Sunshine project

As parents of teenagers ages 14, 16 and 17, Jennifer and Randy Miller of Gilford are used to swimming in drama and angst.

There’s a constant flux of parenting hurdles, including reminding them to do homework and chores, clean rooms which resemble apocalypse zones, or prepping them to get to jobs on time that have morphed from Zoom to in-person – which requires dressing appropriately, taking a shower, and maybe shoveling snow.

Then there’s providing therapy during difficult times. The mental health coordinates of teenagers aren’t always easy to spot, and teenagers can drift without support or direction, while parents remain oblivious or perplexed. The playbook for training younger children doesn’t seem to apply.

“Parenting teenagers isn’t really intuitive,” said Jennifer Miller. “It’s a different phase, and you’re not going on play dates or hanging out with other parents” – which means you lose weekly in-person resources and advice from parents you know are in the same boat.

“’Oh my gosh, my kids are terrible!’ You see those Facebook posts all the time. With all the isolation that’s going on, parents are trapped at home with their kids, and saying ‘I don’t know what to do!’”she said.

The Millers also have two foster children ages two and four, so life can get complicated fast.

But thanks to an online class, “Active Parenting of Teens,” the Millers and five other families are no longer winging it alone. They can tune in by laptop or phone and trade strategies and learn how to change their approaches to find success – while they drive, make dinner, or unwind on the living room couch. From 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, a time when many families are multi-tasking, parents of middle and high schoolers are learning how to manage chaos, risk- taking and rebellion during one of the toughest periods of human development: the witching years of adolescence.

“It’s helpful to know that what we’re experiencing is common. It’s helpful to hear from other parents,” said Jennifer.

“You have a deep-rooted bias about how you want their lives to turn out. When you see them falling, you try to fix them against their will,” Randy said. This class “brings back that community you think you’ve lost.”

It’s one of a lineup of free remote parenting classes offered by the Family Resource Center of Central NH at Lakes Region Community Services. Others include, “Nurturing Skills,” which apply to kids at formative ages, with some principals and strategies for relationship building that are also relevant to teens. Another course, “Parenting the Second Time Around” or PASTA, provides guidance on how to raise kids as a grandparent or other relative or guardian while bridging a generation gap.

“We want to give parents as many tools as possible to help mitigate the dangers society poses for their kids,” said Steve Swanson, community collaborations team coordinator for the Family Resource Center. ‘‘So many people seek answers outside the home, and the answers really lie within your own parenting.”

The ultimate goal, he said, is to reduce teen anxiety and depression, addiction and suicide risk – problems that have swelled during the social isolation of the pandemic.

“Active Parenting of Teens” covers everything from bullying, curfews and parties, to alcohol, sex and drugs and setting limits on borrowing the car. For parents strapped by supervising school at home while doing their own jobs online, the class is a time- and stress-saver – a virtual hand-held tour through the unknown.

Perhaps the most important lessons are how to forge and maintain a meaningful relationship with your teen – and how to be an "active" parent as opposed to merely a dictator or a doormat.       

“It’s so easy to default to being a pushover parent or an authoritarian” because you don’t want to deal with conflict or brainstorm how to solve problems together, especially when you’re strapped for time," said Randy Miller. “It’s hard to bring it back to the middle where you’re really parenting. It’s encouragement to be more proactive than reactive.”

The class also helps both parents align their parenting styles so they’re not butting heads and tipping the balance of power toward teens, who can seize the opportunity to divide and conquer.

“I wish we could have known differently before they were teenagers,” said Jennifer “Now we think about strategies of how we’re going to approach it. Teenagers are really tricky.”

The class is useful even if your teenagers are doing well, she said.

For kids who suffer in silence and usually fly below the radar, so many parenting difficulties can be solved by consciously working toward a better relationship, Swanson said.

“Sometimes teens are hard to like, but we have to set that stuff aside,” he said. “When you build that relationship, they start talking to you again. You uncover relationships that are healthy and unhealthy,” and areas for future conversations.

No substantial statistics are available yet, but reports from Laconia’s ACERT, the adverse childhood experience response and treatment coordinating team, and DCYF, the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Families indicate that risky behavior by teens, including truancy and drug and alcohol use, has increased during the pandemic.

It’s important for parents to seize opportunities to connect, Swanson said. Family meals can be a time to catch up. So can car rides to activities.  “Even if they don’t say anything, talk to them or tell a story. Say, ‘Let’s have a conversation and then in 20 minutes you can get back on your phone.’ Or ‘Let’s stream the song you’re playing on the radio’. It may drive you nuts, but at least you’re both listening. The next time they may say, ‘Hey, I found this new song. Want to listen with me?’”

Proven silence-busters include watching funny You Tube videos together, dinner table conversation starters such as “Table Talk” cards, and silly games such as ‘This is a…’ which involves passing around a random object and not saying what it actually is, but what it could be. Or, a virtual scavenger hunt, which gets grownups and children moving and talking. For instance, one person might say, you have 30 seconds to bring back a cell phone photo of a toothbrush. Then people can laugh and talk about the photos, Swanson said.

“Ten to one, there are things we like that they like also," Swanson said. "I purposely tell bad jokes because it’s a way to break the ice. My daughter rolls her eyes and shakes her head and then starts to laugh at me.”

The class focuses on how to be an active parent – one that is pro-active and engaged, versus one that is incendiary and reactive, or simply inert and conflict-averse.

“In the short term, being the doormat is the easier way.  You don’t have power struggles because they get what they want and you kind of have another friend in the house. If you’re a dictator, you just drive your kids away.  A dictatorship teaches kids how to get away with stuff,” Swanson said.

Disrespect and power struggles are universal parenting problems, and they’re natural in terms of teen development. “No matter how old your kiddo is, you’re probably having them,” said Tricia Tousignant, parent education manager at the Family Resource Center of Central New Hampshire.

“Developing Personal Power and Keeping Kids Safe” is a now underway online in the Nurturing Skills series. The class, which covers drugs and alcohol, healthy relationships and body safety, helps parents handle power struggles and empower their children to have a strong voice, self-advocate and set limits on how others should treat them. “When I was a kid we called it ‘Stranger Danger.’ Now we know better. It’s not just strangers,” Tousignant said.

Having small, regular, age-appropriate conversations about uncomfortable topics “creates a culture of safety and openness in the household,” Tousignant said – especially for kids who hesitate to broach topics they believe are taboo.

 “Active Parenting of Teens” helps parents understand how to encourage independence within safe limits – which doesn’t automatically mean saying no, said Swanson. “We need to give them choices and the opportunity to fall down, then come alongside them to teach and encourage.” This strategy gives them a sense of autonomy, instills courage to take informed risks, and helps them internalize the outcomes of their choices.

The Millers have seen results. “We always had close relationships. But it’s been better now that we’re engaging with (our teenagers) without pushing them away,” Jennifer Miller said.   

She recently applied what she learned in class to getting one of her teen daughters to clean up her room – which always had been a losing battle.

Then she tried a novel approach: “’If you want to keep your room like that you can keep it as messy as you want as long as it doesn’t spread to the rest of the house.” At the end of the conversation, she cleaned up her room. I didn’t have to tell her to do it. Putting it back on her, she got to make the decision,” Miller said.

For more information or to register for classes, go to www.lrcs.org/family-resource-center/parent-education, or call 528-0391 or email tricia.tousignant@lrcs.org.

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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