Today's BFF might be tomorrow's bully. Such is the life of the average teen and tween. We asked best-selling author and mom Rosalind Wiseman to tell us how you can help your child navigate even the trickiest social situations. If you have a question of your own, e-mail [email protected] and your answer may appear in the magazine.
Q. My daughter had plans to go to college in the fall but changed her mind. I'm worried she'll regret this one day. How can I get her back on track?
A. As a parent, you have to remember that no decision is final. Just because your daughter isn't enrolling in college in September doesn't mean she'll never go. And you don't want a kid accumulating major school loans when she's not ready to commit. It's way better for her to be out in the world, learn to take care of herself, decide what she wants to do and then get a degree. The most important goal for your daughter isn't to go to school — it's to get an education. Tell her you respect her choice and you want to help her think through how to find a work and living situation that will give her the best shot at pursuing what she's passionate about. Encourage her to look into gap year programs that involve travel, and maybe you two can reevaluate her choice in six months.
Q. Now that my tween has turned into a teen, he's started telling lies. He fibs about everything: whether he has homework, if he's been showering. What can I do?
A. Teaching your kids to be honest is incredibly important, but don't take his lies personally. I'm not excusing his dishonesty. I'm only pointing out that you have to understand his motivation if you want to resolve the issue. Don't wait until you catch your son fibbing again to bring it up. Broach the topic when you're not arguing with him and say something like: "We have a problem. I think I'm nagging you so much that you're lying to me so I leave you alone. Am I right? If you feel that way, I want to work with you to fix it. But it's also important to me that you don't deceive me. So how can we both get what we need?" Then — and this is tough — be ready to be changed by what you hear. I know his untruths may seem ridiculous to you. Why would he say he showered when (a) you can probably tell if he hasn't and (b) not showering can get you teased or rejected by your peers? But contrary to your instincts, there may be a really good — at least in his mind — reason why he's hiding things from you. So be open to hearing it.
Q. When it comes to details about her new boyfriend, my 18-year-old daughter has been vague. She says that they have fun together and he's nice, but I found a letter from him talking about marriage plans. Should I just hope this fades away, or say something to her?
A. Definitely say something like, "Will you invite John over for dinner next week?" That way you can put an end to the snooping and get some firsthand insight. It could be that this guy is more serious than your daughter wants to be, but it's taking her some time to realize that and break it off. Or it may be the case that she's developing a pattern of losing herself in the people she dates, knows that you'd have something to say about it and doesn't want to hear it. Your goal is to see for yourself how they interact.
After you've had a chance to meet this young man—and if you're still concerned—privately talk with your daughter (not to her) about their relationship. Don't dismiss her boyfriend or the connection they share. Tell her what you want is for her to have the best relationship possible with this guy. Ask your daughter if she feels comfortable telling this boy what her needs are. She may be very quick to reassure you that things are perfect. Warning: If she does, she's trying to trick either you or herself. Anyone in a serious and healthy relationship knows there are hard times.
Consider sharing a lesson you learned about relationships and what it took to have the lesson sink in. And remember: She's 18. She's at the point in her life when both of you need to respect how the experiences she has now can significantly impact her future
Q. My husband and I found out our 14-year-old son was in danger of failing three classes last semester, so we took away all his electronics. He copped a major attitude, stating he didn't understand how unplugging him would help. We tried explaining, but he wouldn't listen. How do I stand my ground and get his respect back?
A. It's not that he doesn't respect you. He doesn't like you. And why should he? You took away something he values and forced him to concentrate on his classes. Rest assured, I'm not saying you should change your decision. I'm just trying to get you to see the situation from another point of view: his. With that in mind, you could say, "I get it. If I were you, I'd be mad at me too, but this is where we are right now. If you can develop better work habits, I am absolutely open to compromise."
