January 26, 2011
Retract your mom claws
Wendy Mogel sets new rules for reasonableness
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Teens’ brains are in a scrambled state of development as they work to forge their own identities, oscillating between unexpected maturity and unbelievable impulsivity, Mogel writes, describing the neurological science behind their emotional rollercoasters. Teens, therefore, live in their own self-centered universes of screeching hormones and intense passions for people and possessions; their wiring can make them feel invulnerable and so, so much smarter than their parents.
The parents’ challenge, then, is to appreciate their teen’s quirks for the blessings they embody — passion, growth, idealism, energy — and to help the teen achieve what she is most trying to do: become an adult. Plus, parents have to do all this without getting sucked into a personal battle with their child, and by fighting the urge to constantly swoop in to rescue the teen from herself.
“I call it compassionate detachment — you detach from this individual moment, but you don’t detach from the person,” Mogel said during an interview in her office. “You have to recognize that they can’t be good problem solvers unless they have problems to solve. They have to make dumb mistakes to get smart. You need to be alert, but not alarmed. So there is definitely involvement, but not this anxious hovering.”
As she did in her first book, Mogel again combines psychological analysis, biblical and rabbinical sources, and practical, real-life parenting skills she says she honed while guiding her own two daughters, now happily in their 20s, through bumpy adolescent years.
Allow Teens to Grow From Experience
A parent’s instinct may be to rescue a child from the normal problems of adolescence, but that does the child a disservice, Wendy Mogel writes.
“When we intervene to prevent the pain of tough situations, we create a reflex: Whenever the child feels any sadness, confusion, frustration or disappointment, she believes she cannot survive the feeling,” Mogel writes. “If teenagers don’t have an opportunity to recognize their bad feelings or problems and learn to manage them, they go off to college and seek out quick, reliable methods to make the pain disappear — meaning they substitute denial, alcohol, drugs, sex, dramatic relationships, frantic overwork or daily calls home for actual problem solving.”
So, how do parents step aside?
Wait it out: “Teenagers’ problems can catch fire, flare spectacularly and then fizzle out just as quickly,” Mogel writes.
Be empathetic, not entangled: “Be curious and kind, but not alarmed,” Mogel writes. Give teens an opportunity to vent and unload and then express faith in your teen’s ability to solve the problem herself.
Normalize setbacks: When the situation is settled and feelings are less raw, talk to teens about how you’ve coped with frustrating situations.
Encourage them to seek help: Teach teens to problem-solve directly with other adults, such as a coach or a teacher, instead of intervening on her behalf.
Demonstrate confidence in your teen’s ability: “Before you swing into action, allow your teen to surprise you with his resourcefulness,” Mogel writes.
Distinguish dramas from emergencies: If a situation is one where you would consider calling 911, or if it looks like it could head in that direction, immediately intervene. Otherwise, learn to read your teen’s demeanor to distinguish situations that are truly out of the ordinary.
Mogel’s dead-on anecdotes offer parents a knowing laugh that easily slides into a grimace, and her practical tips provide action-items, guidelines and responses to those moments when it looks like your 16-year-old is about to ruin her life. (Mogel also helps you discern whether that might really be true.) Plus, the book is not just for Jews, despite the Torah-intensive bent: Everyone, from Bible Belt church groups to Catholic schools to Jewish community centers around the world, has invited Mogel to speak, looking to her to help make sense of the alien beings that have transmuted from once-adorable children and taken over their homes.
“I think, in our culture, we are very afraid of teenagers. We’re terribly afraid of them, and we envy them, and we despise them if they don’t fulfill our dreams. And that is very potent, and it’s complicated,” Mogel said.
Mogel asks parents to define their children’s success not by which college accepts them but by how well they handle themselves when they get to that college (or vocational school or art institute, if that is what is right for them), and, more important, what kind of adults they become when they get out.
Mogel debunks the must-go-to-Yale myth. She asks parents to look around them and notice that there is little correlation between successful adults and where those adults went to college, and she offers studies and admission officers’ anecdotes to support her argument.
So, if — and Mogel understands that it’s a big if — parents can get their heads around the idea that there are many paths to success, they also need to consider why they are so focused on high achievement and top universities.
Are they projecting their own unrealized dreams onto their teens? Do they need their teen to reflect the family’s status? Are they using their teen’s success as a mission to keep their own life focused? Is their grief at no longer having a small child clouding their ability to let go and let the child develop as an individual?
Mogel observes that over the years, a trend has developed, where, college administrators say, teens are getting to college as “teacups” — easily cracked by any sign of adversity. Mom and Dad, in their supreme efforts to make sure their teen’s path to college was smooth and padded and foolproof, spent the previous four years battling the high school, orchestrating social situations and clearing the teen’s schedule of any work or chores or real responsibility, so the teen might focus on what the parents thought really mattered — grades and the right extracurriculars.
“The teen is expected to study, study, study, while the parent acts as a cross between a sherpa, concierge and the secret police,” Mogel writes.
The teen never sees the actual consequences of procrastinating, laziness or irresponsibility, because parents always come to the rescue.
In extreme cases, the outcome can be dire. Mogel says that in her practice, she has met with well-meaning parents in privileged families who are baffled by their troubled children’s behavior — which can include self-injury, eating disorders or acting out with sex or drugs.
Mogel’s advice and remedies tend toward common sense and healthy choices — down-to-earth aids to living: outdoor time, unstructured fun, cooking, family Shabbat dinners and taking on actual responsibility.
Chores, she advises, keep teens tied into family life and give them practical knowledge of how to take care of themselves and their stuff. Doing dishes, taking out trash and helping around the house also provide a sense of connection and responsibility toward others. Kids who have no chores become what she calls “handicapped royalty.”
“They suffer from both loneliness (because they believe they are too special to cooperate with others) and anxiety (because they feel they are too fragile to cope with everyday life),” she writes.
The best tool for learning about consequences and real life is actual work — the kind teens get paid for, Mogel said.
“I think paid jobs are so wildly undervalued,” she said. “And the reason a paid job is so great is that if you don’t do it well, you get fired. And if you do it well, you get money. And money is freedom for teenagers, so they don’t have to negotiate with parents over every decision. It’s this fantastic reality curriculum that’s free for parents.”
Not to mention that college admissions officers have told her they would rather get a good reference from a Starbucks manager than hear about another summer volunteer program in Africa that parents paid thousands of dollars for.