Friday, November 20, 2009
Author gives teen parents “rules of play” and tips to improve communications by Cecile Sandwen
Jennifer Marshall Lippincott is a vivacious redhead with a master’s degree in human development from Harvard, a new book and a message for parents: yes, you can talk to your teenagers, but there’s no secret sauce. “You’re not going to leave here thinking ‘now I know what to say!’” she warned the middle and high school parents who gathered in the Concord-Carlisle High School auditorium on Monday. “It’s all about the relationship that establishes the connection. And there’s only one way to form a connection, and that’s through conversations.” That is the focus of Lippincott’s new book entitled Seven Things Your Teenage Won’t Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway.
Lippincott has spent the past 20 years studying and working with teens, and says she still loves them “with their jagged edges, raw sense of humor, and piercing honesty, especially about you.” But she admits to the difficulties that parents have communicating with beings who may explode emotionally at the wrong word or tone of voice. In fact, she defines adolescence as starting when your child gives you “that look” and ending in the mid-twenties when he or she is “beyond mortification.”
“Sit tight, it’s a long ride,” says Lippincott. Along the way, a parent’s goal should be to “help them prove to themselves that they can make good decisions consistently and reliably.” She adds, “Our job is not to take the trip for them, but to point out the sights and sounds of danger.”
Three “rules of play”
She recommends three “rules of play” that should govern all adolescent interactions with parents: stay safe, show respect and keep in touch. Of these, “Respect is by far my favorite. It’s the single most important gift to give kids.” It encompasses a wide swath and includes not only respect for parents, but for friends, their own bodies, their brains, their education, their room, their home and their community.
One way to foster respect is to show it by acknowledging your child’s thoughts and feelings, says Lippincott, “The respect we give them will eventually come back.” In addition, “Don’t think anything you say or do is not noticed,” because your child will follow your model. She notes that a recent CCHS incident in which a student wrote threats on a bathroom wall provided a perfect opportunity for a conversation about respect.
Staying safe involves both physical and psychological safety – avoiding feelings of desperation, loneliness, melancholy or victimization. Teenagers are enticed by risk at a time when judgment may be lacking. This is why keeping in touch is important. It involves not only conversing, but “maintaining the fidelity of the connection” by discussing thoughts and feelings.
Lippincott then offered seven points to keep in mind while interacting with your adolescent.
• Their brains are to blame.
• Truth is as malleable as their Friday night plans.
• Controlling them is not the point.
• Their mirrors are distorted.
• Friends don’t matter as much as we think.
• When we say “no” they hear “maybe.”
• Taking risks gives them power.
Brain development doesn’t end until age 20, and the last part to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, says Lippincott. This is the seat of judgment, impulse control, abstract thinking, long-term memory and identification of cause and effect. In adolescents, “The airport is built, but the control tower’s not finished,” she explains, noting teens are often prey to impulsivity, anger and sadness. They are also less able to read emotional signals than adults.
The good news is that teens are “very teachable” as a “tsunami of brain cells” floods the brain. Unused cells will be sloughed off, while the rest will make permanent connections. During this time music, reading, conversation and sports can foster brain development. Daydreaming is important and encourages innovation and creativity.
Teen brains are sensitive to alcohol, drugs and stress. Alcohol and drugs “kill brain cells that don’t return,” warns Lippincott. The stressed adolescent brain can reach a constant state of arousal under which it can’t effectively process information. In addition, adolescents under stress are 100% more likely to use drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps the most counter-intuitive of Lippincott’s seven points concerned the myth that friends are the most important influence on teens. “No research says they don’t care what we think,” said Lippincott. “They care desperately what we think.” Teens look to parents for advice on “whether-to decisions” and don’t get enough guidance.
Too often, when parents think they’ve said “no,” teens hear “maybe.” Lippincott advises parents not to be vague, but to tell their kids exactly what they think about drinking, drug use and sex. Teens are drawn to risk and novelty, and it is the parent’s role to help them understand that all decisions come with consequences.
The goal is not to control your teen, but to help them develop “decision-making muscles.” Lippincott suggests looking for opportunities in the news or from the gossip grapevine to ask, “What would you do?” And to offer, “Here’s what I’ve heard others have done.” She points out, “A story sticks longer than a lecture.”
“Very few families suffer from too much togetherness these days,” Lippincott observes. “You think they prefer time with peers? They like spending time with us.” She suggests, “Buy the game Catch Phrase” and play it with your teen.
In response to a question about getting a 17-year-old boy to share what’s happening in his life, Lippincott suggested a game called, “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” The parent enters a teen’s space with the newspaper, sits down, and reads. After a minute, the parent comments on what the kid’s listening to or on an article in the paper. Then he or she should walk out with the words, “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.” Teen reactions have varied from walking out in protest to later asking, “Are you going to be in the neighborhood tonight?”
Another parent asked what to do with a teen who asks to talk with her at inconvenient times. “Sadly, those moments are fleeting,” said Lippincott. She suggested explaining why you can’t talk and setting a time, confirming your interest by text or email. But once the moment has passed, it may not be recoverable. “Make yourself available,” says Lippincott, quoting one teen who reported, “My mom is everywhere but nowhere.”
In response to a question about how much to share our own experiences, Lippincott counseled, “The ‘we all partied, kids will be kids’ idea is a really dangerous notion.” She noted marijuana is now three times as strong and binge drinking is rampant among teens who drink alcohol. “It’s a whole different world.” She advised, “It’s important to acknowledge we weren’t saints, but share the downside.”
A parent who asked if she should be introducing her college-bound student to alcohol was advised to consider legality and the impact on the adolescent brain. College students find that “there are lots of things they haven’t tried and they figure it out.” She added, “It’s more important she’s prepared to make good decisions than for her to have had the experience.”
Lippincott’s talk was sponsored by the CCHS Parents Association in collaboration with the Center for Parents and Teachers. ∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito