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Dear Christine: What If I Don’t Agree With My Co-Parent?

Trying to get your co-parent to parent your way? Here’s what to do.

Dear Christine,

What should I do if my husband and I don’t agree about family rules? For example, I really want to establish your no-phones-in-the-car rule, but my husband won’t enforce it. He often lets our kids use their phones when he is driving (or pretends not to notice that their phones are out). And when we are all in the car as a family, it’s too hard for me to be the one insisting that the kids get off their phones when they know that he will allow it.

Please help.

Sabotaged Spouse

Dear Sabotaged Spouse,

We know it is much better for kids when parents cooperate—when we are all “on the same page” and we “present a united front.” There are mountains of research that demonstrate that conflict between parents is bad for kids, and collaboration is good for them. We all get it…right? And yet many of us struggle to get co-parents on our page. It’s so frustrating to not be able to control other people! Especially when we are right! I know just how darn frustrating it can be when a spouse or co-parent doesn’t want to get on board with one of my fantastic (and science-based!) parenting ideas. This is a hard issue.

I’m only sort of kidding. I certainly have given a lot of thought to what best parenting practices are, and the strength of my convictions is pretty mammoth. How can I back down when I feel so strongly? And my husband is also very strong-willed (and not a big reader of research or parenting books).

So, again, it’s hard. And also: We must carry on.

The first step is acceptance. We can’t change our co-parents, tempting as that might be to try and do. Trying to change a grown human is a fool’s errand. Not because people don’t change—they do—but because we can’t force change in other people. The only truly effective option is to practice what we preach ourselves, and hope it rubs off on our co-parents. (Besides my husband, I also co-parent with my first husband and his wife, my daughters’ stepmom. Fortunately, we are pretty naturally on the same page!)

What has happened for me, and what I hope happens for you, is that the other parents in my life notice that the way that I parent works, and they can see that what I’m doing is rewarding for everyone. The kids respond, so my co-parents tend to be more motivated to mimic what I’m doing.

However, I’m also prone to overhelping my co-parents, which kills their motivation. When we overhelp, we subconsciously send the message that we believe that they can’t do it without us. This can make them feel like they’re being criticized or like they need fixing, and that can hurt. People don’t appreciate it when their spouse (or former spouse or former spouse’s new spouse) don’t accept them as they are. Often, overhelping others gives us a false sense of power that can distract us from our own problems. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.”

Fortunately, we can still help each other parent more authoritatively by supporting three basic psychological needs related to self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

We can support autonomy by backing off a little. Let them make their own decisions about how they’ll parent, even when they parent differently from you. This means practicing acceptance, as they are probably already parenting differently, whether or not we “let them.”

We can ask questions that help them build a vision for success and help them focus on the outcomes that they want. What does good parenting look like to them? How are they hoping to feel? And what will they need to do to succeed? Where will they need to ask for help?

We can encourage their competence by helping them build the skills they need. Do they want you to teach them what you’ve learned? What you are reading about in this book? What you are practicing?

No? Then take a deep breath and back off.

Finally, we can foster relatedness by building a sense of family. How can you find security in doing something together? Can you create common goals and common values? How can you make it fun to do together?

In the end, Sabotaged Spouse, the best thing you can do is to keep your own side of the street clean. When you feel frustrated that your spouse isn’t doing it right—or you fear that he’s undermining you—take a deep breath and turn your attention back to yourself, and to the things that are within your control. It is never too late for you to be the parent you want to be.

Love,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

My Kids Have Nothing to Do This Summer. Now What?

This Dear Christine column offers tips for structuring your family’s summer during the pandemic.

Dear Christine,

Since school ended, my whole family is floundering. We have no summer plans. I’m feeling some pressure to make up for “COVID slump,” but I haven’t a clue how to do so. Neither of my teenagers has summer jobs or internships, and neither is interested in taking an online class. We need to find a purpose this summer—all of us. What, even, is the goal?

Warmly,
A Floundering Family

Dear Floundering,

You aren’t alone! Day-to-day life without structure and routine is hard. We human beings are creatures of habit, and when our routines are disrupted, we tend to feel anxious and agitated.

So, here’s the goal: Do something productive every day. Also, get into some semblance of a routine.

Even though your kids probably feel like there is “nothing to do,” they are going to feel better if they make themselves useful or do something creative every day. People feel good about the things that they do well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have other sources of good feelings, but, truly, there is no other source of self-esteem than doing something—anything—well.

Also, there’s so much to be done.

I’m guessing you noticed: It’s a mess out there. My kids are tired of people telling them that 2020 is going to go down in the history books. They know that this is an important historical moment on a lot of fronts. A lot of old institutions and social structures, including our kids’ educational structures, have been profoundly shaken. If your kids are like mine, they may feel angry about all that is wrong in the world, and they may blame “you Boomers.” (For the record, kids, I’m not a Boomer.)

But, seriously, this is no time for finger-pointing. Neither is it time to wallow in self-pity or to allow ourselves to be sidelined by despair or resignation. It’s time to create the world we want to live in. We all need to get involved in fixing all the things that are broken. We need to step up and engage. What do you as a family care most about? What do your kids care about most? What role do you each want to play in making the world a better place?

This summer offers a chance to get involved in a meaningful cause. It could be through protest or activism, or it could be through learning, growth, and self-reflection, which are also productive foundations for social change.

And the goals we set for the summer should rest on that foundation. What do we want to learn or accomplish? How do we want to make a difference? The key here is not to set goals for our kids, unless we want to set the stage for endless conflict and nagging in our households (not recommended).

But using non-controlling, non-directive language, we can ask our kids questions about what they want. We can encourage them to set their own goals, letting them be guided by their own motivations (rather than what we want for them). What do they want to accomplish? What helps them feel like they are productive members of society, and of the family? What can they do every day to improve a skill that they value?

I don’t think that we need to push our kids to achieve something big this summer, and I don’t think we need to be particularly high-performing ourselves during this crazy time. Let “doing something productive every day” be a low mountain to climb. No need to construct some amazing program for your kids to counter the “COVID slump.”

Again, this is about stepping up and engaging.  Whatever they, and we, are interested in is fine. And as parents, we need to hold our kids to the expectation that they will contribute to our household in meaningful ways by, say, consistently helping with dinner or emptying the dishwasher without being asked. This may not feel as meaningful to them, historically speaking, as the other productive things they do. But it will make a big difference in our households, and our sanity as parents.

Key to accomplishing these goals is creating routines around them. 

Should you exercise in the morning or afternoon? Check email before or after breakfast? Work on college applications during the week or on the weekends? Shower every day? Go to bed before midnight or play video games all night?

Having a summer routine can free up a lot of energy that is otherwise exhausted by the constant need to decide what to do and when to do it. And for parents, this is even more important if we are managing (or just worrying about) our kids’ schedules.

This might seem crazy, but I ask my kids (and many of my clients) to construct their ideal day in increments of 30 minutes for themselves on a spreadsheet. I also do this for myself at the start of every new season, or when there is a big change afoot (here is an example of one created by a teenager for summer).

Developing a daily routine is about deciding how you will spend your time. More specifically, it’s about deciding what you will do and when you will do it. The key is to decide on these things one time instead of trying to figure out how to structure your day/week/summer every morning. Once constructed, we can lean on that structure to guide our daily life.

