Category Archives: Parenting Teens

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Parenting: When the Going Gets Tough…

As seen in Ladue News, November 26th, 2014.

A couple of weeks ago, Ladue News editor Trish Muyco-Tobin emailed me a thought-provoking question: In today’s society, what does it mean to be tough? And, in particular, what does this mean for our children? As the father of two boys, these questions hit home. I want my children to be resilient, but I also don’t want them to be arrogant.

Teaching boys (and girls) that being tough doesn’t mean being antagonistic, belligerent or hostile can be a challenge. Violence and aggression perpetuate popular culture through movies, songs, TV, ‘celebs’ who abuse their significant others, and athletes involved in random acts of aggression. I want my boys to grow up to be good men, but the fast pace of today’s society means exposure to poor examples of masculinity constantly are on display.

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Conversations about College

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I started talking to my kids about their college education about a week after they were born. OK, that is a bit of exaggeration, but it is not too far from the truth. Education is important to any new parent, and I spent my 30s having children and pursuing graduate studies. During that decade of my life, my own education and my children’s future consumed my thoughts.


Parents have a huge influence on their kids, and children will adopt family ideals if Mom and Dad share their beliefs. Therefore, I recommend that college conversations begin when the little one enters pre-school. The purpose of these higher education dialogues, however, should not be about where to attend; rather, parents should share their college experiences, talk about the importance of education, and explain how some careers—such as being a doctor or a teacher—require many years of school. Setting the stage for lifelong learning begins in the early years.

Serious conversations about attending college should start during seventh and eighth grade. In fact, it is best to prepare for life after high school before the first high-school bell rings. Talk with your eager adolescent about choosing college preparatory classes, participating in community service and developing personal talents. With the right encouragement, a child could easily develop a passion that guides him to future educational and life goals.

In ninth grade, the college indoctrination process truly begins. Students take standardized tests, complete interest inventories, and participate in initial meetings with their guidance counselor. These exploratory steps pave the way to junior year when students and families should become motivated about researching their options.

There are more than 9,000 colleges and universities, and even the most organized student will benefit from parental assistance. Don’t, however, be the over-involved ‘helicopter’ mom who hovers over every move or the ‘talent-scout’ dad who tries to brand their teenager and broker the best deal. It’s more important to ask your maturing child the right questions, listen, and be supportive.

Size truly matters. More relationally-oriented individuals tend to prefer the intimate classroom environment of a smaller campus. These schools are more person-centered and offer better opportunities to interact with professors. On the other hand, seniors looking to break out of the high-school fish bowl or wanting to stay under the radar should consider big school opportunities. Larger institutions also offer a wider range of classes, a variety of housing options, and big-time sports.

Location is the next topic to tackle. A school’s setting can have a significant impact on the college experience. Some may want to be close to home, but others may prefer to be on a mountain, near a beach, or in a major metropolis. College is both an education and a journey; it is a great time to push beyond one’s comfort zone and live in your dream location. And no matter where the school is, a student can always pack their books and transfer credits to a new university if things don’t work out.

Some may allow their course of study to drive their college search. This is an important consideration, but the majority of college students switch degree programs multiple times prior to graduation. Also, most college-bound high school seniors don’t have enough experience or information to be absolutely positive about what they want to study. It is important a university has the proposed area of interest, but attending the most prestigious program will not ensure success or happiness.

Watching your child mature and make major decisions can be challenging for any parent. College is a huge step toward adult independence, and it can be difficult for mom or dad to recognize the line between interference and support. Trust you have a raised an intelligent individual who makes good decisions and celebrate this exciting life transition.

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No Mixed Messages

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A father makes a comment about a celebrity looking too plump in her evening gown. A mom remarks that she feels fat after eating a big meal. An older sister makes a funny observation about somebody in her class who is a ‘giant.’ While these are meant to be harmless comments, children personalize these statements and can develop a negative body image because they hear loved ones innocently criticize themselves and others.

