The following is Part Two 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, offering advice to help parents communicate more effectively with teens.
What do parents need to understand about what their teen child is going through psychologically and physically?
Puberty wreaks havoc in a teen’s life; too tall, too short, big boobs, no boobs, acne. From the second a teen wakes up in the morning and looks in that mirror, and sees live and in person their perceived inadequacies, the mood for their day is set. One pimple can ruin a day. Because of new brain growth, teens are now hyper-aware of what other people think about them. This self-consciousness can be paralyzing. Unfortunately parents get the worst of it. When teens are with their friends they have to be “all good,” but at home the stress of this new body and brain shows in sullenness and attitude. The most difficult part of this puberty business is there really is no way of making it better. You just have to wait it out. Parents can’t “make it all better.” For the fix-it parent, this is a tough slog.
What do parents of teen boys need to watch out for vs. parenting teen girls?
Boys are much better at masking emotions than girls. They tend to be more closed-up, especially if the men in their life do not provide a model for using emotional language. Boys face the same issues of body image, social standing, crushes, etc. as girls. Girls feel permission to rant and rave about this stuff, where boys often keep those feelings of insecurity hidden and may be prone to depression because of them. I am extremely worried about boys and pornography. Because most kids get smartphones in middle school, boys now have easy access to porn away from any prying adult supervision. Research has shown that this early introduction to sometimes violent and misogynistic sex has given boys unbridled permission to sexually harass girls they know. Parents need to be extremely proactive in discussing this issue with their sons.
Your daughter went on to star in a network television show. Does this mean you did something right as a parent?
Ari’s success is totally a reflection of her hard work and talent, we take no credit for that. What we did do as parents was to know and understand who she was and what excited and motivated her. We supported her passion, which she exhibited at a very early age, and found her opportunities to participate to her little heart’s content. As she got older, that definitely meant some job-juggling for my husband and me. Because Ari was an only child, we were able to do that, and she was able to take advantage of acting opportunities that required some significant chauffeuring and time management. But I think our real gift to her was staying out of her way. We were all very clear about boundaries; we were her chauffeurs, catering service and supporters, not her directors, managers and agents.
Parents cannot monitor everything and don’t have the time or energy to get involved in every aspect of their child’s life. Should parents just trust their child and give them independence to be free to make mistakes?
Making mistakes is a good thing, when it comes to natural consequences. Not getting up on time for school and getting detention; waiting till the last minute and failing to get a paper or project in on time and getting a bad grade; staying out past curfew and missing out on going out the next weekend; forgetting homework and leaving it at home and getting a zero; these are all things kids should and can be responsible for, and yet these are the things that most parents rescue their kids from, worrying that it will affect their grades or chances to get into honor classes. Monitoring technology until a teen brain has matured enough to manage dangerous impulses is worth that energy.
What are the rewards of investing time and attention in your child’s well being during their tumultuous teen years?
The most exciting part of raising a teen is watching this new person develop, like seeing your baby walk for the first time. They are now capable of seeing all that the world has to offer. They are at the buffet of life, and they will need to try out different offerings to see what is right for them. Everything a parent has taught and nurtured up till this point is in the mix, and parents need to trust that. A parent’s greatest gift to this emerging adult is to let go of their own expectations of what they want their teen to become, and let their teen become who he/she is meant to become.
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.