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Teens Need Their Parents

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 20, 2016

As a culture, we assume that the teen years are going to be tough on parents. Somewhere between grade seven or eight and the end of high school, we expect problems. We don’t like the thought of having problems, but we feel realistic enough to expect them.

This can sometimes blind us to the opportunities, though. Yes, this is a time of change and experimentation for kids, when they learn more about themselves as individuals, separate from their parents. Yes, it’s a time of new challenges, like dating, post-secondary school, and part-time jobs – things that as parents of younger kids we didn’t have to handle. But it doesn’t have to be a time of door slamming, rebellion, and defiance. Situations involving drama and trauma to the family exist and they’re very painful, but we’re doing ourselves and our kids a disservice if we expect them to be a rite of passage. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: we’re looking for signs of trouble, so we find them.

Study after study has shown that teenagers want their parents in their lives, that teens who have involved parents do better in school, and that they enjoy spending time with their parents. Admittedly, they might not enjoy spending Saturday night with their parents when they could be out with their friends, but in general, they appreciate and enjoy the time spent as a family. The problem comes when we have an assumption that they aren’t interested. Attitude can play an important role here. If we assume that our kids don’t want to have anything to do with us, we behave in a way that sends a subtle message that may be interpreted by our kids that we don’t want to spend time with them. As well, kids of any age are extremely sensitive to how they feel they are being perceived, and if they sense a perception that they are inherently troublesome or untrustworthy, they’re much more likely to get discouraged and perhaps behave accordingly. But if we assume that they are capable and that they want to be included in the family, at least sometimes, there is a subtle shift that takes place, one that kids pick up on and react to. Even if they don’t want to accept every single time, they take comfort in knowing that the invitation is always there.

A lot of people have a lot of theories about human development. In the mid-20th century, one of these experts put forward the idea that teens need to break away from their parents in order to create their own identities, which would then allow them to reconnect with their parents as adults. This theory has maintained its position in popular thought, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to be rooted in fact. Studies consistently show that parents matter more to teenagers than this theory would suggest. And if this seems hard to imagine, ask one. Pick a teenager in your life (maybe not your own), and ask how important his parents are to him. They will usually say things such as their parents are the most important people to them, that they enjoy spending time with their parents, that they think highly of their parents, or that their opinion matters.

Teenagers need the same things from their parents that they did throughout their childhood: someone to be in their corner – to provide them with a safe place to fall when times are tough and a source of strength for going out into the world as they develop their own confidence. This looks different depending on whether you’re parenting a toddler or a teenager. When your kids are teens, it may mean not taking their behaviour personally, and being a role model for them in how to handle conflict without shutting the other person out. Remember that mantra that was so helpful in disciplining your toddler: love the kid, even if you don’t love the behaviour? That’s the same mantra that will be helpful again (or still) now that your kids are older. It’s possible to be unhappy over a thoughtless comment or broken promise, while at the same time still sending the message that you love and accept your child.

And when the going gets tough, keep in mind that teenagers are particularly concerned with saving face. When you put your foot down about something, you may get a lot of static for it, but your teens may secretly be able to see your point or even agree with you. You might be surprised to learn that despite the ensuing tantrum, they are quietly relieved to not be able to go to that party or get involved in an activity that they’re not comfortable with. You just may be giving them the excuse that allows them to get out of the situation without having to live through the embarrassment of telling their friends they’re uncomfortable. Don’t expect gratitude when you deny a request to go a co-ed sleep over, but just take comfort in knowing that there’s a possibility your kids get it.

I saw a fridge magnet that said, “If raising kids was meant to be easy, it wouldn’t start with something called Labour.” Even in the best of relationships a little rain must fall, so it won’t always be easy being a parent. But don’t set yourself up for even more trouble by assuming that the teen years are a black hole of yelling, tantrums, defiance, and thoughtlessness. We want to approach the teen years with a positive expectation, anticipation, and the belief that whatever happens, we have the ability to work together as a family to overcome it.

Making Change Happen

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If you've ever resolved to be a "better" parent or partner (and who hasn't?)  you may have felt a moment or two of frustration over your lack of success.  What keeps us from being able to make changes in our own behaviour, even when it's something we really want?

We seem to be hard-wired to focus on the negative in our lives.  What this means is that when something happens -- say we get into a huge blowout with one of our kids -- when we look back on how it went down, we too often dwell on the stuff we did wrong or the worst aspects of the situation.  While this is important information to have, when we're talking about making a change, our brains need to know what to do, instead of what not to do.  Otherwise we're left with a bit of a vacuum: I know I shouldn't do these things, but what should I do in their place?

