities take time and cannot thrive under the weight of an unrealistic academic burden. Again, balance.
Fight the urge to comply with others’ expectations. Your child is your child; they may or may not be blessed with the same academic, athletic or artistic DNA as your neighbor’s child. Knowing what your friends’ kids are taking is a dangerous game. I get it, you want to scope out the competition. There are two flaws with this strategy: viewing the admissions process as a competition and mistaking their child’s path for your child’s path. Your child should only be competing against the contrast between their potential and their results. Results from previous courses paired with college goals should dictate next year’s classes, not what you’ve heard others are taking. Your child is unique; if you attempt to cram them into the box of another student’s pedigree you will trigger revolt, apathy or unhappiness.
Focus on the whole child. Many times it is the child who requests the overly demanding schedule. If that’s the case, utilize a school counselor to talk through the cost-benefits of the proposed schedule. What is the upside? Drawbacks? If determined to be best for the child, look for other places to lower obligations to balance the demand stemming from this rigorous course load. Ultimately parents may need to exercise the power of veto in order to keep balance for their child.
A final thought. Remember, students can do anything, but not everything and something’s gotta give. If you don’t identify that give now, the give will show up unannounced wreak havoc. So in planning, view your options through the lens of balance.
When a teenager is in the room with you, whether it be at the doctor, teacher, tutor, psychologist or wherever, include them in the conversation. I know this sounds simple, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I see. Too often, parents will talk about their teen (who is sitting next to them and in the same room) like they aren’t present. Including teenagers in conversations within the decision-making process establishes ownership and increases the odds of a teenager’s buy-in with the final outcome, even when that outcome is not what the teenager would choose for themselves.
Let’s take, for example, considering moving to a new school for a fresh start. Many times, the dialogue surrounding the potential move is had by everyone except the teen. Including your teen in the pros-and-cons-party is key. This does not mean parents must get their teen’s blessing or permission prior to making an educational change. In fact, sometimes, teens cannot see what is best for them in the midst of a downward spiral. Even if, at some level, the teen knows a change is needed, often they cannot communicate that internal whisper into a well-articulated statement. So, they end up crying for help via poor grades, a sour attitude or total isolationism.
Here are talking points for a family considering a school move:
- What are the academic benefits of remaining at the current school site?
- What are the academic advantages of moving to the proposed school?
- What behaviors indicate the current school site isn’t working?
- What assumptions exist that those behaviors will shift in a new setting?
- What advice would you give someone else in your situation about the school move?
- What are your biggest fears about making a school move?
- What are your biggest fears about remaining at the current school?
- Are there solutions, tools or resources that can address these?
- How would the move impact them socially?
- How might it affect them academically?
Look below the surface: These types questions will help you sort out the true underlying issue. School moves have a time and place. In fact, my parents moved me after a continued downward social and academic spiral, allowing for a fresh start in 7th grade. However, what my parents missed then, and parents miss all the time, was the opportunity to debrief and dig-in to discover what, if any, social-emotional ramifications exist under the surface. Sometimes the school is the core issue, and many times, it’s not.
Not always the answer: As parents, we want to save our children, that is our job. And one way to save someone is to remove them from a harmful situation. However, with schools, the DNA that creates vulnerable and trying times for adolescents are eerily similar from school to school. Yes, one can debate public and private, or big and small and so on. But the core social dynamics and interpersonal and emotional landmines can be based on the specific child, and how they are prepared, conditioned, and supported during those awkward and challenging times--and having little to do with their physical location. A hasty school move can just be kicking the can down the road.
Details to consider when vetting a potential school move:
Impact on GPA: Grade weighting varies by school district. One may issue a “grade bump” for an honors course, while another may not. This means GPAs are recalculated when the student enters the new district. A student exiting a district who issues “grade bumps” may see their GPA drop based on the absence of the bump in the new district.
