ask the expert
the tween & teen years
Q: My 9th grader, who is very bright and articulate, is totally unmotivated in school, and his report card grades definitely reflect his lack of effort. Any suggestions on how we can help teach him to raise his grades?
Q: When I ask my teenage kid why he’s so stressed out, he gives me a long list of offenders (homework, tests, friends, the way he looks, girlfriends, no free time, etc.). Any tips on how I can help my overwhelmed teen cope with stress?
Q: I’ve noticed lately that my 16-year-old daughter is fixated on weight, and I’m worried. She sees herself as fat when she’s not – and seems to measure her self-worth by her weight. So what’s the difference between normal behavior and behavior that might indicate an eating disorder?
Q: I want to motivate my 14-year-old to start exercising, but I’m having a hard time. He claims to hate working out. How can I get him away from the screens and, even more than that, enjoy being physically active?
Q: I don’t like to think about it, but I know the truth is that many teens try alcohol during their high school and college years, long before it’s legal for them to drink it. What can we parents do to help our teens make smart decisions and ‘just say no’ to using and abusing alcohol?
Q: When my teenage daughter misbehaves, I can’t just put her in a time-out like I did when she was little. And if I yell “you’re grounded,” she just sits around stewing and probably isn’t learning the intended lesson. So what is the best approach to disciplining teens for bad behavior?
Q: Many teens get pimples that are handled with over-the-counter treatments. But what is the difference between mild teen acne and something more serious that would benefit from a dermatologist’s help?
Q: My 9th grader, who is very bright and articulate, is totally unmotivated in school, and his report card grades definitely reflect his lack of effort. Any suggestions on how we can help teach him to raise his grades?
There is nothing more frustrating than seeing bright students lose interest in their education. Student engagement is a top priority for educators throughout our state. It’s important to remember that teachers are just as concerned as you are when they see students lose interest in academics, so the first and best thing a parent can do is communicate with their child’s teachers. The factors influencing a student’s interest and motivation from sixth grade through high school only expand and grow more complicated. Aside from the physical changes, peer pressure and social dynamics they face, students are also being challenged with higher expectations as teachers try to prepare them for successful adult lives. Communication can help both parents and educators identify what specific factors might be preventing students from reaching their full potential.
Students and parents are often so overwhelmed with high school life that it is easy to lose focus on the big picture by becoming hyper-focused on short-term concerns. One way to help your child re-engage with his studies is to place them in a larger context of his personal long-term goals; help him connect success in the classroom with what he most looks forward to in his future. As an English teacher, I regularly encourage my students to sit down and write about those future goals. A study by Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology, recently found a direct correlation between student success rates and writing exercises focused on goal-setting. Students writing about their long-term goals, including the specific steps they need to take to accomplish them, not only gain a larger understanding of their identity, but they find a way to place importance on the short-term steps, even if it is to perform well in a subject they have a low interest in. Just as importantly, it will help you and your son re-energize your enthusiasm for the challenging but exciting years ahead.
James Harris is the 2017 Alaska Teacher of the Year and current Chair of the English department at Soldotna High School.
When I ask my teenage kid why he’s so stressed out, he gives me a long list of offenders (homework, tests, friends, the way he looks, girlfriends, no free time, etc.). Any tips on how I can help my overwhelmed teen cope with stress?
First, both of you take a deep breath and relax. What you are experiencing is a normal part of adolescence as well as being a parent of an adolescent. Everyone experiences stress at some level; we can either allow it to overwhelm us or motivate us. As adults, we have, hopefully, learned to use stress to focus us and reevaluate our priorities. Teens have many of the same feelings as adults but don’t understand the connection between these emotions, physical symptoms and underlying stress that causes them. On a positive note, if your teen is talking to you about these stressors, that is a good thing; it means you have done your job and they are beginning to make decisions for themselves. The most important thing you can do at this age is actively LISTEN. Don’t try to diagnosis or even fix at first. The best way to let them know you care is to restate or rephrase what they just said in your own words. Then ask them is that what they meant.
