Gossip: The Best Gift Your Teenager Can Give You

NY Times Motherlode Blog

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CreditIllustration by Allison Steen

“Hey Mom, you know Josh, the junior I played basketball with last summer? He’s selling Adderall to ninth graders.”

The sudden appearance of controversial “news” mid-conversation is standard teenage behavior. You can substitute the revelation of any number of transgressions, from dangerous drinking to precocious sexual behavior, for the drug sales, but the result is the same: one speechless parent, one teenager waiting for a reaction. Get it right, and what started off as a dropped bombshell becomes an opportunity.

Option one: Hit the ceiling.

This would be the knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Understandably, because the news and its delivery signal at least two problems. First, we’ve learned that a local teenager is trafficking in a controlled substance. Second, we’re getting the impression that our own teenager thinks this is no big deal. A forceful response – launching into a lecture, threatening to call the cops or at least Josh’s parents – might serve to hammer home the message that the sale of drugs, prescription or otherwise, actually is a huge deal.

But here’s the problem. Most healthy teens have knee-jerk reactions of their own when a parent voices a strong opinion: they feel compelled to take up the opposing side. In fact, I’ve had teens in my practice explain to me that they will refuse to do something they were about to do, such as put away a backpack or take the dog for a walk, if a parent tells them to do it. Blowing a gasket all but invites a teen to retort that “lots of kids take Adderall, why are you freaking out?” even when the teen has his own doubts about Josh’s behavior.

Option two: Let it slide.

Your teen is actually talking to you and telling you about what’s going on at school. A tirade will certainly ruin the moment and might shut down the possibility of valuable future communiqués. Perhaps it’s best to follow your teen’s lead; be cool and leave the line open should other concerns arise, especially ones closer to home.

This isn’t good, either. In my experience, adolescents run other teenager’s behavior past their parents when they’re bothered by it. They usually know that their peer is out of bounds, and they’re confused by his or her apparent comfort with the misconduct, and maybe the fact that other teenagers seem to be too. So adolescents take a flat, even supportive, tone and float these scenarios by adults to gauge their reaction. When parents don’t respond appropriately — when grown-ups don’t act like grown-ups — adolescents feel uneasy.

Option three: Unwrap your present.

Your teen just gave you an opening to have a valuable conversation. Go ahead and accept that gift. Imagine that you’re a journalist who has just been handed a scoop, and begin your evenhanded investigation.

Consider starting with a head tilt and a, “Huh, really?” or gently inquire, “What do you think about that?” (Your child will feel less uneasy already.) Or invite your teenager to join you on a fact-finding mission. Hop online together and research the dangers of taking un-prescribed stimulants, and the legal implications of selling them. If it becomes clear that someone needs to do something, engage your teenager in helping to decide who should do it, and how.

What if it’s too late? You’ve already gone through the roof or taken the alarming news in stride, and the moment has passed. This is still an opening. My favorite parent-teenager interaction is one where the adult finds an opportunity to apologize to the adolescent. It makes the parent more real and imbues the adolescent with dignity, two essential components of any effective parental relationship with a teenager.

Find the moment to say: “It wasn’t helpful when I freaked out. We got distracted from the serious risks that those ninth graders, or Josh, might face if he’s selling his Adderall.” Or “I wasn’t tuned in when you told me about Josh. I understand that you’re not involved in this situation, but there’s some stuff I want you to know.”

Even when they aren’t in the mood for a discussion, there’s value in treating teenagers as the thoughtful young people we want them to be. One longitudinal study asked parents of seventh graders to share their opinions on teenagers in general, then examined how the parents’ views linked to their children’s late-adolescent behavior. Parents who believed teenagers to be difficult, and immune to adult influence, went on to have twelfth graders who were involved in more troubling behavior than those whose parents held a generally positive view of adolescence. In short, teenagers live both up, and down, to expectations.

When we engage earnestly with adolescents around provocative hearsay we are allowed to have critical conversations, communicate high standards and make it clear that we’re available to offer help when needed. Sometimes with teenagers, the best moments start off in the worst way.

