Cyma Shapiro Chats with Jennifer Powell-Lunder, author, Teenage as a Second Language
Jennifer, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to read your wonderful book. Although my children flank the teenage years, your book had so many wonderful suggestions for how to cut through the daily tensions that I aim to employ many of these techniques right now.
Q: Please tell me how you came to write this book.
As a psychologist working with teens and their families on a daily basis a few things were clear: First, that all parents love their children and want to find a way to effectively communicate with them. Secondly, that teens, too, love their parents and want to have positive relationships with them. While teens are using seemingly the same words to communicate with their parents, it is the meaning of these words as well as the context that can result in misunderstanding. While I penned this book, it is really written by the hundreds of teen I have had the opportunity to talk with. These teens translated their language for me.
Q: What kind of teenager were you? What did your parents do about it? Did your early experiences compel you to write this book?
As a teen I was often in the role of listening to the concerns and dilemma’s of my peers and friends and offering advice. I was a Peer Counselor in high School, In college, at the University of Virginia, I was very involved in the Big Brother Big Sister Program as a volunteer and a Program Coordinator.
I had very caring and supportive parents. We communicated well. They were firm but flexible. They were willing to listen to my point of view when I did not agree with their decisions. I guess you could say they modeled well for me. Of course there were the typical teenage disagreements. I think what compelled me to write the book was my early experiences as a confidant and my advice- giving. I guess I was often in the role of a ‘mini psychologist.’ I wanted to help parents not only understand what their teens were saying, but offer them tools to build better communication.
Q: I know that I’m often reactively angry in many situations, esp. when my children exhibit what I believe are disrespectful behaviors. Your book consistently outlines calm, diplomatic methods for responding to retorts or when trying to break through certain behavior patterns. How can a parent come to terms with these types of emotions?
The first step is truly self-awareness. I always tell parents it is easy for me to sit in my chair in my office, but as a parent myself, I rely on my own mindfulness to practice what I preach. As a parent it is important to know when you need to take a moment away from a situation to collect your thoughts and emotions. This takes practice. If you are feeling so overwhelmed or upset by a particular situation, it is also often helpful to step back and ask the co-parent (if there is one) to step in. Kids learn most through observational learning. This is why if you react calmly you gain so much. Your teens are more prone to listen to what you have to say, and you teach them how they should communicate with you and others. Remember, ‘anger begets anger.’
Q: in many sections, you note that children’s responses are often the result of learned behaviors and daily family-interactions. However, as the years pass, more and more children are diagnosed with ADD, OCD, ADHD and a host of other chemical imbalances which don’t often point directly back to the parents or the family. What can a parent do if his/her child struggles with these issues, and parental responses don’t change the fundamental dynamics?
Structure and predictability are especially important for these teens. This is because internally these kids struggle. Parents should work with their teens to develop a set of boundaries and limits, a.k.a: rules and consequences. The key is to work with your teens to help them feel empowered and own the process which I outline in the book. Consistency is also extremely important. You have to “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” The only person who can control our behavior is ourselves. When parents provide a reliable and consistent environment, they help to shape their children’s behaviors. Because parents may feel especially overwhelmed by their teens if they struggle with an attention or mood disorder, it is not uncommon to give in to demands in the moment to quell the emotional response. In the long run however, this can contribute to future conflicts.
Q: As I often write, new older mothers grapple with many other external issues not endemic to younger mothers – peri-menopause, aging parents, blended stepfamilies. What specific advice do you have for these mothers when it comes to the additional challenge of dealing with teenagers and this age group?
I think older moms have time on their side. They have lived more of life and have access to a whole host of wisdom and experiences younger moms do not have. That being said, it is important to be mindful of any limitations and work around them. If for example, you feel that your frustration tolerance is lower, awareness will allow you to step back from a situation in order to avoid conflict. Regarding blended families it is important that both teens and parents have a clear understanding of roles (e.g. does a step-parent have the same authority to parent as the parent). Conflicts in these situations often arise when there is a lack of consistency regarding roles and no or inconsistent rules. Older parents can also create opportunities to connect with their teens on a different level. If for example, you are not as savvy or up to date with the latest social networking technology, learn from your teens. By allowing them to teach you, you not only empower them, you create an opportunity to spend valuable time with them which is sure to enhance your relationship.