Your authority, and ultimately your son's respect for you, is based not only on holding your own but also on acknowledging that he may have some pretty good reasons for how he's spending his time. Maybe school is boring. Maybe school is overwhelming. Whatever you do, don't demonize his toys or games. If you acknowledge that there may be reasons why he's struggling and don't blame the video games, he will respect you. He also may need some support to develop good study habits—which you can tell him will come in handy when he's working as a video game designer one day.
Q. A girl on my daughter's swim team has been accusing other girls (including my 13-year-old) of bullying her. I monitor my child's text messages, Instagram and Kik accounts and haven't seen anything suspicious. Plus she denies harassing this girl, who has lied before. How can I resolve this before it escalates?
A. Whatever is going on hurts not only the team's potential but the girls' experience of being on a team. Tell the coach you can't find proof that your daughter is mean to the accuser but it's important that she and her teammates be held accountable if they are. If it's a she said/she said thing, tell your daughter that you believe her but it's possible the other girl has a different opinion and that opinion needs to be respected. Then reinforce your expectation that as a member of the family and the team, she won't put the girl down (no matter what she thinks about her) and she will tell any team member who is putting the girl down to stop. Remember, it doesn't matter if your daughter likes the girl or how annoying she is. This is her responsibility to the girl and to her swim team.
Q. My 11-year-old nephew saw an Instagram post from his friend depicting a handful of pills and a note that she was going to kill herself. He woke up his mom, they called the girl's mom and her mother got her to the hospital in time. In the aftermath, my nephew is dealing with a lot of complicated feelings. How can I help him cope?
A. It's a hard truth that the children we love will face scary moments at some point in their lives. One reason is that they're often in a better position to know about a friend's mental health issues than parents are. But what kept this girl alive was your nephew reaching out to his mother, trusting that his concern would be taken seriously and that she'd know what to do.
The best resource to assist your nephew is The Whole- Brain Child, co-authored by Daniel Siegel, M.D. It offers a strategy for processing painful memories by engaging the left side of the brain (which likes logic) and the right (which cares about feelings). Siegel suggests an adult retell the event while the child pretends to hold a remote control so he can say "pause" or "fast forward" when he gets to a moment too painful to talk about. The adult can then proceed to the part where things turned out okay—in this case, when the girl got the help she needed. After reassuring the child with positive memories, the adult can "rewind" and help him process frightening ones.
Q. My daughter is dating a boy whose Twitter feed is filled with profanity, graphic sexual comments and references to drinking and drugs. She says it's just a joke. Her high-school friends tell me the boy's trouble. How can I guide her to date boys who respect her—and themselves?
A. Even if he is just joking, her boyfriend is trying to impress people by making them think he drinks and does drugs. So I'd say to your daughter: "I know it's up to you to figure out who you want in your life. But as your parent, it's sometimes my responsibility to ask you uncomfortable questions. Twitter is your boyfriend's public face. If he doesn't do any of the things he posts about, why is it so important to him that other people think he does?" Explain the potentially serious consequences—for her boyfriend if—college admissions staff, internship coordinators or any influential adults are offended by his profile. Remind her that the guy she chooses to date is a reflection on her, and ask whether she's comfortable with that. Don't expect your daughter to agree or to enthusiastically engage in a deep conversation about how she appreciates your good sense. This is a lot to take in. Finish by saying, "If you don't want to talk about it now, I'd like you to think about it and then we can talk later." Make a point of checking in with her the next night before you go to bed, so if she has had some epiphanies—and hopefully she has—you can talk them over.
Q. I'm concerned about my grandson, who will be heading into his first year of high school this fall. He's a people-pleaser and always desperately trying to fit in. How can I get him ready for the potential dangers—everything from bullying to drugs?
