Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
In today’s world kids are under so much pressure and exposed to many things their young minds may not be emotionally ready to handle.
“Our kids are growing up with nearly unlimited access to social media and the world wide web,” said Dr. John Duffy, a nationally recognized expert in parenting for nearly 25 years. “Starting as early as eight years old, children are exposed to information, thought and emotion that they are developmentally unprepared to process. As a result, saving the typical ‘teen parenting’ tactics for 13-year-olds is now years too late.”
We spoke with Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, to get his insights for helping parents navigate these challenging teen years:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why are children more stressed and depressed these days?
DUFFY: Kids feel more stress because in a lot of ways we parents expect a lot from them. We have a fairly narrow definition of what success is and in some ways our kids have become a part of our report card as parents, which include their ability to do well and their achievements. Social media also plays a role in their sense of self worth. Gaining friends and getting likes online are a big part of this. Kids can fall into believing that they are unlikable, unlovable and incompetent, all of which play into this shift in depression and anxiety. There are more kids now than there used to be, so they're competing for spots on sports teams, advanced and/or accelerated classes, spots in colleges, etc. There is more competition and the bar has been set high.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are there any signs parents need to watch for that indicate a child is stressed?
DUFFY: Yes. One sign is a dramatic shift in their emotions or their behavior, meaning if you ask them a question and their responses are quick and dramatic. Or, your child used to spend time with the family and now they're up in their room all the time. Another sign is if they are more withdrawn and quieter or if they express that they are sad a lot of the time or stressed and worried. I've worked with far too many families that have ignored those signs. If you see a major shift that is worthy of your attention, then it is worth sitting down at the very least with your child and asking what is going on.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are there common mistakes parents make when it comes to their child and stress?
DUFFY: Parents have an inclination. When our kids come to us when they are stressed, we tend to want to lecture them. This happens all of the time in my office. A parent will be in the middle of a lecture and I’ll stop them and point to the child and I ask them to finish the lecture, and they do it. They know exactly where their parents stand and exactly how their parents feel. So one of my messages to parents is you don't have to tell your kids over and over again how you feel about something or that they shouldn't feel stressed. What's way more important is to hear them out. So, if your child is stressed, whether it is about making the team, not making the team, school or anything, you probably need to listen more than you speak and there's something to learn about what your child is stressed about. A lot of listening and very little talking makes a difference to kids, and kids know if their stress is acknowledged or dismissed. It's way more anxiety provoking to have your stress dismissed. That is when we as parents may say, “Oh, you'll feel better tomorrow,” or, “This is just a phase. Just breathe and let it go.” Sometimes it seems as though we parents don't want our kids to be upset and so we try to talk them out of it, instead of just acknowledging it and saying, “Wow, that must be very difficult.” That makes a huge difference to our kids. Hearing them out and acknowledging how they feel can be a great stress reducer that parents should practice more.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are your thoughts about stress on kids as it pertains to participation in sports? Are there things parents should be doing or not doing?
DUFFY: I think it's really important that kids participate in sports. So the first thing is to encourage the participation and what a lot of parents do that is counterproductive in this regard is you might hear parents say, ‘Oh, my daughter's just not a math person,” or “My son, he's just not a sports kid. He's my gamer.” Too soon we decide what our kids are way before they are ready to decide for themselves. And in my experience, most any kid, maybe every kid, can be an athlete of some kind. They may not be shooting three pointers better than anybody else on the team, but they can play on the team. My advice for parents is do not decide what your kid can't do because that takes a whole element of capability out of their hands, and one of the goals of parenting is you want to build competence and confidence in your child. I encourage parents to encourage their child to play sports.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What do you mean when you say the “new teen” and how is raising kids different for parents today? Is it more or less challenging then it has been before?
DUFFY: I wrote this book because raising kids is way more challenging. Eight years ago, I wrote a parenting book called “The Available Parents” and my motto was if you are just available to your kids and you are free of your own fear, your own judgment and your own ego, then everything is going to work out. In the years since kids are experiencing increased pressures – academically and socially – and now kids have this awareness of mental illness. Thirteen-year-olds that I worked with 10 years ago didn't really know a lot about depression, anxiety, ADHD, or suicidal thoughts. Now kids have this vernacular around mental illness and there is even a little cachet to it among kids and they feel if you are not anxious or depressed, maybe you lack depth to some extent. So the challenges parents face now are enormous because there's an awful lot of your kid's world you don't know about. In one part of my book there is a teenage girl talking about how a big part of her life is managing identity traffic, meaning she has an identity online, she has identity with her friends, identity with her coaches and teachers and she has to manage all these identities, and it's hard because some of them play into how she feels, some of them play into whether she gets on a team or gets into a college. And so identity traffic, she would argue and I would as well, is something that's new. So this is what the new teen is and that's kind of also what the age of anxiety is. Kids are really good teachers, so if you do not understand their world, if you do not understand what's going on at their school, in their grade and their classes and with their peers and with themselves and their psyches, you've got to ask them and they will talk to you about it if you come at them from a curious point of view without a heavy agenda. And as a parent once you talk to them, you may feel like now I have some information to work with. I feel a little more armed and informed than I did before. Learning from your kids is what I'm encouraging parents to do throughout this book. My book is about describing what the nature is of the new teen. In other words, everything our kids are inundated with that is new, and that the ages at which our kids are exposed to things, have become younger and younger. The talks we were reserving for teenagers a decade ago, we need to start having with our 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds now. I want parents to have an open, curious discussion with their kids in the hopes that this will create collaboration between the two, because more than ever now, our kids need us as collaborators and allies and guides through some of this stuff. That's the core of the book.
Dr. John Duffy
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