Archives for posts with tag: teens

Texting. Talking on the phone. Eating. Searching for a new song. We are so accustomed to our car culture that it’s easy to forget how dangerous driving really can be. A single moment’s distraction is all it takes to turn the family minivan into a deadly weapon.

And it’s only going to get worse. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, texting recently overtook impaired driving as the No. 1 safety concern among drivers. And since 95% of Canadians between 14 and 17 send or receive text messages (according to a poll quoted in the Globe & Mail), this is a problem that is only likely to grow.

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To read the rest of this post and to learn more about the riskwithinreason workshops offered to parents, educators and teens, click here.

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Did you know your exact location can be pinpointed from pictures you post online? That with a simple, free, downloadable software, anyone can determine your address, your kids’ daycare, their favourite ice cream spot, even where their bedrooms are in your house or apartment?

If that sounds like the rumblings of paranoia, think again. Watch this news segment to see exactly how experts were able to simply and effectively plot all this information based on the pictures parents took on their smartphone cameras and posted online.

It’s pretty scary stuff. Although I would normally assume this kind of thing was another Internet hoax, the link was forwarded to me by a trusted source at Ometz, an organization in which I have enormous trust and respect. I know they checked this out very carefully.

Immediately after watching the segment, I checked out the site they recommend (www.Icanstalku.com) to learn more. This explained how this cyberstalking is even possible. The answer is metadata, which means the extra information typically embedded in a data file, but hidden from casual viewing. Turns out when we take pictures on our smartphones, we are generally also recording information about the photographer, camera settings (like ISO, aperture or processing software). Since many of today’s smartphones are also GPS-enabled, and since the default setting is to allow location recording, it also embeds information about where the picture was taken. This is also called Geotagging.

Take a deep breath. You can easily change this. The same website offers a useful series of steps for changing this default setting on most smartphones.  Click here and find your smartphone (and your kids’ smartphones) on the list. Follow the steps and make the changes.

Be aware that changing the default will affect your abilities to use GPS and mapping apps on your phone. When you want to use those, you can change the settings back temporarily.

Of course, making these changes affects all future pictures taken and posted. I can’t offer you too much in the way of reassurance about the pictures you’ve already snapped and uploaded to the Internet. You can try and retrace your steps and remove them, but there’s no guarantee they haven’t been copied and reposted in other places.

Like many things online, we learn as we go. It’s an admittedly uncomfortable feeling for parents.

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This past weekend, my husband took our 12-year-old twin daughters camping and hiking in what has become an annual fall ritual we’ve come to call “Daddy Camping.” He takes our younger daughter for a similar outing each spring.

Martin started camping and hiking alone with the girls when they were three years old. When they go Daddy Camping, they climb mountains, eat a lot of marshmallows and don’t worry so much about things like vegetables or brushing their teeth. There is no homework brought along, no iPads, DS games or cellphones to play on.

After the first Daddy camping experience 9 years ago, one of his good friends decided to join the trip with his daughter. A year or two later, another dad and daughter combo joined in. This core group of four girls just started high school and their heads are full of sports teams, play auditions and friend dramas, but they were more excited than ever to head off together for this year’s Daddy Camping adventure.

Martin takes his hiking very seriously, and these girls (and their younger sisters in springtime) have hiked some serious peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York: Algonquin, Giant Mountain and in recent years Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge. Because they go in late September or October, they have encountered below freezing temperatures and snow. They bring down sleeping bags and winter coats, waterproof hiking boots and full body rain gear.

He calls this the Anti-Princess Training Program.

This year’s trip was particularly ambitious. They hiked slept in a lean-to in the Adirondack State Park, then awoke early to tackle Mount Colden on Saturday, a mostly rainy 13-mile, 11-hour roundtrip. One of the girls in the group has battled a fear of heights over the years, which has sometimes resulted in her not reaching the summit, but this year she made it all the way to the top. Her friends were so proud of her, and she was very proud of herself.