Impact on current class schedule: Not all high schools (even within the same district) offer the same courses. It’s important to understand what classes will be available when moving. Cetain college requirements work in years, not semesters. For example, let’s say your teen is taking an AP European History course, has completed a semester, and then transfers to a school without that course offering. Your teen will need to complete the second half of that course somewhere, on their own time, to finish that full year of history to satisfy college requirements. One half of one history class and one half of another history course will not work.
Impact on athletic participation: Sanctioned high school athletics are monitored by third-party organizations. Those organizations have rules and safeguards in place for transfers—largely to prevent students from moving solely for athletic reasons. When your student moves schools, pay attention to those rules and work within them to maintain athletic eligibility. In fact, many cap the number of transfers allowed in a high school career, and too many transfers result in a red-flag and result in ineligibility. In short, conduct due diligence.
Impact on family logistics: How will the new school affect others in the family and their routines. Understanding the family dominos is vital. For example, if you are making a huge accommodation by transferring one of your children to a school that will result in every other member of the family assuming a new routine, brace for impact. Kids are creatures of habit. Frontloading other family members and drawing them into the conversation will help smooth the path. It’s important for families to make sacrifices for the greater good, but siblings should be educated about how they may be impacted in the spirit of helping others in the family.
As the saying goes, nothing changes if nothing changes. Perhaps a new school is the answer and warranted. Many times, I’ve seen a school lead to a huge, positive transformation in teenagers. My advice for heading into the process is to avoid overemphasizing the temporary solution that may exist in the form of a new start and place greater emphasis on the deeper issues behind the struggle itself.
Vaping: When I’m asked to pinpoint the one, most significant drug of choice right now, my answer is nicotine.
You right now: my kid doesn’t smoke! Me to you right now: lol.
Nicotine is experiencing a renaissance now. It’s true, you won’t find teens smoking cigarettes in the bathrooms, or while shooting pool, or behind the drive-in theatre like you did as a teen. No, what they’re up to is much more rampant and significantly easier to hide from parent or school official eyes and intuition. Teens today are all about using nicotine in its liquid form, free from the tar or “smoke” of cigarettes. Sure, hardcore teens still rock their good old-fashioned smokes, but for the most part, they’ve gone all-in with vaping.
Why they vape: In short, vaping is done for street cred. Think about it, how do you socially assimilate, without getting drunk or high? You vape. Vaping offers the best of both worlds, a short, subtle high or buzz, without the worry of “getting rolled” by parents for being intoxicated or wreaking of substances the next day. Teenagers often refer to the effect of vaping as a “dome”, a short, 30-second euphoric high produced by the high concentration of nicotine. Social integration and a “dome” are the initial reasons they vape, but the next is the gnarly one: they’re addicted. Addicted. Let that sink in. It’s a polarizing word and one that both the teen vaping constantly and their parents who eventually catch them tend to resist embracing. In my work, I have discovered the world of vaping knows no stereotype or social archetype.
Ease of use: Vaping is certainly a user-friendly teenage habit. They’ll small, easy to hide, hard to catch, often times odorless, and traded on the teenage black market that makes it the easiest substance to get. I recall when vapor nicotine hit the market, and they were the size of a 1993 cell phone. One of those original vapes was not high-school friendly. But now, they are the size of a pen, a pen. What’s more? They come in trendy, fruity flavors to satisfy even the pickiest teen vaper. I hear stories from high school students on the regular about peers vaping in class, while the teacher is teaching, and the teacher has no clue. The kids know, and it bothers many of them, but more than not, there is a resounding code of silence. For one, no teen wants to be pegged as a nark, but also, there is a primal teenage amusement that the teacher cannot tell that some are VAPING in their classroom WHILE they are teaching. I can’t.
Side effects: I am not a medical professional and I’m not going to list the health effects. But if you ask a teen, there is a commonly accepted mindset that vaping is not smoking, and therefore not bad for you. This reminds me of my own father’s stories about cigarette companies sending reps onto his high school campus to distribute samples. No one, according to him, viewed it as bad for your health. Today, many kids won’t do it because they think it’s gross but there is not a straight line between the use of nicotine in its vape form and buzz words like cancer, as it exists with traditional cigarette consumption. My fear is that vaping is like the wild west right now, and in about twenty years from now, medical professionals will have enough data points and case studies to condemn its use much like the way it went down with cigarettes. And while ambiguity might exist regarding health, make no mistake about it, vaping is both extremely expensive and addictive.
Here's a basic framework for addressing vaping:
- Don't assume your teen doesn't do it or hasn't tried it--and address the issue calmly and proactively.
- Don't automatically assume they're addicted if they've tried it, but make it known that they can become so quickly.
- Expose them to 3rd party information about the health concerns. Information is power.
- Have a sit-down to discuss your expectations and consequences if they engage in vaping.
- Understand the peer pressure is real and walk them through strategies on how to be around it, but not do it.
- Help them quit. That may require gum, patches, monitoring and a whole lot of positive reinforcement and incentives.
Teens see in black and white. To create transparent and efficient rules, use simplicity, clarity, and consistency.
Make your rules simple: Rules should be easy to remember and hard to manipulate.
- Make a list of all the rules you currently have in play within the management of your teen.
- Look for overlap and try to consolidate the rules into fewer rules where possible. For example, if there are layers to curfew, try to reduce those layers and come up with one time. Maybe two. But less is more.
- Avoid overcomplicating your rules. More complicated sets of rules lead to more grey area, which in-turn leads to ambiguity, which certainly results in confusion and conflict. For example, they can either use ride-sharing apps or not. Not sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
Make your rules clear. Make your rules clear and easy to understand by eliminating variables from the conversation: Nothing like ambiguity to really shake things up in a tense, teenage-dwelling household.
- Keep your rules in check; the more rules you employ the less meaningful those rules become.
- Define an umbrella of base-core-values to drive your rulemaking process.
- Remind your teens of these core values before they leave and when they return.
- For example, on the way out the door instead of nagging with you better be home by ten! you can instead shift the mantra to something more positive such as please remember to be respectful and safe tonight; have fun, we’ll see you at ten! Same message, very different delivery.
Make your rules consistent: Rules only work when used consistently—something that remains a very underutilized wrench in the parenting toolbox.
- Pre-plan various interventions or consequences for typical or anticipated behaviors.
- Always prepare for a bit worse than you can wrap your head around, just in case. There is nothing worse than being unprepared as a parent.
- Treat your responses with less emotion than your mind, body, heart, and soul are demanding you do. Your ability to posture calmly and void of over the top emotion will help keep an advantageous position within the parent-teen-dynamic. You cannot unsay or un-throw what you say or throw; once those words hit the air, or vase hits the floor - the moment shifts from what your teen has done or said to what you have done or said. In short, if you are not careful the moment will quickly become about you when it should not be.
Simple, clear and consistent rules pay-off, so take some time to reflect and reinstall structure into your management of teenagers.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that your teenager will be or is curious about alcohol. Whether or not you allow or permit them to do so is very much a family decision...but here are some tips for having the inevitable conversation.
Here are some tips for talking to your teenager about substances.
★ Use information as power: The approach many parents attempt is a no-excuses, no-discussion, no-means-no, because-I-said-so approach. This works well with some kids, and for others, it’s not enough. Teenagers like to feel validated; they are school-going sponges who are expected to do things like provide supporting details and facts to prove their claims in essays and biology labs. That said, it’s important to provide them with relevant information as to why they would be better off sipping on a coke and not beer. I don’t suggest full-force fear mongering with random facts from the Internet. But smaller, more intimate, relevant pieces of information can go a long way in your cause. Personal anecdotes about your own mistakes are effective. Not five miles in the snow both ways vibes, but honest, vulnerable and formative experiences. Your mistakes. Your lessons. Passed on. Family members’ experiences with addiction or mistakes involving substances are also valuable tools. Basically, it’s key to wrap the rules in stories that make the rules understandable; they won’t like the rules, but if they have more ground from which to understand them, you’re better off than before.
