Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On Raising Teens ...

A friend of mine recently asked if I had any advice on raising teens, especially those who are new to high school. While I don’t claim to be an expert, I did have some thoughts come to mind that I shared with her. I thought I would also share them with you.

So here are 10 things to consider when raising teens.

1. Have a plan and have words to say when something doesn’t go right with peers.

There are lots of ways to do this, but the first step is talking to your teen. There’s no doubt that your teen will eventually be put in an uncomfortable position. Maybe a friend offers them drugs or alcohol. Maybe they get to a party and realize no parents are home or things are happening they don’t agree with. Maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend is pressuring them sexually.

The biggest favor you can do for your teen is help them make a plan on what to do and what to say when this happens. I have told my boys to blame me on whatever the issue is that makes them uncomfortable. “My mom will ground me for life if I do that.” Whether that’s true or not, it’s easy to blame the fun-hater parent. Other words they can use are, “I’m not feeling well and need to leave.” They could offer a simple, “no thanks,” or “I’m not into that.” We have a text code if I need to come rescue them from a situation.

Whatever the situation, prepare, prepare, prepare. It’s much easier to make a mistake when you haven’t thought through your response before it happens.

2. Help your teen open his or her own checking account.

Not only does having a checking account help teach teens responsibility and money management, it helps them prioritize what they really want and what they can live without. I love being able to say to my sons, “Do you have money for that?” So, I give them a monthly allowance. When they are out of money, they are out. If they want to spend all of their money on icees and donuts, power to them. But I don’t bail them out when they REALLY want to go to that movie or REALLY want that new fidget spinner.

Sometimes I will offer them more money for a job they do for me, or I give them some extra money if something unexpected and important comes up, but I mostly let them learn from their mistakes. It is important to open an account that you have access to and performs the functions you want it to. For example, I have my son’s account setup to not let his debit card go through if there is not enough money in the account. This way insufficient funds fees are not accrued.

3. Encourage your teen to have a job.

I started talking to my 15-year-old son before his freshman year about working. He has now started a little lawn mowing business with a friend. I have told him that he needs to save as much money as possible now so that he will have money to do things with friends and buy gas for his car during the school year.

A job also teaches responsibility. And hopefully it will also teach the importance of getting a strong education.

4. Model the type of behavior you hope your teen has when he or she isn’t with you.

There was this moment recently when I had the opportunity to do something nice for someone in front of my son. While I might have done it anyway, I jumped at the chance to do it since I knew my son was watching. I want my boys to know that kindness is the most important trait there is, and that it is valued in our home. Modeling kindness is my way of hoping my boys will practice kindness, too.

This goes for chores around the house, too. I will ask my son to pick up a room and I will get back, “but that’s not my mess.” I remind him that we do things for others in our family. Hopefully this will carry over into life.

This is not the easiest thing on this list. Sometimes I am having a bad day or I’m in a bad mood and don’t especially want to model the type of behavior that I want from my kids. It is the MOST important to model the behavior now. These are the days I tend to make a mistake. So the most important modeling I do is apologizing when I do make a mistake. It is so easy to make an excuse instead of an apology because I am the adult. However, if I want my boys to be compassionate, apologetic men who own up to making mistakes, I have to do the same thing. I have to tell them I am sorry and ask for forgiveness when I am wrong. We are all human and all make mistakes, so owning my mistakes is important.

5. Teach your teen life skills, such as checking out at the grocery store, filling a prescription and making appointments.

I had a great moment recently. My boys and I were headed to an end-of-school banquet for my oldest son and our family was supposed to bring dessert. As we pulled up to the store, I gave my son my debit card and told him to pick out a dessert that he would like to have for the banquet. Amazingly, he hopped out of the car, ran inside, and came out two minutes later with iced sugar cookies. No complaining. No arguing. No weeping and gnashing of teeth. He. Just. Did. It.

This is a big deal because there was a time when he would have panicked and refused. So, that was when I started teaching him how to check out at the grocery store. I also have taught him how to go into a bank by himself and make a deposit, how to get gas, and how to refill a prescription. My kids have also known how to order off a menu since they were old enough to read.

While these seem like small life skills, they can become crippling chores to a youth who doesn’t know how to do them and who doesn’t feel confident in doing them. Walking through a process of a small task can seem obvious to those of us who have done it a million times, but to a teen, it can seem intimidating at best.

6. Let your teen make non-life altering mistakes … and suffer the consequences.

Your teen is going to make mistakes. Lots of them. Most of them hopefully will not be life altering. (Those are the types of mistakes you should help prevent.)