The next day, they did a second hike on their way home: a much flatter 10-mile hike at Indian Head, to a spectacular view of Ausable Lake. The girls were very tired and sore from the day before, feeling the effects of two nights’ sleeping outdoors. About 15 minutes from the top, some of them refused to go on. The dads understood. They were tired themselves, effects somewhat more magnified in their 40+ year-old bodies. The girls had already achieved so much and had every right to be pleased with their efforts.

But my husband was not satisfied. He has an amazing tolerance for physical discomfort and doesn’t always realize that others don’t share this. He urged our two girls to make the final push for the top, which they did (one of them somewhat reluctantly). But when they got there, they were stunned by the view. They sat down and share a break with their dad.

I like to imagine this time, just the three of them alone on a mountain peak without me there to narrate and annotate our experience in my usual chatty way. Martin is a man of few words. I’m pretty sure he didn’t waste any of them describing the view. They had a snack. Took some pictures. But this kind of togetherness doesn’t need to be verbalized to be real and important and memorable.

I know he was so proud of them for making that final push. I know they were proud of themselves for doing it. Pleased to have lived up to — perhaps even surpassed — his expectations. I know he didn’t say that aloud, just as I know he communicated it to them in some other way. A grunt, maybe. A nod.

When they climb mountains with their daughters, these dads are showing them so many rich and important things. At the most basic level, they get the experience of nature, appreciate the value of conservation and ecological awareness. They’ve learned about planning ahead, plotting their routes, registering with the warden’s office, bringing along enough water, food and snacks to keep them going. They have band aids, moleskin, first aid kits, extra socks, emergency survival blankets and flashlights with extra batteries (they’ve come back down from some hikes in the dark).

These girls are also learning that their dads value time with them. Research has demonstrated that fatherly affirmation (warmth, interest, support) has a measurable impact on teenage girls’ self-esteem, and on their ability to develop strong intimate relationships. There is also a connection between the relationships girls have with their fathers and how high they set their career goals, how well they deal with people in authority, maintaining good mental health, being self-reliant and willing to take on new challenges.

Our girls have learned important things about the strength and capabilities of their growing bodies. They are strong enough to carry themselves farther than they ever dreamed, to push themselves beyond new limits. Because even when you are tired and sore, and your knee is scraped and your ankle turned and your clothes wet, sometimes there’s still two more hours to cover to get back to the car. And you don’t feel like you can do it, but you can. And somehow you do.

The only way out is to push on through.

This is an endurance that is not just physical, but mental and emotional. Spiritual.

These are core values in building resilience: developing confidence, competence, control, connection.

And when it’s over, they have the memories. These last forever. They are special things they’ve shared with their dad that exclude me, and I love hearing them tell the stories of their hikes and campgrounds. The year they jumped into the lake with their clothes on. The lean-to that somehow had no bugs in it. The hike that ended so late they actually went to a restaurant for dinner instead of cooking on their campfire.

I’ve also heard these girls recount the stories of their epic climbs with their dads to other friends. They emphasize the grizzlier details (“And at the top, there’s a list of all the people who’ve died climbing Mount Washington”), finish each other’s sentences with details about sharp rocks, sudden snow. They compare different fire towers. Which climb had the worst weather. They take a peculiar pleasure in shared misery.

I like to think of these trips as a kind of glue. When the hormones rage in the coming years, the eyes roll, the battles ensue over skirt lengths and curfews and car keys, they’ll all be stronger for having collected these mountaintops together.

 

Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

On Monday evening, I was invited to speak about digital safety to a group of parents of 8th graders at a local high school. It was a great group of people, energetic, informed and enthusiastic about keeping their kids safe. They had so many questions, we ended up staying some time after the session was supposed to end.

It was abundantly clear that many of them were concerned. And somewhat at a loss for how to implement some of my recommendations with their 13 and 14-year-olds.

I understand that. Ideally, we should begin introducing these rules when they log on to their first Club Penguin or Webkinz account in elementary school. I had a harsh lesson in setting up Internet safety rules early: my then 5-year-old typed “Elmo” into a YouTube search at a friend’s house three years ago, and saw some homemade video with a puppet murder scene that left her with nightmares for months.