I like to think about our daily activities in terms of five big buckets:

  • Physical. How will we get some exercise? Is there something athletic we’d like to train for? How can we move our bodies throughout the day? What are other components of physical health that are important to me?
  • Emotional. How can we care for our psychological health by bringing some enjoyment into our daily life? How can we foster positive emotions like gratitude or awe? How can we connect with nature or pets or something that brings us peace or happiness?
  • Social. How can we connect with the people around us? This one is tricky during a pandemic, and it is also extraordinarily important. Teenagers need to connect with their peers. Similarly, most people need to connect with sources of emotional support outside of their immediate family unit. With creativity and determination, now that it is summer this can be done outdoors in ways that lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
  • Cognitive. Many of us get the intellectual stimulation we need through our work; kids can get it in myriad ways over the summer. What are they interested in reading? Learning more about? Can they get a jumpstart on their AP reading or SAT prep so they have less to worry about in the fall?
  • Spiritual or humanitarian. This is where our daily routine can connect back to engaging in something that brings us meaning or connects us to something larger than ourselves. Teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Over and over, research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

Creating an ideal day that includes each of these aspects of well-being gives us something concrete to shoot for in a world of uncertainty. Once created, we don’t have to stick to it rigidly. Often, it’s not the plan that makes the difference, but the planning process. Having decided once, we don’t have to decide every day.

Floundering Family, your teens may or may not engage in deciding on their ideal day. They may or may not decide to be productive this summer. Either way, make sure they see you do these things. That you are clear with them what the larger goal is for the summer. As parents, often the best we can do is to teach through our own example. Fortunately, with teenagers, that is almost always the best place for us to start—and it is enough to make a difference in the long run.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

How Divorced Parents Can Get on the Same Page

Dear Christine,

I’m a divorced dad who remarried, with a son and a stepdaughter. When shelter-in-place hit and school was canceled, everything changed.

We all started working at home—or not working at all. Though we have successfully established a new custody schedule so that there is less back-and-forth between houses, we still have a lot of conflicts. We don’t agree about whether it’s okay to go outside, who can enter the other parents’ homes, or how the new schedule might affect child-support payments, among other things.

I’m concerned about routines and schooling and the emotional atmosphere in the other households. My stepdaughter’s parents don’t care much about school and are treating the closure like a vacation. My ex-wife is very anxious and never hesitates to express fear in front of my son, which I don’t think is very good for him.

How can we negotiate these differences? Can we all get on the same page, or is that just impossible?

Divorced & Confused

Dear Divorced & Confused,

In practice, this is absurdly difficult. Oh, how I hear you. Blended families like yours and mine—where kids go between households—can’t follow the mandate to shelter in a single place of residence. So, the safest thing to do is to operate as a single household with our children’s other homes.

Take the case of my neighbor, a single mother. She lives with her boyfriend half-time, and with her daughter half-time. Her boyfriend also has kids, who spend time at his ex-wife’s house as well as his. His ex-wife remarried, and she has three stepkids, who live part-time in yet another household. Unfortunately, anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus in any of these households risks infecting everyone else.

Their situation—and yours, Divorced & Confused—is already complex, but made worse by the emotionally fraught relationships many divorced parents have with their exes and their new partners. You don’t agree on some key issues; how can you possibly operate as a unified family unit?

It’s hard, but we must find a way to do this hard thing. What we do here is a life-or-death issue, literally. It’s not a question of whether or not you should find a way to negotiate your differences, Divorced & Confused. You must, for the safety of all.

I can’t address your individual issues, but I can share some ideas for making shared custody possible during a global emergency.

1. Bring acceptance to this enormously tricky, emotionally complicated situation.

Conversations with ex-spouses are often difficult, especially when there is so much at stake. When we reduce conflict, we make things better for our kids, and we increase the odds that we’ll all miraculously arrive on “the same page.”

A lot of interpersonal conflicts come from resistance. One way we resist is by blaming, judging, and criticizing others. In this case, Divorced & Confused, it might be tempting to criticize your children’s other parents. Which will probably make them defensive and angry and, in turn, make them more resistant to your requests or helpful suggestions. So, scratch “well-intentioned critique” off the list of useful strategies.

We also often resist difficulty by denying and avoiding. Instead of raising our concerns with our ex-spouses and their new partners, we might suppress our worries and naively hope for the best. But there’s no time for avoidance in a health crisis like this one.

Criticizing and avoiding are tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect our families or communities from the dangers of COVID-19. Weirdly, the opposite of resistance—acceptance—will help us negotiate our differences.

We can reduce conflict with our children’s other parents by accepting them—and also by accepting the way they are responding to this crisis. We don’t have to like how they are responding. Nor do we have to resign ourselves to others’ future risky behavior. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is right now and moving forward from there. It allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment.

For example, the next time you interact with your ex-wife, you could say silently to yourself: “I accept that she is anxious and scared. And I accept that her emotions and actions are making all of us more anxious right now, too. That is the reality I’m working with.” When we accept a person (and their emotions), we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension between us. Letting go allows us to soften, which opens the door to our compassion and our wisdom.

2. Keep your side of the street clean.

It’s always hard when other people don’t do what we want them to do. But right now, when so much feels dangerously out of control, it’s ridiculously hard.

The truth, though, is that we can never really control other people. “Control is an illusion,” a wise friend once wrote in an email. “Our only choice in each moment is: How much grace and beauty can we show up with? How well can we love?”

So. All we can control is how we show up in each moment, in each situation, in each conversation. When we feel angry or afraid, we’ll need to bring attention to our breath. We’ll need to resist speaking (or writing) until we can bring a little grace to the situation. Sometimes soothing ourselves is the only productive thing we can do in a given moment.

I hear you that you want your stepdaughter’s parents to take school seriously and that you are concerned about routines and exposure to your ex-wife’s anxiety. The most useful thing you can do in this situation is to be the best parent that you can be. Establish a solid structure for routines in your household. Talk to your stepdaughter about why education is important to you. Ask your son how he’s feeling and how he’s handling the big emotions of the adults around him.

Stay engaged and loving, even when your kids are with their other parents.

3. Have a little mercy on others and yourself.

Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness. Mercy fundamentally changes how we communicate, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Having mercy means that when others get short or nasty with us, we can be kind in return. We can recognize that they are feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now.

Forgiveness takes basic kindness to a whole new level. (And what we need right now is a whole new level.) I used to think I couldn’t forgive someone who’d hurt me or my children until they’d asked for forgiveness.

But to negotiate our differences in a crisis, we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still acting in hurtful ways. We might need to forgive others at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

We also need to have mercy on ourselves right now. If you get short or nasty with others, be kind to yourself. You’re feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now. You’re doing the best that you can. So are your co-parents. We’re all doing the best we can.

Yours,
Christine

Dear Christine: How Do I Motivate My Teen?

Bossing them around won’t work forever; we need to help teens manage their own lives.

Dear Christine,

I have two teenagers, a boy who is in high school and a girl who is in college. My daughter has always been self-motivated and a great student. I’ve never needed to nag her to do her homework, and she has always gotten good grades and great teacher comments.

My son is another story. His study skills are lacking. He doesn’t like school, and he doesn’t work very hard. I have to constantly be “on him” about his school work. We’ve had him tested for learning disabilities and ADHD, and he does not have either, although the tests showed that he does have great difficulty paying attention to things that he is not interested in.

He’s now a sophomore. Still, I’m constantly “helping” him with his homework, figuring out what work he has due, what tests he has coming up, or what assignments he might have failed to turn in. I’m afraid he won’t do it otherwise.

Our son says he does not want me to back off and that he wants me to continue helping him. At the same time, he is not exactly welcoming of my help in the moment. He’s often a little surly when I remind him of assignments, and he usually makes excuses for why he doesn’t have to work on something. He lacks self-motivation, and without me pushing him (and keeping him organized), I fear (1) that he might actually get worse grades; (2) that he won’t get a college degree; and (3) that this will limit his job prospects. Ultimately, I’m afraid that he’s going to end up living at home into his early adulthood, stuck on the couch playing video games.