If we think about that argument you had with your child, when your little darling starts pulling out all the stops, you may be thinking, "I'm not going to yell.  I'm not going to take the bait.  I'm not going to argue..." which is all valid and useful stuff to not do.  The problem is that your brain is then left scrambling, wondering what exactly isn't off limits.  And as your anger and stress levels rise, it becomes harder and harder for your brain to think rationally.  So what you're left with is a thought process that is focusing only on the negative things, with nothing actionable filling in the gaps...and the next thing you know, you're right back to yelling and arguing again.  And then you feel lousy, disappointed in yourself, and maybe even hopeless that despite your good intentions, you're right back to where you started.

Sound familiar?

Instead of focusing on what didn't work in a situation, go over it in your mind and consider what did work (if anything).  What did you do that was helpful, what worked, what could you do more of next time?  Also consider what didn't work, but instead of agreeing with yourself that you won't do it again, go one step further and think about what you will do next time.  What concrete, positive action can you take?  Don't say to yourself, "The next time she swears at me, I'm not going to swear back," say, "The next time she swears at me, I will calmly leave the room/explain to her that I won't tolerate that kind of behaviour/remind her that we don't swear in our house and if she'd like to continue the conversation, she needs to speak to me respectfully." 

An analysis after the fact can be an important tool in changing behaviour.  But the content of that analysis needs to be focused on what you will do next time, not what you won't.  Succinctly define the behaviour you'd like to change, then create a plan for what you will do differently next time.  Test it out, experiment, and keep refining it until you're pleased with the result you're getting.

Happiness At Home: I Have Everything I've Ever Dreamed Of. Why Am I Not Happy?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 06, 2016
Signs of Discontent
You don’t need a degree in psychology to know when you’re off-track, but sometimes it creeps up on you. It can seem like you wake up one day and realize that things are not right. These are a few of the signs:
•           You don’t want to get out of bed.
•           You have a hard time motivating yourself to do routine tasks.
•           You have doubts about yourself.
•           You feel mildly depressed for days at a time.
•           You sometimes overeat and/or use alcohol and drugs to feel better or escape.
•           You often feel chronically tired, deenergized, and listless.
•           You worry about how you will keep things together.
•           You feel bored or restless.
•           You wish you were somewhere else.
•           You often have headaches, stomach upset, and other body aches and pains.
•           You sleep too little or too much.
•           You have frequent bad dreams or nightmares.
•           You oversleep.
•           You complain and nag.
Feeling dissatisfied with your life is not a pleasant experience, but it can lead you in a positive direction. These feelings may be important because they are telling you that your actions are out of synch with your values, goals, or talents.
Rediscover What Is Important to You
Imagine that your life is handed back to you and you are able to do anything you want. What is important to you? What values will direct you? Consider each word on the following list individually. It is not necessary to force-rank them or compare them against each other. Assign a rating to each word:
1 = Critically important to me
2 = Important to me
3 = I can live without it
            Acceptance by others
            Being liked
            Being well-paid
            Community service
            Financial security
            Fulfilling my potential
            Helping others
            Making a difference
            Personal development
            Time for friends
            Time for my family
Now make a list that summarizes your most important values. If you think of something that isn’t listed, feel free to add it.

The final part of this process (and this is a very streamlined version of what is possible) is to compare how you are currently spending your time with your list of most important values. How well do they match each other? What clues can you find that will help you find more satisfaction in your life?
Things that don’t match:
What I can do about it:
Suggested Reading
Neil Pasricha, The Happiness Equation : Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2016.
Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines Into Massive Success And Happiness. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013.
Martin Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding Of Happiness And Well-Being. Toronto: Atria Books, 2012.

How Do Your Kids Inspire You?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In what ways do your kids inspire you?  Maybe they have an amazing attitude, or a great way of looking at the world when things get tough, or maybe just their outlook on life refreshes you and reminds you to not miss the small things.

Here are a few things that inspire me about my own kids:

  • how quick they are to laugh
  • how easily excited they are by little things: cupcakes for dessert, family movie night, a balloon from a restaurant (I hope we're allowed to take those!)
  • how spontaneous they are to say "I love you"
  • how they don't hide their emotions or pretend that things are different than they really are -- if they want something, they just ask for it

That's the short list, the things I noticed just this morning.  Don't let these little moments of inspiration pass you by; they're one of the great unmentioned perks of having kids. 

