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Why My Husband Infuriates Me

The other night, I did something that I am not proud of.

We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was full chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted this kid to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.

A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it all down using dramatic non-verbal cues. This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares.

I was not successful. The picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.

Although I was obviously right (chuckle) in my frustration–because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run–this post is actually about what I did next, and why I did it.

The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue so that we could prevent similar dinnertime spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make Mark defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.

Let the record show that I was not even remotely uncritical.

I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?”

And then I started to rant.

“Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow through with the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?” He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.

I was such. an. ass.

I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted the kid to do. I actually do possess a huge capacity to empathize with my husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on.

Why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?

Because I was projecting.

We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.

See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans for myself and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more over the summer. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.

We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.

It’s not them, it’s us.

Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”

Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else.

Although many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior.[i] I see projection at work all around me, in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.

That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.

Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).

Projection is pretty wonderful because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Click To Tweet

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).

In other words, when we notice that we are projecting, we have the opportunity to take our own advice.

For example, I wanted Mark to stop asking me to make parenting plans that he couldn’t follow through on. Instead, I wanted him to accept easier, good-enough, plans. So the opportunity for me (to take my own advice) was to stop forcing myself to follow-through on all my best-made plans.

In this instance, the solution was not to try to be more perfect.  The follow-my-own-advice solution that emerged from my projection was to stop making plans that weren’t realistic given the lovely, messy world—of teenagers and a career that has me traversing time zones—that I live in. My fight with Mark showed me that I don’t always have to model the very best practices; it’s good enough to be strategic, realistic, and skillful.

What are your projections telling you? What advice for others would you do well to take yourself?

For us and our picky eater, it has meant being less controlling about food. For me and my meditation, it has meant letting it go until school starts again.


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[i] Wade, Tavris “Psychology,” Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2000.

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Mama and me

The mother I wanted; the mother I got

When I was younger, I wanted a mother who was sweet and nurturing, who baked cookies, and who welcomed my friends with cheerful holiday decorations. What I got was a mother who raised us well, but without softness, and who baked so rarely that she kept a heavy chair in front of our oven door. On Halloween, she turned off the lights and left a bowl of toothbrushes on the front step. At Christmas, she hung a tangled strand of lights on a house plant and called it a day.

My favorite picture book was “Are You My Mother?” It’s about a bird who falls out of the nest and goes looking for its mother, asking the cow, the hen, even a bulldozer if they are her mother. Growing up, the book was an inside joke between my mom and me, because I always felt so different from her, and she knew it. I was a little hippie girl and she was more like a Spice Girl. I lay on the floor and listened to Bob Dylan while she moonwalked to Michael Jackson. She was messy and I organized everything. She seemed to be care free. I worried constantly. She had clear boundaries, I ran ragged trying to keep everyone happy. When I read that the legendary folk singer, Joni Mitchell, had given up a daughter about my age for adoption, I fantasized that she was my real mother. I imagined the warm embrace when we finally met, and the cover story in the newspaper. There would be a picture; Joni with her guitar, Susie with her ukulele, and we’d be sitting under a tree, smiling. The headline, “Mother and Child Reunion.” Basically, I just wanted my mother to be different than she was. Doesn’t everybody?

Now that I am a wife and a mother myself, I appreciate that my mother was never conventional and always 100% herself. One of my mom’s best friend’s described her as, “often wrong, never in doubt.” And my mom laughed. That is the thing about my mother: she can laugh at herself easily, joyfully. Just last week we were trying to carry a suitcase down a flight of stairs and when we realized that we only had 1 good arm and 3 good legs between us, she started to laugh, and then I laughed, until the two of us were laughing so hard that I peed—just a little—right there on Boston’s South Station steps.

The first time she came to see me post-surgery in Boston, I wanted her to help me prepare meals, do laundry, clean up. When she arrived, she set down her hot pink bag and declared, “I don’t cook. I don’t do dishes. Never have. Never will.” Instead, she made me swallow monster gummy multivitamins, get my hair styled, and do exercises that she had seen the Olympic rugby teams do on TV. I was frustrated; I kept wanting her to be better at this nurse stuff, and know exactly what to say and do. I wanted her to be different.

It was the same as when I was a teenager in the house. While I raged at her shouting, “Why can’t you be more like other moms?” I missed what she was demonstrating to me every single day: how to be authentic and real. Be yourself! Her actions screamed. And I missed and missed and missed the memo. When my parents divorced, I was just a baby. I never knew what it was like to have two parents under one roof. Somehow, I blamed my mother for the divorce. If she had only been a little more like the other moms, I reasoned, he would still be around. I vowed to be different when I grew up. And by different, I meant the same as others. I reasoned that if I acted a little less myself and more like other women, my prince wouldn’t leave. But the consequence was that I gave up my uniqueness in order to fit in and not rock the boat. Even when I realized that I was holding my mom to impossible standards, I didn’t realize it enough to stop holding myself to those same impossible standards. I worked to maintain my status as the good daughter, the good wife, the good spouse, the good mother. I managed others’ needs and feelings to the detriment of my own to the point where when my husband asked me what I needed one day, I had nothing to say. I had no idea.

When my mom came to visit me last week during my radiation treatments, we had wonderful days together. This time, instead of just wishing she were different, I spoke up and asked her directly for what I needed. She listened and responded. When I wanted privacy, she took my phone and guarded my door. When I wanted to go for a walk, she strapped on her squeaky running shoes and led the way. When I was hungry for breakfast, but too tired to get out of bed, she made me porridge. And this time, she only destroyed my host’s stovetop once. All week, I was relaxed and able to appreciate my mother for who she is, bold and brave. I was also able to appreciate myself for who I am, curious and courageous. We are more similar than I thought. This helped me to finally accept that Joni Mitchell is taken; the tabloids say she is reunited with her daughter in a California suburb. That’s OK. I hate suburbs. Plus, I think I am the lucky one. My mom may never be a great nurse or maid, but she can lift me out of my negative cycle of thoughts with her undying sense of adventure. And she can always make me laugh.

