She's not a therapist, or a counselor, but Vanessa Van Petten says she can help parents tame their unruly teens. The 24-year-old has been running Radical Parenting website for the last few years and has been featured in magazines and TV shows around the country. She's also appeared in the last season of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." OCLNN talked to her about what it's like to be the "teen whisperer." OCLNN: How did Radical Parenting start? Vanessa Van Petten: Radical Parenting is a blog written by kids. It's a way for adults who can't talk to their own kids to talk to ours and also for adults who want to get a better look into what teenagers are doing. The website started in 2007. I wrote a parenting book when I was 16 so that's how it came about. I was grounded and totally not getting along with my parents. I couldn't watch TV, I couldn't be on the phone. My parents said, 'If you're not going to talk to us, we're not going to be able to help you,' and I figured out that if I talk to them, they would understand me better. It took a few years until I realized that communicating with them was the best thing I could do. I interviewed 700 other teens and parents and put it into a book of stories of teens talking to parents.
OCLNN: What's your background? Van Petten: I was a Chinese major in college, but my senior year I realized I really loved helping teens and parents. I'm not a therapist, I'm not a counselor, I'm a translator for kids who are able to talk to me but are not able to talk to their parents. I just wanted to be a medium between teens and parents.
OCLNN: And now you do Radical Parenting full-time? Van Petten: It took about eight months to start getting traffic on the website, media attention, attention from mommy blogs, all these moms thinking "we are guessing what teens are talking about and here we don't have to guess."
OCLNN: What are teens talking about? Van Petten: A lot of time, teens are way more mature than we give them credit for. They really want boundaries. They want to know what they can and can't do, and what they can do to get what they need. They want more specifics, more guidelines, that's what we hear a lot. It's what parents are really surprised about.
OCLNN: What is a youthologist? Van Petten: It's a niche that I realized was in demand. There are very few people who are professional peer mentors who could work with teens on organizing backpacks, coming up with schedules, etc. It's another kind of role model, other than their parents. I think people often confuse what we do with trying to be therapists and that's not what we're trying to do. Half the training program was written by teenagers. It's all about giving them a voice and hearing things from their perspective.
OCLNN: What kind of families ask for youthologists' help? Van Petten: We have a huge waiting list right now, middle class families who can't afford a therapist, people who want a more practical solution, people who have done therapy but their kids didn't bond with the therapist. We work with therapists, we do more of the organizational stuff. I get a lot of requests from families in Orange County.
Those are coming in because of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." I can't take on all of them, but we have youthologists in O.C.
OCLNN: Speaking of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," how did you end up on the show? Van Petten: We get approached by a lot of producers. We write very controversial articles and a lot of producers read our website. I'm working on my own reality show. Lynne Curtin told the producers that she needed help and they approached my producers.
OCLNN: Lynne's kids were portrayed on the show as spoiled and disrespectful. Do you think that portrayal is accurate? Van Petten: I think that just like all teenagers, they go through phases. They did a very good job of showing different sides of their personality.
OCLNN: Have you heard from them since taping your appearance? Van Petten: Yeah. Raquel is doing amazing things. She has a website, she's doing her artwork. I was very impressed with how quickly she did it. Alexa is finally getting through to her mom.
OCLNN: On the show, the girls called you a "teen whisperer." How do you like that nickname? Van Petten: (Laughing) That was totally Lynne's creation! The first time I heard it was actually while I was watching the show. I never used it, but I like it. It's a cute name.
OCLNN: How do you get through to a teen you just met? Van Petten: There was a time we were working with a family and I could tell something was off. It took a few weeks to figure out and we figured out that the mom was breastfeeding the older son, who was 12.
That's when we realized that there are some attachment issues, we worked with a therapist and the family at the same time. There were boundary issues there.
He's now doing much better at school.
OCLNN: Who's a good candidate to become a youthologist? Van Petten: We have amazing people. We have people who are teachers, twenty-somethings who want to make a difference, want to go into psychology, moms who take the course just to have icebreakers for the kids.
OCLNN: Is there an age limit? Vanessa Van Petten: No, but people have to apply and be approved.
OCLNN: What were you like as a teenager? Van Petten: I gave my parents some serious gray hair and I think that's what led me to this. I had a weak point for boys because I went to an all-girl school. I did well in school.
OCLNN: What's next for you? Van Petten: I'm working on my next book. It's so fun interviewing different kinds of families from all over the place.
I'm working on my own reality TV show, which is still in development.