I can’t help wishing that our son was more like our daughter. I want him to be more independent and self-motivated. Above all, I want him to do well enough in high school to go to a decent college. What do you recommend I do? If I’m honest, I’m looking for permission to keep propping our son up.

Thanks,
Parental Crutch

Dear Crutch,

So, it’s good that you have college and work aspirations for your son. But I’m afraid that your current efforts on his behalf aren’t going to pay off. Unfortunately, trying to control our children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive. In some ways, you are right to be worried: About a quarter of young men in the United States in their 20s are unemployed. That statistic is mind-blowing to the economists who track these things, given that men in their 20s have historically been the most reliably employed of any demographic. While the trend toward unemployment encompasses young men of all education levels, low-skilled men—like those without a college degree or training in a trade—are particularly likely to end up living back at home. A staggering 51 percent now live with their parents or another close relative. And what are they doing instead of working? (Hint: They aren’t going to school.) You’ve already guessed it; many of them are playing video games three or more hours a day.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents—those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it—don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful at solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

And what’s true for children in terms of parental control is about a thousand times more true about teenagers. Once kids reach adolescence, they need to start managing their own lives, and they know this. Most kids with micromanaging parents resist what their parents want for them every chance they get. They do this not because they are lazy or short-sighted, but because they need to regain a sense of control.

This cannot be overstated: Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives. A mountain of research demonstrates that agency—having the power to affect your own life—is one of the most important factors for both success and happiness. Believing that we can influence our own lives through our own efforts predicts practically all of the positive outcomes that we want for our teens: better health and longevity, lower use of drugs and alcohol, lower stress, higher emotional well-being, greater intrinsic motivation and self-discipline, improved academic performance, and even career success.

You have an important choice, Crutch.

Choice A: Keep riding your son; keep him organized and on track. He’ll likely get a lot more homework turned in, he’ll study for tests he would have avoided or forgotten about, and he’ll apply to the colleges you put in front of him. The big question in my mind, though, is about what will happen when he’s off at college and he doesn’t have you there by his side to keep him on track.

Actually, in my mind, it’s not that big of a question.

The odds are he won’t make it. An astounding 56 percent of students who start at a four-year college drop out before they’ve earned a degree. Nearly a third drop out after just the first year. If your son doesn’t develop the study skills he needs to succeed (without you), he is not likely to develop them once he gets to college.

Which brings us to Choice B: Back off so that your son can build the skills he’ll need to survive without you. This does mean risking letting your son stumble, but at least he’ll be at home with you when he does.

Your son, of course, will not want you to back off. Why would he want to put in that kind of effort if you’ll do it for him? Plus, there is no risk for him right now; he can’t really fail if he doesn’t really try.

I’m not saying disengage from his life. It’s important for you to stay involved and supportive, but to do so without being directive or controlling. Set limits so that he knows you aren’t lowering your expectations. For example, if you expect him to maintain a B average, that’s great. What happens if he doesn’t do that? Decide as a family, and then be firm and consistent in enforcing your limits.

In fact, don’t dial back your effort at all, just shift your focus. Right now, you are propping your son up. Instead of putting all your energy into doing things that your son would be better off doing for himself, put your effort into supporting his self-motivation.

As I explained not long ago to another mom who was overhelping her husband, the way to foster self-motivation in others is to support their autonomy, their competence, and their relatedness. These are the three core psychological needs that, when filled, lead to self-motivation. You can choose to refocus your attention on promoting his self-motivation. Here’s how.

1. Give him more freedom.

He needs the freedom to fail on his own—and the freedom to succeed without having to give you credit. Your son can’t feel autonomous in his schoolwork if you are still the organizing force.

Instead of directing your son, ask him: “What’s your plan?” As in, “What’s your plan for getting your homework done this weekend?” Asking kids what their plan is makes it clear that they are still in control of their own behavior, and it helps put them in touch with their own motivations and intentions. Often kids simply need to make a plan—and sometimes if they aren’t asked to articulate their plan, they won’t make one. (Especially kids who are used to being nagged; those kids know that their parents will eventually get frustrated and do their planning for them.)

This not-making-a-plan thing is developmental, by the way—it is often more about their executive function than their motivation. Our frontal lobe, which enables us to make plans for the future, often doesn’t develop fully until our mid-20s. This doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t plan, or that we should do it for them; it just means that they need a little more support practicing planning than might be obvious given their other capabilities.

It’s also really important that we parents pay close attention to our tone of voice, especially if what we are saying could potentially limit our kids’ freedom in some way—if we are making a request that could be interpreted as pressure. Research suggests that moms who talk to their teens in a “controlling tone of voice” don’t tend to get a positive response, and they are more likely to start an argument.

It’s not enough to just stay neutral, unfortunately; although a neutral tone of voice is less likely to make teens defensive and argumentative, it was found to be equally ineffective in motivating kids.

What did work? The teens who were the most likely to carry out the request being made had parents who used a “supportive” and encouraging tone of voice.

2. Help him feel more competent.

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that your son feels incompetent compared to his superstar sister. This likely leads to resignation. Why should he try if he’ll never be as good as her, anyway?

Help him see where he’s done really well in the past through his own effort (rather than your nagging). Don’t be afraid to ask him: Where do you feel most confident? And then help him see that it is his own effort that has led to that capability.

You can also support him in building new competencies. It sounds like he needs to build better study skills, for example. Who would be a good study skills coach for him? It’s important for him to develop his ability to learn and push himself outside of his comfort zone.

3. Finally, support his sense of belonging and connectedness with others, particularly at school.

Is there a teacher whom he feels connected to who can encourage him? Or a coach who is also willing to talk to him about his life as a student? Or a peer group who would encourage him to pay more attention to school work? Sometimes the best way we can help our kids is to help them find a community where they can thrive. One way to do this is to enlist the interest and attention of another adult.

Crutch, I’m very clear about this: The time to take the training wheels off is now. When he falls, let him pick himself up and try again. This will build autonomy and competence. You can celebrate his successes—this will build relatedness. Let him learn how to ask for the help he needs; when he gets it, it will expand his sense of belonging and connection to others.

Redirecting your energy towards promoting your son’s self-motivation will not likely be in your comfort zone. But once you get the hang of not nagging and not being so directive, your relationship with your son is sure to be far more rewarding—for you both.

Yours,
Christine

MORE ON RAISING HAPPY TEENS


If you like this post, I think you’ll love my new book, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction.

If you’re in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll join us for the launch at the Hillside Club on February 20, 20! Find more information about my book events here.

 


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine: My Friend Has Cancer. What Should I Say?

Dear Christine,

One of my best friends was just diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. She has two little kids, a loving husband, and a full-time job. I’m not sure what to do or say or how I can help—my instinct is to jump in and start problem-solving. Does she have the best doctor? Can she really afford to take time off of work? I know she knows that this could be terminal. She is only 47 years old.

I know your close friend recently went through something similar. Please just tell me what to do.

—Scared and Sad

Dear Scared and Sad,

My friend, Susie Rinehart, would find it kind of funny that you are asking me what to do when a friend has a potentially terminal illness. Why? Because I initially handled her diagnosis so bizarrely.

Susie and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Before she found out that she had a big brainstem tumor, we’d been talking on the phone a lot about her desire to write a book. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the months before her diagnosis, we’d clocked a dozen or more hours gabbing like middle schoolers in the 1980s (that is to say, endlessly on the phone, she in Colorado and I in California). I was trying to help her work out the particulars of her novel. Or of her fictionalized memoir. Or maybe it was meant to be a series of letters to her daughter. Or self-help book for young women in their 20s.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t know what form the book was going to take. But we did know that Susie had an important book in her.