Love,

Susie

*****

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A Family Guide for Surviving the Summer

While not all of summer is destined to feel like a day at the beach, setting routines and expectations for the season can make it more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family.

I am a creature of routine. I like my daily habits. Which makes the summer rather problematic for me; three of our four kids have been out of school only a week, and my comforting routines are already shot to hell.

I don’t know about you, but I fantasize all year about the leisure that summer will bring. And then summer arrives, and instead of cocktails at sunset and naps at noon, I find that the potential for chaos has skyrocketed.

So over the years, as I’ve sought to make my summers less chaotic and more joyful, I’ve developed a three-step guide for setting my family up for success. I hope you will find it helpful!

1. Create new routines for summer. The familiar routines of the school year will not survive even the first day of summer, like it or not, even if our adult work schedules don’t change in the least. But we human beings need routines and habits, or we get stressed. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals and habits are a primary way to manage stress. The fast-paced world we live in can feel quite unpredictable, but our daily rituals can help us feel more in control, often without us ever realizing it.

Before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. Click To Tweet

So before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. For starters, this means redefining bedtimes and mealtimes, which all get moved later in our household. I change my exercise routine to maximize the time I spend outside and my morning routine, because I have more time to meditate.

The summer is prime time for more digital detox. We don’t relax tech rules for our kids over the summer, we step them up. If we don’t designate device- and social media-free time for all family members, I’ve found my kids walk around in a screen-stoned stupor. Even a few minutes on social media and they suddenly find it impossible to do anything productive, creative or truly restful. And we parents also easily get sucked into compulsively checking our devices while we are trying to “work” from the beach, playground or camp pick up.

To counter the siren song of our phones, we designate specific times and places we’ll spend without devices each day (always dinnertime, and, for the kids, throughout most of the day as well); each week (we try to have technology-free Sundays); and each month (we do a full digital detox when we are on vacation together).

The key, I’ve found, is to actually spell out the new routines and expectations for kids.

2. Create a family calendar. Maybe this is utterly obvious, but everything is calmer if things feel predictable. We have four kids with four different camp and summer schedules, so it’s helpful for everyone to be able to track everyone else’s whereabouts. Instead of relying on our complicated online calendar – which I love and couldn’t live without, but I am the only one in our family who looks at it consistently – one of my teenage daughters created an adorable top-level calendar in a Google spreadsheet that we print out and tape to the refrigerator. We also have the summer chore rotation on this printout. This calendar has all family events, such as birthdays and vacations, everyone’s camp schedules, major events like tournaments and my work travel schedule.

3. Raise expectations regarding chores and responsibilities. Kids have more time on their hands over the summer, which means that they have more time to help out around the house.

We don’t tie their allowance to their regular household responsibilities or weekly chores, and we don’t pay them extra over the summer when they are doing more to help out. We know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do.

We’ve had to spell this out for our kids, repeatedly. The lawn needs mowing more often in the summer, and Dad doesn’t get paid a dime to do it. This week, in addition to my paid work, I’ll take all the kids to their annual exams at the doctor’s office; I’ll help them label all their clothes for camp; I’ll purchase and wrap a lot of graduation gifts. I’m not getting paid to do any of these things, even if I don’t feel like doing them. And that’s OK. We don’t need to love every single thing we do every single minute of every day, so long as we can see the bigger picture – the bigger reward. Being in a big, stable, high functioning family is awesome. And it requires a lot of work. Families are built on mutual obligations – the ways that we help and nurture each other – not paid work.

Kids are happier and more confident when they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Giving them real responsibilities around the house fuels an intrinsic sense of place and belonging. Research shows that kids who do unpaid chores are happier and have a higher sense of self-worth. But when we pay kids to play a role in the family, we unwittingly kill their intrinsic motivation by providing a flashy external motivator: money. They often start to see themselves more like household employees – and quit their “jobs” when their allowance is no longer enough to motivate them.

Our summer routines, calendars peppered with vacation days, and the increased help around the house (for those of us with kids older than 8 or 9) can mean that there actually is more time for leisure and rest this summer. Perhaps tonight I’ll meet my husband for a sunset cocktail while one kid preps dinner and another mows the lawn. Cheers to making this the best summer yet!

Originally posted on US News & World Report, June 2017

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What Makes Teens ‘Most Likely to Succeed?’

As a sociologist who’s done much research on elite performance and productivity, I’ve given a lot of thought to the skills that lead to success in the modern economy.

What I’ve found applies not only to adults, but to kids, including teens graduating from high school this spring. Parents, too, take note: As many graduates look ahead to the future, here are seven learned qualities or characteristics that make teens, as the yearbook might put it, “most likely to succeed”:

They know who they are and what they want. A key component of grit is intrinsic interest. This is distinct from knowing what we – their parents and teachers and the adult culture – want for them, who we think they are or who we think they should be. For teens to succeed, they must do the work that is most important to them. Understanding the positive impact they can have on the world and other people will provide them with a tremendous source of energy and motivation.

They’re able to command their own attention. Teens can’t persist in pursuing their long-term goals if they can’t remember what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. In a world where corporations pay per view to rule teens’ concentration and interest, and where social media and gaming empires depend on their ability to command kids’ attention, successful teens are somehow still able to stay focused on their objectives. They study when they need to study, sleep when they need to sleep, exercise and are fully present for their friends and family. Against all odds, they cope effectively with the digital temptations that surround them. They use computers and smartphones strategically – rather than compulsively – as tools that make them more efficient, effective, connected and creative, instead of just being distracted and drained by electronics.

