Tips for Parents of Teens During COVID-19

Prom photos in backyard

My daughter’s senior prom night a few years ago when things were normal.

I’ve been thinking about how teens are feeling — stuck at home with mom and dad. Normally, they’d be seeking independence from their parents and are ready to fly from the nest — which usually means college. But with COVID-19, some universities haven’t opened in close to a year and are offering online classes only. There may be no end in sight for these teens that they will ever leave the nest. Top that off with missing milestones like graduation and prom, the normal every day social life with their friends — I wonder how the kids are surviving? They have been away from their peers for close to a year. I remember how important friends were to me at this age — friends were my world.

In the Los Angeles Times, I read an article called Teens are feeling lonely and anxious in isolation. Here’s how parents can help by Lisa Boone. It offered advice from several mental health experts with tips of how parents can make their kids feel less anxiety during these crazy days of shelter in place. I suggest you read the entire article here.

When my son was a senior in high school, we really had a rough year. He was desperately wanting to be an adult, live his own life, and I was hanging on to motherhood and wanting him to be the child I had loved and known for 18 years. Of course we clashed. I can’t imagine what that year would have been like for us to be stuck at home with each other day and night!

Valedictorian speech

My son at the podium giving his graduation speech.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

As tens of millions of us continue to shelter in place, the most tractable of teens are feeling frustrated and anxious. They miss their former lives. They are uninterested in online classes and don’t want to follow quarantine guidelines anymore. And who can blame them?

Living in seclusion can produce quarantine fatigue, according to South Pasadena-based psychotherapist Noelle Wittliff, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with children, families and adolescents. “Many of the teens at my practice are hitting a wall,” Wittliff said. “They are over it. They want to go outside and connect with their friends. The online connection is just not cutting it.”

Normally adolescence, a developmental period marked by impulsivity and feelings of invincibility, is a time in which teenagers separate from their parents and bond with their peers. Now that families are confined at home, parents are in a peculiar position in which they have to balance the seriousness of the novel coronavirus with their teen’s desire for social interaction.

“Many of our teens are experiencing tremendous loss, and grief is an appropriate response to loss,” Wittliff said. “Depending on the age and school year of the teen, these losses can include proms, graduation ceremonies, end-of-year sports events, dances, parties, school activities, yearbook signings and simple proximity to beloved friends, teachers or significant others. The school shutdowns happened so abruptly that many of the teens that I work with did not have the opportunity to gather belongings from their lockers or classrooms, let alone say meaningful goodbyes to teachers and classmates.

“As parents, it’s important to hold space for all of these feelings and to recognize that teens don’t always communicate sadness in expected ways,” she said. “Sadness is often masked by frustration, irritability, anger or disconnection. These are protective reactions that mask vulnerability. The goal isn’t to take these defense strategies away but rather to be curious about what other feelings might be hiding underneath.”

For teens struggling with maintaining distance from their friends, Wittliff encourages parents to validate those feelings with empathy while reminding them this quarantine is temporary. Also, as a parent or guardian, manage your teenager’s expectations and don’t make promises that won’t come true.

Wittliff offers this advice: “Tell them, ‘I hear you and I know how hard this is. I know how much you miss your boyfriend or girlfriend and your friends but this is what is going on. The entire world is going through this. We are all taking precautions to stay safe.’”

Among the advice offered by experts in this article is to establish a routine — that you let your teen help develop. Try to have a fun activity every day plus get exercise outside. There’s many more tips in the article that are so helpful like practicing mindfulness, cooking, drawing, etc.

Although my daughter has left her teen years behind, she came home to shelter in place and work remotely rather than being in a tiny apartment with two other people.  For the four months she was home, I learned to give her space. I no longer walk into her room unannounced like I would have when she was a five-year-old. I let her come to me instead. We enjoyed an outdoor activity each day like tennis, a walk or smashball in the backyard pool. She rode bikes with her dad in the evenings. We had some great memories, but enough was enough of her life with mom and dad. She moved back to the Bay Area where she could hang out with our son and girlfriends family. Back to life with peers, although still isolated from the life she was used to.

