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What Yelling Yields: The Truth About how it Impacts Your Tweens & Teens

www.freedigitalphotos.netThere is much buzz about a recent study that concluded that yelling at teens yields little benefit. Specifically the study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan, found that the teens of parents who reported using verbal aggression to discipline were more prone to symptoms of depression and problem behaviors including lying and fighting. The study highlighted that the verbal aggression parents displayed during altercations with their teens had a strong negative impact on teens. These effects were not moderated by displays of warmth and support by parents at times when parents and teens were not in conflict.

In reality, the findings from this study are far from surprising. Children learn so much about behavior by observing. Parents are the main role models of behavior for their children.  As previous research has also reflected, how parents behave has a far greater impact on our children's behavior than most of us may realize. 

When parents yell and scream at their children, or at others with whom they interact, their child gets the message that this is appropriate behavior. In turn these children may interact similarly with their peers, parents, teachers, and coaches. This behavior can cause a host of problems for teens in the outside world.

The best approach to encouraging positive behaviors in children and teens is twofold. To begin with, parents need to practice what they preach. When parents engage in interactive discussions with their teens, they provide a productive forum in which to address issues of concern.

As the authors of the study acknowledge in relation to their findings, teens are especially vulnerable. This is in great part because one of the major tasks accomplished during adolescence is the formation of a stable identity. Put simply, teens are on a search for self. Parents who criticize and berate their teens send a negative message that teens tend to take to heart. If for example, in a fit of rage, a parent tells her teen that she is ‘stupid, or worthless,’ the teen is prone to internalize this message. The teen looks to her parent as a major role model whose opinion she both trusts and respects. A teen that has been subjected to verbal abuse may start believing that the words her parent said in anger are true. Specifically a teen may think: “If this very important person is saying these things about me, they must be true.” The impact this thinking can have on a teen’s self-concept, self-esteem, and self-confidence is devastating.

The second important part parent’s play in encouraging positive behaviors in teens is by creating a structured and supportive environment. Such an environment includes clear rules, consequences and of course reinforcement through praise and continued encouragement. The best way to get kids to buy into a system of rules and consequences is to make the process an interactive one. Kids should work with their parents to create rules and devise consequences. Rules that aren't working need to be reviewed. So often parents get stuck on trying to make something work that never will. At these moments, parents are better served re-examining the specific rules that are ineffective. They should partner with their child to create a more productive solution to the problem.

Parents are superheroes in the eyes of their children, what they say matters so it is best to make it count in a positive way. When parents talk with their teens, not at them, the interactive forum created ensures communication and increases the connection between parent and child.



Tween Mean: Time to Adjust the Attitude

Making the transition from child to tween can be exciting and anxiety provoking. As children’s minds and bodies march toward puberty, the maturity process leaves many marks. There are the outward physical changes including the appearance of secondary sex characteristics such as pubic hair for both boys and girls. Tween girls may notice budding breasts, while boys may note the growth of their testicles. During these years growth spurts are common and the majority of girls will experience their first period before the age of 13.

Internally emotions are often in a stormy stage. The hormonal changes tweens experience can translate into mood shifts that at times seem to come out of nowhere. A new awareness of the world at large is the result of a growing brain. Suddenly tweens are invested in the world outside their family circles. From a parent’s perspective, they may seem too invested.

It is not uncommon for parents to note that their quiet, sweet, respectful child has developed an attitude over night. Put in simple terms, ‘tween mean’ talk is not so rare. Parents are often shocked and surprised when their loving child utters his first “I hate you!” Especially when the circumstances resulting in the response seem insignificant or even silly. Perhaps even more confusing for parents is that within moments after uttering the offensive emotion charged statement, a tween can seem calm, caring and kind, back to the baseline that his parents know best.

Tween mean is often an attitude reserved for the inner family circle. Parents may be relieved to receive feedback from authority figures outside home such as teachers, coaches, and even other parents, that their tween is indeed a sweet, sensitive, polite and respectful child.

Regardless of a tween’s reactions in other venues, an attitude at home can become unbearable. This is especially true when the flashes of irritability and rude are surrounded by moments of kindness and caring.

Tackling an attitude is not as difficult as it may seem. The first step in intervention and subsequently prevention is helping your tween to identify that the attitude exists. A sensitive approach is required. Remember, tweens tend to be very self-conscious. Their egocentrism encourages sensitivity. This is why an innocuous re-direction is often perceived as a criticism. Explaining concerns through concrete examples is often the best approach. Although a tween is capable of perspective taking, her natural inclination is to see things only from her own point of view. Parents should talk with their tween about attitude concerns when things are calm. If a tween has uttered the dreaded “I hate you,” use this utterance as an example to encourage empathy. “It really hurts when you tell me you hate me.  Even if you are just angry, it makes me feel bad. Imagine if one of your friends said that to you.” Even if a tween indicates that he does not mean what he says, it is important for parents to emphasize that they take his words seriously, this will help validate that he has a voice, that what he says matters.