A. This is why grandparents are so crucial! They can take a step back and see their grandchildren's challenges with perspective and love. If you want to reach out, do it casually. When you're watching TV together, for example, mute the commercials and start a conversation. Better yet, offer to take your grandson on an errand when he needs something for school, or drive him to an extracurricular activity. If you ever made an effort to fit in, share the experience and what you learned from it—including that it's not a sign of weakness to need help figuring out these kinds of problems. Explain the difference between playful teasing (which makes you feel liked) and malicious teasing (which makes you feel insecure). Tell him that a loyal friend won't put you in situations that compromise your values, but a disloyal one will. Need more guidance on the common challenges that high-school boys face? Read and then give him a free e-book I wrote with high-school boys called The Guide: Managing Jerks, Recruiting Wingmen, and Attracting Who You Want (available on all platforms).
Q. My middle-school daughter told me she lost her leather jacket, but I suspect someone stole it. How can I get to the bottom of this?
A. Talk to her privately when you bring up your concern. Your goal isn't to get her to admit you were right. Instead, you want this experience to show her the benefit of coming to you with a problem—even if she's worried that you might get angry. Say something like, "I've been thinking about that jacket. I know you wouldn't just forget and leave it somewhere. If anything else happened to it, you can tell me. I'm not going to freak out." Don't expect an immediate confession. Wait for about one more minute and if she doesn't say anything or denies it, kiss her and walk away or change the subject. Whether you're right or wrong, your actions convey love. If she admits it was stolen, reassure her by saying, "Thanks for letting me know. That's awful. Should we talk about it now or tomorrow, so we can think about the best way to handle the problem? Maybe you know who stole it and prefer not to confront this kid, but if you don't, the person will think she can keep doing this to you." Work with your daughter on creating a plan of action she can feel good about, which may mean you get help from the school, the other kid's parent or another authority figure.
Q. Lately my 13-year-old nephew can't stay out of trouble. He had five detentions this year, picked on kids at school and is constantly lying about small things. His parents have tried every form of discipline and are out of ideas. What will turn their son around?
A. There's always a good reason why kids do what they do. If you can determine the reason, you can usually come up with a solution. Because he started acting out suddenly, I'd say his behavior was sparked by a specific incident. Something is going on in his life (like being bullied or struggling academically and having an unsupportive teacher) that's causing his to lash out. His mom and dad must tell him, "Look, we love you, we've been thinking about this, and there has to be a logical explanation for your behavior. That doesn't mean you're allowed to harass other kids, it just means we want to know why you're doing it. I don't expect you to tell us about everything that's hurting you, but perhaps a starting place is sharing 10 percent. That way, we can begin to understand where you're coming from." The key here is to express empathy and give him the space to explain why he's so angry but still be clear that he is accountable for his actions.
Q. My 8-year-old daughter doesn't want to be as close as she's been with a friend anymore. I think it's beneficial for the girl and her mother to know this is due to her behavior. How should I bring it up?
A. I'm hoping your daughter has told her friend in a direct—but kind—way what exactly she's doing that your daughter doesn't like. If she hasn't, she needs to. If she has and the behavior hasn't changed, you can tell the other parent: "This is really hard to talk about, but my daughter has told 'Alice' that she doesn't like (X) thing Alice is doing. My daughter doesn't feel that Alice is listening to her, so she's going to take a break from her for a while." If the other parent gets upset, be polite but hold firm. The bottom line: Your daughter has the right to choose her friends and back away from people who aren't treating her well. In fact, this experience offers a good chance to practice a skill she'll need throughout life.
Q. My 14-year-old son overheard some guys he thought were his friends making jokes about him behind his back. How should he handle this?
A. When you're a boy this age the unspoken rule is that you should laugh about everything even if you're the target. So your son may feel that his only choices are to say nothing and keep the friends, tell them how he feels and get more ridicule, or stop hanging out but never tell them why. But there's a fourth way. He should approach the boy in the group with the most social control. Your son: "Dude, the guys are saying X about me. It's gotta stop." The other guy: "Shut up, we're just joking!" Your son: "Whatever. They listen to you. I want them to lay off." The problem may not go away, but your son will learn that he has the courage to face awkward situations head-on.
