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. I'm in a bind. My 12-year-old confided in my brother that she had two boys in the house when we weren't there, which is totally against our rules. She adores her uncle, and if I punish her she'll know where I got the information and stop talking to him. If I don't do anything, she'll do it again!
A. Suggest your brother have the following conversation with your daughter: "I know this is hard, but your mom needs to know about the boys in the house. So I'd like you to tell her — alone or with me." Your daughter may respond by saying, "Do I really have to?" or "Okay, I'll do it when I'm 25." He should insist that it needs to be done within 48 to 72 hours or he will tell. I have worked with a lot of kids in your daughter's position and almost without fail after I "force" them to come clean, they're amazed at how much better it feels to confess than to wait anxiously to be caught.
Q. My 16-year-old son is involved with a very troubled girl his age. She told him she was abused as a child and he seems to think it's his job to help her get over it. I'm afraid he's getting trapped in a destructive relationship. What should I do?
A. Your son wants to be her knight in shining armor — but I don't care how old or mature he is, that's way too much responsibility for any person. You want him to learn that one person can't take away another person's pain. Start by helping him come up with boundaries — which you should write down. Like, all deep conversations must occur before 10 p.m. (he shouldn't be talking to her until 2 a.m.). Or, she can't stop him from spending time with other friends or threaten herself or the relationship if he does. Second, tell him that you're really proud that he wants to be a support to someone and that the best way to do that is to maintain his own emotional health. Lastly, if he's obsessed with this girl to the exclusion of his other responsibilities and interests, or is feeling overwhelmed, take him to a therapist who specializes in abuse. He'll need help coming up with an action plan.
The Double-Daring Book for Girls, by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz (Collins, $27), is the perfect antidote to the vapid, trashy stuff marketed to girls. How could you not love a book that gives step-by-step instructions on everything from shooting pool and making a rope ladder to becoming the President of the United States? Plus, it's filled with inspiring stories of women scientists, politicians, and writers. This summer I plan to do some of the activities myself!
Q. During my 16-year-old's year-end soccer banquet the coach shocked everyone with derogatory remarks about her (and no one else). My daughter is humiliated but doesn't want to call him on it and still plans to try out for the fall. Now what?
A. Ordinarily I'd say somebody has to confront this guy — adults should never get away with mistreating kids. But if your daughter is still against it, tell her you'll agree only if she writes a thorough list answering this question: "What kind of coach makes me feel strong, improves my game, and allows me to have fun?" Then she should write her response to: "What could the adult say or do that would leave me feeling torn down or make me stop loving this sport?" You and your daughter must have a clear understanding that if the coach does something similar to what's on the second list, one or both of you will talk to him and decide what her options are from that point, including leaving the team.
Q. I took care of my 7-year-old grandson five days a week from the time he was born until recently, and we have always been very close. Now his parents are divorcing, and he doesn't want to have anything to do with me or my husband. What can I do?
A. Sounds like he's really mad at the world right now, and the easiest and safest way to express his anger is to lash out at the people who love him unconditionally. So with that in mind, say to him, "I know things are changing because your parents are separating, but that fact doesn't take away from how much your grandfather and I love you. We totally understand if you don't want to be with us right now, but the minute you change your mind, we'll be right here." Then tell him you'd like a hug whenever he's ready. Leaving him some emotional space should bring him back to you soon.
Q. My 13-year-old, Allison, and I are sure that her best friend (also 13) stole money from her at least twice. Should we talk to her? Tell her parents?
A. This is probably the last thing your daughter wants to do, but she must address her friend directly by saying, "This is really uncomfortable, but I need to ask you something. When we were hanging out yesterday I had $20 in my purse, but after you went home it wasn't there. Did you take it?" If she admits it, Allison should thank her for the honesty and clearly state that if the friendship is going to continue, there can't be any more stealing. If the friend denies the theft, Allison should take her answer at face value but watch to see if it happens again. And lastly, if the friend flips out and "breaks up" with your daughter, Allison will know she's better off without this girl in her life.
For over 15 years Rosalind Wiseman has helped schools and other organizations end bullying and youth violence. In her program, students learn to take responsibility for their behavior, treat themselves and others with dignity, and speak out when they see kids being cruel to each other.