In order to re-shape an attitude, parents must point out the instances of irritability and unacceptable attitude to their tween. The key is to do this gently. She may find this exercise annoying which can encourage anger however, in time the behavior will hopefully become extinct.

The mix of emotions a tween experiences is very real. Parents should validate their tween’s feelings but encourage alternative outlets to replace a rude response or attitude. Parents should capitalize on a tween’s interests to create coping plans. If for example, a tween likes to write, a journal or diary is a good place to put down thoughts. Creative tweens should be encouraged to use their favorite medium to express themselves through art. Athletic tweens should use practice or exercise to handle feelings of irritability or annoyance.

The answer to extinguishing an attitude of tween mean is to set clear limits. While in the moment it may be easier to ignore or give in to what a tween is asking, in time this plan is sure to backfire. Parents should also avoid responding to a negative attitude with ire or shame. When parents offer calm redirection they model the attitude that they expect from their tween. Research supports the premise that children learn much through observation.

All children look to their parents to guide and support them. Limit setting on an attitude is an important part of this protocol. Although shifting emotions may be a natural part of the maturation process, a mean tween attitude toward parents is certainly not essential or acceptable.


Back to School: Essential Tips to Ensure Safety

www.freedigitalphotos.netIt seems like only a short time ago that when we addressed school safety with our children the topics and situations were simple and clear. Back then we worried about our kids crossing busy streets, wearing safety glasses in science class, and horse playing on the bus. While certainly these are important school safety considerations, the subject of school safety has become far more complicated and encompassing topic.

Talking to little ones about safety is certainly a difficult task. Looking into those big eyes and bright happy faces taking on such topics as avoiding abduction, appropriately responding to kids who bring weapons to school and, school shooters seems unimaginable and devastating. It is however, the reality of the today’s world. These types of talks are actually often harder to engage in with our teens and tweens. Fueled by developmental egocentrism, their natural belief that bad things only happen to other people can be both concerning and potentially lethal.

Thankfully, schools have responded to these concerns and issues with clear prevention and intervention protocols.

How then can you however, properly prepare your son or daughter to return to school and remain safe?

As always, it is not so much the content of the conversation that matters but the process. What follows are a few tips on how to discuss these difficult topics without instilling panic, fear and even paranoia in your children.

1.)  State the concerns clearly but calmly. Your child looks to you to model appropriate responses. If talking about these topics makes you anxious, overwhelmed, or even angry, take a deep breath.

2.)  Talk in terms he understands. Although you do not want to instill fear in your child, it is important to make sure he clearly gets the message. State the concerns clearly. If for example, you want to talk about protocol if a peer brings a weapon to school, calmly engage him in an interactive conversation. Ask him to participate in coming up with a plan to follow in such an instance.

3.)  Creating a concrete crisis plan encourages calm. Talking about such difficult topics can be scary because these situations suggest a lack of predictability. Working on a safety plan with your child will make you both feel more in control. Writing down such a plan will make it more real and can create a sense of solace for you and your child.

4.)   Safety concerns should not be presented in just one talk. Find opportunities to engage in discussion about this difficult topic. The more you discuss the topic the less foreboding it will seem.  Use news stories, magazine articles, etc. as a way to engage interactive conversation. Even some of her favorite TV shows may provide ideal subject matter about which to talk. The show Glee for example, broadcast an episode in which the characters were concerned there was a shooter in their school. This provided a great way for parents to talk with their teens about this scary scenario.

5.)  Don’t dismiss your child’s concerns in an effort to create calm. As a parent you strive to provide a safe and healthy environment for your child. It is not uncommon for a parent to try to quell a child’s fear by quickly confirming that there is no basis for the concern. While your intentions may be good, this approach can leave your child feeling fretful and unsupported. Sometimes parents dismiss their child’s fears to quell their own anxiety. Denial however, is not a helpful response. Instead provide reassurance by carefully listening and validating what your child is telling you. Remember, validation does not mean you tell your child that she is right, it just means you understand; process problem solving ideas in these moments such as creating a safety plan.

School safety is certainly a difficult topic to discuss these days. Calm solution focused conversations with your child will serve to both inform and comfort him. Although our children may have to face some scary and harsh realities in today’s world, preparation in the form of conversation can go a long way on the road to creating a sense of safety and support.


Middle School Madness

As the summer draws to a close it is already time to start thinking about back to school. Here in the Northeast we still have a few more weeks of rest and relaxation. My friends in the South however, have already welcomed their kids back from camp and are preparing for the beginning of another school year.