Q. What can I do to help my 13-year-old? She suddenly stopped talking to her best friend and won't say why.
A. This is one of those times when you can earn your child's trust by backing off. Tell her, "Look, I'm not going to lie. I'd really like to know what happened. But I realize you're getting older and I need to give you space. If you want to talk to me about it, I'm always available." Then walk away or switch the topic so you leave her with the feeling that it's up to her to make the first move. In my experience, when you recognize a teen's need for privacy, she becomes much more willing to share.
Q. My 15-year-old daughter has older friends who drive, and she wants to go out with them on the weekends. What do you think?
A. I wish we lived in a world where we would tell our kids "Don't drive with your friends," and they'd always abide by our rules. But I wouldn't be much of an advice columnist if I believed that. So what to do? Make your guidelines clear: "You can get a ride from your friends after practice but not to or from a party. If someone is driving and talking on her cell phone or changing songs on her iPod, tell her to stop talking or volunteer to look for the song. And I know you know this, but the second you get in the car, your seat belt is on."
Q. My grandson is almost 14 years old and has a best friend who doesn't let him have any other friends. Is there anything we can do?
A. When adults come to me with questions like this one, I need to know how they're getting their information. If your concerns are based on direct observation of the teen or he has approached you for advice, that's one thing. But if the info is from a secondhand source, go back to your grandson before you proceed. As the grandmother, you're in a unique position to give comfort and advice because you love him to death while being one step removed. First, ask him to list his friendship must-haves—the characteristics he values most, like trust, loyalty, and honesty. Now have him describe his friend and compare his experiences with his requirements. If they align, then he's in good shape. If they don't, he needs to think about why he's in a friendship that goes against his needs and he has to decide what he wants to do about it. Throughout, you are his guide, posing questions and helping him develop thoughtful answers. Keep in mind he may not end an unhealthy friendship immediately after a single conversation with you. But having ongoing interactions like this empowers kids to make healthy decisions.
Q. My 12-year-old son is really shy and just started a new school. A coworker's son goes there. Would it be okay if I invited him over?
A. Go ahead, but be careful not to go overboard trying to be the perfect parent or forcing your son to adopt a fake persona. And don't kiss up to the other kid by taking them to an arcade an hour away from home, either. Tell your child that you don't expect them to be best friends after this one visit, and that if it doesn't go well, he doesn't have to do it again. You don't want to put too much pressure on him. Instead, give him the opportunity and freedom to make friends on his terms.
Q. My daughter, a 17-year-old high-school senior, has a new best friend who has already received two speeding tickets and a citation for possessing alcohol. We want to tell our daughter she can't see this girl. But won't that make matters worse?
A. Probably. Instead, help her identify when this relationship is putting her in danger and teach her how to communicate boundaries in a way that keeps both girls' dignity intact. Start by telling her that you believe she has good judgment so there must be some redeeming qualities about this new friend—and you'd like to know what they are.
Then you can ask the tougher questions. Like, is your daughter becoming this girl's go-to designated driver? Does this girl hang out with people who make your daughter uneasy? What's your daughter's plan for exiting an uncomfortable situation? Does this girl have larger problems that would be better solved by involving a caring adult? What you want to show her is that there's a fine line between being part of a friend's support system (notice I said part of) and being her caretaker, a job she's not equipped for.
Q. My 15-year-old son is smart, athletic and good-looking but has no friends. He can be loud and obnoxious in his quest to get attention from peers, but he's a great guy when he's not being a cocky know-it-all. It's so painful seeing him text everyone and not get a response. How do I guide him through this?
A. As frustrating and heartbreaking as this is for a parent to watch, sometimes our kids can learn valuable lessons when they're rejected socially. If your son is being intolerable, his peers aren't going to want to be around him and that should be the best motivation to modify his behavior. However, if he struggles with reading people's body language or tone of voice, he may have no idea what he's doing to cause his peers to exclude him and could need social skills training. Or he may have ADHD, making impulsive actions harder for him to control. These issues, too, can be improved with the help of a specialist. I'd also suggest that he take some time away from the other kids and sign up for a class or activity he's always wanted to try. It will give him an opportunity to reinvent himself over the summer so he can start fresh at school in the fall.
