Q. My son is a stellar athlete and student and has lots of friends. We've always had a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, but lately he's been binge drinking. He says he'll be on his own at college next year and we should accept that he's going to do what he wants. What should his consequences be now?
A. I think your son's accomplishments are blinding you to how he's rationalizing his behavior. So tell him that your rules still stand. But you have a bigger problem. You need to get him into counseling right now while you have some control. Binge drinking will kill his brain cells and liver cells—and he's not going to get those back. Beyond that, a person's decision-making can be so impaired that he makes incredibly dumb or dangerous choices. For more information, contact the National Alcohol and Substance Abuse Drug Addiction Help and Information Center (addict-help.com/bingedrinking.asp) or the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (casacolumbia.org).
Q. My best friend, Beth, signed her daughter up on Facebook and had her send me a friend request. I denied it because I feel an 11-year-old shouldn't be using the site. Beth and I ended up in a heated argument. What's your take on the situation?
A. I want you to think beyond "Eleven is too young," even though I agree with you. Here's the thing. The girl is already signed up. And she has invited you, an adult, to see what's going on in her life. That reflects well on you, so you might want to reconsider. If you do change your mind, just be sure to customize your privacy settings so she can see only limited information. I'm not assuming you're posting pictures of the crazy party you went to last weekend, but you never know.
You also need to get to a better place with Beth. If you were harsh with her, I would apologize and explain your motivations. (Try not to sound like you're reprimanding her, and bear in mind that she may be feeling defensive about her parenting and protective of her child.) Finish up the conversation by being clear that you want a relationship with this child, she can e-mail you anytime, and you'd love to hang out in real life.
Q. No matter what I say or do, it's wrong, according to my 14-year-old. I don't know how to talk to her so she's not angry at me. Any ideas? Or is it just teenage hormones?
A. Sit down with your daughter and say, "I'm giving you three minutes to tell me exactly what I do that irritates you so much, and I promise not to interrupt you. After that, I get three minutes to explain what's behind my annoying behavior, and you can't interrupt. Then we'll write down what we heard, and take turns saying what we wrote." Explain that you have two goals: to figure out what's creating so much friction, and to come up with a new strategy. For example, maybe the two of you could invent a code word or signal to let each other know when you're doing the things that are a problem. Conclude by telling her, "The bottom line is I need you to communicate your feelings without being rude, because no matter what your age or the situation there's never an excuse for bad manners."
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My 17-year-old was on the cheer squad for two years but didn't make next fall's team. She's devastated and wants to switch schools. How can I make her understand that this is life?
A. You're right that disappointments happen, but try not to come across as dismissing her feelings. Cheering is part of her identity and losing her spot is hugely humiliating. So first acknowledge, sincerely, how difficult the situation is. Then remind her that she has the strength to make sure this loss doesn't define her. You also need to tell her that she can't blame the girl who took her place, because being mean goes against everything you've taught her about showing good character in difficult situations.
Q. Today another disciplinary notice came home, saying my 15-year-old has been rude to the same substitute teacher. My son is the kind of kid adults usually like, so his father and I are at our wits' end. What should we do?
A. Start by saying, "You aren't usually in trouble, so something is going on in this classroom that I need to know about." Listen to his response, but then explain that no matter what's happening, you require him to uphold your standards of respect. This is one of those moments when you embarrass your child in a good way. You, your son, and his dad are going to meet with the teacher, and your son is going to apologize. If he does it insincerely or badly, you are going to apologize for your son's behavior as well. Then give the teacher your cell phone number and say, "If you have any further trouble with him, please call me immediately. And to show that we are serious, my son will help you clean up your classroom at the end of the day."
Q. My 11-year-old nephew, Jason, spent the weekend with me, most of it on the computer. When he left I checked the history and saw he'd been on sex sites. I'm not sure how to tell his parents.
A. Start off by saying, "This is really uncomfortable to say, but over the weekend Jason was on my computer a lot. After he left I discovered that he'd been looking at pornography." At this point, his parents' reactions might vary from "Thanks so much for telling us" to "Why did you let him on the computer by himself?" to "Oh, it couldn't have been that bad." Whatever they say, you did the right thing. The rest is up to them, except for one thing: When Jason visits again, make the computer off-limits unless you're in the room, and plan alternative activities you can do with him.
Q. I think my daughter, at 12, is too young to dye her hair. Do you agree? She's been begging to do it.
A. There's something to be said for learning through experience. As in, your brown-haired daughter goes blonde, it comes out hideously orange and then she has to pay for someone at a salon to return it to her normal color. But if you really don't want to go down that road, I'd tell her that she can dye it when she's 14—but she has to use her own money, no matter what happens.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. We moved to a new town four years ago and my 8-year-old still has only one friend who invites him over. Should I be worried?