When she found out that she had a tumor wrapped around her brainstem—one that might not be operable and could possibly maim or kill her in as little as three months—she called me. When I didn’t pick up, she left me a message explaining that they’d finally figured out why she’d been having such severe headaches for the past couple of years: It was a massive, tentacled tumor. They were interviewing surgeons. A mutual friend, himself a neurosurgeon, was helping Susie find the best of the best. It was a long road ahead.

I was not as stunned or worried as you’d think I’d be upon learning that one of my dearest friends had a serious illness. In addition to talking about the book, we’d also been talking about her headaches a lot. Two mysteries had been solved!

So instead of thinking through how one might appropriately respond to such news, I immediately called her back and left a long message:

Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that you have a tumor in your neck, but I’m so happy they’ve figured out what’s been causing your headaches! That’s so great. And I’m glad you are taking the time to find the best surgeon ever. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. And, also, not to be Pollyannaish about the ordeal that is surely ahead, but SUSIE! THIS IS YOUR BOOK!! You are going to write a memoir about this experience!!

My husband, Mark, overheard me leave that message back to her. After I told Mark what was going on, he said something like: “She just told you that she has brain cancer, and you told her ‘Congratulations! This is going to make for a great book!’ Call her back right now. Maybe you can stop her from listening to that message.”

In my next message, I said little more than, “I am such a dumbass.”

Coincidentally, a few months later, I was having lunch with a new friend, Kelsey Crowe, who was just launching her very helpful and very funny book, There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.

Kelsey confirmed that I had not responded at all appropriately to Susie’s diagnosis. She gave me a few pointers for the next time something awful happens to someone I love. So here are few things I’ve learned from both Susie and Kelsey:

1. Say something

While Kelsey admitted that what I chose to say to Susie was about the worst she’d ever heard, she was clear that saying something is always better than saying nothing. (But you might need to apologize for being a dumbass, if you are like me.)

A lot of people don’t know what to say when something awful befalls a friend or colleague, and so they don’t say anything at all. It’s terrible for people who are going through something difficult when they feel like people are avoiding them. Here are some things Kelsey suggests:

  • “I am sorry you are going through this.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through. What’s that like for you?”
  • “I want you to know I am here for you if there is anything I can do.”
  • “You don’t look sick; how are you actually doing?”
  • “How are you feeling today?”
  • “I have seen you manage really tough things in the past and I know that you can get through this.”

2. Offer support

Your friend’s diagnosis is an opportunity for you to reach out in whatever way you can. It’s an opportunity to connect, to offer love, and to show compassion. Your relationship will naturally deepen when you offer support, especially if you don’t expect anything in return.

Doing something, even something small, is better than avoiding the situation or the person, which will only make them feel more alone. Delivering a casserole might seem a little retro, but keeping the kids fed and the family trains running is hard if you’re not feeling well (and nothing says I love you like lasagna).

If you don’t cook or can’t reliably deliver things like meals, don’t feel compelled to sign up for that type of support. Maybe send an inspirational poem if that’s more your thing. Or perhaps you can easily drive the carpool for your friend, or be there to hold her hand during chemotherapy or treatments. Consider doing the thing that will bring you personally the most joy, or create the most connection.

3. Hold space for the scary, awful, unfairness of it all

Your friend’s life may have just fallen apart. There’s probably zero chance that she’s not thinking about the fact that she might die, leaving her young children without a mother. Those are some really hard thoughts to be alone with all the time.

So even though our first impulse is often to cheer someone up, or to offer platitudes like, “God never gives us something we can’t handle,” or to find a silver lining, sometimes optimism can make a sick person feel more alone and afraid. We can be hopeful that treatments will work and that everything will be okay in the end—and at the same time we can acknowledge the scary, awful, unfair outcomes that are also a possibility. Specifically, we can hold a place for them to say the unimaginable:

  • “I might die.”
  • “My children might grow up without a mother.”
  • “Everything has fallen apart.”

Because Susie encouraged me to do this with another friend who had been diagnosed with possibly-fatal cancer, I started by telling him that I was there for him if he wanted to talk about all the dark things that were going through his head. I said, “I don’t believe you are going to jinx yourself if we talk about what you are most afraid of. Sometimes it can help to speak out loud about the worst-case scenarios.” Those conversations were brief—like a door we barely opened and barely peeked through—but they were among the most moving and heartfelt conversations I’ve ever had in my life, with anyone.

Your friend is lucky to have you, Scared and Sad. Not because you’re ready to jump in and start problem solving (please don’t do that), but because you can see how scary this situation is for her. You can see that her whole life has just been dumped upside down—that she’s lost a lot already, and she is likely sad about it, too. Your friend is not alone in her fear or her grief, thank goodness.

Fortunately, Susie forgave me for my initial response, because that’s the kind of friend she is. And, also, she did write a book about her experience. It’s called Fierce Joy, and I hope you’ll read it.

Warmly,
Christine

In “Dear Christine,” sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine: My Son Went Off to College and I Want to Cry

Dear Christine,

My oldest child is off to college. In the last few weeks, relatives have been offering him their sage “how to succeed in college” advice. Friends keep sending me an article from the New York Times offering advice to college freshmen: “Don’t take other people’s Adderall. Granola bars have a lot of sugar. The stamp goes in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope.” Really? All of this is entertaining, but isn’t it all too little too late? Isn’t the point that they’ve outgrown our advice?

Part of my grief about my son leaving home is that my advice no longer seems relevant. I want to help him as he makes this big transition to adulthood…and I also want to lay down and cry.

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

Oh, how I feel your pain. Last weekend I dropped my daughter Fiona off for her first year at college. Here’s my advice to us both: Let yourself lay down and cry as often as you need to. Not because you’ve been outgrown; you haven’t. Your relationship with your son will grow into something new, something wonderful.

Let yourself cry because it’s sad to lose the daily physical presence of our children, and it’s exhausting and ineffective to stuff our emotions down. Change is hard. It’s normal to feel emotional in times like this. Our urge to give advice is just an attempt to keep the change at bay, an attempt to not feel the loss of our role in their lives as live-in advice-giver. It’s not that our children growing up and going off to college is a loss—that’s always been the plan, and it’s a tremendous privilege to go to college—but there is usually some grief for us parents. It’s okay to feel that.

Instead of numbing your grief with busyness, or social media, or work, or whatever your distraction of choice might be, this is a prime opportunity to practice letting yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. This might seem unfun or counterintuitive—most people aren’t excited about the prospect of just lying down and crying. But if we don’t process our emotions, they tend to fester. And when we feel and acknowledge our feelings, they tend to dissipate.

Take a moment to identify an emotion that you are experiencing; there might be several. For example, you might feel relief as well as loss, because many high school graduates get pretty difficult before they leave home. (Being difficult is a way for them to separate from us parents; it makes it easier for our kids to leave. High school counselors call this “soiling the nest.”)

Pick one of the emotions you are feeling and see if you can objectify it: Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What does it really feel like? Does it have a shape, or a texture, or a color?

The key here is to lean into our emotions, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: I’m feeling anxious and worried right now, or I feel so sad I could cry. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

One of the best ways to cope with a life-changing event such as this one is to move from labeling your emotions to truly accepting them, to surrendering all resistance to them. This is tricky because you may really, really, really not want to feel what you’re feeling, and you might only be doing this because I said earlier that emotions that are processed tend to dissipate.