[shareable text=”One thing I don’t think teens need to succeed is more ambition.”]One thing I don’t think teens need to succeed is more ambition.[/shareable]

They turn away from instant and shallow pursuits to think deeply. Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, “Deep Work,” that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

They effortlessly generate creative insights. The key word here is “effortlessly;” we don’t find innovative solutions to real world, unpredictable problems through relentless hard work. The most successful teens will be those who still value activities that lead to creativity. In a world which disparages unstructured play, free time and noncompetitive artistic expression – in lieu of highly structured sports, elite performing arts and AP classes – these teens have the courage to nap, play and stare into space while everyone else skips breakfast in order to cram for the next exam.

They’re authentic and emotionally courageous. They are willing to feel what they feel, and that gives them access to the wisdom of their hearts. Because they are willing to experience tough emotions, such as disappointment, embarrassment and frustration, these teens are gritty. Being willing to risk feeling difficult emotions enables them to persist toward their long-term goals. They are able to take risks, have difficult conversations and stay true to what they know is right.

They’re happy. It’s easy in adolescence to succumb to the coolness of cynicism. Successful teens, however, understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence. Kids who consciously cultivate gratitude, love, happiness, peace, awe, inspiration, optimism and faith broaden their perception in the moment and build resources over time. Their ability to foster positive emotions allows them to access their most high-functioning, creative and intelligent selves. Because of this, they are more engaged at school and with their friends, families and communities than their less positive peers.

They are connected. These teens innately understand the transcendent importance of their peer relationships. They smile at people they don’t yet know and invest deeply in and rely on relationships with friends and family. Because of these bonds, they will be statistically less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping than those who keep others at a distance.

This isn’t all kids need to succeed, of course. To develop their talents, for example, they also need growth mindsets, good coaches and the ability and desire to hone their skills by engaging in deliberate practice, or consistently practicing to reach specific objectives.

But one thing I don’t think they need is more ambition.

Usually we think of the most ambitious kids as the ones who are also most likely to succeed. But more often than not, such striving leads to the kind of stress and anxiety that seems to be hamstringing our kids today. Too much ambition causes kids to focus on themselves even more than they’re already prone to, and as Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s research has shown, this won’t lead to success at work.

Nor will extreme ambition lead to happiness in life. My daughter Fiona has a ceramic sign on her wall that says, “The measure of my success is my happiness.” It’s when success is defined that way that I think she – and all of our kids – are most likely to succeed.

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Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017

 

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Feeling Entitled to a Little Gratitude This Mother’s Day?

Here’s an icky confession: Since becoming a mother, I have dreaded Mother’s Day.

The whole holiday has, somehow, left me feeling unappreciated. I’ve tended to get in a funk, and not out of grief or some sort of well-defined pain — I can only imagine how hard Mother’s Day must be for someone who has lost their mother. I feel bad in a bratty way, like a toddler who is pissed that she’s not getting what she wants. The worst version of myself has typically made her appearance, ironically, on the day that we were supposed to be celebrating my best, most beloved, self.

What is it that has left me so resentful on Mother’s Day? What have I wanted so much that I haven’t been getting?

Until last year at this time, when I first wrote this post, I thought it was about gratitude. I wanted to be appreciated on Mother’s Day in the way that we used to show appreciation to my mother. Research shows that when we express gratitude in our relationships, we become more attuned to our family member’s efforts on our behalf. I was hoping for a little more attunement to all the work I do as a mom — mostly from my husband, but also the kids.

[shareable text=”Until last year, I always dreaded — no, hated — Mother’s Day.”] Until last year, I always dreaded — no, hated — Mother’s Day. [/shareable]

At least the way I remember it (I’m a little afraid to ask my mom for verification; it just now occurred to me that my memory is probably a little rosy), we’d bring my mom breakfast in bed, showering her with homemade cards and gifts. My dad would give my mom a funny card and a gift that he’d bought. We’d take a family bike ride on the path around St. Mary’s College, with a picnic that my dad and I packed with help from the deli at Black’s Market. Norman Rockwell could’ve painted us.

None of that actually seems hard to recreate, but for the love of God my family has never even come close. Last year I laid out my expectations clearly for my husband. “I’m fine with no gifts,” I explained, “So long as there are cards and a family activity.” This did not happen. With four active teenagers and a husband who refuses to plan anything more than a day in advance, our only family outings are planned by me.

For the record, three of the four children made me BEAUTIFUL, heartfelt Mother’s Day cards. They were practically set to music they were so thoughtful and moving.

But that was not enough for me.

Expectations are a tricky thing. Unfulfilled, they set us up to ruin what is actually happening by ruminating over what we think ought to be happening. Painful thoughts — How could he not do this for me given all I do for this family??! Does he not appreciate me at all? — start to loop endlessly, triggering waves of disappointment.

So how could I make this year different? I already lowered my expectations to no material gifts, and that didn’t help me much; I’m not sure I can lower them to nothing. In past years, I’ve made a massive effort to focus on myself less by helping others, but ultimately, even that didn’t really prevent me from feeling unappreciated myself. I felt entitled to a little gratitude, damnit.

(Let’s not miss the irony here: Entitlement is pretty much the opposite of gratitude. Rarely do we attract the opposite of what we feel. Just as we don’t foster other people’s love by lashing out at them, my unbridled sense of entitlement wasn’t exactly generating a mountain of appreciation.)

Emotional traps like this — obsessing over my feelings of unmet expectations — are usually triggered by a mistaken belief. So where was the error in my thinking?