The stressors of today’s youth are magnified with the technology age. They are instantly provided with information through numerous media and technological devices. It was unheard of just a few years ago for an elementary student to be using a cell phone, let alone a smart phone. Although as parents we do the best we can to manage our children’s access, you must admit they are more familiar with these devices than we are, at least most of us.
Here are a few tips and resources:
Help your child list out on paper/journal those things they are worried about, and then help them to prioritize them.
Identify your child’s coping skills, such as reading, listening to music, exercising, etc.
Avoid negativity. Let them know that what they are experiencing is normal. It’s a good time to possibly share one of your stressful times as a teenager. Make it a humorous memory.
Set aside time for healthy eating, proper sleep, and, most of all, some form of exercise.
Learn to let some things go. As a parent, you have to give them permission to prioritize.
Help someone else by “Paying it Forward” through community service. There is no better way to help ourselves than by helping others.
Finally, a couple of great websites to visit: American Academy of Pediatrics, aap.org; payitforwardday.com. And an excellent one-stop book resource for parents is “Building Resilience in Children and Teens,” by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, FAAP.
Dan Pinkerton, MS Ed, LPC, NCC, is a middle school counselor with the Anchorage School District, and also the owner of Pinkerton Counseling Service. He’s been working with teenagers and families for nearly 35 years in multiple arenas – police officer, pastor, state trooper chaplain, school counselor, and private practice.
I’ve noticed lately that my 16-year-old daughter is fixated on weight, and I’m worried. She sees herself as fat when she’s not – and seems to measure her self-worth by her weight. So what’s the difference between normal behavior and behavior that might indicate an eating disorder?
This is such an important question. It may be a great time to have a conversation with your daughter. Teens look to parents first for modeling behavior and advice. Try to reflect positively about your own body image around your child and model healthy eating, hydration, and physical activity behaviors. Doing activities together – like cooking, eating and being active for 60 minutes a day – can lend more time for discussions about body image, health and determining if there are warning signs of a serious eating disorder. Anyone with signs of an eating disorder, such as losing excessive weight, eating a very limited diet, binge eating, vomiting or taking laxatives after meals, excessive exercising or extreme meal planning should seek treatment promptly. Serious health problems related to weight loss or malnutrition can result from these behaviors. The challenge is that eating disorders are often paired with other social, emotional and behavioral health issues leading parents to often delay seeking diagnosis and treatment. For more on diagnosis and treatment, please visit the following link for an online assessment: eatingdisorder.org/eating-disorder-information/online-self-assessment.
Try these questions with your teen; find time to chat with them privately and listen without judgment.
• What are three things you like about your body (not just the way it looks)?
• Name three things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with what you look like.
• In what ways do you take care of your body and keep it healthy?
• What do you think makes a girl or woman (boy or man) beautiful?
• Do you feel strong, healthy, and beautiful?
• Do you eat when you are not hungry? Why or Why not?
• When do you feel most proud of yourself?
• What is your favorite meal? Why?
• What are you the most afraid of?
• And if there is a behavior or major body change that you notice, consider saying, “I notice…[include point you observed: weighing yourself, going to the gym too frequently, not eating dinner with family, etc.], are you [is your friend] struggling with [your body image, weight, an eating disorder]?
Body Image and Eating Disorder Resources
• Parent Toolkit for Eating Disorders: nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/toolkits/ParentToolkit.pdf
• Work on self-esteem and body image: youngwomenshealth.org/2012/05/30/self-esteem/
• Teaching body image: theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/jun/20/how-to-teach-body-image
• Emphasize the importance of nutrition and fueling the body to perform the way you want and need: iknowmine.org/for-youth/nutrition
• Eating disorders: mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teen-eating-disorders/art-20044635
• Eating disorder fact sheets: nedc.com.au/fact-sheets
• Milo, a movie about a boy with a skin condition and how he learns to understand and own his body image: filmclub.org/film/17731/milo
• Body image: plannedparenthood.org/learn/body-image
• Body confidence, Ashley Graham: youtube.com/watch?v=xAgawjzimjc
• Learn to love yourself: beinggirl.com/article/learn-to-love-what-you-see-in-the-mirror/
• Not all athletes have the perfect BMI: npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/02/04/465569465/if-bmi-is-the-test-of-health-many-pro-athletes-would-flunk
• Air brushing-media; what you see is often not reality: youtube.com/watch?v=BUuMifPn8pg; youtube.com/watch?v=-_I17cK1ltY; youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U; youtube.com/watch?v=SCxjUrNbIkI
• Healthy Teen Project: Do you have an eating disorder? healthyteenproject.com/adolescent-eating-disorders-ca
Jenny Baker is the Adolescent Health Program Coordinator with the state’s Division of Public Health. She collaborates with Alaska communities and nationally on strengthening positive youth engagement opportunities and institutionalizing best practices of quality youth development within state and community programs.