Structure and predictability will help with the passing of time and give teens something to look forward to. “Every day and week that they get through sheltering in place brings them that much closer to getting back to their lives,” Wittliff said. “This is hard, but our kids are resilient. And they will get through it.”

Backyard prom photos by pool

My son’s senior prom. They had a catered dinner in our back yard before the dance.

How are you helping your kids with COVID-19 fears and isolation from friends? What are they missing the most during shelter in place?

 

How to not quite ruin your child

racing dive into pool

A swim meet where my daughter met with college coaches, including the one who would be her college coach.

I read an interesting book about how to parent without really trying. Called Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child,  it was written by James Breakwell. He is a popular author and humorist who can be found on Twitter. His theory is the opposite of helicopter parenting. He believes that all children will turn about the same — mediocre — regardless of parenting techniques. So why knock yourself out with trying to be a perfect parent, raising perfectionist children? He believes in a hands off, bare minimum approach.

As a relentless, overachieving swim mom, I especially enjoyed Chapter 11 “The Path to Athletic Glory” which he crossed out and renamed “Benched.” Breakwell’s advice on sports parenting is to sign your kids up for sports and let it go at that. At some point, they’ll tire of it and you can all move onto something else.

Here are a few excerpts from his sports parenting chapter that gave me a chuckle or belly laugh:

“The real danger sports pose is to you, the parent on the sideline. Kids will damage their bodies and minds. You could lose your immortal soul.”

“The competitive pull of youth sports is hard to resist. Deep down, we all have a primal urge to see our child do better than other people’s kids. It’s the ultimate secondhand validation. If your kid wins, that means you’re better than those other parents, or at least that you passed on better genes. Whatever it was, your kid triumphed because of you. Brag about it to everyone you know. That never gets old.” 

“But while sports parents know everything there is to know about succeeding as an athlete, none of them agree on how to pull it off. There’s more than one way to ruin a childhood. To sports parents, steamrolling their child’s youth will be worth it when their kid hoists whatever arbitrary medal or trophy now defines that kid’s entire existence. Ultimately, sports parents just want their kid to have fun — as long as they win or die trying.”

On Breakwell’s section about parents’ dreams of Olympic glory, he writes that the dream is out of reach. 

“Parents of top gymnasts and swimmers enroll their kids in Soviet-style sports gulags the second they leave the womb….The bottom line is kids don’t just roll out of bed and pull off world-record swimming times or gymnastics scores. Instead they give up their entire childhoods to achieve greatness at those arbitrary scoring metrics.”

If you’re a bare minimum parent, you shouldn’t touch Olympic training with a ten-foot pole. Unless you use that pole to pull your kid out of the training pool. If they swim like me, they could use the help.

So what should you do if your child says they want to be an Olympic athlete? Here’s a sample conversation:

Kid: I want to be an Olympic swimmer.

Parent: No.

Then buy them ice cream. Ice cream fixes everything. Note: This also works on adults.

young kids in the pool

My kids playing in the pool.

Our own family pursued swimming for years — literally from the time my kids were six months old in “Mommy and Me” swim lessons to my daughter’s senior year of college. It took up an enormous amount of our family life, but I believe it was worth it. All children want to be Olympians when they’re young. It’s a great dream and worth encouraging. At some point, they understand that only a few, and I mean two people in the United States, per event, every four years, actually make the Olympic team. With 400,000 swimmers registered in USA Swimming, two per event really is out of reach. But the kids do figure it out on their own.

Not being an Olympian doesn’t mean that swimming isn’t a valuable experience and worth every minute. I guess the point is we didn’t go into the deal — as parents — with any illusion of our kids being Olympians. Funny thing though, one of of their teammates from their age group club team made it to the Beijing and London Olympics, and a college teammate of our daughter has two Olympic medalists for sisters. It can happen, but it’s not the point of enrolling and being in a sport.

Later in the chapter, Breakwell talks about how college scholarships is making your kids work for their college educations. He doesn’t think it’s such a good deal after all. “The problem with college scholarships is that otherwise intelligent people forget that nothing is really free.” I’ll save my thoughts on college scholarships for another day.

college swimmers cheering at swim meet

My daughter and fellow swimmers cheering for a teammate at PAC 12’s.

What are your thoughts about bare minimum parenting as an approach to parenting? 

10 Things Kids Need to Know Before College

After my son left for college, I realized that I had failed big time in teaching life skills. Yes, he had good grades. Yes, he had the right “stuff.” But he was seriously lacking in the basics. I spent time teaching my daughter these skills before it was her turn to leave. She was better prepared for the daily tasks–although that doesn’t necessarily mean life won’t throw you some bumps in the road.

Sheltering in place with our children offers a unique opportunity to look at all the little stuff we can teach them while they’re home. Giving them more responsibility around the home will pay off when they’re away. Here’s a story I wrote several years ago about the consequences of NOT preparing your kids for life:

 

valedictorian giving speech

My son giving his high school Valedictorian speech.

“He tried college a couple times. It just didn’t take,” a dad of one of my son’s friends told me last night at the grocery store.

Next, I got a call from a close friend, whose happy-go-lucky daughter checked herself into a campus hospital, because she felt so overwhelmed and out of control.

Another friend told me their son quit after one semester after too much partying and not enough studying. Yet another mom left on a rescue mission to help a child in need.

What the heck is going on with our kids and college? My own son struggled to find his way his freshman year.  

All of these parents, myself included, believed college was the best and only choice for their kids.imgres-1

Maybe college isn’t for everyone? Maybe we did too much for them? Maybe we didn’t let them fail often or enough?

I’ll talk more about why kids are struggling in college on another day. And if we have an epidemic on our hands.

But, first, I want to share basic things kids need to know before they leave for college. I was often surprised at questions my son would ask me during his first year at college. I’m going to make sure my second child checks off every item on my “top 10 things kids need to know before going to college” list.

  1. Banking skills. Know how to write a check, make a deposit face-to-face with a teller, fill out a deposit slip, and use an ATM card for deposits and withdrawals. Balancing a check-book falls under the banking list.
  2. Laundry. Have your kids do their own laundry so they know how to sort white and colors, hand-wash, hang dry, and fold–and what it feels like to be out of clean clothes. The clean underwear does not appear by magic! imgres-5
  3. Cooking. Teach your child some basic cooking skills like scrambling eggs, making spaghetti, baking a chicken, steaming vegetables and cooking rice. 
  4. Grocery shopping. Just like clean underwear, the food in the fridge doesn’t appear out of thin air. Teach how to make a list, look for coupons, find sale items, and learn how to read unit pricing on shelves.imgres-6
  5. How to get to and from the grocery store. This may seem obvious, but I’ll never forget the phone call I got from Robert: “Mom. I’m at Costco and how do I get home with cases of water, yogurt, and Top Ramen on my bike?”  Hmmm. Good question.
  6. Budgeting. If your child hasn’t worked at a job and you provide their basic necessities, they lack budgeting skills. My son got his first paycheck working a summer retail job. The check was for $175. He bought his girlfriend a dress for $110 and spent the rest on dinner for the two of them. Very romantic, but not practical when he needed to eat the next week and month.
  7. Theft. At college, thieves are everywhere. My first week of college, I hand-washed some sweaters and hung them out to dry in the bathroom. Within minutes — gone. I had a bike stolen from my sorority storage room — and a locked bike stolen when I used a restroom during a ride around Green Lake. My son’s laptop was stolen when he left it in a study area in his dorm. Make sure they have “find my laptop” activated and never leave anything unattended! Don’t use a chain or cable lock for your bike — use a solid bar type. 
  8. Professors. They set aside office hours and only one or two students bother to stop by per semester. They are thrilled to help and meet students face-to-face. This can help for future referrals, references, internships — and grades. Have your kid meet with each professor at least once, every semester. It can’t hurt!images-2
  9. Cars. Basic things like checking tire pressure, oil and water levels, changing tires and pumping gas. Maybe they won’t have a car right away, but at some point they will and car maintenance is not an instinct. It’s a learned skill.
  10. Learn to say no! College means hanging out with friends, listening to music, parties, dances, rallies, job opportunities, football games, intramural sports, going out to eat, etc. Studying is priority number one. Learning to say no will help your kid stay focused.
college grad and pug with mortar boards

My daughter with Waffles preparing for college graduation.