I really was feeling unappreciated by my husband, Mark. I felt like I sacrificed more for our family and children, and that he should recognize and feel grateful for that. I held a deep seated conviction that I gave more. I spent more time doing the hardest parenting work, creating and enforcing structure and discipline, managing the near-constant drama of life with three teenage girls and an active adolescent boy.

Now, I should mention that, according to research, I am not alone in believing that I do more for our family than Mark — but I might not be correct. When researchers add up the percent of work each person in a couple says he or she does, they consistently find that the total ends up being more than 100 percent. So if a mom says she does 65 percent of the household work, and her husband says he contributes a solid 50 percent . . . there is a 15 percent error in there somewhere. Perhaps this was the heart of my mistaken belief?

My Mother’s Day funk did grow out of my belief that I do and sacrifice more for our family than my husband does. And weirdly, I somehow thought that this seemingly massive imbalance could be righted through a Mother’s Day display of profound appreciation.

This is funny to me now, because clearly even the most magical Mother’s Day outing would not dissolve my resentment. We needed to deal with the source of my bitterness.

“We need counseling,” I announced to Mark. I sat down to work through what I wanted help resolving. What did I want Mark to do differently?

What I found, when I really thought hard about it, was that my assumptions about our division of labor were blatantly untrue. Believe me, I was shocked by this revelation. But it turned out that I had loads of evidence suggesting I don’t do more for our family than Mark.

True, I do the bulk of the emotional labor. But he does nearly all the house and garden maintenance. We spend about the same amount of time in the car driving kids around. I plan our meals and cook; he shops and cleans up. We’ve got a division of labor where he does the things he likes to do best (like mowing the lawn) while I get to do the things that I love to do (like talking to the kids about their feelings). I am lucky to have a truly equal partnership.

I was harboring resentment out of habit rather than reality. At times, being a mother can feel so overwhelming; when the kids were little, I sometimes felt a little victimized by it all, a little trapped by the sheer magnitude of the way they’d taken over my life. My husband simply couldn’t do many of the things that I was doing. Pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding bred loads of occasions when only mama would do. My family could never repay me for the sacrifices I’d made for them — but they could, and should, show me a little gratitude for it. Hence my feelings of entitlement to a little Mother’s Day appreciation.

Billy Collin’s wrote a poem about this. In it, Collins recounts the thousands of meals his mom made him, and the good education she provided, and all the other zillions of things she did for him. In return he gave her . . . a lanyard he made at camp. Collins concludes:

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

Now, this is what I wish to tell my children and husband both: We are even, with or without lanyards and family outings on Mother’s Day.

Because I am not trapped. I have not been victimized. There is no need for reparation. You don’t owe me a darn thing, even gratitude. I don’t have to do any of the many things I do for you or our family. I choose to do them. I do them because I love each of you so very much. Moreover, this love that I feel for you is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. It is a great joy to be a mother in this family, your family. I’m deeply, profoundly grateful for all we are and all we have — together.

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How to Help Your Teen Deal With Stress

“Are your kids totally happy and squared away?” a reporter recently asked me earnestly during an interview. Gah. I really hate that question.

My kids are awesome. Easy to raise. Fun to be around. But they aren’t perfect, and, ironically, I worry that they will be as anxious as I was for the first 40 years of my life.

I come from a long line of anxious women, on both sides of my family. My grandmother, whom I’m supposedly the spitting image of, was reportedly prone to “nervous breakdowns,” which seems like a genetic heritage worth worrying about. And now, two of my kids would probably tell you that they’re pretty anxious (especially the one who looks just like me).

Fortunately, even at their most anxious, my children seem positively laid back compared to how I was as a teenager. And, over the last decade, I’ve really come a long way toward dialing down the stress in my own life.

But, generally speaking, Americans’ stress levels only seem to be increasing. The American Psychological Association recently released its 2017 Stress in America survey, and for the first time in the decade since the annual survey began, the average stress level of Americans has risen significantly. More Americans say they’re experiencing physical and emotional symptoms related to stress than ever before.

What’s more, another annual survey – this one from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – suggests that our kids are not growing up to be more chill than we were. Colleges and universities continue to add mental health services staff to meet the needs of students, and on campuses nationwide increasing focus is being placed on helping students manage stress. It’s no surprise that anxiety continues to be the most predominant concern among college students, with 51 percent of the students who seek counseling doing so for anxiety.

This calls for action, folks. So here are three things we can do to raise kids who aren’t so anxious:

1. Stop doing things that stress you out. This goes even for those stressful tasks you take on because you think you’re doing what’s best for your kids. Psychology researchers Robert Epstein and Shannon Fox compared the effectiveness of 10 important parenting practices, including how well parents support their children’s education and to what extent they provide educational opportunities for them. Not surprisingly, they found the most important thing for a kid’s health and happiness is to be loving and affectionate – to support and accept the child, be physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

But the next most important “parenting competency” – as reported by Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind – in terms of its influence on kids’ health, happiness, school success, and the quality of the parent’s relationship with their children, did surprise me. It’s how well parents manage their own stress. Parents who take steps to reduce stress for themselves, practice relaxation techniques and promote a positive interpretation of events have happier, healthier and more successful kids.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Skip the stressful parenting stuff you’re doing just because you think you should. Really. For example, I skip morning PTA meetings because they make me feel too pressed for time. I’ve backed down on my rigid health food rules at dinner so that I can enjoy a little conflict-free time with my kids. And I let myself go to bed before my older teens usually do, even though part of me feels like I should stay up and make sure that they are in bed on time. Why? Because these things are not as key for my children’s health, happiness or school success as for my own ability to cope.

