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In last week’s blog I offered a list of some REAL questions I’ve received from REAL parents. You may have noticed that they were quite broad-ranging! That’s because during the parenting of teens, we’re putting the “finishing touches” on kids…for a lifetime (mostly)! And, there’s SOOO much they need to know to make it in the bigger world. The broad categories of questions were:

thanks to Logan Weaver, from Unsplash

A zillion social lessons; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?

All quiet on the home front?

Navigating a budding world of romance and sexuality

And, about dealing with those adults!

THE Biggest Question of All

The questions can be grouped in several ways. We’ll be unpacking them in these categories over the next few weeks. Let’s begin with the social lessons which teens have to learn.

A zillion lessons in social interactions; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?

If you think of the social differences between a 10-year old and a 20-year old, it’s easy to see all the social maturation which has happened. There are two key developmental tasks underway in teens:

  • The first is figuring out “Who am I?” (Identity);
  • The second is “How will I be in relationships with other people?” (Intimacy)

As most middle school kids round the bend from childhood to adolescence, their positive sense of self seems to evaporate. She used to be so bold but now her clothing can cause a complete meltdown, “I CAN’T go…I have nothing to wear!” Before she figures out “who am I?”, her sense of self, her sense of identity is very fragile. She (or he) may often derive identity from the group she belongs to: I’m a volleyball kid; I do choir; I am one who sits at this lunch table. Belonging gives her a sense of who she is while she figures out her more unique, singular identity. That critical growth period may feel a little like a crab who’s outgrown and shed its shell: fragile, vulnerable and unprotected. If something happens to rock the group-boat (which it almost ALWAYS does), our kid can topple out…leaving her feeling left out, excluded. For a while, she can feel pretty desperate…which of course, makes her less socially attractive. Likewise, she may feel a loss of resilience and a bit anxious to venture out again socially.

Watching from the sidelines can be an “invitation” to parents to return to old, often-buried feelings of middle school insecurity from their own past. We ache because we KNOW how that feels. But, and here’s the good part, we also know some stuff about how to solve or at least endure it. If I were to ask you right now, how did you make it through a similar period of social suffering and growth, I’ll bet you’d have some wisdom. Add your wisdom to these tips:

1. NOTICE, really notice others. You can help your kid learn to take the focus off themselves and notice others by offering coaching questions:

  • What are they (the other kids) thinking, feeling, wanting?
  • Do you notice they have moments of hesitation, insecurities?
  • Some kids learn to cover their own insecurities… Is being mean or exclusionary ever self-protective?
  • Does it work in the end?
  • As you notice the kids around you, are there some others who may be feeling like you do…who might be open to friendship?

Guiding understanding with gentle “I wonder” or “I’ve noticed” statements/questions can lead kids to consider factors in friendship. Like, “I’ve noticed that some girls in your grade seem a little too eager to make friends, almost desperate. I wonder if other girls like that? How would they even spot a desperate kid? What behaviors say ‘I’m desperate?’ Why do other kids steer clear of those kids, I wonder.”

2. Experiment with auditioning friends. Kids often feel whipped around by the social choices of other kids. But what if we empower our kid to be in the drivers’ seat? It might start with a question like: What IS a good friend anyway? What do you look for in a friend? We may want to pursue that line and ask, If this is what being a good friend is, are YOU practicing doing that with others? In other words, are YOU a good friend?

By suggesting a friendship-audition, we help our kid lower the risk factor, “I can try to talk to him and if he is mean, I know I wouldn’t want him as a friend.” An “audition” also suggests that not everyone makes the cut! YOU get to choose who will treat you well, who you’d like to be around.

3. How will you recharge your social batteries to get out there and try again? We can liken home to a port in the storm. If our kid has been having a rough time at sea, it’s okay to return to harbor for a bit. Teaching kids to ask themselves, “What do I need right now?” is an excellent preliminary step toward managing their own mental health.  

Recharging your social batteries may include doing your favorite hobbies, going to visit a loving grandparent, playing with the dog. It may even include some conversation with your parents about anxiety and resilience.

First, let me say that anxiety is a GREAT thing: it’s meant to protect us from harm. Help your kid learn to examine their sense of anxiety and sort threats into: small; pay-attention-but-don’t-get-alarmed; and holy-smokes-get-outta-here-now. So many things they worry about are truly not threatening. Remind yourself (and them) that uncomfortable is do-able. Talk together about how to approach uncomfortable but do-able challenges. What do you, and they, know about that? What has worked in the past? How might you employ that tactic here? If you can, together come up with an experiment (Remember, an “experiment” is a low risk strategy. If it doesn’t work, oh well, I was just experimenting…now I know more) Agree to check in later to see how it went, what they learned, how they might want to refine it for next time. AND CONGRATULATE them for taking action…even the tiniest steps.

With so many social lessons during teen years, these steps may be ones you’ll return to again and again…and which they’ll learn to use to help themselves:

  • Notice, REALLY notice what’s going on with others around you.
  • Find a way to experiment with getting what you want.
  • Figure out what you need to recharge your batteries in order to try again.

Next time we’ll consider questions about “Are things all quiet on the home front?” Not likely! Hope to see you then.