How to empower your kids against bullies

Bullies have been around for as long as we can remember, but their prominence in the news is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Throwing a punch and calling a name has been replaced with a much more sophisticated form of torture, one that is relentless and sometimes drives its victims to suicide.

Bullycide is the new term created to encompass the many children and teens who have committed suicide as a way to escape bullying. The fact that we have coined this term speaks volumes about where we are as a society and how important it is for parents to be aware of this danger. Bullying has changed quite a bit since we were kids, and the results can be devastating.

No longer is bullying confined to isolated spaces and incidents. The days of stealing lunch money or shoving someone into a locker have passed and students can no longer look forward to the end of the school day to escape their tormentors. Home is no longer the sanctuary it used to be, as social media and the Internet infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Now, when a student faces embarrassment, it is broadcast to the world and relived over and over again.

As with other forms of abuse, the victims hesitate to tell anyone what they are facing or feeling. Only 40% of bullying victims tell anyone or seek help, which means as parents, you need to be aware of the signs that something isn’t right with your kids. Below are some pointers for recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with them before they push your kids to hopelessness.

  1.  Do NOT respect your kids’ “privacy” on social media. The very idea of social media being private is absurd. Don’t let your kids guilt you into feeling that an Instagram account is like a diary. The two have nothing in common. A diary is a place where one writes their private feelings, whereas social media, well, is social. Whatever is out there is out there for public consumption, and you, dear parents, are the public. If everyone else can see it, you should be seeing it.
  2. Note changes in your child’s behavior and day-to-day habits. Look particularly for changes in eating (either not eating or bingeing) and sleeping (too much sleeping is a sign of depression, too little is a sign of stress). Are grades suddenly dropping? Does your child seem to lack confidence and have a great deal of self-doubt? Is your child avoiding social situations that she once enjoyed? All of these signs are potential red flags that something or someone is affecting your child negatively. Pay attention and don’t ignore these signs.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask questions and listen. Inquire about specific friends. Note your child’s change of behavior and discuss it with them. Know and talk to your child’s friends to see if there is something you should know. Be careful to ask with concern but not paranoia. Friends will stay tight-lipped when they fear betraying a friend’s trust, but if you ask with clear concern and love, good friends will share in an effort to help.
  4. Watch for signs that your child could be a bully. These include aggression, getting into trouble at school, hanging around with kids who bully, an excessive focus on self-image, and a high level of competitiveness. If your child is quick to anger and his first reaction involves hurting others in some way, whether physical or emotional, he may be a bully. If he fails to take responsibility for his actions and is always looking to blame others when he is in trouble, you will want to keep a very close eye on his interactions with his peers.
  5. Remember that today’s bullying is oftentimes anonymous. This makes it even worse for the victims, as they have no idea who is going after them on social media and what this person has against them. Psychologically, it’s devastating. The victim begins to question his relationships; he wonders if he can ever trust his friends. Without a clear person or reason behind the bullying, he is left to agonize over the who and why. As parents, you can step in and utilize the resources you have – the school, the police, anti-bullying organizations – to identify online predators and put a stop to their bullying.
  6. Work constantly to help your children develop self-respect and confidence. We’ve all dealt with mean people who set out to hurt us. Whether or not we become a victim, however, is largely up to us. As parents, teach your kids their worth so that when someone else questions it, they know exactly who they are and how unimportant that person’s opinion is. Bullies tend to prey on the vulnerable, so do everything you can to strengthen your kids and let them know that their worth comes from within. When they refuse to allow others to diminish their worth, they will have stopped the bullies in their tracks.
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Helping kids cope with tragedy

I sit here reading yet another story about a tragic school shooting, one where young lives were taken well before their time and other young lives must continue with shadows of the tragedy plaguing them for decades to come. It’s a depressing reality that our kids are in danger, not just from drugs, unprotected sex, and recklessness, but from other kids with guns.

It’s also a sad reality that kids are moved through our school systems with obvious social and mental issues and that these same kids have access to guns. They see other school shootings and envision them as glorified, thereby feeding their need for notoriety. The cycle continues, and our children are the victims.