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Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep

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Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/">successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school</a>.
Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school.Credit Dan Gill for The New York Times

Sleep. Parents crave it, but children and especially teenagers, need it. When educators and policymakers debate the relationship between sleep schedules and school performance and — given the constraints of buses, sports and everything else that seem so much more important — what they should do about it, they miss an intimate biological fact: Sleep is learning, of a very specific kind. Scientists now argue that a primary purpose of sleep is learning consolidation, separating the signal from the noise and flagging what is most valuable.

School schedules change slowly, if at all, and the burden of helping teenagers get the sleep they need is squarely on parents. Can we help our children learn to exploit sleep as a learning tool (while getting enough of it)?

Absolutely. There is research suggesting that different kinds of sleep can aid different kinds of learning, and by teaching “sleep study skills,” we can let our teenagers enjoy the sense that they’re gaming the system.

Start with the basics.

Sleep isn’t merely rest or downtime; the brain comes out to play when head meets pillow. A full night’s sleep includes a large dose of several distinct brain states, including REM sleep – when the brain flares with activity and dreams – and the netherworld of deep sleep, when it whispers to itself in a language that is barely audible. Each of these states developed to handle one kind of job, so getting sleep isn’t just something you “should do” or need. It’s far more: It’s your best friend when you want to get really good at something you’ve been working on.

So you want to remember your Spanish vocabulary (or “How I Met Your Mother” trivia or Red Sox batting averages)?

Easy. Hit the hay at your regular time; don’t stay up late checking Instagram. Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts. I explained this to my daughter, Flora, who was up until 2 a.m. or later on many school nights, starting in high school. She ignored it, or seemed to. Learning Arabic is what turned her around, I think. She wants to be good at it, and having to learn not only a new vocabulary but also a completely different writing system is, in the beginning, all retention.

“I started going to bed earlier before the day of Arabic tests, partly for that reason,” Flora said (when reached by text). “But also, of course, I didn’t want to be tired.”

And you want to rip on the guitar, or on the court, right?

Just as the first half of a night’s sleep is rich with deep slumber, the second half is brimming with so-called Stage 2 sleep, the kind that consolidates motor memory, the stuff that aspiring musicians and athletes need. This is not an excuse to sleep through Period 1. Rather, it’s a reason not to roll out of bed too early and miss the body’s chance to refine all those skills learned while kicking a soccer ball off the garage or practicing dance moves.

For an older, teenage student, these two learning stages of sleep offer something more: a means of being tactical about sleep, before an important test or performance. If it’s a French test, then turn off the lights at your normal time, and get up early to study. If it’s a music recital, do the opposite: stay up a little later preparing, and sleep in to your normal time in the morning. If you’re going to burn the candle, it’s good to know which end to burn it on.

What about math tests? I hate those.

Math tests strain both memory (retention) and understanding (comprehension). This is where REM sleep, the dreaming kind, comes in. Studies find that REM is exceptionally good for deciphering hidden patterns, comprehension, and seeing a solution to a hard problem. If the test is mostly a memory challenge (multiplication tables, formulas), then go to sleep at the usual time and get up early for prep. But if it’s hard problems, then it’s REM you want. Stay up a little later and get the full dose of dream-rich sleep, which helps the brain see hidden patterns.

“Mom, I’m tired of studying – I’m going to have a nap.”

By all means. Napping is sleep too, and it’s a miniature version of a full night’s slumber. An hourlong nap typically contains deep sleep, REM and some Stage 2. One caution: napping can interfere with some children’s sleep schedule, and it’s important to make sure day sleep doesn’t scramble the full serving at night. But the central point is that a sensation of exhaustion during a period of work is the brain’s way of saying, “O.K., I’ve studied (or practiced), now it’s time to digest this material and finish the job.”

If a child can nap without losing a handle on his or her natural sleep rhythm, then let it happen.

The upshot is that, for any young student who wants to do better — in school, in sports, in music or even in the social whirl (yes, that’s learning too) — knowing the science of sleep will help them respect slumber for what it is: learning consolidation. Of the best and most natural kind.