Feeling inspired?  Post a comment and let us all share your inspiration!

Keeping Our Kids Safe

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Nobody wants their child's name to be famous because the child is missing.  I doubt there's a parent anywhere whose heart doesn’t break when they hear that a child has gone missing.  But instead of panic and knee-jerk reactions, this is the time to remind ourselves of what we can do to protect our kids and teach them street smarts.  There are many different programs that teach street-proofing; the one I really like is called Yello Dyno, because of it's positive, non-scary focus.  It helps kids to feel empowered and smart, and I think that makes a big difference in their ability to actually use the information. 

One of the products Yello Dyno sells is a CD with songs about important safety messages.  The reason this is so important is that research has shown that when in a panic situation, our brains can't readily access information that's stored in the way that we might typically store street-proofing and safety messages that are simply drilled into us.  Our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, and the "memory" part of our brain shuts down.  The music part of our brain, however, is still working.  (What amazing computers our brains are!)  This is why we have songs stuck in our heads for days at a time, why we remember jingles so easily, and why, 16 years later, I can still remember the chant for the phone number for the foot patrol at my university (6-61-36-50, call 6-61-36-50...).  So getting back to Yello Dyno...the CD has eight songs on it that all focus on specific messages for kids to remember, even when they're in a panic situation.  Brilliant.

There’s also a book, Raising Safe Kids In An Unsafe World, with practical, relevant information from safety experts, law enforcement, and parents.  The chapters are broken down into different safety ideas, with information for parents and then bulleted points to drive home to kids.  You can even buy one of two videos, targeted at different age groups, that show kids being approached by a “tricky person” and how to recognize them as such.  The videos are a little dated now, but the content still stands.

I can't say enough about how great I think all of their materials are.  The last time I checked, they only shipped to the US, which is a bit of a pain if you wanted to order any of the printed materials.  The good news, though, is that most of their products are also available by download.  In a time when we know that “Don’t talk to strangers” is among the most useless pieces of advice we can give our kids, Yello Dyno presents concrete tools and warning signs we can teach our kids to keep them safe.

Surviving Sleep-Overs

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Monday, August 01, 2016

Sleep-overs are an important rite of passage for teens and pre-teens.  But any parent who's ever hosted one will tell you that the potential for disaster (spills and messes, hurt feelings, mischief and trouble) is very high.  Work with your kids to pick the guest list carefully.  Keeping the guest list under control will not only mean that you probably won't have to worry about finding space for everyone to spread their sleeping bag, and it will also help to minimize personality conflicts between guests.  There are no hard and fast rules -- some people suggest limiting the number of guests to the number of years in your child's age.  But if you have a ten year old, or a 12 year old, the thought of having that many kids over to your house might very well be enough to make your head explode.  Base your guest limit on your child's maturity level, experience with slumber parties, and how well you know the kids involved.  Nothing's worse than having a child invited to your house to sleep over, who then gets excluded and teased all night.

Depending on the age of the kids, you may be in charge of organizing games and activities, or you may not.  Regardless, checking in on everyone occasionally is a must.  Some groups will require more supervision than others, of course, so gauge your involvement level as needed.

You probably have a vision as to how the night is going to unfold.  This may include ground rules and absolute no-no's.  Share these expectations with your pint sized host before the guests arrive.  Setting an expectation of how long noise is acceptable for, what time you expect "lights out" to be, and where in the house the guests are allowed to roam should all be agreed upon before the exciting event starts.

Or, if all of this just seems too much to wrap your mind around, consider what my cousin did for her daughter: host an "almost" sleep over.  Her daughter and friends were just old enough to want a sleep-over, but just young enough that the idea of sleeping away from Mom and Dad was a bit scary, and my cousin wasn't up for consoling and reassuring all night.  So she invited her daughter's friends to come over in the early evening in the their pj's, and they played a few games, made their own pizzas, had cake and junk food, then everyone was picked up and taken home right before bed time.  A big success!  A sleep- over without the pretence or expectation of sleep?  Just maybe, the perfect solution.

Teaching Our Kids Respect

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Monday, July 18, 2016

Respect is a big words for parents.  Usually when we talk about respect, we talk about things like respecting our rules, respecting me as a parent or respecting that when I ask you to do something, it needs to get done.  But I actually see these things as a bi-product of respect, not signs of respect itself. 