What other essential life skills would you add to the list?

 

If you could travel back in time, what would you change?

stuffed animal party

My kids and a party with stuffed animals.

In an article called “Parenting with the end result in mind” by Jenni Stahlmann and Jody Hagaman, from Pop Parenting printed in the Montgomery Advertiser, they ask the question, “What would change in our parenting if we could see the future adults in these little people we are raising?”

That makes me look at my children today and wonder what would I change if I could? I’d have given them more chores, not picked up after them and let them make more decisions and mistakes. I wouldn’t worry so much about grades, homework, or focus on performance. Would that have changed who they are today? Probably not. My kids are kind people with character. They have compassion and they care for their environment and other people. It would be a little tweak on my part to help them be more self-sufficient and a little steadier on their feet as they explore the years post college graduation.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

How would we talk to them, and what kinds of choices would we make if we were completely aware that we are raising the future parents of our grandkids and someone’s future employee or boss and a future spouse and next door neighbor and someone’s friend — maybe (hopefully) our own future friend and possibly even the person who will one day take care of us when we can’t take care of ourselves.

It’s a powerful perspective. They say hindsight is 20/20, but we don’t have to wait until the aftermath to reap the benefits of that perspective. Humans have the unique ability to project their imaginations forward and then turn around and examine the present from a potential future. We can think about what we want the end result to look like, and we can make decisions to help us get there.

Case in point, when we are fully aware of the future adult standing before us, we will probably react differently than we would if all we could see is the three-year-old who just smashed a jar of spaghetti sauce all over the kitchen while trying to get to the snacks that he’s not supposed to take without permission in the first place.

For one thing, keeping the end result in mind is a great way of remembering that most of the mistakes our kids make are just part of their learning and maturing process. The challenges of the toddler and preschool years are just a season. The emotional battles of the teen years are also just a season.

beach walk

Beach walk with my daughter and husband.

What would you do differently if you could look back in time?

When is time to press the pause button?

my kids at the beach

Just breathe!

One of my kids’ principals from elementary school talked about the “mother bear” syndrome. It’s that creature that comes out of our skin when we think our child is being harmed. The mother bear may come out when our child is being bullied, or comes home upset about something their teacher or coach said.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with that gut-wrenching feeling when we want to protect our child. It starts with a burst of adrenaline and may result into marching into the principal’s office or picking up the phone to chew out a parent about their kid being mean.

In a parenting article, ‘To make sound decisions, employ the power of the pause,” in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Jenni Stahlmann and Jody Hagaman offer tips that will help us as parents as well as in the rest of our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

The pause is the space you intentionally create in your mind to pull back from circumstances and retreat into a quiet corner of your psyche — a place where you can calm your nerves, think about the end result that you want to achieve and plan the steps you will take to reach it.

The pause can mean the difference between reacting out of raw emotion and responding out of rational choices. Often, it can mean the difference between strengthening and ruining relationships.

Few things spark an explosion in our emotional state like a conflict can. But when we pause, sometimes even excusing ourselves from the room, we can take slow, deep breaths to calm our bodies and regulate the fight or flight hormones that are coursing through our veins. We can pray or meditate for a few minutes, and then we can ask ourselves a few critical questions:

– What emotions am I feeling?

– What triggered these emotions?

– What is the root problem here?

– What is my role in fixing the problem?

– What is the best outcome in this situation?

– What is the best way to reach that outcome?

Instead of reacting to a situation from the intense emotions sparked by the conflict, the pause gives you the advantage of responding thoughtfully, carefully and calmly.

I used to be an emotional parent who would react at the slightest wrong-doing I perceived. Through the years, I learned to wait at least 24 hours before taking action. Action to me meant sending an email, making a phone call or showing up in person for a face-to-face meeting. Often, after I slept on it, I had clarity. In most cases, the problem went away on its own. Then a new one would pop up. Can you imagine how much energy and outrage it would take if I reacted to every uncomfortable moment my kids encountered?