[shareable text=”If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it.”]If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it.[/shareable]

2. Curb the family’s technology use. The latest Stress in America report makes the relationship between technology and stress clear. A stunning 86 percent of Americans constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts, and these “constant checkers” are far more stressed than those who do not engage with technology as frequently. Millennials and younger Americans report the highest stress levels related to technology.

Reduce kids’ stress by creating structural solutions that curb constant device checking for your entire family. After all, technology is designed to be addictive. Here are a few suggestions of places where you should put technology aside:

  • In the car: Put phones in the trunk. Seriously.
  • At mealtimes: No devices allowed in the dining room, ever. Even silenced ones.
  • Bathrooms: Nothing good comes from derailed morning and bedtime routines or emails sent from the toilet.
  • Homework time: Have kids work from a family computer that doesn’t have social media or email apps loaded on it.

Don’t make exceptions once you create these parameters, either. Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming a (possibly ineffective) technology nag, which is no fun.

3. Let kids be uncomfortable. Odds are, if you take your kids’ phones away in certain times and places – especially the car – they will be bored. They will want you to think that this boredom is a form of pain.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from pain. This means that we step in and try to shield them from it, even in its minor forms, such as discomfort, disappointment and boredom.

But there is an enormous difference between discomfort – which is fine – and a full-blown stress response, which can actually damage our health.

The truth is that life can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable. At other times, we experience outright pain. Our kids need to know how to deal with both. More than that, it’s critical that they learn not to let discomfort become stress.

When parents shield kids from discomfort, it can lead to a downward spiral where smaller and smaller stressors cause a greater and greater stress response. This hypersensitivity to stress does not make kids stronger; it makes them fragile and reactive basket cases. It also makes them more likely to avoid the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally.

The way to prevent this downward spiral is to allow kids to be uncomfortable, rather than letting them numb discomfort with distractions, such as video games or social media. This means we let them deal with their boredom when faced with a long wait and nothing to do. We let them feel the deep disappointment that comes with not getting a part in the play or not making a team, instead of taking them out for ice cream “to cheer them up.” We acknowledge that their mistake was pretty embarrassing, instead of blaming someone else or denying that there is anything wrong.

As in all things parenting, we’ll best help our kids by helping ourselves, first. Feeling a little stressed? Please take this as permission to turn off your phone and leave your family to make their own dinner tonight, while you go to yoga and exhale.

Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017

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10 Conversation Starters for Talking to Teens About Sex

Personally, I would love it if we could just have one “sex talk” with our kids and be done with it. Or, it would be great if they could just learn what they need to know about sex from their school’s puberty unit in science class.

But no such luck. Experts recommend that we talk to our teens regularly about uncomfortable topics such as masturbation, pornography and the dangers – and, perhaps even more awkwardly, the pleasures – of sex.

The stakes are high. We parents understand that there are risks related to rape, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and that we need to make sure our kids have information about how to avoid these risks. But we also want more for them than to just avoid the bad stuff. When the timing is right for sex, we want it to be a positive part of their lives – one that brings more love, connection and pleasure than regret, pain and embarrassment.

So I’m mustering the courage to talk with my four teens more often about sex and sexuality. Here are the 10 topics I’m covering, along with some approaches I’m using:

1. Pornography: Research catalogued in the book “Your Brain on Porn” finds that in the last 15 years the rate of sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction, has increased nearly 1000 percent in young men under the age of 25, and that this is related to pornography usage. Ask your kids how prevalent they think porn viewing is among their friends, and if they understand that although it can be very hard to look away from, it can really hurt them.

2. The upside of sexual activity: Kids often learn about the risks related to early or unprotected sexual activity at school, but they don’t tend to learn much about the joys of human sexuality. They know that there is something awesome about sex. So we lose credibility when we make it seem like it is nothing but dangerous. When we talk to them about the upside of sexual activity, we prompt a process of weighing the benefits with the risks. We want kids to think critically about sex, rather than just acting emotionally and impulsively. Ask your son or daughter, “What do you think the benefits are to being sexually active as a teenager?” Similarly, you might ask what they think the benefits of being sexually active are for college students as well as for adults.

3. Not everyone is doing it. In fact, more teens aren’t than are. Teenagers need to feel like they are with the majority, that they aren’t being left out. So it’s important for them to understand that, surprisingly, “hook-up culture” isn’t as big a thing as they think.

Here’s a conversation starter: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of high schoolers have never dated, “hooked up” or had a romantic relationships with someone. Other research shows that 59 to 84 percent of teens ages of 15 to 17 have never had sex. At age 20, one-quarter of young adults are still virgins.

4. What you want your child to learn from your own experiences: This one is personal. My kids have listened with rapt attention when I’ve spilled the beans on myself. For example, I was date raped on a graduation trip after I’d been drinking. This happened to so many of my friends we wrote a book about it.

5. What do they desire sexually and romantically? Ask your teen, “Have you ever articulated for yourself or a partner what you want to feel or do when you become sexually active?”

Personally, I’ve found this conversation to be easier in the hypothetical, and my advice is to start having this conversation before your kids have boyfriends or girlfriends, if possible. The point is not to get teens to tell you their sexual desires (um, yuck), it’s to get them to think about it on their own, and to define it for themselves, and later, for their partner.

6. Consent is the wrong criteria. Although it is, of course, very important to understand that consent is mandatory, I’m with psychologist Lisa Damour in thinking that consent is an exceptionally low bar.

Here are some starter questions if your teen is potentially sexually active: “Have you asked what your partner wants sexually?” “How do your partner’s desires line up with your own?” Ask also if they’ve talked about only pursuing those activities where you have common desire, or “enthusiastic agreement,” as Damour calls it.

