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PTA Coffee Break: Author talks on understanding teens

How delightful is it to go to a PTA coffee break, be enlightened as a parent and get enormously entertained during the process?

The final coffee break for the school year May 18 proved that one never stops growing, learning and laughing.

Mike Riera is a best-selling author of “Staying Connected to Your Teenager,” an award-winning columnist and national speaker on issues of children, adolescents, families and parenting. Riera was also the family and adolescent counselor for the CBS Saturday “Early Show” for seven years and has been a frequent guest on “Oprah” and National Public Radio.

He stressed that enjoying our teens is paramount and that staying authentic and reflective toward them is more powerful than any “how-to-parent” formula he could provide. He encouraged us to tap into the fun in the teenager, and the immense creativity.


“We try to think outside the box, teenagers live outside the box.”

Sounds easy enough!

Riera went on to solicit a list of teen characteristics from the audience of parents. Selfish, lazy, rude, argumentative, sullen and moody all quickly jumped onto his notepad.

Then he asked parents for another list of the issues facing our teens, which included drugs, sex, grades, fitting in, growing up, driving, body image and friends. He stopped and pointed out the absurdity of how people with the characteristics of the first list would be asked to handle the gravity of the second list. The irony is that if teens can’t make these decisions, they can’t grow up, but if they try to grow up too fast, it can be damaging.


The parental model of life manager, which works impeccably well during early childhood, becomes crippling to their growth as they move toward adulthood. The goal is for them to fire us as their managers and hire us as their consultants. We are still hugely important to their development, but we must act as enthusiastic encouragers, like the mother standing at the bottom of the very scary slide and coaxing her child to make that first, impossible descent.

In the role of life consultant, we are best served in understanding the why behind teenager behavior. As parents we can use many lenses through which to view and unravel the mysterious teen behavior. For example, physically teens are growing and adjusting to hormonal surges. They can grow up to one-eighth of an inch in one night.

Boys double in strength between ages 12 and 15. Riera calls this the “milk spilling years.” During this time, teens can be unusually clumsy, as they constantly need to “reboot” the computer with a new map of their body. Also, they may lose carefully honed skills like playing the sax or sinking a basket as musculature matures and changes. Understanding this helps us cope and even laugh at the bumbles and stumbles.

Cognitively, teens suffer from sleep deprivation. They need 9.1 hours a night on but on average get 6.3 hours. This creates a sleep debt, which is usually corrected on the weekend. Contributing to this is that the teen brain doesn’t get sleepy until 11 p.m., versus the adult brain, which gets melatonin production about 8 or 9 p.m. Riera cited several studies, which found a relationship between sleep debt and IQ and the mastery of skills. One study found a significant reduction in acting out and even significantly higher SAT scores when high schools delayed their start times by 35 minutes.

Another important cognitive development at this time is the growth of abstract thinking. Pre-teen children live in a concrete world, then about sixth-grade they start to vacillate between concrete and abstract worlds. This creates a kind of split-personality. This explains how one can have complete agreement in the abstract on issues such as sex, drugs or alcohol, but lose it when a concrete event, like being offered a beer at a party, upends the child’s abstract resolve.

Riera suggests “bringing the abstract into the concrete” by working out with the teen five reasons to say no when it comes to a real encounter with drugs, alcohol or sex.

Emotionally, Riera spoke of the overwhelming importance of the avoidance of loneliness. When they are 17 and 18, their values are as far as possible from the family’s; once they turn 21, values return to the family norm. This is the time to frame the discussion of sexuality in terms of the context of intimacy instead of intercourse. The ability to delay gratification in general has been shown through studies to lead to happier, more optimistic young adults who remain closer to their families. Riera discusses how this ability to put off gratification can be trained “like a muscle.”

“There is an art to learning to wait,” he said.


Riera spoke at length about the supporting teens in developing integrity, e.g. wholeness within their principles, morals and values and their behavior. One study showed kids were motivated to work really hard when they were told simply, “You did well; you worked hard” versus “You did well; you’re smart” after taking a test.

Being “smart” is beyond a kid’s control; if the going gets tough, maybe one isn’t smart enough. On the other hand, if the kid perceives doing well as a result of hard work, they will be motivated to work harder in challenging situations.

In fact, in this study, the kids who were told they worked hard actually reported enjoying the more difficult tests over the easier. If we fall into the trap of over-praising, or praising the outcome, such as grades versus the process, or what you learned, then our kids either become delusional (“I really am amazing”) or they lose trust in Mom and Dad (“They only say that cause they’re my parents”).

If we over-praise in order to motivate, then it becomes inauthentic and “leads to the royal road of entitlement.” To help our kids develop integrity, we should move beyond simple praise and ask the questions that linger.

For example, ask your child, “Was it a good test?” or “What grade would you give the teacher in how well this test captured the material?”

Finally, Riera touched on the importance of understanding how your teens are affected by the family issues and particularly by traumas like divorce. The most important thing is to continue to show up in a child’s life.

He emphasized the importance of staying connected through writing. Write texts. Write letters.

The natural defensiveness is disabled by the written word; the kid doesn’t need to respond. He told a story of a father who wrote a heartfelt letter to his son during a difficult period, slipped it under the child’s door, and waited, but the teen went about his business as if nothing had happened.


The father began to wonder if his child had even read the letter. A week later, a simple post card was slipped under his doorsill.

On it, a simple “Me too” was inscribed.

We should always remember to carry ourselves with integrity, which means we must own our own stuff. When we acknowledge our own mistakes it levels the playing field; they “hear” our behavior more clearly than lectures. Ultimately, our kids are profoundly committed to us, their parents, in ways we can’t fully realize particularly during these teenage years.

KATE ROGERS lives in Laguna Beach.