It’s one thing if they grow up knowing that mom and/or dad need to give permission to set up accounts on websites, that parents need access to all passwords until it’s decided they are responsible and mature enough to earn their privacy, that they must never, ever clear the history from their Internet browsers. It’s all about leaving traces to prove where they’ve been and what they are doing.

But introducing this rule for the first time at 13? Yikes. I can only imagine the moaning and groaning. A number of parents in the room were clearly anticipating the battles that lay ahead of them when they went home to announce this new policy.

But there is no shortcut. It needs to be done.

I compared it to driving a car. We would never imagine handing the keys to our car to a 14-year-old. They are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to handle the responsibility. Possibly they are not even physiologically capable yet — their legs may be too short to reach the brake and gas pedals. They might hurt themselves or others, or cause damage. And yet we don’t always question the wisdom of allowing our kids to make use of the incredibly powerful, public communication tools that exist online, often without any adult supervision at all. There can still be damange; people can get very hurt.

This brings me to one particularly interesting question brought up at the meeting. One parent asked about spying software available to record keystrokes or copy the browser history, even if your devious teenager finds a way to erase it. Basically, he wanted to know if it’s OK to spy on your kids.

My answer? It depends.

Ideally, we don’t want to spy on them. But privacy is not a sacred right when you are 13 or 14 years old. It is a privilege that has to be earned by showing consistent responsibility. Possibly your 16 or 17-year-old has demonstrated they don’t need their Internet activity closely monitored anymore. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a single 12-year-old with the judgement skills to go it alone.

Instead of spying, start off by involving your kids in the supervision. Link their Facebook accounts to your email to start with, so that you get notifications of friend requests, pictures posted and messages. Instead of sitting around reading them, have your kid show you their home feed and profile every once in a while. Ask to look at their email in boxes. There are some fabulous conversations waiting to be had. This isn’t a lecture, it’s a discussion. Big difference. Ask them what they think of language being used, pictures being tagged. You’ll get some really interesting insights into their world.

You should check their browser histories from time to time, but you can do that with them too. I have no problem with a look at their histories without them, but that shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

Is it ever OK to spy? To log in using their passwords when they are not around? Absolutely. If you think your child is in trouble, if you are concerned about recent behaviour, possible depression, cyberbullying (whether they are victim or perpetrator), drugs, sexual health issues or violence. If your motivation is one of genuine concern for your minor child or someone they may be hurting, and your intrusion is as respectful as possible, then you should disregard the usual respect for privacy.

Has your child ever lied about their activity online? Have they set up a safe, dummy account for you to check, then surreptitiously set up another for them to engage freely with friends? That’s fraudulent. That’s a fast-track to having privileges revoked and strict rules put into place. That’s when you may need to do some poking around. Some benevolent monitoring.

What I’m saying is, that’s when you need to do some spying.

Moreover, this is a rule that should be established with them when they are young enough to listen, so if the day comes that you log in with their passwords to their account, they cannot say “How could you do this?”

Who am I kidding? They will definitely say that. Guaranteed. Probably quite loudly.  But now you have an iron-clad response: we may have to do this to keep them safe.

This evening I’ll spend some time talking to a group of parents of students entering Grade 8. Their principal specifically wanted me to spend some time addressing the topic of cyberbullying. It’s a real hot button topic, a trigger word that brings to mind the spectre of antisocial, angry schoolyard bullies further emboldened by their Internet connections to extend their victims’ torment to a much larger audience. Modern day trolls. Problem cases.

This concern isn’t too surprising, given the prevalence of the problem. One 2008 University of Toronto study found over half of respondents reported being cyberbullied.

The funny thing is that cyberbullies don’t always fit into that mold. They don’t always fit the same profile as the old-fashioned bullies who might have tormented our peers when we were in school. Their parents rarely suspect what their kids are up to. Sometimes their friends are surprised to learn about it. Sometimes they say they were just joking, and didn’t think what they were doing was really bullying. Occasionally they are just naive or unsophisticated enough to not be aware of how their comments or actions constitute bullying.

They could be my kids. Or yours.

When parents worry about cyberbullies, they almost always approach the subject from the perspective of potential victims. They worry about how other kids — mean antisocial kids — might hurt their children. They don’t realize how easily their kids, good kids, can do something online that proves deeply hurtful to someone else. One recent study of 1,500 parents found that not a single one of them believed their kids could be cyberbullies. But cyberbullies clearly exist, and they have moms and dads too.