7. Rules of thumb: Help your teen establish these. You might start by asserting that if a person is too embarrassed to ask their partner intimate questions, about what they want out of a relationship or about their sexual desires, they aren’t ready for the intimacy of sexual activity. Then ask your teen if he or she disagrees and what your teen thinks are other good rules of thumb to keep in mind regarding sexual activity.

8. Good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active: Research finds that one-quarter of young women regret losing their virginity to the “wrong” partner, and that one-fifth have significant regrets about having unprotected sex or progressing too quickly sexually in a relationship. Ask your teen, “What do you think about that?” “What do you think are some good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active?”

9. Drugs and sex don’t mix. Sex is obviously much riskier – and also less pleasurable – while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and hopefully our kids know that we don’t approve of underage drinking or drug use, ever. But most kids need this spelled out for them repeatedly.

Ask your teen in the hypothetical about peers who engage in sexual activity while under the influence. What do they think about using “liquid courage” to do something they’d be too anxious or uncomfortable to do sober? Show them their inconsistencies – gently. For example, your teen may say it’s normal for college kids to have sex while under the influence. But asking if you could share your perspective, you might say, “You’ve decided that you only want to be with someone who is really into you. It seems like that would be hard to really know if there is drinking involved.”

10. Subtle – and not so subtle – sexual references: If someone tells a joke or you hear a song on the radio that refers to something sexual, ask your kids if they know what it refers to. If they say yes, ask them to tell you “what kids think that means these days,” as though the meaning might be different for their generation. If they don’t really know, explain what the reference means using plain language. In my experience, this has the nice side effect of making my kids not want to listen to sexually explicit music in the car or kitchen with me.

With all this, we need to try our best to ask lots of open-ended questions. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt them to elaborate. These conversations about sex are difficult – at least for me – and they require courage. But it’s better to suffer through the discomfort than to regret later not having had a handful of awkward conversations.

* * * * *

If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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The New Sex Talk: 3 Tips to Get You Started

The summer before I started high school, unbeknownst to me, my mother tasked my father with giving me the “sex talk” on a six-hour road trip.

I had never kissed a boy, or seen an R-rated movie. We didn’t have the Internet yet. I didn’t know that people have sex for pleasure; that would be weird and gross. I honestly thought that sex was something adults did only a couple of times in their lives in order to have children.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, my dad said something like this: “Now that you are going to high school, boys are going to try to get you on the rack. Especially the older boys. Just say no.”

I gazed out at Highway 33, near Ojai, California, where ugly oil derricks were dunking their heads below the earth. Our old white Wagoneer was making a weird noise. I had no idea what my dad was talking about. Drugs, maybe?

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll say no,” I replied, still looking out the window.

One Thanksgiving dinner 22 years later, my dad used the phrase “he’s going to try to get her on the rack” again. The memory of that road trip when I was 14 years old came flooding back, and I finally realized what my dad was talking about all those years ago. I threw my head back and guffawed. My stoic German mother, usually highly composed, came undone when I told her why I was laughing. Two decades later, she was furious that no one had ever really talked to me about sex.

Needless to say, I’ve tried to be a bit clearer in discussing the birds and the bees with my own children, all teenagers now. Experts say kids do better when parents start talking to kids about the basic biology of sex when they are very young – as toddlers.

This post is for parents of kids who are starting to be exposed to the more complicated aspects of sexuality: pleasure and romance, unplanned pregnancy, “hooking up”, heartbreak – even prostitution and pornography. Most kids will learn about puberty, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from their school’s sex ed program. But any kid who has ever seen even a fairly chaste romance movie knows that there’s a lot more to adult – and adolescent – sexuality than is taught formally at school. Part of the trick as a parent these days, I think, is in knowing what our kids are being exposed to at any given age. Here’s how to get started:

1. Ask questions and listen rather than simply sharing information. Here are some starter questions, which you’ll obviously have to modify based on the age and experience of your child:

  • “Do you know anyone who has watched porn? Where did they see it? How do you think it affected them?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘hook up’ among your friends?”
  • “How many of your friends are sexually active?” Or: “Do you think any of your friends are sexually active yet?” You could also ask if any of your child’s friends have kissed a boy or girl.

Brace yourself, and keep your best poker face on. Instead of instructing, just keep asking follow-up questions, such as “What do you think of that?” and “How does that make you feel?” If they tell you something concerning about a friend, inquire further. “Are you worried about her?” Or: “Do you think he needs help?”

Deal with discomfort by breathing deeply and slowly – not by preaching or avoiding the conversation. If we don’t stay relaxed, our kids will only remember that we nearly choked every time we tried to talk to them about sex. This will not make them likely to come to us when they have a pressing question or – heaven forbid – a serious problem in the sex department.

[shareable text=”Times have changed, and so has how we talk to our kids about sex.” width=”100%”]This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters.[/shareable]

2. Foster closeness with your teen. Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex.

I try to spend a little bit of time every day alone with each of my kids, so that they always have a time when they know they can talk to me about their lives. We also have same gender “date nights” when I’ll take one of our daughters out to dinner and my husband will take our son out separately.

3. Don’t preach abstinence-only and forgo sharing other relevant information. Refrain from keeping kids in the dark about birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even if you believe abstinence is the best thing for your children.

Many parents fear sending a “mixed-message,” so the only message they send is that sex before marriage is not OK. But research clearly shows that teens in abstinence-only education programs are no more likely than those not in an abstinence-only program to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or abstain entirely from sex.

In other words, telling our children to remain abstinent doesn’t increase the odds that they will delay becoming sexually active, but it does deprive them of our guidance about sex. Instead of “Just say no,” give your kids guidelines for their sexual behavior while still giving them the information they need.