Now, I use the pause in my own life if there’s something I need to deal with. I weigh the pros and cons, decide what outcome I want–and if it’s worth the energy to pursue at all. It makes life run smoother in the long run. I’ve written about this here.

My kids call and ask for advice on how to handle a situation at work or with a roommate. I offer the same advice of taking a pause. Wait a day or two before making a decision. When we’re flooded with emotion, it’s hard to make the right one.

I think we can also use the pause button when interacting with our kids. If they are upset or angry with us, it’s time to press that pause button. We need to be the adult and not react in the heat of the moment or when we’re feeling hurt. A lot of pain can be avoided by taking a moment to reflect and think before we speak.

From the article:

As parents, we can also coach our kids through this process. When we see emotions begin to spike, we can gently pull the child aside, help them calm down and then walk them through the same problem solving questions that we would ask ourselves.

IMG_3516

Walking outside and enjoying nature can put things in perspective.

Do you have any other tips to offer for making rational decisions when we get upset? Please share below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About That Unsolicited Parenting Advice…

brother and sister playing at the beach

My kids when they like to eat chicken fingers.

When my kids were young, I’d often get unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends and family members — and even complete strangers. I read with interest this article by Meghan Moravcik Walbert called Keep Every Single Parenting Opinion to Yourself for a website called Lifehacker.com. 

We’re living in a particularly divided country right now, but we are lucky to still have one great rage-inducing unifier among parents: We do not want your unsolicited opinions about our parenting. This is especially true if you do not have children of your own. (Dogs don’t count.)

I have to believe author Jill Filipovic simply wanted to argue about something unrelated to the literal end of our democracy when she tweeted this sparkling gem of an opinion recently:

Jill Filipovic
@JillFilipovic
I know the thing parents hate most is when non-parents assert what they will do as parents which is inevitably smug and incorrect, but I am 100% sure I will never assent to a “kid’s menu” or the concept of “kid food.”

In a follow-up tweet, she rhetorically ponders, “Do you think children in most of the world order off of a ‘kids menu’ and survive primarily off of chicken fingers and plain pasta?”

It seems her argument is that kids should have more variety in their diets, ignoring that kids’ menus exist to offer smaller, significantly cheaper portions of food for children to make it affordable and less wasteful when families go out to eat. But see, this is why parenting opinions from non-parents is so universally grating: They’re blind to fundamental aspects of parenting that are obvious to those of us who have actually done it.

Yes, you’re very smart, and you’ll introduce your kids to lots of flavors, and they’ll always eat exactly what you eat because there’s no way you’ll cook one meal for you and a separate meal for them. If you become a parent, what’s more likely is that we can look forward to hearing you say, “No, honey, you have to buy the dinosaur-shaped nuggets; he doesn’t like the regular ones.”

I have one dear friend, well more than one, who constantly criticized the bland
“kid food” I served my children. We would go to a friend’s and stay for a long weekend and I’d bring food for my kids to eat — things I knew they’d like. Yes, my groceries included chicken fingers. My friend didn’t understand why my kids wouldn’t want to consume her kale with quinoa or homemade chile rellenos. She’d point out another friend of hers who had kids who loved to eat all her veggies and her adult flavored dishes. My kids liked carrots, snap peas and the like — especially dipped in ranch dressing. At a young age, their taste buds were more sensitive to spice. It wasn’t long before they grew into more adult diets and indulged in sushi and spicy Mexican food. As adults they love to eat vegetables and they cook healthy and interesting meals. No, they are not living off of chicken fingers.

The point is that I’d get criticized by friends and family members who didn’t have kids, or had children who were infants or teenagers. They weren’t dealing with kids three to seven years old and they either hadn’t been through those experiences or they forgot about those glorious days.

I used to ask my kids what they wanted to eat. My daughter always said chicken. Once I made pan-fried sole for dinner. She said, “Now this is the chicken I like!” That was eye-opening to me, because I didn’t realize that she was calling most foods “chicken!”

One of my friends had a son a couple years younger than my kids. We were at a family-fun restaurant and her toddler son kept jumping out of the high chair. She said, “I really owe you an apology. All of those things I criticized or tried to give you advice about — I had no idea!”

