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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Is Your Teen Naughty or Nice? What are you?

In the swamp that is middle school, amidst the bullying, the gossip, the she’s a this and he’s a that, the she’s pregnant (yes it happened) and then she’s not, the my teacher is a B-word because she makes us work so hard . . . I am raising a nice girl.

She’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, she’s gossipy and moody and hormonal, but she’s basically a sweet, loving and kind kid.

In the swamp that is high school, with hazing, and lunch time ostracism and smart kids aren’t cool, and girls wheeling their babies around at back to school night, and drugs and alcohol and alcohol and drugs, and rival gangs, I’m also raising a nice boy.

Oh he isn’t perfect either. He’s sarcastic, crabby, occasionally nasty, quick to fly off the handle, takes his mom for granted, and sometimes says things that make me want to slap him across the face. But basically he too is a good kid.

And I’m not really sure how the heck I’m doing it.

Nature or Nurture - What Makes Kids Naughty or Nice?

It’s not their dad, who they barely see at this point, mostly because he doesn’t know how to fix the mess he made with them, and is too proud and narcissistic to admit he did anything wrong. So it must be me. And I’m not in the best of places emotionally, professionally, or personally right now. So why is it that our kids are turning out just fine?

I know that one reason is those early years, the unconditional love, the let’s talk about it, the positive reinforcement, the bedtime stories and nighttime rituals, the constant reinforcing that helping other people is a good thing, that it makes you and they feel better about themselves.

The saying no to everything they want, and making sure when they get something it is special and merited. The nights struggling over homework, and not yelling when they get so frustrated they just start screaming. The always listening and cleaning up boo boos.

And lots of therapy for mom.

Mean Comes from Those Who Raise You

Babies aren’t born awful people. Oh I know some of it is nature, but the vast majority of it is how they are raised.

I had a wonderful mother, even if only until I was 13. She made me feel safe, and warm and nurtured and loved. She said “Wait until you have children, you’ll understand,” an awful lot. She didn’t ignore me even after she got sick. And somewhere inside of me is a part of her that comes out as I’m raising my children. The other part isn’t so nice, but I know that and I’ve learned how to keep it in check.

Everything we do, everything we say, our children absorb. They are like sponges. When my ex-husband criticizes and berates, when he’s pejorative and snide, it’s not coming from the baby he started as. It’s learned behavior. When teens drink and take drugs and smoke cigarettes, it’s often because their parents do it too. They’ve seen their parents’ party since they were babies. And they either reject it completely, or they embrace it wholeheartedly. More likely the latter.

I can see the parents who are raising mean kids on the soccer field (they yell, and scream and their kids insult and yell and scream). I can see the parents who pick their kids apart, because they were picked apart. Parents who bully because they were bullied.

Parents who spoil their kids rotten because they suddenly can afford it or feel guilty because they’re really not there. Parents whose value systems are based on the values that make people only care about themselves. Parents who don’t realize by not saying no, they are raising a kid who thinks he's entitled to everything. Parents who hit because they were hit and parents who drag their kids through stores when they start to cry, because they were dragged.

And worst of all, those parents that don’t even recognize the behavior in themselves, and when their kids start to mimic it.

The worst I believe is parents who ignore their children, who don’t communicate with them because they’ve had a crappy day, who come home angry and take it out on them, who go to a party and don’t see their kids again unless they made another child bleed.

All your children want is the best of you – the material things really don’t matter. Remember that and your kids too won’t grow up to be mean.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Does Your Teen Have Suicidal Thoughts?

I had a discussion with my almost teenage daughter the other night about teen suicide and she remembered when she was really young her father telling her, “Nothing is ever bad enough to take your own life.”
He repeated this to my son and daughter many times evidently while we were getting divorced and my older child was struggling. He went to therapy for a year and talked with a counselor about it which helped more than you can imagine.
I have my own memory of a boy who killed himself, the valedictorian of the high school class behind me. It was the day before graduation and from what I remember, because his parents were getting divorced. He had a full scholarship to an Ivy League School waiting for him. He was such a nice kid, on the outside everything seemed fine. But obviously he was struggling terribly, and at 17 his life was lost.
I had heard that teen suicide is more common than we think, and in fact teens who drink alcohol or take drugs are far more likely to kill themselves than those who don’t. Girls are more likely than boys. Those who are bullied or those struggling with their sexuality are also at increased risk. Family trauma such as death or divorce may cause thoughts of suicide.