The updated edition of Wiseman's The Owning Up Curriculum (Research Press) is due out in May. The new version, which has bonus activities, works for schools and kids' groups like Scouts. Go to rosalindwiseman.com.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My son doesn't want to take honors courses next year because he'd rather be with his friends in the regular classes. Should I let him?
A. I know it seems like your son is sacrificing his education to hang with his friends. But it's not that simple. In our culture boys are constantly being told not to care too much about anything, and taking honors classes definitely fits into this category. So don't talk about how he's ruining his future. Instead, give him an incentive — think of an honors subject he really cares about and have him write a list of the pros and cons of taking it. Then let him choose. You can force him to take the class, but you can't make him do the work.
Q. My son and daughter-in-law constantly nag their 10-year-old about what he eats and how much he weighs. I know this is not the best way to go about things. How can I help my grandson without stepping on too many toes?
A. You're right. Your grandson doesn't need nagging — or bribes, for that matter — but healthy family dinners and people who model eating slowly (so he learns to detect when his stomach is full). And he should engage in physical activities that allow him to achieve his correct weight as a natural consequence of the fun he's having. I realize you can't tell him this, but you can show him. Your grandson, at 10, is a prime candidate for a martial arts class. So why don't the two of you check out a couple of schools and enroll him in one for three months. Ideally, he'll like it so much his parents will pay for the classes after that. I used to teach karate, so just a few words on the kind of teacher (true for any coach) you're looking for: You want someone who encourages hard work, sets clear goals, and demands the kids support one another. And he should never brag about his own exploits or put students down because of their physical abilities or weight.
Q. I have full custody of my 14-year-old, and I'm engaged to a man with full custody of his three teens. How can we help everyone get along?
A. Well, there's nothing like a challenge to start a marriage off on the right foot! I'd call a group meeting where you and your fiance present a united front and each reiterate your love for your children, recognize that this can be a stressful situation, and ask the kids to share their hopes and concerns. Then one of you says, "We want a new family in which everyone feels valued and respected, but it obviously won't work without your help. When someone gets on your last nerve, we want you to speak to the person directly and tell him or her exactly what's bothering you and give possible solutions. And if an issue impacts us all, any one of us can call a family meeting where we'll do the same thing. It may be hard, but this way we can build a family we can all be proud of."
When I speak in schools, parents and teachers always ask about dealing with children who are discipline problems. I believe giving these kids support and understanding helps everybody, which is why I really like Lost at School, by Ross W. Greene, PhD. (Scribner). It gives strategies to help all students have a safe and successful school experience and offers lots of insight into what good teaching really is.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My 15-year-old is a big animal lover and doesn't want to do the upcoming frog dissection for biology class. How can she persuade the teacher to allow her (and other students who feel the same way) to do a different project?
A. Your daughter should set up a meeting with the teacher to advocate her position — without whining about how gross dissection is. Rather, she should articulate her feelings and then present possible solutions, like learning from a computer simulation. For example, the widely available V-Frog made by Tactus Technologies (tactustech.com) comes in a home version ($40) and one the school could buy (from $495). That way she's learning to promote an issue that's important to her and contributing to her own education in a proactive way. I also learned that several states have laws requiring schools to give alternative projects.
Q. I don't know what to do. My 11-year-old is very athletic, very competitive, and has been taking cheap shots at other kids. For instance, in one game he got frustrated and elbowed the first baseman. (The umpire benched him.) He's losing friends over this.
A. First, be grateful he was quickly penalized. Second, I would say to him, "You are one of the best on the team. But athletes who express anger like you did aren't helping the team. People don't trust them on the field, and they're not fun to be around. So you can continue to act like this and take the consequences or you can demonstrate real power by figuring out a different way to handle being upset." Then brainstorm with him about possible situations that could come up during a game and role-play responses. Finally, tell him that a good way to exercise his new strength and gain respect is to apologize to his team.
Q. Women always ask me things like "Are you still at home?" with obvious disapproval. I have three kids and I also volunteer. I don't have time right now to be in the workplace. Any ideas on how to keep the at-home option respected and alive?
