Musings: Back to School


I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. –Maya Angelou

I would favor an addition to the list: the first day of school.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles that rite of passage. Parents are in mourning, children are celebrating…or is it vice versa? Teachers are bracing, ready to relive the Cold War and bunker under desks. Okay, maybe not all of them. Some teachers like the first day of school, much to the parents’ confusion.

Yes, you can tell a lot by that first day. So much of our cultural cadence fixes on the rhythms of the school year. And, I must say, so do our emotions. Those emotions, representing the collective cultural psyche, ebb and flow with the learning calendar. During the school year, routines re-emerge and the pace accelerates. We’re mostly all hurrying at the same times and slowing at the same times, with anxiety and impatience or boredom to match.

School year boredom is conquered by leaping from one awesome event to another. We’re perched precariously on the edges of our calendars to avoid landing on the unspecial days. And when there’s been too much family time or too much school time without the proper balance, there’s a palpable tension in the air, everywhere. We’re all a bit more impatient for things to reset, whether it’s for Christmas break to finally end, or for Spring break to hurry up and get here.

When we spend our time leaping from one event to another, time accelerates. And when time accelerates too quickly, we lose our bearings. We end up destabilized and anxious about lost time. We can also end up disillusioned by the special moments we’ve been living for that have failed our lofty expectations.

As we begin another school year and face the possibility of being swept up in the cultural tide, I hope we’ll each consider this. The first day of school can be a rite of passage into another year of life on fast forward, or, an opportunity to hit pause, observe, and decide: Will I show up for every single day of my life, poised and ready? Or will I discard the in-between moments and live for the highlight reel?

You can tell a lot about a person by how she handles the first day of school. But you can tell a lot more by how she handles the second day, the twelfth day, and the ninety-seventh.

Parenting in the Dark Zone: Part III


After laying the groundwork for limits with teens, we invariably land on this question:

How do parents find a good approach to boundaries that honor both dependence and independence, while maintaining personal sanity?

The best way to ensure you’re setting healthy boundaries is to be aware, first, of why you’re setting them.

Most parents agree their ultimate goal is to help their teen thrive.  It’s a great goal, one that often gets lost in translation.

How does one help a teen thrive?  Well, the first two parts to this post discuss a practical awareness of teen dynamics and a practical understanding of internal reactions to your teen.  Those key tenets of awareness are foundational to the cultivation of teen flourishing.

Every boundary that’s set must be weighed against the question: How is this helping my child thrive?

This intentionality requires:

A. Self-awareness: Now that you’re cognizant of the internal obstacles to boundary setting, use that awareness to assess your motivation in establishing a given rule.  Ask yourself, am I acting out of my emotions?  Are there facets of this issue that I’m missing? Is this in the best interest of my child?

B. The Support Network: We are all biased boundary setters.  You need other respected parents, mentors, friends to help evaluate your decision-making from an impartial perspective.  You need others who can challenge you by pointing out biases that are obstructing logical limits.

C. The Cease-Fire: It rarely works to communicate boundaries when we’re upset.  It’s okay to stop and take a break from talking to your teen.  Learning to set boundaries outside of the moment of activation is essential to setting those limits well.  Taking a break also gives you the opportunity to follow points A and B in real time.  You can evaluate your internal response and talk to trusted advisers.  Then you can revisit the conversation once everyone is calmer.

D.  Sense and Sensibility:  I can’t over-emphasize the fact that natural, pragmatic consequences are the best.  When it comes to teens and limits, do what makes sense.  This will help to ground you in the rational and will make it harder for your teen to argue, because, take note: pragmatic limits put the ownership back on the teen to prove themselves.  If your teen can’t follow curfew, it makes sense for that curfew to be earlier for a time until they can show they’re capable of respecting it.  This gives them the responsibility to prove that they can make good decisions with their time, which then  means they’re ready for a later curfew.  Pragmatic boundaries are ones that logically connect with the undesired behavior and, therefore, most resemble natural consequences.

This point is one of the hardest to assess and navigate.  You’ll want to reach out to your support system to accomplish this well.  And you may need to seek out professional help to figure out how you’re getting tripped up as you institute pragmatic limits.

E.  Repetitive Redundancy: If you take a college course on writing, your professor will likely preach that the path to powerful prose is revision, revision, revision.  Similarly, the path to purposeful parenting is repetition, repetition, repetition.  Maintaining consistent, strategic limits that are replicable and verbally repeatable creates important structure during the nebulous time of independent dependence.

F. Win Them Over:  When we use boundary setting as a forum (either intentionally or unintentionally) to guilt, shame, or judge teens, that’s an indicator that we’re taking their behavior personally and making the conflict about ourselves.  We desire relationships where others can challenge us but are also winsome, inviting us into community with them.  Find a way to work through the anger, resentment, and frustration that comes from their resistance so that you can invite them into relationship.  As you do that, boundary setting will become relationship building, instead, where limits naturally form with less resistance.  What parent doesn’t want that?

There’s so much more that could be said.  There are many ways the molten core of resistance can erupt in parent and teen.  These markers are a starting point to sidestepping volcanic eruptions, but to use them well requires real soul-searching and significant communication.

If you really want to benefit from this series, I’d encourage you to go through it point by point and consider how this drama plays out in your own family.  Then you could ask yourself a few, pointed questions:

–How are my triggers blocking me from good boundary setting?
–Are there patterns to when and why my teen gets activated?
–How am I contributing to that activation?
–What are practical boundaries that can accomplish the goal of helping my teen thrive?
–Who can be a resource to evaluate my approach to limits?