Perhaps the saddest reality of all is that the teenage years have just become a whole lot harder. While uncomfortable parent-teen conversations have been around since Mike from the Brady Bunch had to explain the birds and the bees, how in the world do we talk to our children about the violence that has permeated what was once a safe place?

  1. We can begin by getting ourselves straight first. If we approach our children with fear and anxiety, we will build fear and anxiety within them. Talk to your spouse and your friends about the madness, vent your fears and frustrations, then pull it together for your kids. They will take their cue from you. They will be fearful of those things for which you have instilled fear. So present a calm demeanor that will leave the lines of communication open so you can…
  2. Just listen. You may prompt your children by asking if their friends or teachers are talking about the shootings, and then let them share their perceptions. Based on their tone, their level of anxiety, and their perspective, you can then determine how to respond. If your teens seem especially agitated, help them to put their fear into perspective. In reality,  the odds of a school shooting are still small and school still remains a safe haven for the vast majority of students in America. Help your kids see that while these events comprise the headlines for every news media outlet out there, statistically speaking, they are not something to fear on a daily basis.
  3. In listening to your kids, you’ll probably notice that most put themselves in the position of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They imagine what they would do in a similar position. Would they bravely stand up and put their life on the line for their peers? Would they run? Would they hide? Would they try to wrestle the gun from the shooter? It is natural for kids to imagine themselves in the situation and sometimes take on the persona of the hero. So ask them: What do you think you would do? Listen carefully to their response. Then talk them through their options, the smart and best ways to respond in emergency situations. Use these tragedies as an opportunity to educate and plan.

It’s hard to find something positive in such a horrible tragedy as a school shooting.  Perhaps one constructive outcome to come out of these nightmares is that they force us to self-reflect, as a nation, as a public school system, and as parents. Are we doing enough to keep our kids safe? What can we do to end these tragedies?

 

Young love is indeed real

It is the month of romance and love and many will celebrate with fancy dinners, roses, and chocolates. If you’re like me, you’ll treat Valentines Day like any other day except that you’ll make a point of staying home to avoid the mad restaurant rush, the pink and red balloons, and the inflated prices on everything. It’s not that I’ve lost that lovin feeling; it’s just that after 30 years of marriage, being told when to be romantic just doesn’t work for me anymore.

If you have teenagers, however, especially teenagers who have a boyfriend or girlfriend, Valentines Day is anything but old hat. Teens look toward this day with either dread or hopes reaching fantasy level, depending on their relationship status. Valentines Day, when you’re a teenager in love, is a statement to the world and validation so many of them need that someone has chosen to love them, that they are the lucky ones.

Therefore, as parents, you shouldn’t minimize or tease them about their relationships. Nor should you tell them they are incapable of being truly in love, no matter how much you believe that, and no matter how many personal experiences you can share. Have you ever noticed your reaction when someone forewarns you based on their experience? Your initial reaction, if you’re like most humans, is to think to yourself, Well, that was their experience. Mine is different. We always think we’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Teenagers, especially, without the benefit of fully developed frontal lobes that allow them to see the whole picture or fully understand the consequences of their actions, generally dive in, head first. Impulsivity and recklessness are hallmarks of the teenage world. The same applies to romance. In their minds, your story is not their story. You can’t possibly understand the level of their connection with their boyfriend/girlfriend. They are in love. It’s real.

They know it’s real because they feel the extreme emotions that come with love. They feel hurt, they feel joy, they feel that wonderful sense of togetherness. Their hormones are on fire, clouding their judgment. They are experiencing – in real life – everything they have seen on the movie screen or read about in books. They are giddy with love.

So imagine what it does to them, and to their feelings about you, when you dismiss all of this by telling them they can’t possibly be in love. They don’t know what love is, you tell them. They’re too young to love. Imagine how condescending that must sound to them. And imagine how likely they’ll be to talk to you about matters of love again.

It is extremely important to your parent-child relationship that you acknowledge your teen’s feelings and understand they are very real. You don’t have to encourage teen love, but when your child finds it, or thinks he finds it, you should listen. Try to be happy he’s happy. Ask questions such as What do you like about her? What do you enjoy doing together? What makes her different from other girls?