There’s more great examples in the article about unsolicited advice and how parents think they would NEVER raise their voice at their children (who aren’t born yet). Read the entire article for yourself here. It’s an entertaining read.

Here’s another article I’ve written about unsolicited advice. Read it here.

children climbing on me at the beach

Life at the beach with two young kids.

What funny experiences have you had with people giving you unsolicited parenting advice?

Top Tip for Parents: Don’t Speak

 

swimmer in pool

My daughter swimming on her own during vacation.

“The first rule of sports (and all) parenting: Don’t speak,” is a great article I read in the Washington Post by Nancy Star:

 

Your child doesn’t have to play in the Super Bowl for you to know the feeling. Their team was supposed to win and then they didn’t. What do you do? Being the mother of two girls who played soccer and ran track, I thought I knew the answer: Talk it through. Tell them you love them. Say it’s just a game. Remind them there’s always a next time. Isn’t that what good parenting is all about? Keeping channels of communication open even in tough moments?

Turns out the answer is no. I learned this when I had a “don’t speak” moment.

I understand this all too well. After my kids had a disappointing swim, I’d try to reassure them. I wanted to take away their hurt and make them feel better. Most often after I’d say, “That wasn’t so bad,” or “You have another swim ahead,” I’d be met with negativity and a statement like “I sucked!”

I’d get a barrage of negativity that would take me by surprise. I never figured out that I wasn’t making it better for my kids, but was making them feel worse. They weren’t ready to talk about a bad swim with me and “hash and rehash,” as my daughter would say. I read in a David Benzel sports parenting book, “From Chump to Champ,” that we should wait for our kids to talk to us. We need to be there and listen. But, if we start the conversation first, even with the best intentions, they’ll probably pull away and stay quiet. They want to please us so much and may take any little thing we say personally, as though they’ve let us down. It’s best to be quiet and listen. They may surprise us and open up more than ever if we let them take the lead.

By telling them, “But you looked so good” you are expressing that you aren’t listening to how your child feels. If they are disappointed and we try to make them feel better, we end up making them believe their feelings aren’t valid or important to us.

Here’s more from the Washington Post article with the mom watching her daughter’s varsity soccer team lose their final meet. She received advice from a dad, Peter, who had more experience with soccer parenting and she followed it.

“Their lead slipped to a tie toward the end of the second half. In the last minute of play there was a stumble, scrambling and a goal for the other team.

Parents supplied transportation for home games, so we waited while our daughters gave sullen high-fives to the winners and then huddled with their coach, listening as he shared his disappointment. When he was done they separated and, backpacks slung over shoulders, trudged across the field toward where we stood.

Watching their grim faces approach I wished a meteorologist were present to confirm my suspicion that 22 high school girls who’ve just lost a chance at a state title can change the atmosphere, collectively sucking the light out of the sky. Their fury was frightening.

But Peter had been through this before. “Don’t speak,” he said. As I started to turn my head he added, “Don’t look. Just walk. Go to your car. She’ll find you.”

I tried not to move my lips as I objected. “All I want to say is I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” he advised. “Don’t speak. Not until she talks to you.”

Because he had been through this before, I listened and walked to my car alone. I felt her before I saw her, walking silently beside me. Reassuring phrases immediately formed in my brain but, channeling Peter, I said nothing.

A moment later I noticed her teammates walking with their parents, mothers mostly, who offered words of consolation. “Are you okay?” and “You played well,” and “There’s always next time.” To me the words sounded gentle and kind.

The girls did not agree. “No,” they snapped, and “I sucked,” and “There won’t be a next time.”

By the time we reached the car, every daughter except mine was crying and the moms were, understandably, annoyed and lashing back. “Why are you yelling at me?” and “Being upset is no excuse for being rude.”

We were silent on the ride home, silent as I turned on to our street. It was when I pulled into the driveway that my daughter finally spoke. “That was such a bad game.”

I nodded.”

How do you handle your children’s athletic or academic disappointment?

 

teammates cheering swimmer at PAC 12s

Cheering on a teammate at the PAC 12 Champs.