My teenage son, a first-time job hunter, says he keeps applying for jobs, but he never hears back from anybody. How can he get an employer to take notice?
The job market is considerably more difficult for first-time teenage job searchers than in years past. Online applications may instantly disqualify an applicant based on the answers provided, and jobs that years ago could hire a teenager are no longer able to do so due to changes in state and federal laws. For these reasons, youth often need the direct assistance of a parent or other responsible adult in order to navigate the challenges of landing that first job. The first step is to identify jobs that actually hire youth under 18. Many youth are applying for jobs that they have no chance of getting because of their age. The Department of Labor has a brochure that identifies many employers that hire youth. Secondly, young job seekers need to be taught how to present themselves to an employer in not only appearance but also through verbal and written communication. They need to be aware of their own strengths and transferable skills and how to provide that information to an employer through the application or in person. Cover letters and resumes are a good way to put this all on paper and get the job seeker more comfortable with the concept. And yes, teenagers can create a resume even though they have never held a job. By focusing on personal skills, volunteer-related work, after-school activities, personal interests and so on, they can create a holistic picture of themselves to a potential employer. Thirdly, it’s important for young job seekers to follow up with the business applied to; this follow-up is often the difference between receiving an offer and getting rejected, especially if they have been appropriately prepared on how to interact with a potential employer. Most importantly, they need to realize that getting a job takes a lot of work in itself, and they need to keep at it. If properly prepared and motivated, it will turn out successfully.
Roger Hamacher is a lifelong Alaskan who has worked with at-risk youth for over 25 years. He is the Youth Employment Services Director at Nine Star Education and Employment Services helping youth get a job, keep a job and advance on the job. He also really likes cats. ninestar.com
My 15-year-old says he wants to start drinking coffee to help increase his alertness in school and enhance his athletic performance. Should I be concerned about coffee consumption at his age?
Major medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), discourage caffeine intake in children and adolescents.1,2 Caffeine is a stimulant found naturally in coffee and tea, and is added to products, such as soda, energy drinks and dietary supplements. There is very little research on the effects of caffeine in children and teens and no acceptable level of caffeine intake has been established for these age groups. Negative effects of caffeine can range from nausea, jitteriness, and nervousness to high blood pressure and rapid and irregular heartbeat. According to the AAP, energy drinks, which can contain large amounts of caffeine, have been linked to several deaths.
While caffeine is commonly believed to increase alertness, it may be actually contributing to the very problem it is trying to fix. Caffeine can disrupt sleep patterns, which can lead to a cycle of increasing caffeine intake to stay awake during the day, causing more difficulties sleeping at night. Caffeine may also act as a diuretic, which could lead to mild dehydration. Feeling tired and drowsy are symptoms of dehydration.
The ACSM states that caffeine is not appropriate for the average, active teenager. Caffeine has been shown to improve physical performance in certain activities in well-trained adult athletes, but the effects of caffeine in young athletes are not well studied. The negative side effects of caffeine, like anxiety and lightheadedness, could actually hurt their athletic performance. The ACSM is concerned that young athletes using caffeine to improve their performance may develop a “doping mentality” that leads to more serious abuse.