What do you most want your teen to know about sex? What are your expectations for them? You can give them information and still send a very clear message about what you think is best for them. Here is what I said to my kids once they got into high school: “I feel strongly that having sex while you are still a teenager is not likely to be in your best interest. That said, I want you to have information about birth control and STD protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have sex, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.”

This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters. Kids need our wisdom about how to know when they are ready for sex, and our advice on birth control. They need to talk to us about what they are seeing in the media, and how they experience their own sexuality. We need to talk to them about the pornography they’ve been exposed to. And they can benefit from hearing about our own experiences, both good and bad.

Just as we need to teach kids how to take care of their physical and emotional health, we parents need to teach our teens how to be healthy sexually. It’s hard to talk about sex with kids. It’s also the right thing to do. If you feel like you’re going to chicken out, simply take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. You can do it.

* * * * *

If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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FREE Live Webinar: Awakening Joy in Kids

Mark your calendars! I’m hosting a free, 45-minute online webinar on January 10, 2017 with James Baraz and Michele Lilyanna. We’ll be talking about their new book Awakening Joy For Kids and sharing our top tips for resolving the issues that parents struggle with most. During this free, 45-minute webinar you’ll learn how to:

  • Support kids who are down or anxious.
  • Foster gratitude instead of entitlement.
  • Incorporate habits for more fulfilling parenting and happier kids.
  • Get kids to do boring but necessary tasks (like chores!)

Wouldn’t you and your family benefit from a little more joy? Learn more or register here.

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How to Help Teens Get More Sleep

I am writing this from the front lines: My 16-year-old stepdaughter’s messy bed.

It’s a little after 9:00 o’clock. I’m surrounded by various evidence of teenage life: her guitar, a red bandana, a cardboard box and the pile of clothes that used to be in it (ordered online from a thrift store), her phone, the dog’s collar, a huge black binder labeled Pre-calc – A. Macie is at her desk doing homework, headphones on. She’s studying for a Spanish test and a history test, both tomorrow. She also has a “couple hours” of reading for History and English. She’s thinking she’ll wake up early to do the History reading. I’m here because she’s asked for support getting to bed earlier. This is awesome, that she’s asked for support.

Also: I feel a little useless. I’m so sleepy; at this time I’m usually getting myself ready for bed. She’s not sleepy — she’s wired — but to me she seems exhausted. She’s been up late every night this week, studying. Last night she fell asleep studying around midnight (she thinks); she woke up at 3:00am still fully dressed, on top of her covers, with all the lights on.

This is not healthy, or good for her studies, her mental health, her happiness, or her athletic performance. She is a junior in high school, and she’s keenly aware that her grades matter a lot for her college applications. She works at the barn where she rides competitively and she babysits a lot to help fund her riding and car expenses. She’s been given a lot, and she’s also balancing a lot.

It’s not that I haven’t been nagging all my kids to get more sleep. I’m like a broken record. We’ve got four teenagers — ages 13, 14, 15, and 16 — that we’re constantly trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

But our constant harping about the importance of sleep is counter-culture in a society where barely sleeping, or “pulling an all-nighter” is not a sign of terrible time-management, but instead is something to brag about. Americans hold up the ability to go without sleep as a sign of strength. We say things like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as though our inability and unwillingness to get enough sleep isn’t leading us closer to sickness and death — indeed, the incidence of death from all causes goes up by 15% when we sleep five hours (or less) per night. Fifteen percent. That’s a lot.

We certainly know better. “We are living in a golden age of sleep science — revealing all the ways in which sleep and dreams play a vital role in our decision making, emotional intelligence, cognitive function, and creativity,” writes Arianna Huffington in The Sleep Revolution. “And how lack of sleep is often the culprit behind anxiety, stress, depression, and a myriad of health problems.” And yet 40% of Americans — and 85% of teenagers, according to the National Sleep Foundation — live with daily sleep deprivation, ignoring this science.

Macie, she sees her own sleep deprivation as a given. This morning at breakfast she told me that it is “a train that’s left the station.” It’s an inevitable and necessary cost in a culture that prioritizes adolescent achievement over health and happiness.

But here’s the thing: as a family, we absolutely do not prioritize achievement (or success in school) over our children’s mental and physical health or their happiness. We don’t see Macie’s clear ability to hold up under the stress of sleep-deprivation as a sign of strength (the truth is that she is holding up quite well right now). And given that I’ve studied elite performance, happiness, and productivity since before she was born, we certainly don’t see sleep deprivation as a given — we’re clear that she’d do better on all fronts (academically, emotionally, athletically) if she got more sleep.

I believe the train can be stopped. But how?

My instinct is to provide our teens with the facts. If they just knew, for example, that sleep is the ultimate performance enhancer, they’d sleep more before tests. I want to explain all the specific neuroscience, again and again. I want to show them the studies on school and athletic success that point to the benefits of extending sleep well beyond the standard eight hours. Until she’s an adult, the research is clear that she needs 9 plus hours a night to be her happiest, healthiest self.

But explaining the science to teens again and again presumes that they think rationally about all of this. None of us think rationally about sleep these days, especially not teenagers.

It is totally normal for teens to take stances on things that are seemingly irrational to us from an intellectual or “economic” perspective, but that make perfect sense to them socially and emotionally. Once we accept this, there are strategies for us to influence adolescents that have the potential to be far more effective than laying out a logical, science-based case.

This post is based on a conversation that I had with the brilliant Ron Dahl about raising his own teenagers. Dahl uses techniques from a clinical method called “motivational interviewing,” which has proven effective in motivating behavior change in teens.