A. Be concerned, but be careful. Too many moms push for playdates or stalk the playground to ensure their child has friends, but you can't force it (and if you try, other kids will resent your son). Also, your child may prefer to have one close buddy. So ask if he wants more kids in his life. If he doesn't, respect his answer. If he does, enroll him in a group where he can meet other children. And realize that around third grade kids' friendships deepen. Last year my son Elijah, then 8, had no close friends, and, yes, I was a little freaked. But as he matured his social life blossomed. Whatever you do, remember that this isn't about you. Your job is to teach your son how to conduct healthy relationships, not worry about how popular he is.
Q. How can I make my 16-year-old respect his curfew? He doesn't ask for much, so it's hard to take away privileges. He doesn't study and seems to have no interest in any kind of work. I need some tips on how to handle him.
A. Your first task is to get to know him better, and it'll help if you drop the assumption that he's a total slacker. It's possible he has interests, like being part of the local music scene or skateboarding community, but hides them from you because he thinks you're judging him. Then, I'd say to him, "I can't have you staying out so late. Part of getting older is thinking about how your actions affect others. If you don't come home I imagine horrible things happening to you because that's what mothers do. So can you agree to get home on time? But my bigger worry is that I don't see what's happening in your life that you're passionate about. It's important that you find activities that give you satisfaction, pride, and a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. I don't have to know every detail, but can you tell me what's going on?" Once you've said all that, please just sit back and listen.
Q. My 13-year-old, Meg, has been bullied at school for two years. The administrators have done nothing except tell her to read your book Queen Bees and Wannabes. I'm sure it's great, but shouldn't they deal with the aggressors?
A. Without being ungrateful, I have to say their response is pathetic. Queen Bees can help you understand bullying and give you effective ways to respond. But that doesn't take away from their responsibility to create a safe environment. So read the book, mark the sections that apply to your daughter, then meet with the principal. Thank her for her suggestion and point out what you've learned. Then explain how your daughter is handling conflicts more independently. Finally, say, "If it happens again, what is your process for helping her? And if Meg thinks that's not working, what are the next steps you want us to take?" Write down exactly what the administrator says. If things don't improve, go back once to remind her what she said. If the bullying continues and your child feels physically threatened, go to the police.
Originally published in the April 1, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My 11-year-old has to be pushed to do homework. I've tried taking away his tech toys sometimes, but that hasn't helped. What else should I do?
A. Most parents, including me, have to pressure their kids. It comes with the turf. But I want to go back to his electronics because it sounds like you're coming across to your son as wishy-washy. There shouldn't be any debate: Completing his school and family responsibilities comes before everything else. There's no room for negotiation. Having said that, though, I don't believe in making kids do homework as soon as they get home from school. He can play music, get a snack, ride his bike, or just hang out with the family and unwind. Then comes the homework. When it's done he can veg out with his electronics.
Q. As a kid I was the victim of mean girls. Now my 12-year-old daughter is the one bad-mouthing others. How do I keep her from becoming a person I don't even like?
A. Be straight up with her: "Look, I've heard you gossiping and saying cruel things about other kids. That behavior goes against what our family fundamentally stands for, and it's unacceptable to me. If you do it around me, I will call you on it. If I find out from other people you've been unkind, I will make you apologize. And if you won't do it sincerely, I will apologize on your behalf and tell the parents that if they have additional problems, they should contact me immediately." Now, it's likely your daughter won't exactly love you for this, which is fine. She'll be angry for exactly the right reason—you're refusing to put up with her nasty behavior.
Q. My 16-year-old is a good student, captain of his baseball team, and he volunteers with disabled kids. But recently he got arrested for having prescription pills that weren't his. My husband and I never saw this coming. We have a school hearing and one in family court. How can we be sure he's learned his lesson?
A. Let's remember that wonderful kids can do really bad things. So don't beat yourself up for not knowing. Lots of high-performing kids use drugs, usually either to numb anxiety or maintain energy and focus to keep up with all the obligations. So you and your husband have to ask him what his motivations were, because he won't stop until the underlying reasons are addressed. He may also need to see a good therapist. As for the hearings, support him in a way that holds him accountable. Tell him that yes, this is really hard, but that he can be proud of himself if he takes responsibility for his actions and accepts help. Also, check his texts and Facebook page right after the hearings, because if he's blowing them off, he'll probably share that with his friends. If that's the case, you'll know you've got a bigger problem on your hands that will take all your vigilance, consistency, and ingenuity to turn around.
