A Parent’s Guide
Episode 3: Side 2A Communication & When a Peer Is Troubled
By DR. JAMES WELLBORN
Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the fourth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with
some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah is still reeling from the ways in which guys have been treating her as though she is easy because a guy lied about how far they went. Her friendships are breaking up. Clay’s parents are noticing that he is withdrawing and seems upset all the time. Clay notices that something seems to be going on with Hannah. There are two major themes in this episode: communication with your kid and reaching out to a peer who needs help.
Communication with Your Kid
Part of being a teenager is beginning to have meaningful conversations with people other than their parents. And, not talking easily to your parents. Clay’s parents can’t tell if his withdrawing and not talking to them is part of being a teenager or if it is a sign of problems. So, how do you tell?
Signs of serious stress or depression. If you marked off a lot of items on the checklists from the first blog in this series, you likely already have a communication problem too.
Change in responsiveness. If something is going on with your kid, there will be a change in their pattern of communication. Does your kid suddenly stop talking to you about what is happening in their life? Even more importantly, do they get defensive and surly about things that you could previously ask about without getting a reaction?
Greater isolation (or never alone). Teens need some alone time. It is actually associated with healthy development. But too much (or, surprisingly, too little) is associated with negative outcomes. How much? Nobody has a good empirical answer to this. And, these days it is complicated by the use of electronic devices, social media and the Internet. Are they in their room staring at the wall or are they connecting electronically with their friends? Get some information.
“What’re you doing?” (asked with interest rather than as an accusation). “Let me see.” Teens should be spending an average of about an hour a day doing nothing. This does not mean in their room online, texting, watching movies or playing
video games (online with multiple players). It means puttering around, listening to music or just chilling and staring at the ceiling.
Now don’t go running up to your kid’s room and yanking them out after 65 minutes! This is just to give you an idea about whether you need to start paying attention to how they spend their time. A lot more than an hour, or a lot less, is associated with greater problems in teens.
No time with family. Are they always with friends? They are involved in a lot of extra-curriculars. Do they study all the time? Are they always on the Internet or playing video games. Or, are YOU always working, out of the house or focused on media/video games (because it isn’t always the kid who doesn’t have time for family).
If these things are going on, here are a couple of things to try:
Ask questions. Start (at first) with things that don’t matter.
“Who is that band you’re listening to?”
“What YouTube channel do you like?”
“Whatever happened to ____ (an old friend they don’t hang out with any more)?”
“Did you see what happened in Japan yesterday?”
As you build up a data base of information about your kid’s interests and experiences, you will be better able to engage in spontaneous superficial conversations (which can lead to meaningful conversations). Don’t let them put you off. “Oh just answer the question. Quit being a jerk.” But, ask your question, get your answer and then drop it.
Act interested. Active listening is crucial to communication. When you talk to your kid, give them your full attention. Be interested (or, at least, appear like you are). And nod three times. (I know, but try it.)
5-to- 1. When the ratio of positive to negative interactions falls below 5 positives for every negative, a relationship is in jeopardy. Before you correct, criticize or punish your kid, pause to see if you can recall five positive interactions (that’s positively toned “Can I get you a drink from the kitchen?” not just rewards
“Here’s $20 because you’re such a good kid.”). Make sure that ratio is at or above 5-to- 1.
Family meals. Start having regular family meals. At least 2 times a week (more if you can fit it in everyone’s schedule). It gets your kid around you without the need for a formal family meeting. Eating puts people in a better mood. You will find that small talk about daily events surfaces much more easily.
No electronics. That includes you too. No discussions about problems or scheduling. And the meal isn’t over until everyone has finished eating.
Tech Free Zone. Consider having a block of time each day (e.g., 30 minutes) when all technology is turned off; phones and portable devices, TVs, computers, game consoles. Everything.
(If you want to really make the point, turn off lights and light candles. Buy a butter churn. OK, not the butter churn.)
They (or you!) may only be able to tolerate 30 minutes in a tech dead zone. Y’all will be surprised by what you realize about how attached to technology you are and the difference even this small amount of time just hanging out can make in your mental state (once your kids have resigned themselves to it happening and stop sighing and complaining for the entire 30 minutes — after 6 weeks?).
These are just some simple ideas that can improve communication with your teen. There is much more to communication with teens and LOTS of people have written about how to improve parent/teen communication. There is a chapter in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century. There is the classic book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & E. Mazlish. And, you can find a number of books on communication with teens by following this link to my website’s books worth reading page.
When A Peer is Troubled
The other significant issue that was raised in this episode was what a teenager can do when a friend (or acquaintance friend) seems upset or bothered by something. Teens have a lot of ups and downs, shifts from interested and engaged to despondent and bummed out. They can cycle through these moods
several times a day in the peak years (15-17). Kids know this about each other. If your kid is concerned about a friend or an acquaintance friend (i.e., someone they are friendly with mostly at school), then it is likely to be something real. Here are some points to make in talking to your kid about what to do if they
are worried about a friend:
Trust your gut. There are lots of reasons kids (and even some adults) end up ignoring their instinct to do something. What if the other person gets mad or upset or insulted? Your kid might not feel equipped to do something about it if their instincts are correct. If something is wrong, doing something about it
could be awkward or complicated. It might be something really personal and your kid may not want to get involved. The other person may not want anyone to notice so saying or doing something would be rude. And, basically, instincts are not absolutely reliable. What if they are wrong? Then they would look stupid.