The tricky thing for parents is letting your son or daughter suffer the consequences of their mistakes and not rescuing them. Maybe the mistake is a bad grade on his report card, or a traffic ticket. Maybe it is oversleeping and getting an unexcused tardy. Whatever the mistake, we humans tend to learn the hard way. When we rescue our kids all the time, we prevent them from learning and teach them to always ask someone else to help them out of a jam.

There is nothing wrong in asking for help. But it does our kids a disservice when we protect them from natural consequences, such as paying a ticket, taking a tardy, or not getting the grade they want in a class.

7. Know your teen’s friends and their friends’ parents.

This may not be your teen’s favorite piece of advice. However, there might not be anything much more important on this list. Especially when starting high school and being introduced to a  new group of peers, it is extremely important to get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. You want to know who your teen is hanging out with and where. You also want to trade numbers (at minimum) with their friends’ parents so you can text or call to follow up on your teen’s plans to sleepover or go to a party.

I asked my older son this year if he minded if I was in the room when his friends are over. His response was, “No, just don’t make it awkward.” That seemed challenging, so I asked what that meant. “You know, at least talk to them and stuff.” I agreed and asked my son to tell me when things got awkward. He has. My favorite was when he said, “Mom! Don’t get all school counselory on my friends!” Point taken, son.

This has also led me to have great conversations with his friends and get to know them as best as I can. I can usually discern who the teens are that I hope my son hangs out with and who I hope he avoids. This also leads me to have more conversations with my son about his friends, and that is a win-win for me.

8. Communicate with teachers, but teach your child to communicate with them, as well.

This year, I put the ball in my son’s court when it came to school. So, I told all his teachers that I expected my son to take responsibility for his work. This is helpful for a couple of reasons. Teachers LOVE for your teen to take responsibility for his or her own work. They also LOVE when I email them and ask if my son talked to them about his missing assignment. I usually get a, “nope.”

That’s when I follow up with my son and ask if he has talked to his teacher. If not, I help him remember by giving consequences for not following through. We have a No Zeros Policy at our house. As long as my kids are doing the work, I am pretty easy going. When they have a zero, I can get pretty intense. I explain that bosses don’t forgive missing work, so I want to help them for when they are older.

9. Remind them that having privileges also means having responsibility.

This drives my younger son crazy because he thinks he deserves all of the privileges my older son gets. In fact, my 12 year old thinks I should let him drive around the block since my older son has a learner’s permit. Not happening.

What I remind my younger son is that with great privilege comes great responsibility. The more you get, them more you give. One example might be that your 16 year old gets to drive, and gets to take his sibling to practice. Or maybe your older child has more or more difficult chores than your younger child, but also gets a bigger allowance. Whatever it looks like, let their responsibilities grow as their privileges grow.

When my older son had trouble waking up when his alarm was going off in the morning, I gently reminded him about all the privileges he gets and about how maybe those privileges should go away if he can't get himself out of bed in the morning. It was amazing to see how he suddenly heard his alarm clock in the mornings after that reminder.

10. Show them you love them.

This IS the most important thing on the list. Loving your teen might look like public hugs, favorite meals, and verbal affirmations. Or it might look like not letting them have a zero or not letting them go to a friend’s house when you have a bad feeling about it.

Even though it looks different every day, be sure to tell your children how much you love them and explain to them that is why you are doing what you are doing. It isn’t to be a mean mom or dad, and it isn’t to ruin his life. It is to make sure he lives to see another day and grows to be the amazing man I know he can be.

Loving your child is the most natural you can do as a parent, but sometimes is the he hardest thing to convey to your child. There are days when it will be a breeze and days when loving them is all you can do because you don’t like them very much. That’s OK! Just don’t ever stop loving them and telling them that you do. It is a game changer.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Why I Don't Want My Kids Watching '13 Reasons Why'

A new series on Netflix, "13 Reasons Why," focuses on high schools students and what it's like to be a teenager in today's America. I watched the series with the intention on being informed about what teens are watching. If it were not for that purpose, I would not have finished watching the series.

The premise of the series is the main character, Hannah Baker, kills herself and leaves behind the 13 reasons why she ended her life. Each reason is a story about a person who she believes did her wrong. Each story is an episode. The series is based off a young adult novel by the same title by Jay Asher published several years ago.

The series is narrated by Hannah through the cassette tapes she leaves behind. The other main character, Clay, struggles to understand why he is on the tapes and also vows to seek revenge on behalf of Hannah. 

It was clear to me that Hannah also sought vengeance by leaving behind these tapes that would ruin the lives of the people on them if the tapes were exposed. Much of the series is spent trying to make sure the tapes aren't exposed by the people on the tapes.