So while I preach about alcohol use and communicating with your kids, every parent should  remember that their adolescents may seem grown-up, but inside they’re trying to figure out their place in everything. It's confusing, scary and can be completely overwhelming. If depression runs in your family, you can get hit doubly hard.
Let the data scare you
How pervasive is the problem of youth suicide? Studies by the Center for Disease Control tell us: 

For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, resulting in about 4400 lives lost each year.

FIfteen percent of 9-12th graders  in public and private schools in the U.S. reported seriously considering suicide, 11% reported creating a plan, and 7% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.

Among reported suicides in the 10 to 24 age group, 84% of the deaths were males and 16% were females. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys.

Native American/Alaskan Native and Hispanic youth having the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9-12 in public and private schools in the U.S. found Hispanic youth were more likely to report attempting suicide than their black and white, non-Hispanic peers.

When my daughter mentioned her peers too had thought about suicide, I was horrified. The good news is she told me about it. Make sure that your kids do too.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How Much Do We Screw Up Our Own Kids?

I am reading Andre Agassi’s bio Open and reminded of what a friend with three daughters once said as a group of us ranted about how hard it is to raise children. Her response, “No matter what you do you mess (substitute with curse word) them up anyway.”

There is truth in her comment and it’s all throughout the Agassi bio, which is about a father who relentlessly drove his son towards tennis stardom with no regard for what he really wanted. I’m only half way through, but the way that father treated his son is enough to disturb any parent. Andre’s father was angry, cold, scary, unloving and unwilling to consider anything that conflicted with his dream of what his son was going to be.

I’ve been thinking about how how much power parents have to influence the path their children take. In my experience the result of parenting it usually takes one of three:

1. Your kids end up completely rebelling and doing the exact opposite of what you wanted.

2. Your kids become their parents.

3. Or they may, as I have, hear their father’s voice in their head when they are angry at their children, watch themselves about to strike out verbally and physically, recognize it, go get help, and make a concerted effort to become a different kind of parent.

Do we have to screw up our kids?

I don’t think so. But there are so many people that I see who love their children and mess with their heads because they’ve never dealt with the place it is coming from.

Perpetuating the Behavior

My daughter and I were out to dinner the other night with a friend and his daughter, a lovely 12 year-old he dotes on. But he has a habit of getting annoyed and picking on her which I’ve seen before, and the other night I couldn’t bear watching. I think in this case, he was annoyed at me because I had a giggling fit over some ridiculous kitchen apparatus that he has and embarrassed him.

He couldn’t get mad at me, so instead he sat on a couch behind his daughter and mine as they played video games telling them what they were doing wrong. He didn’t just do it a couple of times, but over and over again escalating it so much that she finally turned to him and said “Daddy can you please just leave us alone.” Of course, then he got even worse.

I’m sure that this somehow came from the way a parent treated him, but I didn’t say anything and we left soon after.

Someone I worked with years ago was abusive. He had temper tantrums worthy of a four year old. He would call at all hours of the day and night screaming. He would ask me to do something and five minutes later would be furious that I hadn’t take care of it. Nothing I did was good enough, no matter how hard I worked. He was the definition of a bully, but we are not born that way. The kids who pick on others in school, I guarantee you their parents picked on them. All they are doing is perpetuating the behavior.

If we drink and take drugs will our kids follow?

Chances are if your parents have addiction problems you may too. But they say it’s a combination of nature and nurture and I’ve seen that in my closest friend and her family. Her father was a raging alcoholic. Her sister was a heroin addict who died of AIDs. Her brother is a raging alcoholic. And my friend is an overachieving yogi who is quite successful in the medical profession.

There were drugs in my household growing up. Three kids. Two took them. The other one rejected them completely. What we see or what is done to us does not make us who we are. Parents make choices. So do their children.

Where am I going with this?

I want every parent who reads this blog to take a deep breath and think about how their parents treated them, and what they saw growing up. Then reflect on your own behavior towards your kids. Break the bad habits you learned as a child. And be a better parent. Your kids will thank you for it.