1. Express empathy. Kids and teens are much more likely to listen to us if they feel understood. Resist the urge to give advice or to “finger-wag”— two things that tend to create defensiveness and resistance to our great ideas. Instead, reflect back to them their position on things.

We need to show our kids, for example, that we understand that everyone in their class is sleep-deprived, especially the ones that seem to be doing the best. We need to show them that we understand how hard it is to fit everything in. It’s hard to balance school and work and friends and volunteering and athletics and the demands of family. We get it; it’s hard. No one is saying this is going to be easy.

We still mandate the bedtimes of our younger teens, and so they need a different type of empathy: It’s hard to have parents who are still enforcing bedtime when so many of their peers are staying up much later (which we know from the activity on their phones). This makes them feel excluded socially, and like they’re being treated like a little kid.

2. Ask open-ended questions to understand their position. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt the adolescent to elaborate.

Even if we are giving kids a choice about what to talk about (“Do you want to talk about your plan for getting your homework done over the next couple of days, or do you want to talk about what makes it difficult for you to eat breakfast in the morning?”) Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “…or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

This means we need to set aside a lot of time for this conversation. And time is 90% of the issue here. So I’m empathizing with you, dear reader: This isn’t easy.

3. Reflect what they are saying, not what we wish they were saying. This can be a simple restatement:

Adolescent:
You say that I have to go to get nine hours of sleep, but I’m totally fine when I get six or seven.

Parent: You’re not sure nine hours is really necessary.

Or, you can reflect what they mean but use different words:

Adolescent: I’m not sleep-deprived!

Parent: That label really doesn’t fit you.

Or, try reflecting what they are feeling:

Adolescent: I’m not tired!

Parent: It makes you angry when you think we are telling you how you feel.

Finally, try amplifying or exaggerating — without sarcasm! — what they are saying if the adolescent is showing signs that they are at least a little bit open to your influence:

Adolescent: I’m really not sure that I need to get more sleep during the week.

Parent: It’s actually fine with you if you occasionally fall asleep in class, or get another cold, or don’t do as well academically or athletically as you could.

4. Show them their inconsistencies—gently. One thing that we can reflect back to our teens, using these strategies, are their conflicting motivations — the inconsistencies between what they say their goals or beliefs are, and their current behavior.

What to say, then, to that teen who wants to do well in school but seems too tired to do her homework well? First, ask her permission to tell her what you see. If she says she’s willing to listen to your perspective, gently point out the discrepancy between what she says she wants and what she’s doing to make that happen in a non-judgemental, factual way:

“You really want to raise your GPA, and to do that you’re going to need to improve your grades on tests and quizzes. It seems like you don’t have enough time to work all weekend and get your homework done, and so the last few Sunday nights you’ve started the week so tired that you probably aren’t studying as effectively, or performing as well, as you might otherwise if you weren’t so sleepy at night doing your homework.”

5. Support their autonomy and emphasize their personal choice and control. Teens are most likely to change when they recognize the problem themselves, and when they are optimistic about their ability to solve the problem. We can help by expressing our confidence in their abilities, and by emphasizing that we can’t change them — that the choice about whether or not to change is the adolescent’s alone. Dahl recommends saying something like this: “Whether or not you make any changes in your activities or your behavior is entirely up to you. I definitely would not want you to feel pressured to do anything against your will.”

6. Surf their resistance like a wave. Say you want your teens to get to bed earlier, or to wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast. It’s normal for adolescents to resist you on these things, especially if they are feeling pushed to do something they are not ready to do — even if they agree with you on some level. For example, they might recognize that they are not doing as well in school as they’d like, but they aren’t ready yet to commit to spending more time in bed and less time Facetiming with their friends at night.

Sometimes (often?) we parents cause kids to dig in their heels when we argue our own position more forcefully. This is like trying to be understood in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language: When we ask a question to a local who doesn’t understand English, we may get frustrated and ask again — but this time louder: “WHERE IS THE TRAIN STATION?” Similarly, with teens, it doesn’t help to make the same argument again, but louder. We’ll just annoy them.

Instead of trying to persuade kids, we need to accept their resistance as normal and try one of the tactics in this list.

7. Side with their negative position. When my kids were toddlers, their dad and I used to laugh at how well “reverse psychology” worked, and if you are particularly skilled (meaning, you can do this without sounding critical or sarcastic) it might work with your teen, too.

For example, your teen might be ranting about how his other parent is really bugging him to get into bed too early. He wants his dad to back off and let him go to bed “when he feels tired.” You could agree with his negative position by saying something like, “Maybe he should just leave you alone, even if it means that he stops caring about your health and well-being, and he stops caring how well you do in school. Yes, you both might be better off if he focused his energy on your sister.”

8. Help them make a behavior plan if your teen indicates that they are ready to make a change. Do this only if you suspect that they won’t be able to make a plan on their own, and if they indicate that they would like your help. Have them list:

  • the changes they would like to make
  • the most important reasons for those changes
  • the specific steps they plan to take
  • the people who can support them — and precisely how those people can help
  • the challenges or potential barriers to their success — and specifically what they will do when they encounter these difficulties

Have them tell you their vision for their success — how will they (and you) know that they have been successful, or if the plan is working?

All of these techniques take practice. (At least for me. The only thing that seems to come naturally to me is bossiness.) But as with all new skills, these conversations get easier — and we become more effective in influencing our kids — when we practice, practice, practice.

I drew heavily on this chapter for this posting:

Gold, Melanie A. and Ronald E. Dahl, “Using Motivational Interviewing to Facilitate Healthier Sleep-Related Behaviors in Adolescents.” In Behavioral Treatments for Sleep Disorders. Edited by Michael Perlis, Mark Aolia, and Brett Kuhn, Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2011, Chapter 38, pp. 367-380.

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