It can be scary to expose ourselves to our strongest emotions. Take comfort from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who teaches us that most emotions don’t last longer than 90 seconds. What you’ll probably find is that if you can sit still with a strong emotion and let yourself feel it, even the worst emotional pain rises, crests, breaks, and recedes like a wave on the surf.

This can be a really hard process, I know. Once you are able to let yourself feel what you feel, give yourself a pat on the back for demonstrating what Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.”

There are loads of benefits to having this sort of emotional courage beyond getting through major life changes such as having a child go off to college. Emotional courage will enable you to have that difficult (but necessary!) conversation with your boss or your mother that you’ve been avoiding for months because you were worried about the emotional fallout. It’ll help you stop pretending to be someone that you really aren’t. With emotional courage, you’ll be better able to take calculated risks.

And you’ll be modeling for your new first-year college student the emotional courage that they are going to need to get through this first semester. When they call home weeping or homesick, you will be in a better place to help them lean into their difficult feelings, even if they are painful.

In all of this, remember that you have not been outgrown. If you have been a source of trusted advice for your son in the past, he will continue to look to you for your wisdom. And if he doesn’t ask you for advice as he makes his transition to adulthood, that is normal. Please know that your presence in his life as someone who can cope with challenging emotions and difficult transitions (his and your own) is guidance enough.

Yours,
Christine

In Dear Christine, I respond to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine: How Can I Get My Teenager to Listen to Me?

Dear Christine,

My daughter has a chronic health problem that we’ve been dealing with since she was almost three years old. Until very recently, I managed everything about her illness for her: appointments, medications, decision making around treatment, etc. She’s always been interested in learning more about her disease, and she’s been a compliant patient.

But now that she is a teenager, she needs to be more in charge of herself, and more involved in making decisions about her treatments. In some ways, she’s doing this well; for example, she gives herself a weekly injection.

I’m frustrated, though, because it seems like I can’t give her important information about her illness without eye-rolling and resistance. She needs more information than she currently has to make good decisions for herself. Right now, she wants to take herself off of a medication that makes her nauseous, and her doctor and I are worried that this is going to lead to more severe long-term health problems.

How can I influence my teenager? What used to work doesn’t seem to work anymore.

Signed,
Loving Mom Trying to Let Go

Dear Trying to Let Go,

I feel your pain. I find it really frustrating that I can’t just give my teenagers lots of (important!) information and expect that new information to translate to positive behavior. Even kids who don’t have a chronic disease don’t usually know what they don’t know about lots of things that will affect their health over the long run. It’d be much easier if we could just download information to them—say about sex and drugs, or about their health and wellness—and know that they were going to use that information well.

But, alas, as you and I know from experience, giving teenagers a lot of information doesn’t seem to be the key to influencing them. In fact, we know from some interesting research on this topic that what is somewhat effective for elementary school children—giving them information about their health that they can act on—tends to be mostly ineffective for teenagers.

This is because adolescents are much more sensitive to whether or not they are being treated with respect. The hormonal changes that come with puberty conspire with adolescent social dynamics to make teenagers much more attuned to social status. More specifically, they become super touchy about whether or not they are being treated as though they are high status.

In the teenage brain, the part of your daughter that is an autonomous young adult is high status. The part of her that is still a kid who needs your support is low status. Our teenagers might be half–independent young adult, half–little kid—but they are hugely motivated to become 100 percent autonomous. (Even if they do know, on some level, that they still need our support and guidance.)

So, when we give our adolescents a lot of information about an (important!) topic, especially when it is information that they don’t really want or that they think they already have, it can feel infantilizing to them. Even if we deliver the information as we would to another adult, the mere fact of our instruction can feel disrespectful to teenagers.

What is a smart parent (with loads of important information!) like yourself to do? I’ve gleaned three ideas from a related study by some of the smartest thinkers about teenagers: Ron Dahl, Carol Dweck, and David Yaeger.

1. Accord them high status from the get-go. Bring up the topic as you would to someone with the highest possible social status, someone you really, really respect. (I have to literally imagine that person in my head, and then imagine both the tone and the words I would use with that person.) Remember, if they feel disrespected, nagged, spoken down to, pressed upon, or infantilized at all, all bets are off.

The goal: Give them enough information that they can make their own informed decision, hopefully one that benefits their health and well-being in the long term, but do it in a way that allows them to feel respected and high status in the short term. They’ll need to feel competent, so it can help to point out all the ways that you see them as already very competent in this arena. What do you admire about them?

One way to convey your respect is to really listen well. Let this be a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Show your daughter that you are listening to her by reflecting back to her what she is saying (not what you wish she were saying).

Another way to convey respect is to demonstrate her value to a group of other teenagers. Are there other kids with the same chronic health issue that your daughter could help? Could you have her write a letter to someone else struggling with the same decision, outlining her situation and all that she knows about the decision she needs to make? This would help her engage in what researchers call “self-persuasion,” and it would make palpable the wisdom that she has to share and the way that she can help others.

2. Keep it short. You may have a mountain of information to impart, but research shows that less is more. Do not do what I often find myself doing in these situations: repeating myself. This can sound like nagging, and research shows that parental nagging activates anger-related regions in teenager’s brains, and it reduces activity in regions related to planning and behavior change.

I definitely talk too much. I learned this the hard way. I was trying to make an important point to one of my kids, and she didn’t seem to be getting it. I plowed on, with more examples. “Are you hearing me?” I finally asked. She looked up, eyes glazed over. “Yes,” she said. “I hear your words. So. Many. Words.”

So, use as few words as possible to make your point, and then shut up and watch for a response. Awkward silences are okay; often teens will want to fill the silence and in so doing will actually contribute to the conversation.

3. Let them be in control of both the conversation and the actions they take following the conversation. Do not, under pain of death, tell teenagers what to do. When it comes to conversations about their own health, invite them to discover what the information means for their lives.

So instead of sitting your daughter down for a Big Talk using a tone that suggests you are going to decide the course of her treatment, wade in sloooowly. Raise the issue you’d like to discuss from a couple of very different angles. For example: “Do you want to talk about what it is like when you feel nauseous at school?” or “Do you want to talk about what the risks and benefits are of going off of your medication?” Ron Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “Or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

If they say they don’t want to talk, let it go temporarily. Force never works, but persistence does.

As parents I think we often forget that teenagers are motivated by totally different things than we are. We want them to do the things that are best for their health and well-being; they want to do the things that bestow on them the highest social status. But we are most influential when we are able to take advantage of teens’ existing motivations, rather than trying to get them to feel motivated by our goals.

Fortunately, our motivations tend to turn out to be aligned already: Our adolescents want to feel like competent, well-respected, autonomous adults. And, in the end, we want our children to be competent, autonomous adults who make choices we respect and admire. Decisions like the one your daughter has ahead of her are a bridge between how she wants to feel and the young woman she is becoming. Though she may not see it right now, she is so lucky to have you walking across that bridge beside—or perhaps a touch behind—her.

Yours,
Christine

Dear Christine: How Can I Get More Sleep?

Hi Christine,

I have a habit of going to bed later than I want and then being rushed in the morning and getting to work late. For several years now, I’ve been wanting to get to bed earlier, but I can’t seem to do it.

I have a tendency to feel pretty driven and busy during the day, and the evening feels like my only time to relax. I binge-watch Netflix, scroll through my social media and news alerts, and generally get caught doing random things on my phone until late at night. But when I think about going to bed early, I feel kind of deprived. I think I actually do need time to wind down and take a break before I go to sleep, even when I’m totally exhausted.

I would like to try again to go to bed earlier, but I feel a little nervous about it because I’ve made that resolution before and not been successful quite a few times.