As early as first grade, many girls become concerned with weight and appearance. Some start to restrict food intake and others begin to read food labels. By third grade, 30 percent of these young students have actively dieted. Further, body image not only is a female preoccupation. Preteen boys also experience stress as they compare their bodies to athletes and actors. Children are inundated with messages from the media, their family and their friends that lead many to think that their appearance is unacceptable.

A positive body image is one that is based in reality. The child accepts who he or she is, and generally is happy with how they look and feel. A negative image is an unrealistic perspective and the child believes they do not live up to the expectation of others, including parents and peers. Anyone—no matter their age—who continually maintains negative thoughts about their appearance is at risk for an eating disorder and/or other mental-health issues.

It is, however, part of human nature to have a personal opinion about one’s looks. It also is normal to like some parts of your body and dislike others. But how one feels often is influenced by the company they keep. Family and friends continuously convey comments about appearance from the day one is born. And parents have a bigger influence on their children’s personal perceptions than any other source.

While it may not seem like it, most kids pay attention to mom and dad. If you frequently talk about your weight, your thighs, as well as your demanding workout, your kids also will worry about their weight, their thighs and their exercise habits. If you constantly eat fat-free foods and skip meals to reduce calories, your children will develop these same unhealthy habits. Kids subconsciously mimic adult behaviors.

Fortunately, parents also can play a pivotal role in boosting self-perceptions. Emphasize to your children that there are many different body shapes and not one ideal size. Explain that weight gain, especially during the onset of adolescence, is a normal part of development.

Further, encourage health over weight worries by urging your children to actively play. The gym is great, but spending time outside with the neighborhood kids is better and more fun. Hip-hop dance class, team sports, or walking the dog gets the body moving. It does not matter what kids do, as long as they do something.

Kids receive mixed messages about what is attractive versus what is healthy. Unfortunately, no matter how much you discuss health and fitness, kids are still susceptible to outside influences, especially media messages. Teach your children to become media-savvy by discussing the images they see on the TV, in magazines, and on the Internet. It can be difficult for a maturing child to understand that their favorite Disney starlets and their thin model friends often achieve their glamorous appearance through unhealthy means or Photoshop touch-ups.

Despite a parent’s best efforts, many children, unfortunately, do worry about their body image. If your child is constantly focused on their physical appearance, excessively diets, or continually compares themselves to others, they may need professional support to understand how to live a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, a mother’s words of wisdom may not be enough to sooth a struggling child.

Research shows that active families who enjoy physical exercise raise children who have a better self-esteem than families who do not adopt this philosophy. Helping children develop healthy habits will send them down an emotionally prosperous path. Being fit does not mean being thin—and being thin does not mean being happy.

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Pack Some Patience

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As I write this column, it is a wintery St. Louis day. When it’s this cold, it is difficult to think about summer travel. June is still a few months away, but a sunny weather vacation free of responsibility sounds relaxing and warm.

My kids are in their preteen years. Traveling with older children provides some unique challenges, as everyone has an opinion about where to go and what to do. When a family has little ones, choosing the destination is easy. A nice place with a few kid-friendly activities is all anyone needs. It is the logistical challenges of bringing what one requires versus what one wants that is complicated.

Productive packing with small children in tow is about preemptively planning to ensure that no one has a bad time. A portable high chair may sound unnecessary, but even family-friendly places may not have one available when you need it. A new toy may appear indulgent, but can be an excellent distraction when you need a break. And cough syrup may seem excessive, but you will be glad you brought medicine if your little one has a late-night fever. To successfully travel with toddlers, plan well and pack some patience.

As your young children morph into older kids with their own thoughts, family vacations can become a complex negotiation as generations clash over what to do. To pave the way for a relaxing and rejuvenating holiday, a different type of advance planning is required. A collaborative approach that allows opinionated offspring to have a say in the stay is recommended.