Originally published in the March 1, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. I'm having a hard time being around my brother's 13-year-old—she's always yelling at her little sister, who is a very nice girl. Do you have any advice?
A. Keep in mind that kids often think screaming is the only way to get their siblings to listen. Now I know I get in trouble with some of my readers for saying it's okay for extended family members to correct children when they're acting out, but I'm holding firm. Just don't lecture—that never works. Instead, invite your niece out for hot chocolate and tell her you've noticed she often seems frustrated with her sister and you'd like to know why. Then say that as long as she yells, she'll just keep being reprimanded and no one will see her side of the story. Also ask about specific times and places her sister completely angers her, explain that it's okay to be angry but not mean, and help her make a plan for how she can go to an adult for assistance instead of losing her cool. And you don't want to end on a heavy note, so bring up something easier to talk about—maybe who's her favorite guy in Twilight.
Q. My 15-year-old daughter says kids at school are calling my 12-year-old son "gay boy," "queer boy," and so on. How can I help him?
A. First, let me say how much I hate that so many kids equate the word "gay" with something they can ridicule. Second, you should take a moment to credit yourself for raising an empathetic daughter who broke the kid code of silence and dared to tell her parent something bad. Next, reach out to your son and say, "Your sister told me people at school are making fun of you. I'm really grateful she came to me because whether it's bothering you a little or a lot, I want to check in with you about it. And I want you to know it's okay to repeat the exact words they said." The idea is for him to express his feelings (if he's not comfortable talking, he could draw or write). Then you should decide which school administrator would address the problem most effectively and arrange a meeting for the three of you. Reassure your son that he's never going to be alone, he is brave for confronting the issue, and you love him unconditionally.
Q. When I leave my boys, 9 and 11, with my mother she doesn't have any control over them. What should I do?
A. I think you need to do three things: 1) In front of your mother tell your sons in no uncertain terms that she's in charge while you're away. Ask them to repeat back to you what you just said so there's no room for misinterpretation. 2) Have your mom explain in her strongest, firmest voice two specific behaviors she wants them to change. 3) Conclude by assuring your sons that you'll be getting a report of how they did, and that there will be specific consequences for noncompliance, like doing chores at your mother's house. Then back off so your mother and your boys can finally drop their power struggle and enjoy the best of what a relationship with a grandparent can be.
Originally published in the February2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Q. My seventh grade daughter says another girl in her class is sexually active. The girl's mom is just an acquaintance, and I don't even know if the story is true. What do you advise?
A. Here's what I don't suggest: "Hi, Kathy, my daughter just came home and told me your daughter is hooking up with all the boys in the grade. Just thought you should know. Bye!" Instead, ask your daughter who's the best counselor at school. Set up a meeting with that person and tell her what you've heard, saying, "I don't know how accurate this information is, but I figured there's a chance this girl may need some help." Tell your daughter why you're going, as in, "I'm making sure a professional is looking out for your classmate." And be very clear that she's not to gossip about any of this with her friends.
Q. In your October 17 article you said any adult has the right to respectfully discipline kids. But it can make a bad day worse if a stranger corrects my son, who has autism. Shouldn't people be sensitive to special situations?
A. You are so right—everybody should remember that it's too easy to see a child behaving badly and jump to the wrong conclusion. My strategy is to look at the child and adult to see whether either seems really overwhelmed or anxious. I might then ask the parent if she wants help. Sometimes, though, when a child is just plain rude, a quick response from another adult sends a strong message. For example, I was in the supermarket recently and my son made an obnoxious comment to me. An older man stepped forward and told him to stop disrespecting his mother. I thanked the guy and watched as my son flushed with embarrassment. As soon as we were alone my son and I had a conversation about manners and respect. So while correcting other people's children treads on delicate ground, if we do it thoughtfully, we show kids that our whole community expects civility.
Q. My 14-year-old stepdaughter refuses to visit us since her father started making her listen to our house rules. What should we do?
A. If I were 14, I'd see "our house rules" as my stepmother forcing my dad to change the way he parents me and I'd blame her for being a control freak. So I'd disrespect my dad for bowing down, and I'd stay away. What should you do? Back off and let him take the primary role. He should privately ask her, "You don't want to hang out at my house anymore. Why is that?" If she complains about the new decisions, he needs to say why he made them and reinforce that he wants her to be a part of his (and your) life, then ask what she needs to feel more comfortable in your home. This conversation probably won't make her come running back, but it's a good start.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.