Caffeinated drinks often have very little nutritional value and can be loaded with sugar. Some coffee drinks look more like milkshakes with large amounts of sugar and unhealthy fat with whip cream on top. These beverages may be replacing healthier foods in the diet and the extra calories could lead to excess weight gain. The recommendations for both increasing alertness and improving physical performance in children and teens are similar: physical activity, with proper training for the young athlete; a healthy diet that provides the body’s need for energy and other nutrients; plain water for hydration; and adequate rest and sleep.
Diane Peck, MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Obesity Prevention and Control Program. She is currently working with child care providers to encourage healthy eating and physical activity to prevent childhood obesity. dhss.alaska.gov/dph/chronic/pages/obesity/default.aspx
References: 1 American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Nutrition and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate? Pediatrics (2011); DOI: 10.1542/peds. 2011-0965. Available at pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/6/1182; 2American College of Sports Medicine. Caffeine and Exercise Performance. ACSM Current Comment. Available at acsm.org/public-information/brochures-fact-sheets/fact-sheets.
My son tells me that vaping is the new, popular thing with teenagers and that it’s a safe alternative to smoking. What do I need to know?
The only known safe alternative to smoking is not smoking and not using tobacco products, whatever their form. The vapor of e-cigarettes has been found to contain a number of harmful substances including formaldehyde, lead and acetone, though at lower levels than present in conventional cigarettes. E-cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine, an addictive and powerful substance that acts in the brain and throughout the body. As a result, e-cigarettes or vaping can lead to an increased dependence on nicotine. New data show that e-cigarettes have the potential for getting young users addicted to nicotine, leading to an increase in their uptake and use of conventional cigarettes. E-cigarettes can also be used to deliver substances other than nicotine, including marijuana extracts and synthetic cannabinoids (“spice”).
Parents can promote their children’s health and development by modeling healthy behaviors. Through conversations about health and family expectations, parents can nourish their children’s growing brains, bodies and lives, and help give them the tools to make the healthiest choices and be healthy adults.
Dr. Jay Butler is the Chief Medical Officer and the Director of the Division of Public Health for the State of Alaska. For more information, visit tobaccofree.alaska.gov.
I want to motivate my 14-year-old to start exercising, but I’m having a hard time. He claims to hate working out. How can I get him away from the screens and, even more than that, enjoy being physically active?
Great question! Very relevant in this day and age where video games and other tech gadgets are increasingly luring kids off their feet and onto the couch.
Your child’s health is too important not to establish the expectation that he be physically active daily. In my opinion, this standard should not be up for negotiation. Of course parents of a teenager know the challenge of balancing firm limit setting with getting buy-in.
A few ideas to consider:
1. Educate him on the benefits of being physically active and on the potential negative impacts of not being active. At his age, he should be armed with this information. And he will be more likely to make good health decisions when given some rationale.
2. Establish limits on screen time and use screen time as a reward for being physically active. This might not make you popular in the moment, but teenagers should be instilled with the idea that physical activity is a priority, just as are other things like completing homework.
3. Exercise should be fun. If your teen does not self-identify as a team-sport kind of person, then don’t force him into joining the soccer team or some environment that might compound negative feelings toward physical activity. Give him as much latitude as possible to do something that interests him. An adolescent is far more likely to build lasting habits around something he enjoys.
4. Participate with him. Exercise is important to all of us. What if the family keeps activity logs and if everyone reaches a goal each month, the whole family celebrates with something they all enjoy? Mentorship is a powerful form of support and motivation.
Harlow Robinson is the executive director of Healthy Futures. He also worked for many years in a program for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. He lives in Anchorage with his wife and two sons, who he is constantly trying to motivate to put down their video games and get outside! For more information, visit healthyfuturesak.org.
I don’t like to think about it, but I know the truth is that many teens try alcohol during their high school and college years, long before it’s legal for them to drink it. What can we parents do to help our teens make smart decisions and ‘just say no’ to using and abusing alcohol?
Hands down parents have the most influence on whether or not their children drink alcohol – even more than friends, siblings, teachers, media or other influences. This is good news for parents, because it puts us in a good position to help our children avoid alcohol use. It is important to develop a relationship of trust, respect and open communication with your children. If they feel comfortable talking to you about what’s happening in their lives, you’re more able to help them make healthy decisions.