Include your older children at the beginning of the vacation-planning process. Each member of the family should discuss what type of activity he or she might enjoy. With this newly learned information, parents should retreat to the Internet or to a professional travel agent, and generate a variety of options. During a family dinner, discuss each locale and let your eager adolescent guide the way to family fun.

Once the destination has been decided, let the aspiring vacationers plan a day. Encourage your teens to research activity options, follow a budget and create a schedule of events, including transportation and dining. For this to work, however, parents must commit to the plan even if it means doing something outrageously adventurous or wasting away the morning with a late sleep. Teens typically will make good choices, and allowing them to own a piece of the planning ensures minimal complaining and maximum enjoyment.

Turnabout is fair play and parents also should participate in the plan-a-day process, but with an added twist. Choose an afternoon for you and your spouse to spend one-on-one quality alone time with each of your children. This can be as simple as a hike through the hills or as exciting as mountain-biking down a steep trail. The goal is to choose something that can be enjoyed together. Mixing it up generates positive parent/child interaction, promotes family bonding, and creates great dinner conversation as each share stories from their day.

Planning in advance, however, will not guarantee a peaceful getaway unless a family conversation regarding trip rules and expectations takes place before the departure date. Remind your traveling teens that all home rules apply: no smoking, no drinking, no cursing and no hitting your sister. Emphasize the importance of time—what time they need to return in the evening, what time tired teens need to wake in the morning, and what kind of time they must spend with mom and dad. Set some basic ground rules and discuss concerns as they occur to ensure that everyone gets along.

Vacations provide some of life’s most memorable moments. And while you may return to the same destination year after year, each visit will be different as your family matures and grows. Savor the time, leave life’s worries behind and take lots of pictures. Bon voyage!

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Time to Unplug

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I own a lot of things with screens—maybe too many. In addition to my work computer and laptop, I also have a TV at my office, in the bedroom, and in the bathroom as I need to watch the news while brushing my teeth. And, I own an iPhone, as well as multiple iPads. In fact, as I look around the house, it is safe to say that my old iPads never really die, they just get recycled into expensive room clocks and personal gaming devices.
Owning multiple devices is the new norm. My kids, like their friends, have several hand-held accessories, a variety of gaming consoles, a DVR to watch their favorite TV shows and a couple of old laptops. My wife, the most streamlined of us, still owns a smart phone, iPad and laptop. Despite these easily available distractions, the family does a good job managing tech use. We have many outside interests, including sports, performing arts and reading (on a Kindle, of course), but it would be difficult to survive without easy access to our devices.
The influence technology has on our brains, relationships, sleeping patterns and moods is a prevalent topic in mental health research. While there is no definitive answer that tells us exactly how technology impacts our children, professionals know that overuse negatively affects attention, sleep and development. Furthermore, doctors are seeing electronically addicted teens who are suffering from screen withdrawal and are forgoing other fun activities in favor of staying connected.
These same problems also impact adults who have the additional stress of business connectivity issues. With fierce competition in the workplace, many fear their success opportunities will be compromised if they don’t respond during all hours of the day and night. This work theory, however, may actually make one less useful as the brain needs time to recharge in order to operate at maximum efficiency. Additionally, multitasking tech demands with face-to-face interactions leads one to become more impulsive and more likely to take risks. In some ways, technology hurts as much as it helps.
Most adults and children would benefit from learning how to better manage their tech use, and summertime is the perfect time to start a digital diet. Consider planning a vacation with firm tech boundaries that limit electronic use. Don’t, however, make the detox decision without consulting the family and realize that going cold turkey is probably unrealistic. Accept that you will need to make some compromises, especially if teenagers are part of your crew. With a little advance planning, however, it should be easy to get everyone to agree to unplug, especially if you plan something fun or adventurous.
Once home or if you are not traveling, summer is still an excellent time to rethink your digital attitude. How you approach your children about computer use depends on their age. Younger kids are easy to distract, so influence their tech time by offering something different to do. Most kids younger than 8 are happy to engage in a creative endeavor if a parent or sibling will participate. Creating other interests and free time expectations is the best way to manage future overuse.
If your kids are older, parents still can influence without arguing, but some ground rules need to be established. No technology or TV during mealtimes, specific unplugged hours, and power off curfews are responsible requests. Additionally, I encourage families to reinforce that media use is a privilege and not a right–kids should earn their access. Once chores are completed, homework is finished and the piano is practiced, screen time is a great way to decompress. If family expectations are reasonable, kids not only will accept new rules, but may actually appreciate parentally imposed household structure.
OK, we all know that when we plug in, we also tune out. Your new media plan, however, does not require you to sledgehammer the computer; rather, it means embracing organization and time management. Your kids may accuse you of being out of touch with technological times, but they will do so while looking you in the eye and not while they texting their friends.

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College Drinking

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There is a difference between knowing that your teen is drinking alcohol at college and allowing your child to drink at home. Parents should never endorse alcohol use when their children are under the legal drinking age. In essence, when you say it is okay to use, you are also encouraging your son to break the law. Furthermore, if you allow drinking in your house, you are breaking the law and can be arrested for social hosting.

It is, however, reasonable to assume that your student is going to continue to engage in his social life, and parents should have a discussion about alcohol use. Choose a mutually agreeable time to engage in a conversation about summer expectations. Don’t ambush your teen, rather set a time and let him know you want to speak about drinking and your parental thoughts.

The most important rule is to make sure your college student knows it is never acceptable to drink and drive. Your child should understand that he can always call for a ride without parental judgment. Next, discuss summer work expectations. The best way to minimize alcohol use is to make sure your student has a busy summer schedule. This could include working, volunteering, or going to summer school. Lastly, discuss daily expectations including what time your teen should be home at night and what time he must rise in the morning.

Your son is maturing, and he should be open to discussing expectations. Listen to his perspective but also remember that you are the parent. Keep in mind that as the summer ends, the effects of excessive alcohol use can endure for many years. Lastly, if you feel your college student is drinking excessively, seek professional assistance.

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Staying Focused During the Holidays

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It is beginning to look a lot like the holidays: Streets are filled with decorations, Christmas specials are on TV, and kids fantasize about snowy days and new video games. This ‘most wonderful’ time of the year, however, also is a most distracting and stressful time of the year, especially if you are a kid.

School does not slow down during the holidays; rather, it speeds up. Final exams are taken, long-term projects are due, and essential last-minute tasks are assigned as the semester comes to an end. There also are big games and special events to attend. Combine an increased work load along with many distracting festivities, and it can be difficult for anyone to stay focused.

Parents should take advantage of the hectic holiday season to perpetuate a good habit or start a new family tradition: talking to your kids about school. It can be complicated coordinating multiple schedules for a serious discussion, but that is the point. When times get too busy, families need to focus on life, relationships and academics.

Learning to study is an evolutionary process that continually needs adjustment. Have a conversation with your student discussing what homework habits work best, as well as potential problem areas. Kids should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, make changes as necessary and celebrate successes. Being a supportive parent is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child, but it may take many years before your offspring truly appreciates your parenting style.

In general, most students struggle to balance school and outside extracurriculars. The holidays, however, provide additional opportunities for students to go astray. A key to staying on task is to avoid being overwhelmed. With parental assistance, kids should set a schedule at the start of each week, designating times to study and times to enjoy the festivities.

Additionally, unforeseen activities often pop up during busy times, and kids may waste energy because they are not in the correct state of mind to attack their academics. Regular weekday check-ins can assist students with making appropriate adjustments and, at the same time, provide additional support. A gentle parental push to work efficiently encourages students to prioritize work and strike a better balance between school and holiday fun.

The proper ambiance also is particularly important during this season of distraction. The study area should be stocked with pens, pencils, paper and other essential aids such as healthy snacks and beverages. Sitting at a desk in a well-lit room also is more conducive to learning than lounging on a comfortable couch. Light background music can assist with focus, but upbeat holiday songs should be avoided until homework is complete.

