The following is Part One of an interview with Joani Geltman, MSW, author of A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids about Sexting, Drinking, Drugs and Other Things That Freak You Out, discussing some of the questions parents ask her about talking to and parenting teens.
What is the most challenging part of parenting a teenager?
For most parents, trying to understand why their teen does so many “stupid” things, makes so many “stupid” decisions, and doesn’t want to listen to advice gained from so many years of experience is crazy-making! Without understanding what drives their teen’s behavior, parents just go from one crisis to the next, throwing around consequences and punishments and hoping that something they do will stick and change their teen’s terrifying ways. But just saying “don’t do it” or “you better not,” and then grounding teens when they do something anyway, does not change behavior. Many parents of teens feel an enormous loss of control. “Because I said so” is no longer an effective parenting tool. You cannot parent a teenager the same way you parent a younger child. It is this redefining of parenting style that most parents of teens are unprepared for.
Which subjects freak parents out the most – discussing sex, alcohol and drugs, social media, school, or issues like depression?
I think issues like drugs, sex and social media are front and center because parents are forced to deal with them on a daily basis. They are “in your face” kind of issues. Many, many teens are dealing with depression and anxiety these days, but they are good at masking them with drugs, alcohol, sex and and social networking. Parents are then ealing with teens’ symptoms of possible depression and anxiety as teens are doing too much of all those other things which are avoidance behaviors. Parents worry that drugs, alcohol, sex and social networking will negatively impact their kid’s success in school. P.S.: They will!
How should a parent talk to their child about sex, sexting, and dating?
With understanding and honesty. Parents should really try to stay off the lecture circuit. Telling teens how they should behave will fall mostly on deaf ears. It is better to say something like: “ I get that you are going to be interested in sex. I know I’ll have to get used to thinking about you in this new way. I know you will be in situations that you have never been in before with boys/girls. I also know kids talk to each other in very sexy language, and I’m guessing that can be pretty fun, but it can also get you into real trouble. Here are some of the things I do not want to see on your phone or computer.” Parents should then say all those “dirty” words they do not want on their kid’s phone. Referring to “inappropriate language” just won’t cut it. Kids need to hear what it sounds like out loud!
How do you advise parents of teenagers who are being bullied online?
The first issue is availability. Teens can be gluttons for punishment. Get them off the sites and apps where bullying occurs and block the kids who are taunting them from contacting your teen using those sites. If a bully doesn’t have access to a victim, that can take all the fun out of bullying. In order for that to happen, parents have got to be on top of what apps and sites their kids are on in the first place. Many parents stay way too hands-off with their kids’ phones and computers. Monitoring a teen’s phone and computer use is a necessary evil. There may always be some trash talking between teens, but when the line is crossed by threats and serious emotional abuse, transcripts should be presented to school administrators.
What can a parent do to keep the lines of communication flowing with their teenager, to ensure honesty, openness, and forthrightness?
The biggest barriers to open communication are words that criticize and judge. For example, when parents see their teen wasting time online and texting when they are supposed to be doing their homework, parents are more likely to say: “Stop being so lazy, and get off that damn phone,” rather than: “I get how important your friends are to you, and how important it is for you to check in with them, but homework is important too, and we need to find a strategy that gives you time for both.” In the second response, instead of teens feeling like they have a character flaw, which pushes them into arguing and defense mode, parents and teens can work on solving a problem.
How can parents keep their kids focused on excelling in school and preparing for college?
Contrary to what most parents think, it is not to focus on the grades. Sometimes parents set up unrealistic expectations about the grades they expect from their teens. Starting in middle school parents begin saying: “if you want to get into a good college, you had better start working hard now.” Talk about getting on the worry train too early. Anxiety inhibits learning. Instead parents should focus on the learning part of school, not the report card. When parents engage with their teen about what they are learning, by reading the same books, and sharing insights; or engage in discussions about subjects their kids are studying; the message given is that being a curious learner is what is valued, not the grade. Good grades will happen naturally when the process of learning is valued. And of course, provide structure and get them off their phones for two hours every night, even if they have no homework!
Come back tomorrow for Part 2, including advice about managing teens’ technology use and Joani’s memories of watching her daughter, Ari, grow up.
Joani Geltman has a Masters degree in Social Work, and is an expert in child development and parenting. She presents her popular course, Adolescent Psychology, to schools and community groups, hosts Ask the Expert gatherings for parents, and provides home-based parent coaching services. Her daughter, Ari Graynor, is starring in a new sitcom, Bad Teacher, currently airing on CBS.