Encourage your kid to trust their intuition. Talk to them about the power of our brains in detecting a whole range of subliminal (i.e., below our conscious awareness) cues. The kind of gut instincts we are talking about are worth making a mistake about. Their gut instinct can be set off by something seemingly small or minor that turns out to be significant.
Risk being wrong. Teens are EXTREMELY sensitive to standing out (and being humiliated, sometimes by just being noticed). Your kid needs to know there are some things that are worth being mistaken about. Being wrong that a friend is hurt, struggling or unhappy is something to risk being wrong about. If their intuition was right and they don’t do something to reach out, it can end up being something they regret for the rest of their life.
Ask directly. Fear of looking stupid (by being wrong) and embarrassing someone else by noticing when something is wrong (when someone is trying to act like they are OK) are two powerful motives for teens to keep their mouth shut when they think someone is struggling. If that someone is a friend, even an acquaintance friend, your kid can ask them if they are troubled without it being a huge deal. “Dude. What’s going on? Something’s up.”
But sometimes, they won’t feel comfortable asking so directly. There are a couple of ways for them to bring it up while still giving the other person some wiggle room to get out of answer or blowing you off outright:
- Make a statement rather than asking a question: “Hey girl. I get the feeling you are going through something.” The other person gets to decide how they want to respond.
- Be vague and suggestive: “It seems like you are off in your own world lately. What’s been going on with you?” The person can take the response as serious or superficial.
- Be uncertain but interested: “You know, I could be wrong but it is like you have been really serious lately. What’s up?” You can reply to a denial with “Well, good. I guess I’m just reading too much into things.”
- Playfully serious: “OK, tell me about what has been giving you that expression/slinking around by yourself/looking so beat down?”
Don’t be put off. If the friend doesn’t share anything about what is going on, the respectful thing to do is to let it go. But. There’s that intuition nagging at your kid. They could be wrong but it could also be that the friend is still trying to sort something out or not ready to talk yet. So, if your kid’s gut is still telling you something is going on, they can honor how the other person feels while still respecting their privacy, to a point.
“Well, OK. But, I care about you and it still seems like something’s happening. You know you can trust me to listen and support you even if there’s nothing I can do to help. Don’t be all “I’m an island” and stuff.”
Then, of course, your kid should change the subject and lighten the mood.
And then consult (see below). It is better for your kid to be wrong than that their friend doesn’t get the help they need for a serious problem.
Hang with them. Your kid’s gut is right so if their friend isn’t ready or comfortable talking, they can make it a point to check in with them more. Make time to hang out, even if they don’t usually do things together after school. This is a way to be supportive without being obvious. It also will put your kid around them more to see if things seem to resolve or their friend sinks further down.
Consult. There are lots of adults who can problem solve with your kid about how serious to take their concerns. School counselors, religious youth leaders, you.
Did I mention you? Your kid will need to make sure they let the adult know whether they want them to actually get involved directly. Sometimes, sincere adults can accidentally make things worse. Make sure they (and you) trust your
kid’s instincts about what might help. The adult’s job is to be a listening ear, a voice of experience and source of possible strategies; not necessarily the person who actually intervenes. If you step past your kid to do something without their invitation, your kid may not come to you again. You want them talking to you. If you think your kid should do something, keep hounding them until THEY do something, not you. Protect this fragile and vital aspect of your relationship.
Respecting privacy. While people can’t be forced to share what is going on with them or to allow others to help, your kid doesn’t have to just helplessly watch from a distance. There is a lot your kid can do by just being there for their friend and making it as easy as possible for the friend to open up when (or if) they are ready. By your kid making it clear they pay attention to their friend and see something is going on, that the friend is not invisible, can make a big difference with kids who are struggling.
Check in. Let your kid know about how important it is to follow up on their initial concern. It can be as simple as checking in on their friend. Take that extra minute or make the little extra effort just to see how they are doing. Your kid will need some support if they are keeping tabs on a friend’s wellbeing. They will also need to be careful about feeling too responsible for making things better or fixing their friend’s problem. This is where you will need to keep an eye on your kid to make sure they don’t get in over their head while trying to be a good friend to a kid struggling with a serious problem.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
Episode 4: Teenage Sexuality and Sexting. The next blog is inspired by episode 4 (which is tape side 2B) and gives you some information about how to talk to your teen about sexual intimacy and tackling the burgeoning problem of sexting among teens.
Dr. Wellborn is an adolescent and family psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century. Find out more about him by visiting his website at www.drjameswellborn.com