There are many different definitions of respect (it can be a noun with a number of different connotations, a verb, an idiom...) but the one that I think most parents are referring to when they talk about respect is "the condition of being esteemed or honored: to be held in respect."  (That definition is from and the italics are theirs).  Being esteemed and honoured is not exactly the same thing as being listened to or obeyed -- although being listened to or obeyed may be a sign that someone respects you  or a result of being respected.

For me, being respected as a parent means that kids see us as being human, too, with human needs like being listened to, heard, treated politely.  It means that they value our opinions, not because we force them to, but because they have experienced that we know what we're talking about and what we think genuinely matters to them.  And they've experienced that we have their best interests as our main priority.  I think it also inevitably means that they sense that we respect them, too.  I think it's harder for us as humans to respect someone we don't think particularly cares for us, or someone who shows a blatant  lack of respect for others.  The ol' what-goes-around-comes-around mentality: if you don't respect me, I don't see the need to respect you. 

There has been a greater and greater shift toward a notion of respect needing to be earned, not just demanded.  Our parents and grandparents, for example, may have insisted that we “respect” them just because they were older and more experienced and, well, they may not have exactly told us why we needed to respect them, they just made clear that we did.  But that expectation is changing.  We can't make someone respect us, and our kids seem to have an inherent understanding of that.  This can be frustrating and infuriating for parents who are appalled at some of the behaviour of their kids -- watching them do things they wouldn't have dared to do in front of their own parents.  But instead of being angered by this lack of respect, perhaps we can change our perspective to look at it as a new opportunity.  Lots of us appeared to have respected our parents...but not all of us actually did.  Not all of us actually even liked our parents.  Is that the kind of relationship we want to have with our kids?  Do we want children who do what we tell them to do, but haven't actually internalized the reasons for any of it (they're doing it just because they were told to), or kids who do what we tell them to do, but actually resent us and do what they can to undermine our authority, whether we're aware of it or not? 

I'm going to guess that what most parents today want is actual, bone fide, true respect from our kids.  How do we get that?  We start by being people deserving of respect.  That includes living life with integrity, treating others the way we want to be treated, setting a good example for our kids, and respecting ourselves.  Kids are very quick to pick up on hypocrisy, and that "do as I say, not as I do" thing really does not fly with them.  So respecting our kids, as individuals, as important, as the ultimate decision-makers in their own lives, is also critical.  We need to lead authentic lives and be the kind of people worth respecting -- that's the only way to gain the true respect of our children.

"7 Secrets to Raising an Optimist"

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, July 05, 2016

John Hoffman wrote an article in Today's Parent (the December 2005 issue) with this title.  I loved his list of seven things, so here they are:

  1. Be a responsive, loving caregiver to your baby.  Take care of her basic needs and comfort her when she cries.
  2. Build and maintain a strong, secure relationship with her as she grows.
  3. Help her develop life skills and give her age-appropriate control over some parts of her life.
  4. Help her to succeed, but don't try to shield her from all disappointments and failures.
  5. When she's frustrated or sad, be there for her and help her learn that it's normal to feel bad sometimes, but that feeling bad doesn't last forever.
  6. Teach her productive ways to think about the setbacks she will inevitably encounter during her lifetime.
  7. Model optimistic behaviour and thinking yourself, but make sure it is tempered with realism.

I think these seven secrets are the kind of thing we as parents should put on our fridge or read over to ourselves every once in a while.  Some of them are easier said than done, but take heart knowing that you're moving in the right direction!

How To Talk To Your Kids About A World Crisis

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Between the Paris attacks in November, Sandy Hook a year or so before, and now the mass shooting in Orlando, parents have, sadly, never had more opportunity to talk about traumatic world events with their children.  It can feel like a razor-sharp balancing act: how do we answer their questions while still protecting their innocence and not giving them so much information that we increase their anxiety?

Especially given that so many kids associate Orlando with being The Happiest Place On Earth, it’s quite possible that this tragedy has reached them in a way that others have not.  It’s important to listen to what your kids are saying about the shooting, and what they’re not.  They may have heard some incorrect facts from friends or media snippets, so make sure that you provide an open forum where they can discuss what they’ve heard and get the straight story (more about what to say in a minute).  Don’t minimize their anxieties - “You’re fine, you don’t need to worry about it” never actually left anyone feeling better – but reassure them with understanding and confidence.