A whispered not-so-nice comment in the school cafeteria may vanish from memory a few minutes later, but the same comment texted, or posted on someone’s Facebook wall, or sent off in an email, is a profoundly public, often irrevocable damaging blow. Kids don’t always get that the Internet is written in ink (hell, a lot of adults don’t realize this either, so what can we expect?).

Truth is, our culture tends to treat the subject of online reputations in very cavalier ways (check out this Roger cellphone commercial and this T-Mobile one). On the one hand we tell them how important this is, on the other we fill magazines, gossip columns and websites with celebrity gossip and intrusive speculation about the private lives of others.

But the acid test for cyberbullying must always be the end result. If someone is hurt by it, then it is wrong, even if we “just thought it was a joke.” It is little consolation to any teenager that their “friends'” comments about their weight or sexuality wasn’t meant to get forwarded to the whole school. It makes no difference to a teacher secretly taped in class and photoshopped for ridicule that their students were just having a laugh. It is damaging and destructive and can ruin reputations. It can result in depression, health problems, drop in grades, violations of personal privacy and even suicide (including, just last Thursday, that of a 17-year-old boy in Hamilton, Ontario).

McGill professor Dr. Shaheen Sharif has put together a fabulous website on this subject, called Define the Line. A slide show on the topic traces the legal evolution of cyberbullying, with one key Quebec case involving a 17-year-old (Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa) finding that a teenager’s sensitivity to teasing by her friends counts as foreseeable harm: the right to privacy trumps freedom of expression.

And while most cyberbullying is persistent and sustained and involves ongoing violations and threats using social media, cellphones and the Internet, it is also important to understand that sometimes they are one-off occurrences perpetuated by teens lacking the sophistication, judgement and tech savvy to understand what the consequences are for someone else. I have seen this happen on several occasions among my own daughters’ groups of online friends. It doesn’t matter. The harm done is exactly the same.

And as parents it is our jobs to make sure our kids are properly supervised and held accountable for their actions. Schools need to be part of the education and awareness, particularly since a lot of cyberbullying happens on the ground within school environments and communities. Article 1460 of the Quebec Civil Code stipulates that even non-parents “entrusted with the custody, supervision or education of a minor can be held liable for the act or fault of this minor.” Similar legislation has been introduced in the United States (although still subject to dispute).

Freedom is a privilege to be earned trough the consistent demonstration of good judgment. Despite what many people think, privacy is not a sacred right for a 13-year-old with a Facebook account. As a parent, you should have passwords to your children’s accounts. You should regular review their online activity with them. There should be ongoing discussions about permissible behaviour, both at home and in school. Schools should have clear social media policies in place. There should be clear, consistent consequences (at home and in school) for inappropriate use, including withdrawal of online privileges.

For more information and resources:

Stop a Bully (Canada-wide antibullying program) – http://stopabully.ca/resources/anti-bullying-materials

Stand up to Bullying (Red Cross program) – http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=24700&tid=108

Cyberbullying pioneer researcher Bill Belsey’s – www.cyberbullying.ca

Media Awareness Network (Be WebAware) – http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/aboutus.html

Have you ever done any of the following things: driven your child’s forgotten homework to school? Brought them the lunch they neglected to pack themselves? Softened a well-deserved punishment because you felt bad for him/ her? Backtracked on promised consequences for poor behaviour or disrespect? Ignored a broken rule because you just didn’t want to get into an argument with them?

If so, you’re guilty of trying to make them happy. And you were almost certainly wrong.

At a school meeting last year, my daughters’ elementary school principal made a very compelling argument. She said that all parents want to make their kids happy, but they are often shortsighted. We don’t need them to necessarily be happy today. Or right now. Especially if they’ve done something wrong.

Instead, we need to take the long view. Ultimately, we want them to be happy adults: contented, well-adjusted people taking their rightful place in our communities. We want them to be reasonably successful in the career of their choice, surrounded by people with whom they belong and share love.

