Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin
The ups and downs of parenting
Being a parent is rewarding, challenging and demanding and in today's hectic world, it sometimes feels like you're in an information wind tunnel holding on for dear life.
Google "parenting" and you'll come up with more than 28 million results; "parenting blogs," more than 96 million results; "communicating with your children," more than 76 million results; "parenting books," more than 19 million results. It's all there and more: parenting help; tips; advice; guidance; support and resources for each age and stage of your child's development.
Then there are the social networking worlds of Facebook and MySpace, within which teens easily move about, to make sense of.
Confusing? Overwhelming? Stressful? Without a doubt!
For the past 20 years, the Peer Players, an adolescent theater company, has performed and answered questions to give insight into the minds of teens, at parent forums and community meetings throughout Fairfield County.
The Players perform slice-of-life scenes on issues of importance to teens and their parents and share their stories: the risks, temptations and challenges they face and what works and doesn't when parents try and communicate with their children.
The Players provide a true to life emotional look into teens and the difficulties they face -- a window into their world. At the parent forums, real life stories are acted out; there is role-playing between the audience and the actors and a panel discussion with the actors on what they experience on a daily basis -- to help parents understand what life is like for teens today, as well as how to improve communication with your pre-teen/teen.
They give the parents ideas on how to help their own children navigate a critical time in their life. Many parents have said after participating in one of these parent forums, that it's a fresher angle hearing from young people, their take on parent-child relationships.
One of the primal emotional themes of adolescence is relationships with parents. The teens are open and candid about how parents can become better connected and more pro-active in their child's life, providing an understanding of today's adolescent road map.
It's an opportunity for the parents to learn skills and techniques on how to develop a dialog with their child to keep tensions from escalating; they learn how to dialog not lecture, guide not control. They have the chance to talk to the actors about issues they might not be able to discuss with their own children in such a direct manner; it can provide insight into how to go about strengthening their relationship with their own children.
They also get to participate in role-plays to get a truer feel on how to become better connected. The role-plays give them a chance to practice communicating with teens, just like their teens, in real life situations.
Here's some of the feedback the Peer Players received after a recent Greenwich Fathers' Forum, titled "How Well Do You Know your Child?" which focuses on high risk behaviors, including alcohol and drugs.
"This program should be taken to the schools and mandate attendance;"
"Outstanding! Great interaction between the students and the adults;"
"More panels like this;"
"Kid's perspective is important;"
"It's great to hear what makes a teen tick;"
"I'm taking my daughter out to lunch and I will listen more and talk less."
Not too long ago at a community forum, two high school seniors, Erin and Lizzy, shared from the heart their reflections on the pressures and choices facing students today.
Erin: "High school can be defined by one word: experience. Many great and fabulous, some bad, some awful, many awkward and the majority being extremely memorable. They all shape a piece of us, and force us to grow. Though I think we largely have to go through these things on our own, it is most often our parents that we wish to run to; you guys are our everything, both our best friends and worst enemies, knowing us inside out and seeing us both when we're on top of the world and when we just want to crawl into a hole.
"So I want to start by suggesting that you let your daughter always know how much you love her: fully and unconditionally. That honesty and open communication are the key; knowing your arms are always open makes us more willing to run to them. Be open with us. Don't tiptoe around the tougher issues of high school; be willing to take the first step and know that seeing you genuinely care makes it easier for us.
"Ask questions, and keep asking them. But your exchanges shouldn't be confrontational. Trust us. We know more than you think. Also, if you work to maintain that relationship, we'll want to please both you and ourselves, not rebel, which is what usually leads to self-destructive behaviors.
"So trust your daughter, aid her in making decisions and make sure she is secure enough in herself to handle what the world hurls her way. Be honest and accepting, helping her to navigate the road ahead, not becoming another obstacle on that road. Don't leave her alone during these years; as scary as it may be, still give her room to fully experience the trials, tribulations and triumphs of high school, for it is during these years that we truly bloom."
Lizzy: "If you stand for nothing, you can fall for everything. The most important thing your child could ever learn does not come from a math or history textbook. It is instilling the confidence in your daughter that will allow her to say no in situations of pressure.
"Are all of you confident that your daughter is secure enough with herself to say no to the cool group of girls that invite her out for a night of drinking? This is high school and it is inevitable for your children to be put in situations like this as they grow older. But it is what you have taught or can still teach your daughter that will provide her with a solid backbone to make mature decisions that could ultimately save her life in the years to come."
"It can be hard to instill confidence in your daughter, for we know how much insecurity comes with being a girl, such as the way we look and who we hang out with and you may be asking how, how do I make sure she is confident enough to make the right decision?
"You know your children better than anyone else but it is crucial to make sure they know who they are. Once an individual is comfortable with herself, there is a lesser chance that she will feel the need to drink or smoke.
"Even if your daughter makes a mistake, she needs to know you love her no matter what. It is important that you allow her the space to grow as an individual and make her own decisions. Each and every one of your girls has a happy and successful future ahead of her and she must be reminded of this everyday."
There is no magical solution for raising adolescents and keeping them protected from online and offline dangers. It's important to try to understand their world and their perception of that world. Invest time, communicate often, be supportive and most of all stay connected. Your children do want your guidance.
On Monday, Sept. 27, people all around the country will celebrate Family Day -- A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children. Created by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 2001, it's a national movement that reminds parents about the importance of parental engagement in their children's lives and encourages parents to have frequent family dinners with their kids.
Family meals are the perfect time to talk to your kids and to listen to what's on their mind and what's going on in their world. CASA's research consistently finds that the more often children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs. Joseph Califano Jr., founder and chairman of CASA and former United States Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979, said, "If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in our nation's substance abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week."
I've always believed that sitting around the dinner table listening, talking and sharing feelings can be very powerful. On Sept. 27, I'm looking forward to good eats -- guacamole and chile rellenos, good conversation and lots of laughs. It's vital mental medicine.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at email@example.com.