What you say and how much you say will really depend on the ages of your kids.  Little ones under the age of five should probably be told very little about the whole situation.  Kids this age can have a hard time keeping facts and imagination straight, so limit their exposure and watch what you say around them.

Once kids hit school, though, this strategy is less effective and it’s important that they be met with openness and understanding.  Follow the lead of your children, though, and see what they know and what they want to know.  Facts can be reassuring; understanding helps us to feel more in control of a situation.  But nitty gritty details can be overwhelming and upsetting, so focus on giving the information you think your child needs to hear without giving too much.

If you find it hard not to be emotional when you’re talking about this, no one would blame you.  Your kids might find it a bit alarming, but just reassure them when something like this happens it’s normal to feel sad, even if you don’t know anyone involved.  A person can be both “sad” and “ok” at the same time; let them know that you’re just feeling sad right now but overall you’re ok. 

Even though these events are rare, don’t ever dismiss your child’s fears about something happening to them or someone they love.  It’s natural to feel scared and to wonder about our own safety when something like this happens, but reassure them that it would be very, very unlikely.  (Don’t say it could never happen or use other certainties, as your kids will know you can’t make those kinds of promises and you’ll just lose credibility.)

Sometimes what helps us to feel better in times of stress, is to feel as though we’re in control, at least in our own little way, of what’s going on.  If your kids, particularly the older ones, want to do something to help or show their solidarity with Orlando residents, talk about what they could do.  They could make a donation to Equality Florida’s GoFundMe campaign to support the victims and their families.  On a more local level, though, remind your kids that love is love.  Encourage them to be good citizens of the world by speaking out against bullying, homophobia or racism, to ask questions and get to know people who may seem strange or different, and to welcome the opportunity to be wrong in judgments they make about other people.  Modeling an acceptance of differences and a concern for our fellow humans is something that all parents can do for their kids – in the long run, this is what will end these kinds of tragedies.

Off To Camp

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Summer is just getting started and there’s lots to look forward to – maybe your child has sleep-away camp on the agenda this summer. Camp can be an exciting, but still terrifying, prospect for many kids, especially those who don’t have a lot of experience sleeping away from home.

How can you help make the experience so fantastic they’re dying to go back next year?

Start by having a positive attitude (but don’t overdo it). Emphasize all the fun your child is going to have, and talk about all of the cool activities that she’ll have a chance to do, like swimming in the lake, canoeing, learning a new skill such as archery, or roasting marshmallows over a campfire. If you’re positive and enthusiastic, that will help your child feel confident in her decision to go. But at the same time, it’s ok to address concerns and fears. Don’t dismiss it if your child talks about being nervous as well as excited – “You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it!” Instead, validate her concerns, and ask what you could do together before you go to help her feel more confident. Stay positive and assume a good outcome for her, but don’t gloss over any fears she may have.

Check things out beforehand if you can. Advertising works by presenting a consumer with the same product over and over, leading to a feeling of familiarity and comfort, even if the consumer has never actually tried the product. Harness that same power to help soothe anxieties about the newness and strangeness of camp. Go to any open-houses the camp might have, and check out the camp’s web site together to help your child feel more comfortable with the setting. See if there’s a sample daily schedule on the site, and walk through the day together, mentally rehearsing the way the days will flow. Maybe there’s an online forum where campers can meet other campers who will be there the same week.

Bring a few comfort items from home. Something as simple as a familiar pillowcase can be enough for some kids, but maybe they’d prefer to pack a few photos or favourite stuffed friend to help bring a little bit of home with them. And of course, if there’s an opportunity for you to write to your kids while they’re away, do that! Most kids love to get mail at the best of times, and having a little connection to home by hearing about what’s going on (even if it’s nothing very exciting) can be very reassuring.

Encourage your kids to talk to the counsellors about any concerns they may have, or any loneliness or homesickness they may be feeling. The staff have seen it all before, and are experts at helping kids to feel relaxed and comfortable at camp. They’ll know just how to handle a homesick kid at bedtime, but if it’s an extreme case and your camper needs to come home, hey, it happens. The counsellors will help your child feel ok about how she’s feeling, and reassure her that there’s always next time. You can do the same: just be supportive and matter-of-fact about the whole experience, and remind her that even though she didn’t feel ready right now, she assuredly still got something positive out of the experience, and she can feel proud of herself for giving it a try.

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