Then sit back and listen to what your child tells you not only about this person he’s drawn to, but about himself, what he’s looking for, and what makes him happy. Don’t judge and don’t ask a hundred questions about the girlfriend’s family, grades, and interests. And whatever you do, don’t smirk and tell him he is too young to be in a relationship or to love someone. It’s too late for that by the time you find out about it. He’s already in it and he won’t willingly leave it.

It’s true that if parents attempt to break up a young couple, they usually succeed in driving the couple closer together. It’s the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. So instead, stay informed by keeping your relationship with your kids solid and the lines of communication open. Be respectful of your kids’ feelings and decisions, and they will come to you on their own for advice and counsel.

And remember, “real” is relative. Love is as real as it gets in the teenage mind, so be patient, understanding, and supportive as your teens navigate the rocky road of romance.

For more advice about parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101.

 

Making togetherness your holiday focus

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you are faced with the yearly dilemma of deciding how much is too much to spend on your children. A 2016 study revealed that parents spent an average of $422 on presents for each child in the family. Twenty-five percent of parents withdraw money from their 401K  or dipped into emergency funds to finance Christmas. Fifty-six percent went into debt and an alarming 16 percent knew going in that it would take them a full 6 months to pay off their holiday charges.

Hearing these statistics made me wonder: In a country where most of us live better than the rest of the world, is it necessary or even proper to spend this much cash on holiday giving? Does it detract from the true meaning? Or is it important to blend in with American culture and give our kids all that we can afford?

My family has always had a policy of moderation when it comes to gifts. I was struck with the following thought in one of those  crystal clear moments that end up defining your parenting philosophy: If I start giving my kids piles of presents at Christmas, they will come to expect the same year after year. But if I give them just a few well-chosen items, that’s all they’ll ever expect.

God must have been smiling down on me that day, because it was one of the greatest realizations I’ve ever had: Don’t start something with your kids that you don’t want to continue doing forever. This applies to virtually everything, including how you respond to temper tantrums, what you allow your children to do, and what kind of behavior you accept. It’s so much harder to change those behaviors long after they first began than to nip them in the bud early on or prevent them all together. That’s what we did with Christmas. And our kids have never questioned it.

The result has been a Christmas morning that is unhurried and joyous. We have always exchanged one nice present on Christmas Eve from each other, and no more than three presents on Christmas morning from Santa. One item may be a more expensive item, but the others are thoughtful, small, and bring smiles to faces. My children are now grown and no one has ever been anything but thrilled with this system. No one goes into hock to buy presents for family members; no one greedily rips open packages, barely acknowledging them; and most of the focus of the holiday stays where it should – on the reason for the season. We worship at a candlelight service, we eat traditional holiday meals, and we spend time together as a family. The specifics may change from year to year just to keep things interesting, but the one constant is our focus on  togetherness, not the materialism so often associated with this time of year.

What are your thoughts on holiday gift giving? Do you love to indulge your kids as much as possible, or do you prefer a toned-down Christmas or Hanukkah? I’d love to hear about your family traditions.

Being thankful for your teens

I’ve heard a lot of words associated with parenting teenagers. Exasperating. Frustrating. Confusing. Very rarely do I hear someone exclaim, “I’m SO happy to be raising a teenager right now!” If I do hear it, it’s generally dripping with sarcasm.

But the reality is that teenagers really are quite a bit of fun, and they embody some lessons we would all do well to learn. So this Thanksgiving month, spend some time reflecting on what makes your teenagers wonderful and why they are actually a huge blessing in your life.

Need help focusing on the positives? Think about this:

  • Teenagers keep your argumentative skills honed. You have to be sharp in your thinking and your decisions, or they will call you on it. They will ask why until you want to strangle them. But be grateful, because they’re forcing you to ask yourself why, and I don’t think we do that enough. A little introspection never hurt anyone.
  • Teenagers are still children in a lot of ways. They will make side-splitting comments. They still take joy in the seemingly small moments. Their silliness and appreciation for all things farcical make them perfect companions for watching comedies, cracking jokes, and having fun with the eccentricities of extended family members. One year over the holidays, my teens started a quote list for a particularly “interesting” family member visiting from out of town. They kept the list in a kitchen drawer. When the annoyances threatened to bring out the worst in us and the week was beginning to stretch everyone’s nerves a little too thin, one of us would depart to the kitchen, open the quote list drawer, and laugh. I never would have thought to do that on my own. Leave it to the teenage brain to create a unique escape from visitor stress.
  • Teenagers are adults in a lot of ways. They are sensitive, can be thoughtful when they want to be, and understand way more than you realize. You can talk to them, even about the big stuff, as they are quite deep and are able to understand adult issues much more deeply than you suspect. They can be wise and offer new perspectives.
  • Teenagers love you and need you. They don’t show it all the time (that’s what dogs are for), and they may not say it, either. Heck, they may not even realize it. But every time they sit next to you at dinner, ask you for advice, tell you a story about their friends, or even shuffle into the kitchen in their PJ’s, they’re telling you that they trust you, that you offer them a safe haven, and that they even enjoy your company.
  • Teenagers keep us young. They blast all the latest, greatest hits, use ever changing acronyms (GOAT, anyone?), know the perfect emoji to use in any and all situations, and remind us what it was like to fall in love, become yearbook editor, and earn an “A.” We watch them play sports and it takes us back to our glory days. They introduce us to new technology, download apps on our phones, and make sure we don’t wear anything embarrassing. Without them – let’s face it – we’d be stuck in the past.

So you see, you have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to raising teens. They may wear you out, but they also build you up and bring joy to your life. Enjoy them now, because in a few years, you’ll be hoping and praying that they’ll be home for Thanksgiving.

For more tips on living with teens, check out Teenagers 101.

Teaching kids to be proactive

We’re all familiar with the concept of proactive versus reactive responses.  A proactive approach anticipates and seeks to avoid potential problems or obstacles. A reactive approach waits for problems to arise and then deals with them as they occur. As it turns out, both can be beneficial, but while knowledge should be gained from mistakes and difficult processes, stress can be reduced by avoiding them in the first place.

This is where teens and children really need the help of adults. Children are already at a disadvantage with an undeveloped frontal lobe that hinders their ability to see long-term, to think about the consequences of their actions, or to plan ahead. That’s why we often shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” when it comes to this age group. They weren’t. They haven’t learned to be proactive, to consider that what they are doing now matters to their future.

Enter mom and dad. You have a lifetime of experience and you’ve oftentimes wished you would have thought things through before making a big decision or taking an action you later regretted. You want your kids to benefit from your experience, especially since being proactive crosses many domains, including school work, goal setting, and preparedness for activities, sports, and other extra-curriculars. It’s important that they get it now, or they may face much unnecessary hardship down the road.

So how can you prepare your kids to be prepared? Think about this:

  • Kids need to have goals. What’s the point? What are they working toward? Why are they participating? Do grades matter? Unbelievably, we fail to talk to kids about these big questions. We put them in activities, send them off to school, and encourage them to join clubs, but never tell them how they’re going to benefit themselves or others through their participation. Kids needs to know how today’s behaviors affect their future. If they don’t, they will go into everything with a short-sighted attitude and therefore, a lack of internal motivation. They will question working hard on something, and making sacrifices for it, if they don’t see the value.
  • Kids need to know that every action has a consequence. Science teaches us that for every action, there is a reaction. Every decision or indecision, both good and bad, leads to an outcome. Kids struggle with understanding this concept, even as they age and go on to college. Witness some of the behavior of young twenty-somethings and there’s no doubt that they still haven’t grasped the concept of consequences. But the sooner you talk to your kids about this, the better chance you have of getting through. Discuss how a decision about homework, or quitting a team, or running for office will have long-term implications. Have your kids walk through various scenarios and really think through each decision they make.
  • Kids need to realize that staying ahead of the game is easier than playing catch up. Every person alive has let a job or responsibility slip and then scrambled at the last minute to try to minimize the damage. And every person alive has dealt with the repercussions of procrastination. Teaching your kids to work ahead and to plan their schedules will positively impact every area of their lives. As I tell my students, “If you control your schedule, it won’t control you.”
  • Kids need to experience how good it feels to be proactive. Once kids begin to plan, work toward goals, and think through decisions, they will see a noticeable change in their lives. They will experience less stress and their confidence will grow as they gain control of their responsibilities. Research shows that kids crave structure, rules, and boundaries. Recording homework in a school agenda, breaking large assignments down and working on them each night, and keeping a personal calendar of upcoming events are all ways kids create structure in their lives. Positive results breed internal motivation, so the more proactive kids are, the more motivated they become to take control of and responsibility for their decisions.