Parents, too, can bolster academic productivity by joining the study-time fun. Sit at the desk alongside your student and bring your work to the table. This not only models good habits but also provides a unique bond as families unite to do work before engaging in play. Additionally, your student will also be less likely to text, Facebook or Skype with a parent in the room.

Finals are finished, school is over, and it is time to take a breather. An essential way to recharge and re-motivate is to enjoy the holidays and focus on the family. Shift away from the daily stresses of school and work to create a new family tradition. Get everyone together to bake holiday cookies, prepare a special breakfast, or take a trip to the ice rink. Special times create lifelong memories that outlast the temporary enjoyment provided by expensive or trendy gifts. Yes, kids want presents, but they also want to be part of a family.

Life is always hectic. The holidays can, however, allow families to temporarily leave behind the daily grind and spend time focusing on each other. The food is great, the atmosphere is special, and relaxation is encouraged—it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Happy holidays!

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Teens Who Argue are Less Likely to Give into Peer Pressure

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Teens who are able to hold their own during family discussions/arguments, are better able to resist negative peer influences. In a recent segment on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Dr. Russell Hyken discusses how to argue productively.

According to a recent study from the University of Virginia, parents who encourage their children to have their own opinions and who make a point of discussing/debating tough issues have children who are less likely to succumb to peer pressure.

When we discuss arguing/debating in this context, I am not referring to emotionally dis-regulated outbursts. And it is never acceptable to participate in over-the-top name-calling, or knock-down, drag-out arguments. Heated discussions of appropriate intensity and length are, however, growth-promoting opportunities.

Children benefit from having the opportunity to articulate and defend their own opinion on home turf and hear what their parents think. In fact, it is a safe way for kids to practice standing up for oneself. If teens don’t have a place to discuss tough issues related to sexual relationships, drug/alcohol use, curfews, and other teen concerns, then they may resort to experimenting or acting out without the benefit of parental guidance.

Furthermore, if teens are going to embrace the values and opinions of their family more than those of their peers, they need to feel that mom and dad understand them and will listen to them. Additionally, kids that are secure in their ability to turn to their parents when they are under stress are less likely to feel overly dependent on their friends and are thus, less likely, to be influenced by peer behaviors.

To encourage these conversations, let’s start with how you shouldn’t argue. Going through the motions of listening is not enough, drive by empathy doesn’t work. So, don’t cut your kids off, minimize, or be sarcastic. If you do then they are going to ignore or cut you off because they do not feel safe expressing themselves.

Parents need to learn to understand how their kids are thinking and to see things from their point of view. If you can do this, your kids will be more open.

Here are a few tips that will set the tone for productive discussions.

  • Model appropriate communication strategies and resolution skills. Keep voices low as yelling escalates the situation.
  • Demonstrate listening by engaging in appropriate turn taking exchanges and respond with clarifying statements that convey understanding.
  • End your arguments properly. Keep discussions short and resolve the conflict. Sometimes this will mean agreeing to disagree.
  • Lastly, remember you are the parent. In matters of health and safety, it is okay to lay down the law.

The ultimate goal of listening/arguing is to foster your teen’s autonomy while maintaining a positive relationship with them. Listen, respond, and respect what they have to say even if you disagree. If you can do this, your kids will ultimately make good decisions. And if they don’t they will at least be open to discussing the situation with you.

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Dealing With Sensitive Teens

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Some teens are most sensitive than others and present a special challenge for parents. Dr. Russell Hyken addresses the issue on KTVI-TV, Fox 2 in St. Louis, Missouri.

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Kids & Lying

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Kids do lie to their parents and others from an early age. However, the fact that it is happening may not be all bad or be a symptom of other issues. Dr. Hyken discusses this topic on KTVI-TV Fox 2 in St. Louis, MO.