Read more about sleep on Motherlode: On Sleep Research, My Children Didn’t Get the Memo; We Tell Kids to ‘Go to Sleep!’ We Need to Teach Them Why.; and ‘What Do Students Need Most? More Sleep.

12 New Year’s Resolutions For Happier Families

From The New York Times, Motherlode Blog

By KJ DELL’ANTONIA

As I wrote around this time a year ago, I love making New Year’s resolutions. For me, it’s a moment to take stock of where I am, and where I want to be, and of all the things I’ve said I hoped to do and have or haven’t done — and why. The resolutions I fail at are always the ones I didn’t really want to keep.

This year, for the first time, I hope to gather my family and persuade them to talk about what we did and didn’t do well as a family this year, and to make a family resolution: Who do we want to be together in 2013? (My husband will say that he wants us to be a family that does not make New Year’s resolutions.)

In that spirit, I asked authors I admire to offer one single resolution to help shape a happier family life in the year ahead.
Brené Brown, author of “Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection”: One intention our family is setting for 2013 is to make more art. It doesn’t matter if it’s more photography, more painting, experimenting in the kitchen, or building the LEGO Death Star (which is our family project right now). I want to create together. It keeps us connected and spiritually grounded.

Andrew and Caitlin Friedman, authors of “Family, Inc.: Take a meeting with your partner or family. Spending just 30 minutes a week on our to-do list, schedule and brainstorming bigger decisions really helped us take control of the chaos that is working parenthood.

Po Bronson, co-author of “NurtureShock” and the forthcoming “Top Dog” (January 2013): Our resolution in our family is pretty simple: argue less, talk more. Even though in “NurtureShock” we wrote that arguing is the opposite of lying, and it is, there’s a lot of arguing that’s just about arguing, and we hope for less of it.

Ashley Merryman, co-author of “NurtureShock” and the forthcoming “Top Dog” (January 2013): This year, I want to sit less. You can read that as “need to exercise” – true enough – but sitting also means I’m spending too much time online, watching too much TV, and so on. Instead, I want to do more meaningful things with people I care about.

Bruce Feiler, “This Life” columnist for Sunday Styles and author of “Walking the Bible”, “Abraham” and “The Secrets of Happy Families” (coming in February): Bribe more creatively (fewer direct rewards for good behavior; more unanticipated praise and surprise adventures). Celebrate more fully (worry less about bad moments; make more of the good). Play more often.

Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well”: I resolve to lead with my ears and not my mouth. I’ve yet to meet a child who feels like they’ve been listened to too much.

Asha Dornfest, founder of Parent Hacks and co-author of “Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less”: Embrace the idea of course correction. When faced with a parenting decision, briefly survey your options then make the best choice you can, knowing you can recalculate your route to the destination as the situation — and your family — changes.

Christine Koh, founder of Boston Mamas and co-author of “Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less”: Strive for a less frantic family calendar in 2013 by finding your “Goldilocks level of busy.” Review the last couple of months of your family calendar and identify how many events or activities made your weeks feel too crazy, too slow or just right. Shoot for the “just right” number each week.

Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home”: It’s easy to fall into the bad habit of barely looking up from games, homework, books or devices when family members come and go. For that reason, in my family, we made a group resolution to “give warm greetings and farewells.” This habit is surprisingly easy to acquire — it doesn’t take any extra time, energy or money — and it makes a real difference to the atmosphere of home.

Rivka Caroline, author of “From Frazzled to Focused” (@SoBeOrganized): Keep adding to your “to-don’t” list. As frustrating as it is, there just isn’t time for everything. Every “to-don’t” makes room for a “to-do.”

Laura Vanderkam, author of “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend”: Think about how you want to spend your downtime. Weekends, evenings and vacations can be opportunities for adventure, but we often lose them in front of the TV because we fail to plan. In 2013, make a bucket list of the fun you want to have as a family — then get those ideas on the calendar.

Michelle Cove, author of “I Love Mondays, and Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms”: The next time you’re about to apologize to anyone — children, colleagues — ask yourself if you’ve really done anything wrong. Too often, we moms apologize by default.