But right now? Today? This morning, when they realized they hadn’t pulled their school uniform top out of the dryer like you asked, and it was all wrinkled and they wanted you to iron it? When they left their gym uniform at home the day of soccer tryouts? When they started a fight with their little sister or asked you to buy them the really cool jeans that everyone is wearing, even though it’s really not in the budget?

They don’t need that kind of happy. You are, in fact, doing them a long-term disservice by saving their butts, hovering over and rescuing them, swooping in to cover responsibilities that should rightly be their own. Protecting them from negative consequences to their own actions. Ignoring rude, disrespectful or anti-social behaviour. Spoiling them with consumer items they don’t really need, especially if they cause financial strain. If you never say “no.”

That’s not real happy anyway (though you could be forgiven for thinking it is when their eyes light up at the sight of those jeans or hand-delivered homework). It’s not the kind of lasting, grounded happiness that they will want as adults. The kind of well-earned, well-deserved happiness that comes from knowing your responsibilities.

What’s more, these attempts to make them happy all the time now when they are younger, is more likely to work against what should be your ultimate goal: turning them into happy, responsible, capable adults. To do that, they need to learn some hard, cause and effect lessons when they are young.

Western culture defines happiness in curious ways, usually around acquisition and consumption of goods, ease of living, always having to “feel good.” But the science of happiness (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that happiness is an innate quality, a way of looking at the world, generally independent of the things around us (with the exception of extreme poverty and deprivation). The most important correlates for happy people were close ties with friends and/or family. A study of lottery winners and accident victims left paralyzed found that, while both groups experienced temporary swings in their levels of happiness based on their dramatic change of circumstances, within a few months both groups returned to their baseline levels of happiness.

We need to resist the constant pressure to be happy at all costs. Another interesting piece of research suggests that the constant emphasis on needing to feel good is a risk factor for drug and alcohol addiction among teens. Behaviours like drug use, drinking alcohol, sex and gambling have a chemical payoff, at least in the short-term. But they quickly need more and more of whatever it is to get the same high, and therein lies the dark spiral of addiction.

So even though it can be really hard as a parent to imagine your kid missing lunch at school, getting in trouble for not having their homework, or missing a night out with friends because their behaviour at the family dinner table was inexcusable, you are actually doing them a tremendous favour.

Steel your resolve. That unhappy teenager may well thank you for it in 20 years.

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.

This morning, my 12-year-old twins had their very first morning of high school. My youngest would be starting third grade if it weren’t for the fact that she had a really high fever last night (score an extra day of summer for her, an extra day of childcare for me).

Like many families, we are in serious back-to-school mode. Supplies, uniforms, clothing and new shoes have been purchased. Items have been labelled. Student bus passes are ready to go. Desks have been organized. Backpacks are packed.

It’s a lot of work, and a fair bit of expense. But it’s also very exciting, a time to reflect on transitions and growing up. It’s made me think about the kind of parent I want to be to my kids, especially now that they are entering their teenage years.

So I’ve come up with a list of back-to-school resolutions. My intentions are good, but my will and patience are not perfect, so I fully intend these more as a set of self-imposed guidelines, and not an iron-clad code. I find it useful to have these kind of things to look up to, especially in the darker moments of parenting (and we all know what those are like!).

Know when to say no, and when to say nothing. Sometimes the word “No” has to be enough. I don’t have to justify all of my parenting decisions to my kids, and what passes for explanation is really their attempt to negotiation. If I think those shorts are too short, or they are too young for a school dance, or they’ve been Skyping for too long, that’s all I need to say.

Conversely, sometimes I need to bite my tongue. They don’t need to hear my opinion of everything. They don’t always want to know what it was like when I was 12 (really? That’s a shocker). I don’t need to pass along my issues from adolescence. This is their turn.

Take advantage of natural consequences, when appropriate. I’m a big fan of Barbara Coloroso. When my kids were toddlers, I went to hear her speak, and was particularly impressed by her adamant insistence on kids learning things for themselves. As long as it isn’t immoral, illegal or unhealthy, they’ll learn more from their own mistakes than our rules or lectures.