A. It starts with you. By doing activities that give you personal satisfaction you're taking care of yourself and providing a positive role model for your kids. That's the goal of any mother, regardless of her home/employment "balance." So reassure yourself that you have every right to be proud of your choice, be thankful that you have that option, and the next time someone asks "Are you still at home?" you can confidently reply, "Yes, I am!" and change the subject.
Helping your family go green isn't just good for the environment — it's also a great way to get your kids involved in something bigger than themselves. One cool organization is CynerGreen Kidz (cgkidz.com), started by Maryland middle-schooler Riley Hoffer. Along with great conservation facts and tips, the site offers kits for tweens who want to start green clubs at their school.
Originally published in the April 17, 2009, issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. I have 12-year-old twin sons who use foul language constantly. My husband and I have tried all types of responses from taking things away to ignoring them, but nothing works. What should we try next?
A. Unfortunately, it's not the responses they're blowing off — it's you. For kids this age, saying bad words is a way to push parents' buttons. So sit the boys down and explain that swearing offends other people, and that it's your job to teach them responsibility to the community. Then, if the cursing goes on, immediately remove the offender from wherever he is and bring him back home to do extra chores or stare at the wall — anything not fun. Now, you'll have to do this at least 10 times if not 20, but if you keep following through, you'll get results.
Q. My 17-year-old son's friend is just back from rehab, clean and sober, and the two have been hanging out together. I get that my son, John, is a good influence and I know that he would never use drugs. But is this okay?
A. It's wonderful that your son wants to reach out to someone who's turning his life around. But John does need to establish clear emotional boundaries. Be sure he understands that he's not supposed to be his buddy's savior or his only source of personal support. If your son starts to feel overwhelmed, he may need to spend less time with his friend and encourage him to rely on others, too. And John must have the name and number of a person or organization to contact if he suspects his pal is using again. My only other suggestion is for you to think a little bigger. This is an opportunity to show empathy as a family, so I'd invite the friend over for dinner or another event in your home. It's this kind of welcome that helps recovering addicts feel reconnected to a sober life.
Q. I think my 11-year-old daughter is too young for eye makeup but I'm tired of arguing with her about it. What do you think?
A. This is a rite of passage in your child's life and it's your job to make it meaningful for her, which you can do and still set some limits. Acknowledge that she needs to feel grown up by saying, "I know that you want to use makeup, and I'm going to let you wear lip gloss at 12 and eyeliner at 14 (or whatever ages you decide), but first I want you to learn to take care of your skin." Then buy her some nice, affordable cleanser and moisturizer and teach her to use them. By the way, I've had great success offsetting the makeup craze with my tween students by having them research and experiment with homemade facials (using olive oil, honey, avocados, etc). It's totally messy, crafty, educational — and distracts them from wanting that horrible blue eye shadow.
Men Can Stop Rape, Inc. (MCSR) is an international organization that empowers young men to prevent violence against women. I wish all communities would bring in MCSR's Men of Strength Club, a 16-week high school program where teens meet to discuss leadership, communication, social responsibility, and conflict resolution.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My two daughters-in-law favor their girls, giving over the raising of their sons to the fathers. I don't think the four boys get enough loving mother attention. I can't interfere, but could you write about favoritism?
A. Who says grandparents can't interfere? Just keep in mind that what you see as favoritism could be the mothers' feelings of inadequacy about raising boys. One-to-one, I'd tell each mom two or three things you think she's doing well. Then say something like, "I know it may be easier to hang out with your daughters, but I think Brian would benefit from more time with you." And to any daughters-in-law who may write me, obviously there are mean-spirited relatives out there. But the next time you bristle at unsolicited advice from the grandparents, remember that most likely they're motivated by how much they adore your children.
Q. I'm bilingual and my husband is not. The experts say that the best way to teach my 7-year-old daughter the language is for me to speak to her exclusively in Spanish and have my husband only use English. But we don't seem able to do that. Any ideas on something that does work?