★ Pick your examples carefully: When I was about twelve-years-old my dad took my older brother and me on an unannounced ride one morning. He said little and answered no questions about our journey as we made our way to a stretch of road with a silver pickup truck pulled off to the side. As we approached, he slowed to a crawl and signaled us to look out the window. Dents and body damage soon led our eyes to broken windows, smeared with blood, and hair affixed to the cracks of class. “Sean,” he said, “was drinking and driving.” Sean was a family friend, older, cool as could be, who he knew we looked up to. Sean was a relevant example, and one that I can say with certainty quelled any desire I ever had to drive buzzed. Whereas one parent might list off the penal code or fines that accompany a DUI, my dad had an example that said much more, while saying almost nothing at all.
★ Get off the hamster wheel: Not confuse you, I know only two bullets earlier I said that a hardline no means no approach might not work, but it’s still a good option for many parents. No is a complete sentence. Once you have laid the ground rule around why your rules exist, with the stories, facts, moral attachments that you have outlined over time, there is really no reason to keep going around and around about your rules. Teenagers love to renegotiate the deal. And you let them into that process by opening the conversation (debate, really) about the rules. To be succinct, if every Saturday rolls around and inevitably your teen is looking for wiggle room to get boozy or whatever, a short, firm, friendly “no” is all you need. Of course, it’s always fun to add just one new factoid or anecdote to the preface of that response to keep your rationale fluid and up-to-date. Son: “Dad can I go out with the boys for a few beers?” Dad: “You know your cousin Justin just got kicked out of college for too many alcohol-related infractions…oh, and, no.”
★ Park the phones in your bedroom: Give your teenager the gift of disconnecting by taking their phone at night. Although they may be angry--it will result in better sleep and much needed reflection. Really though, the battle with technology compulsion is a human problem. Teenagers cannot help themselves to use the device that is next to their bed. Sleep is crucial to teenage health and vibrancy. Research suggests that the phone can disrupt sleep purely based on the light it emits. On a practical level, the phone keeps them connected and disallows them the opportunity to unplug and withdraw into themselves to rest and reset. Another bonus of keeping their phone at night is that the fact they know you will have their device in your room will inherently decrease low-key sketchy behavior when they do have it.
★ Identify a phone-free period for academics: Without fail, one of the first strategies employed by teens when you take or limit their phone use is to assert that they need it for school work. I’ll give this a 50% accuracy rating. What they mean, is they rely on it for quick information such as assignments, grades, and interacting with peers for work completion, help and collaborative efforts. The phone is the number one efficiency killer of student studying—it has significantly more negatives than positives. Students can gather their needed information prior to beginning their studies. If they need their phone to do this, allow them a grace period of 10 minutes to gather that information, or simply provide them use of the family computer, that is in plain sight. If you commit to weening your teen off the phone while they study, you will see an increase in progress. It’s undeniable.
★ Use your phone provider’s available parent control features: Phone providers have easy to use systems in place that allow you to limit your teen’s accessibility to apps and even data (Internet)--thus, they still have the phone, but not its most distracting features. This is a great option if you simply don’t want to take the phone away. This move is more symbolic than practical. There are workarounds to most parent big-brother type moves, but the more you try to monitor and help limit its use, the less likely they are to end up severely abusing the device or using it for ill. Unfortunately, many parents don’t take advantage of such technology until they are given a reason. I get it, you want to trust your teen, but we don’t require teens to only take driver’s education if they get into an accident. I support the concept of a gradual release. It’s far easier to start with firm supports in place, and then gradually ease out of them with good habits and use.