Thanks,
Tired and Running Late

Dear Tired and Running Late,

I hear you on all fronts. Who hasn’t resolved to get to bed earlier, only to find themselves going to bed late night after night? I think most people these days have experienced the same frustration (if not with sleep, then with another resolution). It’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns.

Though frustrating, it’s normal to struggle to change our daily routines. Research suggests that 88 percent of people have failed to stick to their resolutions to change; we humans are creatures of habit. Our brains crave routine and resist change.

So how do we change our habits?

Going to bed earlier is a realistic and worthy goal—one that will have very real benefits for you in your busy life. To do so, however, you will do well to change your thoughts before you try to change your habits.

For starters, I’m guessing that the reason you feel nervous about trying to do this again is that failing to keep your resolutions in the past has been stressful. This is normal, but we usually aren’t successful at changing our habits when we’re anxious about it.

Failing at our resolutions is more stressful when we opt for self-flagellation in the face of our setbacks or lapses. We tend to think that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or we’ll motivate ourselves towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Why? Because self-criticism doesn’t work. It’s stressful, and it doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion—being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves—does help when we fall short of our intentions or our goals. It leads to less anxiety, less depression, and greater peace of mind—and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

So, the first step to making lasting change is to simply forgive yourself for having failed in the past. It’s okay; it’s normal, even. You did the best you could with the skills you had. Take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a really good friend: Use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Remind yourself that few people are successful the first time they try to change their routines, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

The next step is to figure out what’s holding you back.

This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing you to go to bed later than you are intending to.

You’ve already identified a major obstacle to getting to bed at a reasonable hour: You don’t relax during the day, and so you need time to unwind at night. This is likely more of an identity obstacle than a practical one. By that I mean that I doubt there is an actual, physical obstacle that is keeping you from unwinding earlier in the day or evening. Instead, I’m guessing that there is something that you believe (maybe about yourself, or about your success) that’s holding you back.

A chart of how beliefs influence emotions then behaviors then routines

Our beliefs really matter when it comes to our behavior. Our thoughts—about ourselves, other people, our circumstances—and the meaning we attribute to our world tend to trigger our emotions, and our emotions are often the motivation for our behavior. Our actions, when repeated, become habits.

And what we do repeatedly tends to add up to our accomplishments. Our outcomes are usually often lagging measures of our habits. You’re tired and running late (outcomes) because of your habit of going to bed late. Feeling deprived of rest led you to stay up late. What beliefs do you hold that keep you from taking breaks during the day? When we get back to our identity, we can see how much what we believe about ourselves can influence our habits. For example, you mention that you are busy and driven. These are beliefs about yourself common to many ambitious people these days.

I relate totally. Until a few years ago, every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy. Busy and important. As such, I was always running late, white knuckling it through an over-packed day.

I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. At one point, for example, I ran a half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven five hours to support me. The busier I was, the more important I felt.

I held a common mistaken belief: that busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security. And I believed the reverse, as well: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, and they are missing out.

Part of my identity included a constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and values about busyness that triggered emotions (feelings of importance, significance), which motivated behaviors (not resting—running with a fever). Over time, staying busy all the time and never resting became a habit, and it really affected my outcomes: Eventually, my body broke down. I got really, really sick, again and again—and this forced me to rest. It also caused me to change my beliefs about myself, and my success.

Behavior that conflicts with our identity doesn’t last. As long as I believed that my busyness was a sign of my productivity and the source of my success, even the idea of resting created a vague anxiety that I was possibly about to fail at something—or that I was about to miss an important email or opportunity.

In order to finally change, it wasn’t that I had to try harder to sleep more, or that I needed more willpower or self-discipline to rest when I was tired, injured, or sick. It was that I needed to change my beliefs about myself, and about my success.

The more deeply something is tied to our identity, the harder it is to change it. By the same token, the more a new behavior is aligned with our beliefs about ourselves, the more likely it is that we’ll adopt it.

Just as I had to upgrade the part of my identity that was keeping me in a continual state of busyness and exhaustion, I suspect you do, too, Tired and Running Late. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that feeling busy and tired isn’t contributing to your success. At all.

In fact, you can probably already see how getting enough sleep, not rushing in the morning, and getting to work on time are better bets than busyness and exhaustion. Can you take the part of your identity that feels driven during the day and upgrade that from “busy and driven” to “relaxed, focused, and productive,” or something like that?

And then dig into your beliefs about what leads to productivity and focus. I can tell you with certainty that never resting and not taking breaks throughout the day will not help you do your best work, get a lot done, or stay focused when you need to be.

Plenty of research has shown that taking breaks, even brief ones, dramatically improves our performance and productivity. When we don’t take breaks, our focus and the quality of our work usually suffers. But when we do rest throughout the day, we can work for much longer without the quality of our work, or our focus, suffering.

Your mission then, should you choose to accept it, is to take breaks throughout the day. Take a proper lunch break. Go for a short walk between meetings at work. When you get home from work, don’t immediately jump into the next activity—wind down a little. Read a book. Watch a 20-minute sitcom. Call a friend.

Try taking as many breaks as you need to take so that you don’t feel deprived of rest at bedtime.

Do this as an experiment, and record how much you get done and how well you do it. Gather evidence that you are relaxed, focused, and productive—or whatever your upgraded identity is—throughout the day. Note it if you experience greater feelings of relaxation, or more focus. Relish it if you take time to relax before it’s time for bed.

Above all, enjoy the heck out of your breaks. Don’t plan them, don’t worry about them—just let yourself take them. All you need to do is show up, and a little added rest will work its magic on your life. And do let me know how it’s going. I’m hoping, Tired and Running Late, that you’ll soon be signing off as Relaxed, Focused, and Productive.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Sign up for Christine’s monthly email list (that’s right: it’s only one email per month) to receive notifications of new columns. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Christine How Can I help my stressed-out teen?

Helping Stressed-Out Teens

Dear Christine,

I know you have teenage daughters around the same age, so I’m hoping you have some insight about how to help kids deal with stress. My youngest daughter has always been confident, gregarious, and goal-oriented. But starting in her sophomore year in high school, she’s not been herself. She’s stressed and bitchy with us, and suffers from general malaise. She’s had a lot of stomachaches and headaches and was even experiencing hair loss, so we took her to the pediatrician and then a specialist to make sure she didn’t have an underlying medical problem. She doesn’t. The doctors say her symptoms are due to stress.

As a family, we try to keep things mellow, upbeat, and relaxed. We don’t put pressure on her to perform or achieve. She goes to therapy, and we are in close contact with her doctors. But, still, she is not herself. I understand that she cares a lot about her grades and schoolwork, but to be totally honest, I’m not really sure what she’s so stressed about.

How can I get my daughter back?

Thank you,
Pulling Out My Own Hair

Dear Hair-Puller,

Your daughter is not alone. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that fewer than half of her generation would rate their own mental health as “excellent” or “very good.” And it doesn’t seem to get better as they get older; more than 90 percent of today’s 18 to 21 year olds experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month (this is very high compared to other adults). In addition to the physical symptoms your daughter is experiencing, other common symptoms of stress include feeling depressed or sad, showing a lack of interest in school or their daily lives, lacking motivation or energy, and feeling nervous or anxious.

What seems to be new about today’s teenagers is that they aren’t just stressed about what’s going on at home or at school or in their own lives—they’re stressed about the world they are living in. For example, three quarters say they are stressed about mass and school shootings. More than half feel stressed about the current political climate, and more than two-thirds feel significantly stressed about our nation’s future. About 60 percent are worried about the rise in suicide rates, about climate change and global warming, and about the separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. The list goes on and on and on.

