Dr. Wes and Julia: In reference to your Dec. 25 column, I totally agree that this is a good time to think about what is good about our kids and relate that to them. But in my opinion, this is something we should be doing every single day. I really think that most kids just want their parents to be proud of them, but some of us are so busy reminding them of everything they are doing wrong, we forget to let them know what they are doing right. If we let them know, every day, that we believe that they are good kids, and acknowledge their efforts, then letting them know when they are out of line has a lot more meaning. In addition, we send them out into the world armed with the confidence they need to make goals and achieve them, and to stand up to peer pressure, knowing that we trust them to use the tools we have given them to make good decisions, and that we are behind them every step of the way, even when they fall. Being a kid, especially a teen, can be really hard. It's the least we can do to help them get through it. - Just another Mom
Wes: Well said. The theme we suggested for Christmas should also have been added to our list of New Year's resolutions to remind parents to encourage and support kids year-around. I don't want to diminish the struggle many parents are having in an era of easy access to drugs, sex and peer mistreatment among teens. Things are not always so rosy, and a bit part of Double Take is helping families cope with the thorns of adolescence. However, your advice mirrors our own across many columns: Parents need to be active in the lives of teens and to base that involvement on a hopeful and uplifting perspective. Then when things get hairy, the parent is in a better position to intervene and the teen more prone to listen.
It's also easy to see some problems as inherent to adolescence. While a state of transition and turmoil is to be expected at this age, a great many issues in the teen years stem from unresolved family conflict - not cultural or physical changes. At this particular moment in my career, I see one of the biggest problems as being excess emotional reactivity among parents. In less flowery language, this means that parents are terribly frustrated with some aspect of their lives - money, career, divorce, aging, the war etc. - and that tends to slide downhill upon their children. A big part of remaining hopeful and upbeat for kids is being able to model that yourself. That isn't easy in these trying times, but how we cope will inform our children about how they cope. It's not a coincidence that the "greatest generation" that won World War II grew up during the Great Depression. They learned how to cope from their families who had no choice but to cope, and they are great role models for us in our own trying times.
I suggest parents take a moment each day - or at least a few times a week - to show empathy and hopefulness to their kids in both word and deed. As Julia notes below, too much of a good thing - like praise or reward - can eventually create deaf ears and spoiled kids. However, just as you suggest, an encouraging stance will go a lot further for a lot longer than a long line of interesting lectures on virtue, respect and trust.
Julia: I couldn't agree more. I think both teens and parents can take for granted the effect of a few positive words. It is easy to assume that parents' love for their kids is unconditional and vice versa so there is no reason to validate it. Then the problem arises where, as you said, the parents are only reacting when their child messes up. Recognizing the positive about your teen or your parents is vital to a good relationship, but I think there is a point when it can cross the line. If daily praise becomes obligatory, then it can lose its meaning. Along those same lines, teens' graciousness can falter or just completely go out the window if they're expected to be courteous at any given compliment. However, I think those scenarios are extreme, and as long as the intent behind any kind acknowledgments is heartfelt, there is no problem in expressing appreciation more often.
Next week: A reader asks how young is too young for sex.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.