In this back-to-school issue:
The Problems of Adolescents; What Do Your Teens Think About?
How Involved is “Too Involved” in Homework?
The Problems of Adolescents: What Do Your Teens Think About?
Some of the teens in your life talk openly with you about their struggles. Others clam up and do so increasingly as they get older. You want to help them, but it’s sometimes hard to tell just what’s eating at them. You might see a bad mood (or a good one) alternating rapidly. Just what are they thinking about?
The stereotype is that teens are (generally) selfish, lazy, sex- and media-obsessed, living in the “now” and unconcerned for their future. This is a stereotype, even if there are grains of truth buried in the stereotype. But if your teen isn’t talking openly with you about what he or she is struggling with, here’s a list you can consult to begin your strategizing about just what’s up. If you really try, you might remember many of these things from your own adolescence.
19 Types of Things Teens Usually Think are the “Big Problems” of Adolescence*
1. What do I do when I get angry, upset or anxious? What level of feeling is normal? What do I do when I feel out of control?
2. What do I do if I’m hurting/depressed/suicidal? Do I tell anyone? How do I get help without betraying anyone I care about?
3. What do I do about making and keeping friends, bullying, harassment, rumors, and gossip? Am I “in” or “out”? How do I get “in,” or do I give up on that or pretend it doesn’t matter? What do I do when friends are in trouble?
4. What do I do when what I feel and want is different from what my parents feel and want? How do I balance what I want/need with what others want?
5. How much and what kind of alcohol and/or drugs should I have? How do I get it? How do I not get in trouble? How do I say “no”?
6. What behaviors on the sexual spectrum are okay to do, what do they mean, what do they obligate me to? What is my sexual identity? Am I gay, straight, bisexual, transgender? What do I do about that? Do I tell my parents? What do I do about how I feel? Will this knowledge make me rejectable?
7. What do I look like—am I cute/hot, etc.? Do others notice? Do I want the attention? For girls: If I’m developing breasts, having my period, etc., what does it mean and how can I manage using those changes to create relationships versus getting unwanted attention, demands, wishes as a result of bodily changes? What do I need to do about my body (lose weight, gain weight, hide it)? For guys: Am I good looking? How do I deal with my sexual feelings (having them or not having them)?
8. Why can’t I control my brain and what do I do about it?
9. How do I stop or control/direct my thinking, especially if it is focused on something negative?
10. Am I crazy, sick, lazy, depressed, or abnormal? What is my “definition” as regards the things I don’t understand? How much of a problem is it?
11. If you (my parent) is depressed, angry, abusive, withdrawn, etc., how do I not abandon you, but get as much time away from you as possible? Do I have to feel what my parent feels? What my friends feel?
12. How can I make my parents happy and not feel like a total baby...or like I’m betraying myself? How much like my parents do I have to be to be loved?
13. How can I have fun and enjoy myself without feeling too guilty embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated?
14. How much do I try to measure up to what I see on television, movies, etc.?
15. How can I get the stuff I want? How much is too much to have and still be a good person?
16. How can I not be embarrassed?
17. How is what went wrong my fault? How is what went wrong not my fault?
18. Why don’t you “get it”? Who does...and how can I be with them more without making you feel too bad?
And last, but not least, the thing every teenager asks themselves, struggles with, and is constantly trying to figure out, if someone they love is hurting, angry, or in pain of any kind:
19. What is the cause of the pain? How long will it last? How much of my life will be affected?
Teenagers (and adults) have a very, very hard time moving on and turning their conscious and nonconscious energies toward healthy development, until they get an answer to this last question, in relation to their own or another close person's suffering. How they answer that question will determine how well they grieve, so they need your close help with that question.
Since teens do often see the world as a reflection of themselves, they tend to rapidly personalize most information. That's normal...it's a good strategy for understanding how new information fits into their world--just assume it has to do with you. One problem with this more immature way of thinking, however, is that many teens are more likely to take parental troubles on as their own, more likely to concentrate on the actions of others solely in terms of the impact on their lives and to appear to lack empathy towards their parents. This usually causes parents to feel extremely underappreciated, as they interpret normal adolescent self-involvement ("egocentrism") as willful disdain for what other family members (especially parents) want. I can promise you that just about every single one of your teens cares deeply about you and wants you to be happy; he or she does not just care about his or her own life, without regard for you. But it's your teenager's job to focus on developing his or her own identity. Both biology and past history (biography) push us towards the development of a unique identity. Your teen is concerned with the questions above, not because he or she is inherently selfish, but because he or she needs a strong identity to stay in close relationship with others, as an adult. Now is the time to form that identity, and so now is the time to see the world mainly the lens of "how does this matter to me?"