For most kids the majority of their tweenage years are spent in Middle School. I have always appreciated and even envied my friends who’s kids did not have to make that transition due to K-8 schools or home schooling.

Talk to a teen in the thick of their high school years and most of them will indeed tell you ‘Middle school sucked!’ The good news however, is that this revelation usual comes on reflection back on the time, not during the experience.

‘Why do teens say middle school sucks,’ you are perhaps wondering. Well, much of the reasoning has to do with plain old developmental factors. Between the ages of around 11-14 the majority of kids go through major developmental changes. Many of those changes are obvious some are not. Their physique changes as they hit puberty. While these days we tend to well prepare our kids for these changes with parent talks and in health classes, many of our kids experience feelings of uncertainty and even discomfort regarding these changes.

I have heard many describe the Middle School years as the ‘mean’ years. Research tells us that bullying is indeed at an all-time high for kids during this period in their lives. In reality this is no coincidence. As our children begin the search for self which will lead them through tweenhood, teenhood and eventually on to young adulthood, they can initially feel insecure and unsure of who they are and who they want to be.

For many tweens this insecurity leaves them searching for ways to affirm and empower themselves. Unfortunately their immature minds sometimes lead them back to the basics of those in power and those who feel powerless. This struggle can play itself out in the catty conversations you can often hear play out if you walk the halls of middle school in between classes when kids are at their lockers or take  walk into the cafeteria at lunch time.

Few tweens are shielded from this banal banter. Although the intent is certainly not to be mean spirited it can often be perceived this way. Comments about what other kids are wearing, doing and saying are indeed the norm. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the parent who can honestly report that their tween has never engaged with their friends is this type of talk.

It is part of development. Of course there are extremes. The good news is that you have taught your tweens well. The majority of them will rarely take this talk out of their circle of friends with the intent of hurting another peer. Although on occasion there is the some ‘drama’ as the kids refer to it aka plain old bully like behavior.

You know the drill. One friend says something about a mutual friend to another friend and the second friend runs and tells the first friend. Better judgment would suggest that telling the friend that he/she is being talked about is hurtful and certainly not helpful as the second friend may contend. This type of behavior does however reflect the lack of perspective taking tweens tend to utilize. It is not that they are unable to use this type of foresight it is simply that from a developmental stand point, it is not their natural inclination.

In addition this behavior is part of the dog eat dog world in which tweens find themselves. Everyone wants to be top dog and sometimes this means climbing over others to get there. Relax, I do not mean literally.

Not long ago I dropped my own child off on her first day of Middle School. While I held it together for her, I burst out crying as I drove away. Although as a child psychologist I have much insight into the ups and downs of the Middle School experience, I did not cry because I felt bad, nervous or upset for her. No, in reality it was all about me! My baby was growing up. The poise and confidence with which she strode into that school reassured me that she would indeed be able to negotiate this new situation.

In reality, the tween years are the wonder years. While they are filled with ups and downs victories and defeats, they are an incredible period of physical, emotional, and social development. When tweens grow into teens and move on to their high school years, they are not the same children you sent off to middle school. Savor every moment, and most of all enjoy the madness, in the blink of an eye they will be all grown up!


The First Day of School: Conquering Chaos by Creating Calm



The first day of school can be both exciting and anxiety provoking for kids and parents. This is especially evident if your child is transitioning to a new school. Making the move from elementary school to middle school can be particularly stressful.

With a little organization and pre-planning however, you can conquer the chaos and create a calm, well, calmer environment than the maddening mayhem you usually experience.

Here’s some hints on how:

1.)  A day or two before the first day do a backpack check list. This is not only a great way to ensure that your kids have everything they need, it is also a way to offer individual reassurance to each child that he is indeed prepared to face the first day of school. The key to this task is to do this with your child. The individual attention will contribute to creating calm.

2.)  Insist that your kids pick out their first day of school outfits well before the first morning. The last thing you need is your tween tromping through the house looking through the laundry for the shirt she ‘must wear’ on the first day of school. Never mind the fact that she hasn’t seen it since last September!

3.)  Pre-pack lunches the night before. Every second counts on that first day of school. If your kids are going to be buying lunch, be sure they have enough money and that they stash the cash in a safe place.

4.)  In the words of Winston Churchill; “Keep calm and carry on.” Anxiety begets anxiety. Your kids tend to look to you when they are feeling unsettled. The calmer you keep the more cool and collected they will respond.

5.)  Remember, routine requires repetition. Although the first day may feel a bit like a frenzied free-for-all, tomorrow is another day. You will be back in the swing of things in no time.

It is hard to believe another summer has come to a close. With a few simple adjustments, the first day back to school can be both calm and carefree. It is amazing that a little organization and preplanning can truly conquer the chaos that often characterizes this important day.