Q. My daughter just started her first year of middle school. She's always been very confident—a natural leader—but I fear she's heading to the dark side. I've heard from other parents that she ignores her longtime friends at lunch to hang with the "in" crowd. She's changing, and I want to open the lines of communication. How should I confront her?
A. Naturally confident leaders sometimes like to flex their power in the wrong ways. It's up to you to teach her to act ethically. Take her somewhere you can talk privately while doing another activity, like walking around the block. Say, "I hear you're treating your old friends badly. Is that accurate?" When she demands to know who's talking about her, or launches into why everyone else is being oversensitive, respond this way: "You don't have to be friends with everyone, but that doesn't mean you have the right to be mean, which our family defines as ignoring others or making them feel unwelcome. And it doesn't matter whether you think your actions are wrong—if someone says she feels hurt by what you're doing, you need to respect that." Finally, because your daughter might be tempted to punish whoever she thinks got her in trouble, remind her that if any of her old friends' lives become more difficult due to the conversation the two of you are having, she'll be held accountable.
Q. My 14-year-old seems to act like a shrink for all her friends. While I appreciate her compassion and apparent leadership, I'm worried that she's too burdened. What can I do?
A. Charge for her services and put the proceeds into her college fund? Okay, seriously, your concern is well-placed. Your daughter's peers could be struggling with big problems, and it's inappropriate for her to carry the responsibility alone. Explain that you're proud that others rely on her advice and comfort, but she may need to seek some outside assistance. Begin by asking for a general description of the kids' difficulties (be clear that you're not asking for names). Then explain that if she's hearing about any major issues—bullying, depression, eating disorders, abuse of alcohol or drugs, any kind of family violence, for example—she must inform an adult ally. That can be you or another grown-up you both trust. She should also plan what she's going to say to the other teen, as in, "Hey, Jen, I think this is too big for us to deal with by ourselves, and I'm feeling we should take it to an adult. Who do you think is the best person? And if you want, I'll go with you." Remember, your goal is to help your daughter create boundaries so she can protect her own emotional health, now and in the future.
Q. My 13-year-old, Heather, has a new friend who pressured her to shoplift (she resisted). Obviously she can't go to the mall with this girl again, but should I tell the parents what happened? I'm afraid my daughter will be harassed at school if anyone finds out that she confided in me.
A. I get that you want to protect your child, but this is one of those times when parents have to come together to raise ethical children. If the incident stays secret, the other girl's parents can't hold her accountable. So tell them, in person or on the phone, saying something like, "This is really hard to talk about, but after our kids were out together last week, Heather told us your daughter tried to shoplift." If the girl's parents become defensive, or blame your daughter, calmly say, "I'm sorry you're upset but I really thought you'd want to know." Also inform them you've told Heather not to discuss the matter outside the family. It's unlikely the other girl will spill, but if kids do get in Heather's face, she should remind them that stealing lipgloss isn't worth getting a police record.
Q. My 12-year-old's friend is always bragging at my son's expense. Should I talk with the boy's mom?
A. If your son says it doesn't bother him, stay out of it. If he's annoyed, he can talk to the kid one-on-one, saying, "Hey, Brian, we're good friends, but I'm asking you to stop trying to outdo me." If your son decides to pull away from his buddy and the families are friends, then tell the other parents what the problem is, how your son tried to resolve it, and that you're available to talk. Resist the urge to one-up the bragger yourself or talk about him with others under the guise of information-sharing. It's vital to model for your child that problems should be dealt with directly, not by talking behind someone's back or playing the bragging game.
Have your own question? E-mail [email protected] and your answer may appear in the magazine.