A thirteen year old girl dressed like she is eighteen.
A freshman boy downs a beer.
A sixteen year old screams at her mom that she hates her.
There are a lot of reasons that these youth could be acting like this. Often they don’t even know why they behave the way they do. Maybe their parents are going through a divorce, maybe a good friend recently moved and they don’t know how to cope, or maybe they are missing a connection with a parent.
I was recently out with some of my girlfriends and we were discussing our biggest fears. I stated mine is to die and leave my children without a mom. I thought for sure that they would say that was selfish of me. I was surprised that they all said they completely understood where I was coming from and a couple of them stated that it is their biggest fear as well.
You see, my dad died when I was three months old and my older sister was four. I have an amazing and wonderful stepdad who married my mom when I was five and yet I’ve always missed my dad. At times, it was confusing to me so I can imagine it is probably confusing to others. I miss someone I have never known. Not only that, but I’ve had a wonderful man serve as my father for the majority of my life and he has never treated as anything but his daughter. He and my mom even have a daughter together but I am never less of a daughter than her.
So why do I miss my dad??? I think I miss the connection; I miss knowing where I come from.
In my work with children and adolescents, I have found that this is common. It seems most of us have some deep rooted desire to know who we come from and to have a connection with them. It seems that even if “mom” or “dad” abuse and/or neglect a child, that child has a desire to have a connection. I think even more than a connection; we want to feel they are proud of us. We want their approval. Even when the parent is the “worst” parent in society’s eyes, the child wants to hear “I’m proud of you.”
I recently read an article that discussed the struggle adults who were abused as children have in regards to their abuser. The article really made me think as some people (even professionals) think that a connection is vital while others feel they can lead a successful life without their parent. (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2013/02/abusive_parents_what_do_grown_children_owe_the_mothers_and_fathers_who_made.html). If adults are struggling to figure it out, kids are too.
I challenge you to think about this the next time you interact with a child or teen who does not have one or both of their biological parent(s) in his or her life for some reason. I’ve seen that not having the approval of a parent he or she so desperately wants, dramatically effects behaviors.
I’ll add that I’m not making excuses for inappropriate behavior. I’m just challenging you to not jump to conclusions. Society tends to want to punish when sometimes love is what’s needed.
"I wish my mom spent more time with me."
"I love it when I get to play games with my family."
These are actual things I've heard clients say. Guess the age?
They were middle school kids. I regularly hear kids ages 11-14 say things like that. Surprised? I was. We like to think kids don't want to be with their parents but that's not true. They need it. Regardless of age, they need time: one-on-one time as well as family time.
I've previously discussed family game night but, now, I want to discuss the importance of one-on-one time with your kids. When I say one-on-one, I mean parents, together, spending time with just one kid and each parent, separately, spending some time with just one kid. This can sound daunting especially if you have numerous children. My older sister has five children ranging from almost one to eleven years old and she and her husband manage to have one-on-one time with each of the kids. I love seeing how much her children enjoy this time (she takes pictures).
Here are some suggestions:
1. Plan a monthly "date". Each month one child picks something they want to do with both parents. Each month it is different child. Set up some boundaries based on things like what you can afford and how much time you have to spend. Make it worthwhile, though, and allow a few hours. Get a sitter for the other kids. Devote the scheduled time to the kid on the date. So, no calling the other kids, no checking your phone, etc. If you can swing doing more than one date a month (meaning with a date with a different child), go for it.
2. Engage in weekly one-on-one talks with each child. This can be just a few minutes but again devote the time to them. Both parents should do this, sometimes alone and sometimes together.
3. Find some activities that you can do around the house with each kid (or maybe even two kids). Examples include bike riding, taking care of the car, yard work, etc.
4. When you are out on a family outing, you can still get some one-on-one time. For example, if you are at a baseball game go to the concession stand with one kid to get snacks. Take that time to chat a little. Then later maybe you will take a different kid to the bathroom without the other kids.
A couple of warnings:
1. Try not to let your kids see you enjoying time with another kid way more than them. For example, you love fishing and your 12 year old loves fishing. For the last three weekends you and your 12 year old have gone fishing. Your 15 year old hates to fish but loves makeovers. By no means do I think you need to engage in three weekends of makeovers with her, but find a way to connect with her. It's a hit to her self esteem when a parent never seems to have "fun" with her but always with her brother.
2. Put some safe guards in place so that regular cancellations don't happen.
Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Uno, Monopoly, Life-these are just a few of the games I grew up playing. I love board games and card games. In my work with adolescents and teenagers I have discovered that regardless of what a kid says, almost all also love to play board games and cards. Too often though no one is playing them with them. Instead kids are given game systems, tablets, and phones and encouraged to play those. I think we need to go back to some simpler times.
I challenge everyone to start having family game nights. It is a very affordable way to have quality family time together. Also, kids learn important social skills when playing games such as how to take turns, the value of honesty (‘cause who wants to play with a cheater), and being a good winner or a good loser.
Here are my tips for a successful game night:
1. Play a game that everyone in the family can play and then as younger kids go to bed more challenging games can be played. You may be surprised by what little ones can play. My youngest at 2 ½ beat the rest of my family of five the last time we played Uno (Toy Story version). She knew the four colors in the game and all the characters on the card. We would tell her to play a certain color or character and she would. And she ended up winning!
2. Play the games based on the real rules. It is good for children to see rules being followed by everyone and that we don’t change a game as we go along just because we don’t like something.. Now if you have some “house rules” that are agreed upon before the game starts, that’s okay. For example, I always play that if you land Go in Monopoly you receive $400 instead of $200. I’m pretty sure that’s not a real rule but everyone I play with agrees to it before the game starts. The point here is we are changing the rules as we go along because someone is mad they are losing.
3. Don’t just let your kids win. Everyone needs to learn how to lose graciously. My husband has won many games of Pretty Pretty Princess while my daughter smiled and laughed (there’s nothing like a grown man in plastic princess attire). Losing is a lesson we all need to learn while young because we all will lose sometimes. If your child becomes upset when losing, feel free to end game night for that child. Then once she has calmed down, talk to her about other ways she could have shown her disappointment. Also, remind her that she can always try again another day. Feel free to also give tips and strategies to your kids are how you won.
4. Teach your kids how to be good winners. It can be fun to “trash talk” our friends when we win but family game night is not the place for this. I suggest instead giving high fives to the other players and let them know you had fun playing.
5. Address any cheating that you may see. Sometimes as parents we want to overlook small things such as letting Junior roll the dice again or grabbing a different playing card. This teaches Junior that sometimes cheating is okay or overlooked. The younger the child is when they learn that cheating is not okay, the better. Try not to get mad though when they cheat. Kids will try and we just need to remind them it is not okay. If this causes an argument, we can always play another day.
6. Have fun! Go ahead and get into the game. Put your phone away, turn off the television, and give your undivided attention to the game. Bring out your inner kid again.
Stefanie F. Pisarkiewicz, LPC
Experience and information from a counselor and mother- sharing her two cents on children and teens.