It’s no wonder that our teens are suffering. Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do for our stressed-out teens. You’ve already done a couple of important things: You’ve taken your daughter to the doctor and gotten her into therapy. Professional help is always a great place to start.

What else can we do? I’ve taken a lot of advice on this topic from Lisa Damour, who has a relevant new book out called Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide to helping girls cope with stress, this book is the best one I’ve read. Here are three steps to helping teens cope.

1. First, just listen

Ask them to describe the difficult circumstance that is stressing them out. Maybe it is a problematic friendship; perhaps they didn’t make a team they really wanted to be on.

At this stage, acknowledge that their difficulties are real—even if they sorta seem dramatic or overblown or irrational. The key is not to deny what they are going through and how it is making them feel (e.g., by saying something like, “But you have so many friends!” when they say that they are lonely). Instead, have them simply give you the facts of the hard place they are in, and, in response, show calm curiosity about their experience. The goal is not to take away their pain. The goal is for them to feel seen and heard by you.

Second, help them identify how they are feeling in response to the stressor. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I feel stressed and nervous.” This is the “name it to tame it” technique; research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If they start telling you a story that is making them more emotional, gently bring them back to what they are feeling. The task here is to identify WHAT they are feeling, not necessarily WHY they are feeling that way. This can be hard; we get attached to our narratives about why we are upset. It’s usually easier to stick to our story than it is to reveal how we are feeling. But again, the task here is to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.

See if you can sum up their stressful experience or circumstance (the facts, not the story) and their feelings about the circumstance in a simple phrase or two. For example, “You didn’t know how to solve five questions on your math test today, and you are feeling really scared that your grade is going to drop in that class.” Throw in a little empathy if you feel like you need to say something else: “That’s so hard. I can remember some very difficult math tests when I was in high school, too. It’s awful.”

Again: Resist the urge to give advice, make suggestions for how they can fix the problem, or offer platitudes like “This too shall pass.” You do not need to offer reassurance. Really. Right now, teens need to feel heard, and if you say something along the lines of “Everything will be okay” or offer specific reassurance like “Even if you fail the test, you’ll still probably have an A- average,” they’ll notice that you’ve missed the main thing they are trying to communicate, which is that they are very stressed out.

The other goal here is to show them that you are not anxious about their anxiety; you accept it. This helps them drop their resistance to the stressor. Why? Because resisting the current reality doesn’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better—it just amplifies the difficult emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the old aphorism that what we resist persists; weirdly, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty.

The more our kids resist reality, the more likely it is that they will start showing signs of a dysregulated stress response. In other words, when kids aren’t managing stressful or difficult situations effectively, they tend to start having larger and larger stress responses to smaller and smaller stimuli.

2. Encourage them to diagnose their stress

Damour’s stance is that we parents are most useful to our teenagers when we help them ask themselves: “What is the source of my stress?” and “Why am I anxious?” It might be obvious to you what is going on; the task here isn’t to hand them a diagnosis but, rather, to help them see for themselves what is going on more clearly.

It can help to let kids know what stresses most people out. Sonia Lupien at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress has a convenient acronym for what makes life stressful: NUTS.

Novelty
Unpredictability
Threat to the ego
Sense of control

We can help our kids identify causes of stress by looking for what might be new or changing in their life; looking for sources of unpredictability; identifying ways that their competence or safety is being threatened; and asking about the things in their lives that feel out of their control.

In addition to searching for sources of stress, it can be helpful for teens to classify the particular strain of stress they are experiencing: Is it related to a negative life event? Is it the result of cumulative day-to-day difficulties that are beyond the teen’s control?

Life-event stressors are things like the death of a loved one, or changing schools, or dealing with your parent’s divorce. The more change a life event requires a teen to make, the more stressful it will tend to be.

Chronic stress is when “basic life circumstances are persistently difficult,” according to Damour. Chronic stress is caused by things like living in poverty or living with a severely depressed parent, or having a chronic illness like cancer. I also suspect that many of today’s teens are experiencing a form of chronic stress caused by current events—global warming, rising suicide rates, mass shootings, etc. And social media is a source of chronic stress for many teens; nearly half say social media makes them feel judged, and more than a third report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.

Surprisingly, one study found that the number of daily hassles a teen faces can predict their emotional distress over time, and that daily hassles have a greater impact on teens’ well-being than other types of stress. Daily hassles are often related to negative life events and chronic stressors, of course—a death in the family, for example, can create a mountain of hassle.

Surprisingly, daily hassles tend to be more distressing for teens than negative life events or chronic stress. Knowing this, often we can help kids solve some of their daily hassles, even if we can’t change their circumstances.

For example, last year one of my teenage daughters was going through a really hard time at school socially, and she was having some minor but persistent health problems. She also had a daily hassle: getting home from school. She had to walk 1.2 miles to her bus stop, and she was often waiting, sometimes in the rain, for 40 minutes or more for the bus to come. This was precious homework time. She was super stressed and having a hard time keeping up in her classes. I couldn’t ease her social pain or fix her health (both chronic stressors), but we eliminated the daily hassle of getting her home from school—the straw that was breaking the camel’s back—by creating a carpool.

3. Finally, help them see where their stress is healthy

It can help teens to teach them the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress, according to Damour, is the tension or strain we feel when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. Stress is healthy and helpful when it creates enough tension and strain to foster growth.

Think of a muscle that is stressed by weight training: It tenses up and even breaks down a little. The weight might be very hard to lift, and the muscle might be sore afterwards. But the stress of a heavy weight—so long as it isn’t so heavy it causes a significant injury—strengthens the muscle.

Stress can work the same way. School is supposed to be stressful in this way. A mountain of research shows that we learn and grow when we are out of our comfort zone—when we are exposed to novel challenges. Stress can act like a vaccine for future stress (researchers call this “stress inoculation.”) People who are able to weather stressful circumstances frequently go on to demonstrate above-average resilience.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is the fear and dread and panic that can come up for us in the face of a stressor (or even just the mere thought of a stressor).

Sometimes anxiety is an important warning system that we are in danger. It’s appropriate for us to feel anxious when we are a riding in a car where the driver is texting, for example. Legitimate anxiety makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. I once had a really nice-seeming neighbor who scared the bejeezus out of me. Every time he’d stop to chat, friendly and normal-seeming as he was, the hair on my neck would stand up, and my heart would start racing and thudding in my chest. It was all I could do to not run and hide from him. It turns out that my anxiety was legitimate: I later found out that he had spent a decade in a maximum-security prison for violent sex crimes.

And sometimes anxiety is more about excitement than it is a sign of danger. As Maria Shriver writes in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring . . . part of your agitation is just excitement about what you’re getting ready to accomplish. Whatever you’re afraid of—that is the very thing you should try to do.”

But more often than not, our anxiety isn’t helpful. Unhelpful anxiety makes us hesitate rather than bolt. We are afraid of looking stupid, and so we don’t ask a burning question. We fear failing, and so we don’t even try.

We can help our teens figure out whether they are experiencing legitimate anxiety or unhelpful anxiety. Do they have the desire to get the heck out of whatever situation is making them anxious and afraid? If so, their anxiety is likely legitimate. We can support them in getting out of that dangerous situation.

But if their anxiety is making them hesitate, help them consider that their anxiety is unfounded—and that it is holding them back.

All of this requires trust, Hair-Puller. Trust that if our teens are still here, still breathing, everything is actually okay. Trust that even if we don’t immediately fix everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that even if it all goes to hell, even if other people make mistakes or do things differently than we would do them, our kids can deal with the outcome. Trust that they (and we) can handle all the difficult emotions that come up in response to what does or does not happen.