Let them go outside without their jacket and realize how cold it is.  Let them goof off instead of studying for a test and get a bad mark. Let them forget their lunch and go hungry for one day. It may sound harsh, but none of those things are immoral, illegal or unhealthy. The stakes aren’t particularly high and the consequences are tolerable and contained. If we do everything for our kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. And we are reduced to shrill, nagging parents. Sure, if any of these things become more than one-off problems, we need to step in with guidance and supervision, but most kids, most of the time, will quickly learn their lesson.  (Another amazing parenting book with this philosophy is The Blessing of a B Minus, by Wendy Mogel).

Set firm boundaries for technology use. How much screen time total can you (and they) tolerate. At what point does it eat into their time for exercise, family interrelationships, homework, sleep? A recent study found that one-third of American teens sleep with their cellphones by their bedside or under their pillows, and text well after their bedtimes. Many said they set the phones to vibrate so they will wake them without alerting their parents. Phones, laptops, iPads should all be outside of their bedrooms when they go to sleep. Teens already have enough issues with sleep without this extra distraction.

Get them to eat breakfast. This is one of the hardest pledges to keep. My older girls are simply not hungry in the morning. They feign nausea at the mere sight of food. Chalk it up to their adolescent circadian rhythms or their natural metabolisms, but I struggle to get anything into them at all. Going to school hungry pretty much guarantees a lack of energy and focus for the first couple of hours, so that’s no OK. We’ve tried smoothies, Greek yogurt, cereal.

Out of desperation, I’ve given up on my usual insistence on whole-grains, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugars. I find myself buying the crappy processed crap that used to make me all self-righteous at the grocery store, like “What kind of parent would serve that to their precious children?”

Me, that’s who.

At this point, even Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes are looking pretty good. If they want pizza or a chicken sandwich, fine. My minimum requirement is a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and a cereal bar.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for now. I’m sure I will stumble a few times (feel free to call me on it, but remember that thing about people living in glass houses…). I’m sure there will be more pledges necessary. What resolutions do you make in your household?

 

“Dinnertime!”

[beat]

[louder] “Dinner’s on the table. Come down now.”

[beat]

[shouting] if you don’t come down now, you aren’t getting dinner and the kitchen is closed till tomorrow morning!”

I am the very model of effective parenting.

Why would they even listen to me the first time, since they know I will repeat myself 3 times? They can get in a whole other level of Angry Birds or use that time to post something witty and misspelled on Facebook.

But I have a new tool now, one that has revolutionized family communication in our household.

My older girls now have their own cellphones, in anticipation of the new freedom that comes with high school and the use of public transportation to get them around town.

I text “Dnnrs on the tbl” (if you don’t use texting spelling, you can hear the eye rolling from the basement. It’s epic. I have been questioning the point of all those years of spelling workbooks and quizzes. But I digress.)

I hear giggles. They’ve heard me. There is movement upstairs. The graceful stomping of two pairs of 12-year-old feet on the stairs.

And through some form of cellular magic, here they are. In our kitchen. Dinner is still hot. I have not had to issue any more empty threats.

Not two bites into dinner, the vibrating starts. The ringing and buzzing and whirring of customized tones.

They have been contacting every person they’ve ever met to exchange phone numbers.

My husband tells them that phones must be off during mealtimes.

Sigh. The rules come flying out of thin air.

When they were 8, they got their first iPods (little Shuffles). They tuned out in the car, upstairs in their rooms. I worried about how it cut them off from the family.

Then they got Nintendo DS’s. Same thing, but much worse. The games sucked them in. They ran restaurant kitchens, designed zoos and ran ultrasounds on virtual farm animals when we used to talk or look out the windows together. They trained their digital dogs while their real dog lay unwalked at their feet.

More rules.

Then the iPod Nanos entered our lives, effectively rendering meaningless the no TV policy in our family car (I thought I was so clever). they carried their movies and Wizards of Waverly Place around with them on tiny screens.

Then the iPads arrived last spring. Portable email, Facebook and Skype.

But the cellphone is the epitome of digital distractions, the ne plus ultra of mobile communications when you are 12 years old.

I am beginning to realize that the rules have to be made up as we go.