Q: Sometimes I see what I believe are “perfect kids” in a “perfect family.” Although many times appearances are not what they seem, sometimes these kids are, indeed, smart, well-balanced, emotionally sound, with inherently high self-esteem – all things which make growing pains more palatable. What do you attribute this to? What advice do you offer these types of emotionally balanced families who have a troubled teen?
In general, the world has become a more complicated place. This means that our teens are faced with a multitude of pressures and challenges. It goes without saying that no one is perfect. Adolescence is about the search for identity, trying on different roles. Teens face pressure and controversy no matter how well adjusted they present (themselves to be). As a parent, it is important to be involved , flexible, yet consistent. Research reflects the importance of monitoring your teens’ behaviors even if they are “good kids.” In fact, when teens believe they are being monitored they are less likely to engage in high risk behaviors. Permissive parenting is the style of parenting most associated with teens engaging in higher risk behaviors such as substance abuse and promiscuity. It is also important for parents to be aware of ‘red flag behaviors’ which may include: changes in sleep or eating habits, changes in outward appearances, changes in peer group (i.e. do you suddenly not have a clue with whom your teen is friends?), changes in academic performance and/or school attendance, lower motivation to do things previously enjoyed, etc. Sometimes these changes can be subtle at first. Go with your gut, if you feel something may be off, it probably it is. It is important to sit down with your teen and discuss your concerns in an interactive manner. Talk with them, not at them.
Q: In your chapter on “Independence,” you write the following, “In Teenage, the difference translates like this: You promote autonomy by encouraging your teens to negotiate the world at large. This entails providing structure, support and guidelines on how to proceed…You promote independence while you encourage your teens to negotiate the world on their own….Your teens are supported in trying new things and managing situations on their own. If your teens experience you are too controlling, blaming or even rejecting they are at higher risk for difficulties including alcohol and substance abuse, eating, disorders, etc.” This would be eye-opening to many Type-A women who have succeeded professionally through control and order. In reality, they are, like me, just trying to combine a successful career with successful older Mommyhood; trying to draw from past experiences when faced with an ever-changing new world. Can you speak about this dilemma?
Parenting is about balance. Too much or too little control can result in concerning consequences. It is important to parent in a firm yet flexible manner. You need to work with your teen. Most important, you need to stop and really listen to what they have to say. When you talk at them, they tend to shut down. You are your teen’s best role model. They learn most from what you do, not necessarily what you say. If you are a successful person, the lessons you are teaching your teen are invaluable. What you are alluding to above, is that I highlight the difference between promoting autonomy and independence. Autonomy is about encouraging your teens to step out of the nest but ensuring their understanding that you are there to provide support and guidance when needed. Independence, is defined as pushing them out of the nest. It is important to encourage autonomy first. As parents we can not do it for them (although at times we may want to). If you consistently communicate with your teen and work together to set up limits and boundaries you provide the best opportunity for a strong communicative relationship with your teen. Sometimes they do need to fall in order to learn better how to fly. As parent, your role is to be there to catch them. If you fly for them, they will not learn how to do it themselves.
Q: So much of what you clearly and repeatedly identify through body language and nonverbal cues, with simplistic, clear directives on how to respond to these, would require us to relax and stop moving long enough to “catch” these many clues. Drawing from the question above, how can we be effective with this information if we, as parents, already feel we have too much on our plate(s)?
Ah, you answered your own question! Stop moving, stop multitasking! While you may be able to do several things at once, your teens do not see it that the way. I learned this from my own kids. Typing on the computer and talking with them, sends the message that I am not fully attending! A few moments of your undivided attention will not only provide you with the opportunity to pick up on these important nonverbal cues but, it will send your teens an invaluable message, you always have time for them no matter what!
Q: What do you think is the most common mistake parents make when dealing with teenagers?
Parenting to extremes, too controlling or too permissive. Everything in moderation should be the mantra.
Q: Finally, what is the single best advice you can offer families or parents with teenagers?
Two things: Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t. Parenting is about interaction not reaction