Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist and expert who writes Teen Talk for The Bee and sacbee.com, recently hosted a live chat focusing on what happens when teenagers cross any of the many lines that help define their behavior. Here is an edited transcript from her Web discussion with readers.
Richardson: Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in private practice for over 15 years, specializing in working with teenagers and their families. A lot has changed since I first started as a therapist, and it's crazy what modern technology has done to parenting teenagers. Cellphones, Internet, Twitter, Instagram, etc., all have added a certain element to parenting that most of our parents never had to deal with.
So what are some the parenting issues you are dealing with today, and how can you tell if it is normal teenage behavior or if it has crossed the line?
Justin: Not crossing the line per se, but I am finding it difficult to communicate with my teens outside of text messaging, and they seem to not be interested in other means of communication. Makes it hard to see when they're crossing the line. The texting is a big barrier (I like reading body language, etc).
Richardson: Most teenagers use texting as their primary source of communicating so it is up to you as a parent to make that time to talk – ask them to put their cellphone away so you can talk face to face. Try to have family meals (it can even be takeout as long as you sit together) so you can help teach them how to have interactions that are not centered on technology. One of the problems cellphones have created for parents is that most parents have no idea who and when their kids are talking to people. It makes it harder to keep tabs on what your teen is up to and who they are associating with.
Cordova High Rob C: My girlfriend's daughter graduated from high school last year. She is taking one class in college and has a part-time job working less than 20 hours a week. She is at home most of the day but never lets the dog out or cleans up while she is home and I'm suspecting her boyfriend comes over while we are at work. Mom seems OK with the behavior but I don't. Any suggestions?
Richardson: Co-parenting can be difficult. If your girlfriend doesn't support you holding her daughter to some standards for living like a mature adult, then you have an uphill battle. She needs to be the one who sets the boundaries for her daughter and calls out her lazy behavior. You can suggest, but ultimately you can not make her do anything if her mother is not backing you up.
Marie: I recently learned my freshman daughter put the kibosh on "taking a cab" to some party that a new friend (with money) was pushing for. I'm proud of her, but I wonder, will she cave one of these times and go along? How can I talk about it without pushing her into such risky behavior?
Richardson: Praise her for making the good decision she did. Ask her what were some of the reasons she chose not to go and enforce what a smart choice that was. Talk about a backup plan in situations like that who can she call to get out of feeling pressured into going? Help her come up with some strategies in case the situation arises and she feels pressured. Assure her the peer pressure will happen but she needs to be prepared to handle it in a way that is smart and healthy.
Dino: My 19-year-old son has experimented with marijuana and I think other drugs, and the people he hangs out with are invisible to us. He will not bring them home to meet us and we think that he might even be dealing to make extra money to take his girlfriend out. He has a job but they rarely ask him to work because of poor attitude. How do we discuss this with him without pushing him further away? His mother is scared that he will distance himself from us and will ruin any kind of relationship in the future.
Richardson: If he is dealing and living in your home, I would have some big concerns and want to address him right away. He is not only putting himself at risk but also you and your home. You need to set clear boundaries with him – he has to work a certain number of hours or go to college. If he isn't willing to agree to that, you might need to look at some tough-love strategies. Offer to let him talk with a counselor about what may be going on so perhaps he can get some guidance from someone who is not one of his friends and who can offer suggestions on how to deal with issues like drug or alcohol abuse.
Dino: Well, I have set those rules up, Kelly, and his mother won't back me up. He is an only child and he comes back with "if we don't let him do what he wants, then he will leave and never come back." I want to call his bluff, but his mother won't and that is causing friction between us to the point that she is thinking of moving out with him so I won't push him away. I am at wits' end and he is using his mother to put a wedge between us, so he won't have to be responsible. Sad but true.
Richardson: Dino, you need to see a marriage counselor so you and your wife can talk about what is going on. Your wife is not seeing your son's behavior as manipulative and she is allowing it to interfere with your marriage. You have been vilified in this situation for setting boundaries and she is too paralyzed with fear that he will leave to support any rules you set. Get a third party to help – if only for getting support for yourself.
Guest: We have two girls, 16 and 13. Naturally, they are less at home these days. Every time they leave the house, even if to a cousin's house two blocks away, my wife is constantly worried. Always worried something bad is going to happen to them. They are going to get hit crossing the street. You name it, she worries. She even creates ideas of things happening that are just utterly bizarre. What can I do to help her?
Richardson: Sounds like she may have a possible anxiety disorder. It's natural to worry as parents – we worry about our children because we fear something bad will happen to them. But when you worry to an extreme – like worrying about a 16-year-old crossing the street – then perhaps the anxiety is organic-based and she needs to talk with a professional.
Marie: Messages on TV and in music; everything is sex and I feel like I'm constantly battling to filter it to no avail.
Richardson: Agreed. Having smartphones that directly link to the Internet make it hard because teens can access sexual content way too easily. It's not just TV or magazines anymore, it's everywhere. Teaching your children about what is appropriate and not appropriate can help them in situations where they are faced with sexual information. Depending on how old your kids are, open conversations about sex can be healthy. Make sure your teenagers know they can talk with you about it and you won't be angry or tell anyone what they have shared with you.
I suggest to teens in my practice that they should have phone numbers in their cellphone for three adults – besides their parents – who they can call at anytime and talk openly with. Most teens will say that it's weird or awkward to talk with Mom or Dad about private things, so by having two or three trusted adults that they know they can turn to at any point can be very valuable.
Alex: My teen daughter just got her driving instructional permit. She is so obsessed with passing her upcoming driving test in a few months that she practically devotes her usual study time at home to driving practice with a friend. We end up fighting every time I remind her to hit her schoolwork. I fear that if this keeps up her grades will suffer. How do I deal with this?
Richardson: Does she have a certain GPA to maintain in order to get insurance? In our house, you need Good Student Insurance if you want to even consider driving, which means you better have a 3.0 or higher. I like that she has a passion and is working hard at something that apparently matters to her. But you need to help her have balance with her schoolwork. Perhaps driving is limited to just on weekends so the weekdays are spent being able to focus on her school work. If you also require a 3.0, make sure she is aware of this so the motivation to do well in school works with her motivation to get her license, and maintain the grades after.