A. In all honesty, my Spanish-American husband and I struggle with the same issue with our two sons! When I was pregnant with my first, I had dreams of these little bilingual babies. Then real life happened and my husband spoke mostly English (although he tells a slightly different story). I asked Karen Beeman, educational specialist from the Illinois Resource Center (thecenterweb.org/irc) for ideas. "You want everyone in the family to feel included," she says. "And you want your kids to value bilingualism." She suggests that when you are with your children alone, you speak Spanish to them so it's "your language." Then, also create moments with all of you where using Spanish is fun — like bedtime stories or memory games. These strategies are more realistic, don't you think? Going with what makes sense for your family is the best advice — something to keep in mind with any expert (me included).
Q. We've always encouraged our 14-year-old to be himself, but he has unusual interests such as building a 4-foot-tall Star Wars Death Star out of Legos. How can I encourage his individuality without setting him up to be ostracized by his peers?
A. Who's more anxious here, you or your son? Because if you're sheepishly explaining to guests why there's a Lego empire in the living room, it's time to check your own emotional baggage and leave your child alone. If he doesn't have at least one friend and he starts speaking like a Star Wars character, then you need to dig deeper — without making him feel like a freak. Start off positively by asking him to share something new about his interest and then describe how you're worried about his isolation. If he has a hard time finding friends, take him where he can meet people he has a common bond with — a Star Wars convention, for instance.
Rosalind Recommends:When Ariel Fox was 14 she had a terribly painful eighth-grade year, so she started a small business called Sticker Sisters from her bedroom. Twelve years later, she sells all kinds of girl-positive products, including "brave girl" Band-Aids, "girls can do anything" T-shirts and magnets, and "I'm so happy to be a girl" school supplies. And of course, there are also tons of great stickers.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. How much money do kids really need? My 16-year-old is always asking for cash to spend with friends, even when they're just meeting at the park. If we don't give it to him, he stays home.
A. I have the distinct feeling that you're being played. Far too many teens have no idea how hard parents work to make ends meet. By 16, your son should be earning his own money or getting an allowance based on completing chores around the house. So sit down and show him a list of family expenses, including what it costs to take care of him. Then explain how much allowance you'll give him and what he has to do to get it (empty the dishwasher; take out the trash; walk the dog). Then the next time he asks, "Can I have 10 bucks?" smile and say, "I don't know, what's in your wallet?"
Q. My 12-year-old idolizes her big sister and expects one-on-one time with her 24/7 whenever she's home from college. Naturally, sometimes my older daughter has other things she wants to do. How can I keep the younger one's feelings from getting hurt?
A. The goal here is to teach both daughters the importance of balancing family relationships and friends. Your younger daughter needs to respect her sister's personal boundaries. At the same time, your older daughter must kindly but clearly articulate her right to have a separate life without being made to feel guilty. Get them together and say how much you appreciate their bond. Then ask them to devise a plan to set aside regular time for each other, with the understanding that these arrangements won't be changed even if a better offer comes along.
Q. Several weeks ago a girl in my 10-year-old son's study group sent him an e-mail saying she hates him because he's annoying and didn't contribute much to their project — though he feels he did his best. Since this girl is a class leader, my son now believes everyone hates him. How can I boost his confidence and encourage him to be friends with the other kids again?
A. Forget making friends with the queen bee for the moment and focus on the teamwork issue. First, get a copy of the project guidelines and, with your son, review his work. If it looks like he didn't do his part, have him explain why. Did he understand the assignment? Was someone in the group dominating so much that he didn't see the point of trying? Did he just flake? Then it's time for you and your son to meet with the teacher. Your son should explain the situation, take responsibility for his actions if necessary, and show the girl's e-mail to the teacher. From there, the two of them must decide how to proceed. Now, on to the girl. Your son needs to address her straight up and demand that she talk to him directly when she's angry about something. Finally, let him know that he's a success for taking any of these steps — because how many adults do you know who can do these things?
Check out tolerance.org, the site of Teaching Tolerance, a group that offers tons of free information — curricula for teachers, handbooks for parents, and programs for tweens and teens — on treating everyone fairly. I really like the Parents' Biases section because it does a great job of helping us understand our own hidden feelings on difficult issues.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.