When we accept the reality of a stressful or scary situation and our limited control, it allows our kids to do the same. Importantly, our acceptance also frees them up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed by stress and anxiety.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life.
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Substance Abuse Photo by Hayes Potter on Unsplash

Dear Christine: How Do I Deal with My Son’s Substance Abuse?

Concerned parents confront the fact that their son may be addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Dear Christine,

We are writing you about our son, who is in his second year of undergraduate study. He has found his niche in the Greek system, and it is something he is passionate about. He loves the people and the camaraderie.

What is worrisome to us is that along with his entrance into the Greek system, his use of drugs and alcohol has grown. His marijuana and drinking habits, which had been somewhat frequent in high school, have become significantly more pronounced. While he has been away much of the time since he began college, when he is back at home, his unhappiness seems intense and he seems to only be able to get in a good mood when he has had something to drink or smoke, which is often. He also avoids interaction with people by spending time on screens.

We have always tried to be supportive parents, and had felt that over the long arc of his life he appeared to be growing into a fine person, and that he does have a lot of good qualities. But we are now faced with the fact that he may have a real substance abuse issue, and is heading down a dangerous path.

Please advise.

The Concerned Parents of a College Student

Dear Concerned Parents,

I want to commend you for the reflection that you’ve done and your willingness to see that your son has a problem. I reached out to Richard Ryan, a very well-respected adolescent drug and alcohol educator and professional interventionist, to help me answer your question. The first thing Richard said was that he believes your willingness to see your son’s issue is going to help him.

Richard also said that while in many ways your son sounds like many other young men his age, there are several things about his drug and alcohol use that set him apart.

Like many college students, your son has found a place in the Greek system, which is filled with shared rituals, intrigue, and bonding. By formally extending and promoting adolescent behavior, fraternity culture provides relief to students who are finding the transition to adulthood daunting. Fraternity brothers can often hide from their growing responsibilities in the midst of their fraternity’s rituals and traditions.

Frequent use of drugs and alcohol is usually a significant part of Greek culture. A Harvard University study reported that four out of five fraternity and sorority members binge drink. By comparison, two out of five college students overall are regular binge drinkers. Because of this, fraternity members, particularly those who are white and under 25, are at the highest risk among college students for developing a substance abuse problem.

Unfortunately, substance abuse problems that develop in college often persist after graduation. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, close to half of fraternity members report symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD, or what we commonly think of as alcoholism) at age 35. Research has also shown that fraternity and sorority members tend to have a significantly higher prevalence of marijuana use into their mid 30s.

Fraternities typically expect members to consume huge amounts of alcohol in drinking “bouts,” or contests that encourage rapid and excessive consumption. “These bouts,” Richard wrote, “are a recipe for a disaster.” About 5,000 college students die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries each year.

So, your son is not alone in his drinking and drug use.

Richard also pointed out several significant differences in your son’s behavior that are a cause for concern. The most notable difference is your son’s change in demeanor, even when he has very little alcohol or marijuana in his system. It’s of particular concern, Richard wrote, that the changes in his mood and personality are profound and sudden. “It may well be indicative that your son has an Alcohol Use Disorder and Substance Use Disorder.”

Another sign, according to Richard, is that you date his drinking and marijuana use to his high school years. Much research indicates that the earlier the age at which an individual consciously chooses to use a substance to change how they feel, the greater their risk of becoming attached, both emotionally and physiologically. Those who have such experiences at the age of fifteen and younger have a considerably higher risk of forming an addiction or dependency than those who wait until they are in their late teens and early twenties.

Richard noted that it’s particularly troubling that your son only seems to be in a good mood when he is using alcohol and marijuana. This suggests that he is unable to experience happiness unless he is high, and that his sense of well-being and emotional stability relies on being in an altered state.

Richard explained that dependency is being “addicted to the process of a mood change.” Any activity—gaming, sex, gambling, social media, drinking, using drugs—that causes significant changes in mood can be addicting.

What we think of as addiction, then, has two very distinct but overlapping aspects: Addiction is the physiological attachment, while dependency denotes the emotional, mental, and sensory attachment. Richard made it clear that dependency is far more complex and more challenging to ameliorate than physiological addiction.

Your son clearly demonstrates all the signs of dependency. I know that’s so hard to read. It would be understandable if you didn’t want to believe it. But you had the courage to ask for advice in the first place, and so I believe that you are also brave enough to get your son through this.

So where can you go from here?

1. Talk to him about your concerns. Although it often might not seem like it, parents still have a lot of influence on their older teens. Parents of teens who have just started to use drugs or alcohol might be able to curb their teens’ use by talking with them—motivational interviewing can work well for these sorts of conversations.

Your son, however, is probably dependent enough that he will likely defend his addictions by becoming angry and lashing out at you. You’ll need to decide together as co-parents how you’ll respond; it’s important for you to be a united front right now. And if he surprises you and asks for help, be prepared to take him to an addiction counselor right away, the same day, if possible (see below).

“Although it often might not seem like it, parents still have a lot of influence on their older teens”

―Christine Carter

2. Get some help right away. An evaluation by a clinician who is well-versed in addictions can provide your family and your son with a clear path forward. Most family practice doctors and therapists are actually not equipped to address dependency, so Richard emphasized the importance of finding a licensed psychologist or licensed social worker who specializes in addictive disorders to work with your son.

You’ll likely want to consider doing an intervention with the help of a professional interventionist like Richard Ryan. Interventions are planned, practiced, and structured conversations that are designed to help break through denial and get college students with addictions into treatment. Most colleges and universities have developed campus recovery programs, and some even offer “sober living environments” as part of their programs. These programs are especially helpful as a follow-up for those who have been treated for their addictions and dependencies.

Time is of the essence. Many people would be tempted, I’d think, to wait until their son comes home for a little while or even until he graduates from college and is free from the influence of the fraternity. If he’s doing well academically, it might be tempting to see that as a sign that he’s okay. But we know that many people can be highly functional in their alcoholism; that doesn’t mean that they are happy or fulfilled. It would be better for your son’s long-term emotional well-being to break the cycle of dependency now rather than later.

3. Stop enabling his drinking and drug use. Parents often unintentionally send kids a mixed message about their expectations by providing or allowing substance use at home, or by funding kids’ participation in drug- and alcohol-fueled experiences like fraternities and sororities. In some families, these represent longstanding traditions. But just because something is an old tradition does not mean that it is a good thing for a particular college student. The world is radically different now than it was just one generation ago, and it’s hugely important that we parents not normalize self-harm.

As parents, we can do our best to set up speed bumps to college students’ risky behaviors. Money, or lack thereof, can be a fantastic speed bump. Your son will continue to make his own choices about how he socializes and what substances he uses, but that doesn’t mean that you have to pay for the choices you don’t agree with. If he wants to spend his hard-earned minimum wage dollars on weed, alcohol, and the fraternity fees, that’s his call. But as his parents you can send a crystal-clear message about your concerns and your hopes for your son by choosing not to fund participation in a fraternity that fuels his alcohol and marijuana dependencies.

Not-enabling might require an extra dose of empathy for your son—and self-compassion for yourselves. It will be very hard for him to have funds for the fraternity taken away, for example; you’d be choosing not to support a core part of his identity and the primary source of his pleasure. You can accept that it will be hard, even painful, for him to feel as left out as he likely will. It’s likely that his pain will also be very painful for you.

Remember: You’re strong enough to handle it, and so is he.

Yours,
Christine Carter, with Richard Ryan

Special thanks to Richard Ryan, M.A., for co-writing this with me.

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