Finally, if all else fails in the communication department, remember this sage advice from Bill Cosby for your next time around:


“Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry.”


Best of wishes to you as you navigate the dark zone.  While parenting teens can be tremendously difficult, I’ve had the privilege of working with many teens and I know how awesome they really are.   I hope you find your way to a place beyond division where you can see their developing character for what it is and celebrate it.

Parenting in the Dark Zone: Part II


If you took a snapshot of the scene we would most often find between you and your teen, what would it be?

Would you be yelling at each other? Tip toeing around the room in avoidance? Or talking and laughing together?

Communicating with teens is hard.  And positive interactions seem impossible when both parent and child are perpetually reactive.

How Do Parents Get Lost in Conflict?

As I said in my previous post, when you’re parenting in the dark zone, it’s easy to lose control of your emotions and react to your teen.

Here are some of the common pitfalls of boundary setting in the dark zone:

Over-identification: For those of you who have children that are your exact replicas, it’s easy to fall into one of two traps.  Either, the child is similar, and those similarities lead to projecting your experiences on to them, OR they’re similar and those similarities create more emerging conflicts.

Think of the mother who has social anxiety; she sees her daughter’s anxiety and remembers how painful the rejection was in her own teen years, so she keeps her daughter safely at home.  Or, the father who struggles with explosive anger, and when his son lashes out, it escalates his own anger until they’re both yelling.  While either example can happen in isolation, most parents tend to move between both ends of the spectrum.

The Power Struggle: Another common pitfall comes in the form of placing ultimate value on control.  Demanding control of teens creates an eternal power struggle.  The struggle is a way for parents to assert authority to keep teens from destabilizing their own worlds.  And parenting teens can be like bracing for aftershocks as they ripple through in seismic waves.

The teen years are a nebulous zone where the fetters of dependence are still there, but the work of independence is essential and emerging.  New boundaries are called for, boundaries that reflect the inevitable and diminishing control.  Ultimately, if parents set boundaries within the framework of control, they miss valuable in-roads and vital opportunities to help their teens move towards independence productively.  There is a better framework; one that also respects the parents’ stability.

Identity Cloning: Most parents view their teens’ actions as a reflection on their identities.  Teens’ missteps become internalized as parents’ failures.  Or parents fear others’ judgment if their children misbehave.  This can lead to working harder to prevent acting out.  And the harder parents work to control, the harder teens work to resist.

It’s essential for parents to understand the forces at work within themselves that subtly influence their behavior.  It’s only in this context that healthy boundary setting can begin.

The answer to boundary setting with teens is a pragmatic one.  More on that next time…

Parenting in the Dark Zone: Part 1

What Does Baseball Have to Do With Parenting?

It’s a 60-foot journey from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.  Once the ball is released from the pitcher’s hand, a batter has 55 feet to anticipate what’s coming across the plate and adjust his stance accordingly.  Then, for those last 5 feet, the batter loses sight of the ball; he goes blind.  It’s in those last 5 feet that the pitcher wants the ball to break off its path: the curve ball hooks, the slider drops, or the fast ball flies by.  That last, 5-foot block of the ball’s trajectory has a nickname: the dark zone.  (Click here to read more.)

Baseball has more in common with parenting than you might think.  The preparation of parenting from birth through middle school is like the first 55 feet of the ball’s journey.  The parent is anticipating, recalibrating, and adjusting, with a good visual on target goals.  And then, just as the child hits adolescence, all that preparation and work flies out the window as parents go blind, finding themselves living with someone who is unpredictable and erratic.  None of their previous boundaries seem to work.  And it’s in those last 5 feet, as they’re swinging blindly, that they realize their teen has managed to throw a curve ball.  They’re in the dark zone.

Can you relate?

You’ve spent your child’s formative years laying the foundation, now all the measures of control seem to have whittled away.  How do you know when to say “yes” and when to say “no” in the teen years?


The Perfect Storm

Before you decide to set boundaries, you have to know what you’re up against: teen neurobiology.

According to cognitive developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, teens have already developed adult-like cognitive reasoning (known as formal operational development), by age 11 or 12.  This development includes abstract thinking, rhetoric, logic, and rationalization.  Translated: by age 12 they have fine-tuned their debate skills.

In contrast, their emotional development (decision-making, impulse control, emotional control) is housed in the pre-frontal cortex and not fully operational/developed until their mid-twenties (some might argue not until age 30).  This leaves parents with the perfect storm of neurobiology where teens are emotionally dysregulated and intellectually over-compensating.  Translated: they are highly articulate rhetoricians who are emotionally stunted.

With the intellectual capabilities of teens, parents sometimes make the mistake of assuming their emotions should be on par with their intellects.  When this happens, boundary setting gets derailed by parents who try to set logical boundaries while teenager and parent alike are at the height of emotional reactivity.


Pushing Buttons   

Remember that last high school reunion you went to?  We often dread going to high school reunions because they resurrect the same insecurities, doubts, and heightened emotions we had when we were that age.  In a similar fashion, teens dredge up adolescent emotions in their parents.  And parents under stress end up acting in similar fashion to their teens.

What are some of the ways this translates?  Examples include full-blown yelling matches; the current Cold War (i.e. ignoring one another and punishing through silence); the gridlock where both parent and teen try to outdo the other’s rules, and many variations and combinations of the three.

In summary, the perfect storm of teen neurobiology leaves teens well-primed to push parents’ buttons, and parents often respond in kind.

There are many ways parents get derailed from their quest to set boundaries in the dark zone.  For more on that, stay tuned…