Of course, the best way to teach kids to become proactive is to demonstrate it in your own life. Teach by example and show your kids that foreseeing obstacles and planning ahead is always better than dealing with the aftermath of a failure that could have been avoided.

For one-on-one help with your teens, check out Teenager Success 101. For more tips like these, read Teenagers 101

Organization makes all the difference

Do you ever feel that your children are messy, can’t seem to find what they’re looking for, or are in a perpetual state of confusion? Is their study time inefficient and frustrating? Do they stay up late to finish their homework only to have trouble locating it the next day in class? And do you find yourself constantly reminding them it’s homework time and wondering how they’ll ever make it on their own?

Disorganization is the root of all these problems, and the good news is that it can be reversed. With the right tools and resources, kids can learn to organize their supplies, prioritize, study smart, and turn chaos into control. As I tell my teenage clients, your calendar can control you or you can control your calendar.

As adults, we’ve likely suffered at the hands of disorganization, and we know that kids need to overcome this problem in order to be successful. The bonus of improving organization is that it has a wonderful ripple effect. Grades will improve, stress will be lifted, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief as kids gain more responsibility and better control of their schedules.

Here are five tips to help kids start the school year in an organized fashion:

TIP #1: Color code your life. Color is an easy-to-see indicator of what to do next. Just as we have traffic lights that tell us green means go and red means stop, color coding each subject in school is a simple way to alert kids as to what folder or notebook to grab. For example, your child might assign the color red to English. The book cover, notebook, folder – whatever is used for English – is red. Now when your child is selecting what he needs to complete his homework, he can easily recognize the correct folder or book. He can spot it in his backpack, locker, and even his messy bedroom, saving time and frustration.

TIP #2:  Always keep important papers in the same place. That red folder for English? The pocket on the left should be for important teacher handouts, instructions for assignments, and any other information provided by the teacher. The right side should be for homework or anything that is the student’s responsibility. Now when the English teacher says it’s time to turn in homework, Johnny knows to go into the right side of his red folder to do just that.

TIP #3:  Maintain an organized backpack. Students tend to use their backpacks like we use that one junk drawer in the kitchen – as a catch all for everything and anything. That’s why it’s crucial that they perform regular clean-outs. If they are following Tips 2 and 3, this should be quick and painless. It’s a chance to make sure they’re putting everything where it belongs and not acquiring junk that takes up space and keeps them from finding what they need.

TIP #4:  Have a designated homework space and time. Children should choose a space with few distractions, somewhere they can concentrate for short blocks of time and won’t be tempted to fall asleep or play video games. In addition, they should choose a time that coincides with their biological needs and busy schedules. Some love to get started immediately after school; others need some downtime to decompress. Regardless of their designated homework time, they all need brain breaks. After studying for no longer than an hour, they should perform a physical activity or switch gears to one requiring a different side of the brain, from the logical to the creative, for example. After 15 minutes or so, they will return to their homework with greater focus and a stronger ability to get the most out of their study time. It’s studying smarter, not longer.

TIP #5:  Write everything down. Pen on paper, it turns out, significantly increases kids’ understanding and memory. Conversely, using a cell phone to take a picture of notes on a board does kids no benefit at all. Research shows that even typing notes is not as beneficial as writing them, since students tend to simply type away as the teacher talks, without converting the message into shorthand and really thinking about what is being said. For these reasons, insist that your kids take notes the old-fashioned way and study them the old fashioned way as well – by making flash cards (yes, writing the information again!) and quizzing themselves on their notes.

Following just one of these tips will make a difference. Following all five can change kids’ lives. The earlier they get organized, the faster they can start enjoying school and making the most of their time at home.

For more tips like these, check out Teenagers 101, the back-to-school book for parents. To work with Dr. D or her team one-on-one via Skype, contact her through Teenager Success 101