The subjects of the tapes are on them for various reasons. One person sent a misleading photo of Hannah to others making it look like she had sex with him. Another character is trying to hide the fact that she kissed Hannah and was in the closet as a lesbian. Another was on the tape for raping an unconscious girl at a party and Hannah witnessed it. The bottom line is there are serious reasons that most of the people on the tapes are there. The exception could be that Clay didn't tell her he loved her and care for her the way she hoped he would. 

There are many problems with the series that concern me.

The Graphic Nature of the Series

This series is rated TV-MA. But I believe that it was written for adolescent audiences. It is also on Netflix, so if parents don't have parent controls on and don't ask what their son or daughter is watching, the will not know. 

Besides the drugs and alcohol use, the crimes committed, the profanity, and the bullying, there are three scenes that are still burned in my mind. There are two of the most graphic rape scenes I have ever watched, and there is the scene where Hannah slits her wrists in the bath tub and blood comes squirting out of her arms.

One of the rapes is of a drunk and barely conscious girl at a party. Viewers watch the actual rape. There is nothing implied, it is the real deal. The other rape is also at a party and it is violent. This time the rape is of Hannah, who goes home and discovers bruises all over her body from where the rapist held her down to rape her.

The suicide scene is the worst thing I have ever seen on any movie or show. It wasn't just the blood that was troubling; it was the process Hannah goes through to commit the act. She steals razors, puts on old clothes, and leaves the water running in the tub. While the director has stated that he hoped the scene would not glamorize suicide, I fear it has done just that. In fact, in the book the suicide is attempted by overdosing. The director has said he changed it so that others would not attempt suicide. 

Additionally, viewers watch as her parents discover her body and their reaction to their child having killed herself. 

The Lack of Resources

The only time in the series where any kind of help is offered to viewers is in the epilogue. The epilogue offers viewers a web site to go to for resources. 

I believe it is grossly irresponsible to not put a hotline number and web site for troubled adolescents to contact if they are thinking of hurting themselves or need help at the end of every episode.  I questions how many teen viewers will take the time to watch the wrap-up episode after the series completes. 

On the web site given on the epilogue, there are talking points about the series. This is one of the only helpful offerings of the site. I wish the talking points would have been highlighted at any point in the credits at the end of any episode. 

Kids are Watching

When my 15 year old son found out I was watching this series, he told me many of his friends were watching, too. After I finished the series, I tearfully asked him not to watch and to ask his friends to please talk to an adult about the series. While a few teens are mature enough and prepared to watch this series, I believe the majority of teens are neither. 

While the intention might have been to create a dialogue about bullying, rape, and suicide, many teen viewers cannot think critically enough to see that intent. Instead I believe they get a message that suicide is the only way out, that adults can't be trusted with their problems, that revenge is something that should be sought, and that partying in high school is cool and acceptable.

My 12-year-old son, who is in the sixth grade, begged me to watch the series because he said, "all my friends are watching it." He named a list of about a dozen of his friends who are watching. While I question whether or not a 16 year old is mature enough to watch, there is no doubt in my mind that a 12 year old is not mature enough to watch. 

Furthermore, because it is on Netflix, there is a likelihood that their parents are unaware that they are watching. If the parents are aware of what they are watching, unless they watch with their child or watch before their child, it's hard to understand how serious and graphic the series is, especially in a brain where the frontal lobe is just starting to develop.

Vulnerable Youth

While most adolescents won't watch the series and think that suicide is the only way out, I worry specifically about youth who are already vulnerable. Whether they have had a previous suicide attempt, they have been sexually assaulted, they have experienced another type of trauma, or they are battling mental illness, sorting through the issues in this series might be too much for them.

The series offers no other solutions to Hannahs problems. Whether it was bullying, reporting a sexual assault, friendship issues, or any of the others issues shown, suicide was the answer. So much so that another character in the show attempts suicide in the final episode.

As an educator and school counselor, it is my worst nightmare that a vulnerable youth will watch this series and as a result idolize Hannah and believe what she did was ok or something they should do themselves. 

Talk to Your Own Kids

As you can see, I feel strongly about the dangers of youth watching this series. I take them very seriously.

If your child has watched this series, please talk to them about it. Talk to them about what they saw and how it made them feel. Talk about any issues they saw with the characters. Talk to them about anything they are worried about or want to talk about.

Here are some questions to ask your child and conversation starters that go along with the series: 

  • Have you ever thought about suicide?
  • Are you suicidal now? If so, do you have a plan?
  • Do you know what it means to be raped?
  • Do you understand sexual consent?
  • Do you know what to do if someone makes you feel uncomfortable with the way they touch you, act or say?
  • Do you know what to do if you go to a party and feel uncomfortable?
  • Do you understand some of the consequences of drinking alcohol?
  • What words would you say to someone who wanted you to do something you didn’t want to do? (Drink alcohol, do drugs, have sex, etc.)
  • Have you ever been bullied? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever been cyberbullied? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever bullied or cyberbullied someone else?
  • Do you have a trusted adult that you could talk to? (parent, grandparent, family friend, teacher, counselor, principal, pastor, etc.)

Finally, I am not alone in how I feel about this series. Many articles have come out with the same concerns. Here are a few:

Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' Carries Danger of Glorifying Suicide, Experts Say

Parents, Talk to Your Kids About '13 Reasons Why'

A Guide for Parents in Response to New Series

'13 Reasons Why' Offers the Wrong Solution to Teen Struggles 

'13 Reasons Why' Promised to Raise Awareness About Teen Mental Health. That Backfired.

If you need resources after talking to your child, here are a few: 

If you have more questions or concerns, I encourage you to contact your child’s school and speak with his/her school counselor. School counselors should be knowledgeable about the resources available in your area and specific ways the school can help you.

This is a series that can be dangerous. Please talk to your kids.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Guide for Parents in Response to New Series

A new series released was on March 31, 2017, on Netflix titled, “13 Reasons Why.” The premise behind this series is a high school girl kills herself and leaves behind cassette tapes of the 13 reasons why she killed herself. Each of the reasons is actually a person who she believes wronged her in some way.
The series contains 13 episodes and an epilogue with this series. In each episode, the girl who killed herself narrates the episode through the cassette tapes she has left behind. Her request is for each of the people who are the “reasons” why she killed herself to listen to the tapes and then pass them onto the next person.
There are many serious themes discussed in this series and many graphic portrayals of these themes. Some of those include:
  • Suicide (main character slits her wrists in a bathtub)
  • Rape of an intoxicated and unconscious girl at a party
  • Violent rape of the main character
  • Self-injury (character says she does it “so I won’t kill myself”)
  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse by many characters
  • Gun violence
  • Fatal car wreck involving drunk driving
  • Fighting at school
  • Bullying
  • Gender based violence and discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sex
  • Law breaking
  • Profanity
In the final episode, the girl who kills herself sees her school counselor because she is “giving life one more chance.” She confides in him that she wants life to be done. She also indicates that she was sexually assaulted at a party. In the episode, the counselor does not ask her if she is thinking of suicide. Additionally, he tells her that if she won’t name the person who raped her (which she will not), then her only option is to “move on.”
The character leaves the counselor’s office, hoping he will follow her, but he does not. She then says the school counselor is the 13th reason why she killed herself. The character then goes home and kills herself by getting into the bathtub and slitting her wrists.
A few of the episodes have warnings at the beginning of the episodes notifying viewers that some scenes may be found to be disturbing. A suicide hotline number and other resources are provided in the epilogue. The epilogue refers to a 13 Reasons Why web site, which has some resources, including 13 Reasons Why Talking Points.
Many teens and younger children are watching the series. I want to encourage you to reach out to your child and talk to them. Find out if they are watching or have watched the series. If so, talk to them about the series and how they felt when watching. Another option would be to watch the series with your child. This way, you could start talking to them about what they are watching right away.
Here are some important questions to consider asking your son or daughter, whether or not they have watched the series:
  • Have you ever thought about suicide?
  • Are you suicidal now? If so, do you have a plan?
  • Do you know what it means to be raped?
  • Do you understand sexual consent?
  • Do you know what to do if someone makes you feel uncomfortable with the way they touch you, act or say?
  • Do you know what to do if you go to a party and feel uncomfortable?
  • Do you understand some of the consequences of drinking alcohol?
  • What words would you say to someone who wanted you to do something you didn’t want to do? (Drink alcohol, do drugs, have sex, etc.)
  • Have you ever been bullied? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever been cyberbullied? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever bullied or cyberbullied someone else?
  • Do you have a trusted adult that you could talk to? (parent, grandparent, family friend, teacher, counselor, principal, pastor, etc.)

Although these questions might be uncomfortable, it is important to have these conversations with your child. It is important to talk through “what ifs” so if your child gets into an uncomfortable situation, they have a plan of action and words to say. Here is an article that offers tips on having hard conversations with your child.

If you have concerns about your son or daughter, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. There are many great resources available for parents. Here are a few:

If you have more questions or concerns, I encourage you to contact your child’s school and speak with his/her school counselor. School counselors should be knowledgeable about the resources available in your area and specific ways the school can help you.

Finally, if you do not want your son or daughter to watch this series or other shows with specific ratings, web sites such as Netflix do have parental controls that are easy to use. Go to the settings on your account to check out how to set parental controls specific to your family.