★ Embrace phone-free dining: I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. It’s simple. When you are eating together, or they are eating a meal, no phone. The phone is an isolative device within the home. Yes, it establishes their sense of connection to others outside the home, but in another sense, it serves as a communicative and relational barrier. That means…no phones for parents either. No work calls, no Googling, nothing. Just old fashioned awkward silence and family conversation. The more you do it, the easier it will be—as it becomes the one reprieve from their habitual use.
★ Use them as the motivator that they are: Phones really are the golden ticket with most teens. It is far more powerful than you might realize, or they will even admit. Many teenagers don’t know how to navigate socially without one—further proof that they truly only know life with the smartphone as an extension of their being. Phones should be treated as a true privilege and only given to those who can comply with family directives and goals. I’m not saying to take it at every turn, but know that it is very powerful in the motivation game. Parents tend to worry that taking the phone further complicates their own parenting—not being able to reach them etc. You did it, so can they. If nothing else, swap their smartphone out with a flip phone.
Tips for parents when dealing with a child’s declining grades and performance:
★ It’s okay to reflect on the past, but live in the present: What your son did in 5th grade means little when he’s a junior in high school. The immense physical, emotional, cognitive changes that teenagers experience from middle school through high school is wicked, and entirely unpredictable. Reflecting on the past is mildly productive when done correctly. Boosting a teen’s ego, or attempting to rebuild their confidence by bringing up projects or assignments from years ago stem from old thinking that’s obsessed with product. I bet you remember the grade they earned, the score. That’s great, but it’s not now, here in this present moment of their struggling life. Is there anything now, regardless of how teeny-tiny it seems—that they are doing well? Not grades! That’s product. We’re focusing on a shifted emphasis on process. Maybe they are on time every day? Or give 100% every time they step foot on the lacrosse field?
★ Embrace shoulder time: By the time you arrive to a place that warrants a conversation regarding their academic vibrancy, I imagine there is a lot you want to say and address. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Too much too soon will kill the conversation. The goal here is dialogue and not a parent monologue. Sitting down at the kitchen table is also an effective way to suck the productive air out of the room. Instead, use shoulder time. As the name suggests, it’s carved out of time spent next to your child. Think chairlift skiing, at a baseball game, on a road trip (only if they’re riding shotgun), at a loud and large restaurant dinner. Pick a time when their guard is down, and you can simply pick their brain to get some form of self-reflection or self-assessment. Please do not confuse this with an ambush. It is not the time to list all the ways they are dissimilar to their 10-year-old self. This is, however, an excellent time to ask some open-ended questions. For example: what class do you feel most successful in right now? Why? What makes it different than a class you’re feeling unsuccessful in right now? Oh, really, what’s that class? Where are you feeling frustrated with that class? What can I do to help you? And so on. Gentle. Subtle. And then zip it. You get a maximum of 8 minutes.
★ Engage influencers and positive role models: You’ll find I mention this a few times in this book, and that’s because teens respond better to third-party influencers. Sometimes doing your homework doesn’t seem so damn annoying if you get to do it at with your uncle at Starbucks while he works remotely. Sometimes you cannot for whatever reason articulate your hopes and dreams, or regrets and fears, to your mom and dad, but can easily reveal them to your little league coach – turned neighbor. If you feel stuck, or ignored, turn to another trusted adult to deliver your message and retrieve your information.
★ Change the routine: Nothing changes if nothing changes. Sometimes raising teens calls for a batch of shock and awe. We’ll address this in more detail later, but teens are creatures of habits and operate in strict habit loops—their standard operating procedure. Where they study, when, how long, with whom, distractions, how or if they seek extra teacher support, their level of communication etc. Breaking their ineffective habits sometimes needs to be part of a habit loop disruption, whereby their overall routine is disrupted, deconstructed, and rebuilt. You already do this when you ground them, or take a phone, or keys to the car.
- Examples of changes in routine:
- Earlier bedtime
- Earlier wake-up time
- Location where they study
- Proximity to technology and other distractions
- Ability to participate in extracurricular activities
- Access to social events and friends