Your teenager’s behaviors are questions about their development. Many times, her behavior is a question about her identity—who should I be? Sometimes her behavior is a question about how you are doing. Sometimes the behavior is a question about what is safe to feel or think. If you’re having trouble understanding your teenager’s behavior, remember: It’s likely a question about something noted above, an attempt to come up with a theory for how things work. Try to think: What could this behavior be a question about?
*This list and a fuller discussion of the problems of adolescents appears in The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager (Fine Optics Press, 2012).
Abour our Organization...
Founded by adolescent specialist Michael Y. Simon, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Lic. MFC 38305), former high school counseling director, noted speaker/educator and psychotherapist in private practice, Practical Help for Parents provides real-life solutions as you parent, support and understand the teens and pre-teens in your life. PHFP offers informative, entertaining, research-based workshops for students and parents, keynotes and presentations to high school and middle school parents,
teachers and administrators; access to online Practical Help Tips, articles and web resources; and program development and consultation to mental health professionals, policymakers and schools/school districts.
Suggested References for Parents
On IDENTITY and DEVELOPMENT
Bellah, R. N. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.
New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Erikson, E. H. Identity: Youth and Crisis.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Hinshaw, S., & Kranz, R. The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures.
New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.
Lareau, A. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Levine, M. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Pope, D. Clark. Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Postman, N. The Disappearance of Childhood.
New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994.
Simon, M. The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager.
Oakland: Fine Optics Press, 2012.
Twenge, J. M. Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.
New York: Free Press, 2007.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
New York: Free Press, 2009
How much is too much involvement in our son’s homework life? That’s really the bottom line. We’ve read the stuff on “helicopter parents” and frankly we don’t mind flying over him and the school to make sure he doesn’t ruin his future chances. He’s now a junior and the stakes are getting really high. We’ve spent a fair amount of time in the past reminding him about assignments that are due and checking his grades. As a sophomore it sometimes seemed that if we didn’t bug him about his work, he wouldn’t turn it in or even remember to do it. Are we just supposed to stand by and watch him fail—not because he didn’t do the work well, but because he just never turned in the work? That seems crazy and a waste of our time and money.
I get this question a lot, in a variety of different forms. I don’t mean to give you a “cop out” answer, but I strongly believe that the truth is I can’t really answer your question without knowing more about your particular child. Some very smart and thoughtful psychologists and writers like Madeline Levine have written extensively on the necessity and desirability of letting (especially high school) students fail and/or learn to work things out on their own, without parents constantly rescuing them from bad choices. Of course, she doesn’t recommend neglecting our kids—she just sees the harm that comes from rushing in too soon (mostly academically) to protect our kids from learning the actual consequences of their choices.
If we’re always doing things for our kids—including checking in on their homework, hovering anxiously over their grades on PowerSchool or making sure that they done their work (or even doing it for them!)—we are depriving our children of the kinds of mastery and confidence building they’ll need to tackle new challenges. Employers are decrying the sense of entitlement, lack of initiative and “thin-skinned” quality of many of today’s college graduates. They simply have given up working hard or give up in the face of hard work because everything has been smoothed over for many of the more privileged kids that Levine writes about.
On the other hand, if your child was a freshman, a certain amount of double-checking and modeling responsible organizing behaviors for school could be a good thing. On the third hand, if your child already tends to be hyper-responsible and only tends to slack off when you do remind them too much, then getting more involved might not be such a good idea. If your rising junior has a learning disability, or attentional difficulty, then it’s likely you will need to provide some kind of reminding and verification of his work completion. However, it also pays to start working much more behind the scenes and letting the teachers, advisors and class deans do some of this follow-up work (if they’ll willing and able to do it). For some kids, it’s so much less annoying to have your teacher/class advisor ask how something is going, then to have your parent constantly ask about it.
On the fourth hand, if you’ve been pretty involved (or even over involved) in your child’s homework life up until now, it might not be the best idea to just go “cold turkey” and throw him into the abyss...but rather think of an approach that sort of weans him off of your involvement. You could start by telling him that you believe in his ability to do things with fewer reminders, and you’d like to know how he feels about that. If he’s enthusiastic, you could try a “trial period” where you agree to back off with the reminders for a month or two, and then, and only then, check in with his teachers to see how he’s doing. If he’s doing fine, then compliment him, and simply let it go...keep things the way they’ve been going. If he begins to mess up or miss a few assignments, don’t automatically rush in and declare the experiment a “failure” either. He might be testing you and himself to see how much “wiggle room” he has; this is a very normal thing for children and teens to do.
The most important idea, though, in my opinion, is that “one size doesn’t fit all.” Without knowing your son’s history, his academic record, and something about the challenges in the family, it wouldn’t be too smart to give you one strategy that will work or answer “yes” or “no” to the question of whether you’re too involved. To me, that means its time to try some experiments and gather data as in the experiment I suggested above. Don’t be afraid to try something and fail at it, and correct yourself. That’s exactly the lesson you’re trying to teach him, isn’t it?