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Strategies for Managing Adolescent Computer Usage During the Holidays

Ah, the school holidays! Time to relax and take a break from the hub-bub of the school year. Time to go slow in the morning, savour long, late breakfasts…Time to smell the flowers and enjoy laid-back family time…

Unfortunately for parents of teenagers, this is more of dream than the reality of the school holidays.

Although adolescents may spend more hours at home during the holidays, the free time doesn’t always translate into quality family time. Freed from the cruel task master of secondary study, few teens turn to their parents or siblings and sweetly plead to make some family memories (if only!). More likely, as soon as they unplug from school, they replug into their online virtual world. And that’s the last we see of them for a while!

According to one report, teens average a whopping 53 hours a week of media time!  More free time and less supervision over the holidays means the media consumption could easily blow out way beyond 53 hours, leaving teens bleary-eyed and anaemic and their parents exasperated.

Excessive computer usage can lead to a few problems, not the least of which is parental frustration! Small issues include eye strain and irritability, while at the other end of the spectrum is the very scary possibility of computer addiction. Debate rages over the definitions of internet addiction, but thousands of Australian adolescents, particularly those who use chatrooms, online gaming, and social networking, are at risk. Internet addiction is a problem that undermines families and wrecks physical wellbeing.

Increased unsupervised computer time also increases the risk of cyber dangers, such as predators, pornography, and gambling. It is very important to ensure that you have the best possible internet safety tools on your computer.  Remember, though, that no filtering program replaces parental vigilance and supervision.

Now, early in the holidays, it is a very good idea to sit down with your student and have them show you their Facebook profile (and any other commonly used site) so you can monitor the privacy settings and the information they are sharing. Young people should be encouraged NOT to include information such as a photo, their surname, age, address, place of employment, school or sporting teams. Any one of those bits of information—even a photo in a school uniform—can be used by a predator to track down a student. Sadly, such people exist, so we must be vigilant.

Another good idea for managing holiday computer usage is to establish clear boundaries early in the school break. Parents should decide on an acceptable amount of computer usage and enforce it consistently.  If these expectations are spelt out early in the holidays—before any problems occur—children are more likely to accept the rules.

Another good rule is: no computer use when no adult is present. (Take cables to work with you. While this may sound extreme, we would take similar procautions to protect our kids outside of the home.) Of course we all know (but sadly few implement) the “no computer in the bedroom rule.” All the experts list this one as the number one rule of home computing. Put simply, computers in bedrooms spell trouble. Situating the computer in a communal space such as the kitchen or family room might not be convenient, but it certainly the best location to keep young people out of trouble.

Limiting computer usage during the holidays makes good sense: it encourages creativity and activity, and time is freed up for beneficial social experiences.  One family (with teenagers) spent an entire summer break without access to home computers.  The mother reports: “Not only did we survive, we thrived. The kids hated being unplugged at first, but they ended up doing other activities, like reading, swimming, and art. One of the girls even discovered the fun of letter writing, and it’s a habit that continues. She and her grandmother (who lives overseas) enjoy corresponding via snail mail.”

Holiday Computing House Rules:

  1. Set the expectation that computing time is earned through chores. Keep it straight forward: 1 hour of work = 1 hour of computer access. That covers access and time limit. No chores, no computer, no exceptions.
  2. Have a family computer-free day—or two! Maybe Sundays and Wednesdays are days that the computer stays off.
  3. Establish the rule that computing only happens while a parent or trustworthy adult is home. You may want to take the modem cable to work with you.
  4. Regularly check your child’s profiles for appropriate privacy settings and ensure no personal information is given. It is your right and responsibility as a parent. Make it a condition of computer use at your home.
  5. Visit Australian government sites such as http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/. You can find tips, tools, and resources for keeping your family safe online.

Off-line Options

  1. Write: a letter to grandparents, a short story or a fantasy tome, a feature article, a brand new Christmas carol…
  2. Move: ride a bike, dance, swim, rock climb….
  3. Cook: how about a gingerbread house? Decorate it with your favourite lollies (and take a picture to bring to school in the new year.)
  4. Help: find a neighbour in need and do a good deed, visit someone in a nursing home, clean out the garage or your closet…
  5.  Explore:  visit the library and check out some books or magazines. Not big on reading? Why not try an audio book? The museum sounds good…
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00 keys5I work as a school counsellor and one of the most common questions I am asked by parents of teenagers is: “How do I get them to talk to me?” 

