PTA's parent education forum welcomed local psychologist Jerry Weichman last month at the Aliso Creek Inn. Weichman, author of teen guide "How To Deal," has an active adolescent practice in Newport Beach. He covered a broad range of topics from behavioral parenting to substance abuse and included very practical tips. Here's a summary of what he told attendees.
The vast majority of today's teens are navigating a world in which everyone else seems to be "living the life," and there is a nagging feeling "there is something really wrong with me." High school operates like a caste system in which kids are concerned about personal presentation and managing their social stock. Bullying may increase stress levels, as does the presence of helicopter or tiger moms. "Substance abuse is rampant in our community," Weichman said. Kids often either flip-out or flip-in through psychosomatic illness or self-mutilation.
Often, parents aren't prepared for what Weichman calls "The Switch," when kids no longer want to do their chores and think their parents stink.
"Parents become intimidated at this stage, and often take the short-term gain by not holding their kids accountable," he said.
A key to maintaining self-control as parents is to see the kids for who they are: "special-needs kids in your home," instead of raging teens. "Be a parent, not a friend," he encouraged.
Weichman recommends parents bring the real world into the home.
"Be like a cop who stays calm, gives tickets and moves on," he said.
The "ticket" is a clean-sweep of all privileges: cell phones, computer, TV, music, going out. Enforce for small increments of time (a day); anything longer impedes effectiveness.
Weichman warns against too much dialogue, as "kids are good at manipulation." Don't engage in chatter or respond to complaints of "that's not fair."
Suicidal talk, however, is a huge red flag, he warned. Statistically, he said, there are three hints before an attempt. If your teen talks about suicide, bring them to the local emergency room or to UCI's adolescent ward in Orange. Once a kid understands this real-world consequence, crying-wolf threats cease, Weichman said.
Behavioral parenting doesn't yield results right away, Weichman said. Often it gets worse before it gets better. It is important to reinforce on-track behavior, but avoid the temptation to set the bar too low or to praise in an overly hysterical manner. "Thanks for stepping up and being more mature" is adequate, he said.
Create a system at home where it is expected that you have to work before you play. Enforce it. Remember "school is not a long day." Don't listen to the whining.
"If your kids express that they hate you, you are probably doing a great job," Weichman said.
He spoke at length on substance abuse. The presence of substances and the pressure toward trial begins between seventh and ninth grades. Children constantly hear about weekend use in school and become desensitized to the taboo inculcated in grade school. Marijuana and alcohol are gateway drugs, and kids often perceive their use as raising their social stock as "party kids." Some high school kids carry around water bottles filled with vodka. Vicodin, Oxycodone, cocaine are next steps, and smokable black-tar heroin becomes a more reasonably priced alternative once habits are entrenched. Even cigarettes have become politically correct again.
The risks are huge. Because of the stage of adolescents' brain development, they run a much higher risk for addiction: 47% of 14-year-old users will develop lifetime addiction versus 24% for 17-year-olds and 9% for 20-year-olds. This is because the powerful release of dopamine actually changes brain chemistry. The longer exposure can be prevented, the better, Weichman said.
Parents are often unaware because kids are so clever in hiding drug use through changes of clothes, breath mints and showering. However, in 14 years of practice, Weichman has never once seen a mother's intuition to be wrong. Trust your gut, he said.
"Pills are huge," he warned.
Weichman recommends getting a lock-box for prescriptions, and suggests booby-trapping the medicine cabinet with marbles, as many kids who come over use the bathroom and steal prescription meds, which they can sell for up to $50 a pill.
There is a huge legal liability in allowing partying in the home, Weichman noted. Because kids can't moderate their behavior (they have no yellow light, only red and green), there must be a zero-tolerance for drug and alcohol use in the home. Never tell younger kids about your own substance abuse history. They see this as a huge green light. He recommends instituting, "as a rite of passage," random drug testing at the eighth-grade level. If the kid protests, "Don't you trust me?" answer, "This is how we establish trust."
As kids reach the 12th grade, Weichman recommends quietly relaxing the random testing. Kids need to begin to internalize their own controls before they are away at college.
Weichman touched on many other topics close to the hearts of parents and educators. A link to a video recording and a more in-depth write-up can be found on the GoToCoffeeBreak.com website.
KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.