 I’ve lost count how many mothers of sons have said to me, “All he says is, ‘I dunno.’”  The evasiveness of boys, I reckon, is an art form.  Granted, it is highly annoying, but the skill with which they dodge engagement with their poor, wistful mums is a thing to behold.  If only they could devote this tactic to good and not evil!

 Then there are the girls—the ones who spend the whole school day giggling with their girlfriends, only to return home and shrug at their mother’s attempts at communication.  They can’t seem to form a complete sentence (that isn’t punctuated with eye rolling) to their parents, but they can spend the entire evening in deep and meaningful conversations (via text or MSN) with their friends. What is happening here? 

 Two things: individuation and brain development.

 The disengagement of young people from their parents is a normal part of growing up.  Pulling away from parents and reinvesting energy into friendships is part of the process called individuation.  The teen’s drive for independence is normal and it’s to be expected.  However, despite what psychologists might tout as normal, it is not ideal.

 Rather than achieving independence, becoming interdependent is the ideal outcome.  Interdependence allows for individuation, the separation of the child from the parent, but it encourages a healthy consultation with parents.  In other words, they separate from their parents and the relationship remains in tact and healthy. 

 As much as adolescents crave and seek after freedom, they require input from trustworthy sources.  Parents need to find a way to engage with their teen without hindering their thrust for independence.  Why?  Because their kids need more, not less, input.

 Kids require more parental input because of their brain development.  Previous understanding of brain development believed the brain was fully intact at age 4; however, recent findings by neurologists have shown that the human brain continues developing all the way to 20 years of age or more.  Scientists now understand that this growth and development of the brain from age 15 to 21 is crucial. 

 The frontal lobes, which are responsible for planning, forethought, impulse control and delay of gratification, decrease in bulk during these years. This development is described as “pruning.”  In other words the brain is paring down in the short-term to make it more efficient in the long-run. While the frontal lobes are under reconstruction, the limbic system, responsible for emotional processing, is dominant.  Unfortunately, the two brain centres do not communicate particularly well, which explains some of the erratic, bewildering adolescent behaviour that some of them engage in.

 Take risky behaviour, such as reckless driving, fighting and other forms of thrill-seeking. Scientists believe that this neural pruning in the frontal lobes may be partly responsible for some adolescents’ tendency towards risk-taking behaviour.  Due to the fact that there are fewer neurons firing in their frontal lobes and their brain’s emotional centre is raging, their judgement can be fairly poor.  Rather than requiring less guidance from parents at this stage of life, they actually require more.

 How parents provide that guidance is the crucial factor.  Lecturing is a no-no. (Think back to your own adolescence and listening to your father drone on and on.  If that doesn’t convince you not to lecture, note your teen’s amazing ability to tune out!  They are like crocodiles, equipped with an eye-glazing apparatus.)

 A more productive approach is to ask questions to draw out the wisdom you’ve instilled over the years.  One key is to listen without judging or interrupting.  Another is to reflect the emotional content of what they say or do and summarize.  This indicates that you are really listening, which they believe you to be incapable of.

 How DO you open an adolescent?  With love and respect, and heaps of patience.

Ten Tips for Talking to Your Teen  

  1. Do NOT lecture.
  2. Timing is important: do not try to engage while emotions (theirs or yours) are raging.
  3. Ask questions (open ended ones, not Yes-No questions)
  4. Adopt a neutral, “curious” tone. (Not suspicious, not snooping, not judgemental)
  5. Focus on emotional responses, as well as content.  Notice or imagine aloud how they might feel about something. “That must be frustrating for you.”
  6. No interrupting.
  7. Give your full attention.
  8. Keep trying, even if all of the above tips haven’t worked yet.
  9. Allow them the possibility of withdrawal or silence without taking it personally.  “You seem to need some space.  That’s fine.  I’m here when you’re ready.”  This kind of respect earns you big points with teens.
  10. Do NOT lecture. 

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