The best approach to talking about alcohol is to be conversational and give your children your full attention. This is not a situation that requires lecturing; in fact, you can start by asking them what they think about alcohol and drinking. Listen to what they say without interrupting; this will make them feel heard and respected. During the conversation, avoid exaggerating the dangers of alcohol or using scare tactics, because that doesn’t work. Young people can see that lots of people use alcohol without experiencing any problems. So it is important to be educated on the topic and stick to what you know.
There is a lot of information out there, if parents want to learn more. Here are some good resources:
Here are a few of the basics:
• Be clear about your expectations that your child will avoid alcohol. They care about your attitudes and values.
• Drinking is illegal for people under 21. There can be legal consequences for underage drinking. Even if not caught, there can be other consequences in relationships with family and friends, health and wellbeing.
• Alcohol is a powerful drug that impacts the body and mind. It can lead to accidents, injury or other high-risk behaviors.
• Alcohol affects young people differently from adults. Because the teen brain is still developing, alcohol may have long-lasting harmful effects and can increase the likelihood of dependence later in life.
• People tend to be bad at judging how seriously alcohol has affected them. Sometimes people think they can do things like safely drive a car after drinking, but they cannot.
Anyone can develop a serious problem with alcohol, even teens. And the likelihood of developing problems is increased if there is family history of substance abuse.
Lastly, I think one of the most important things is that we, as parents, role model healthy attitudes and behaviors when it comes to alcohol. Our children are paying attention, so we should show them what it means to use alcohol responsibly and safely, if we choose to drink.
Sara Clark is the program coordinator for the state’s Division of Behavioral Health, Prevention & Early Intervention Section. Prior to this position, Sara worked in youth treatment and community prevention agencies for more than eight years. For information, visit dhss.alaska.gov/dbh/pages/prevention/default.aspx.
How do I help my teenager stay safe online and act responsible on social networks?
In the world of online safety and teenagers there are no easy answers, nor is there an “App for that” which will magically make your family safe on the Internet. The real answers for true online safety are not unlike how parents work to keep their kids safe in the real world. You have to work to create a place where everyone in the family knows what is expected of them and what the consequences are for violating the family rules. This applies to both online activities as well as living in “the real world.” Rules such as specific times when your kids are allowed to be on the Internet should be consistent, just as family rules for curfew should be clear and easy to interpret. Knowing who your teens’ online friends are is just as important as knowing who they are hanging out with in real life.å
Having discussions about what your expectations are with your teens will help set the stage for them to make good decisions, even when you are not around. Talking about how words and images online can affect them now and in the future is an important topic of discussion. Colleges and businesses now routinely comb online pages of applicants and what they see will affect whether or not the teen gets into a college or receives a job offer.
One of the easiest and simplest online rules for parents and students alike comes from Josh Ochs, an online marketing expert, who teaches a simple, but powerful, rule. Whenever you are about to put something – anything – on the Internet always ask yourself first: Is it “Light, Bright and Polite?” If not, don’t post it.
Glen Klinkhart has more than 20 years of public safety, computer and investigative experience, including 17 years as a police officer, a computer crime investigator and a homicide detective for the Anchorage Police Department. For information, visit glenklinkhart.com.
When my teenage daughter misbehaves, I can’t just put her in a time-out like I did when she was little. And if I yell “you’re grounded,” she just sits around stewing and probably isn’t learning the intended lesson. So what is the best approach to disciplining teens for bad behavior?
As kids develop into teenagers, they also develop their own values that aren’t always identical to their parents. Typically, that’s where the conflict originates. So what you consider “bad behavior” may not be considered “bad” to them. As they get older it’s important to realize they harness an improved ability for rational thought and discussion. Instead of a “timeout,” request a “sit down” to talk. One trick is to allow them to talk first and explain what happened. To your amazement they may know exactly what they did wrong and also offer a reasonable resolution. If they already know, DON’T LECTURE THEM MORE, that doesn’t work. If the solution they offer sounds good to you, then go with it and say “let’s try that.” No punishment or grounding needed.
There are behaviors, however, where you will tell them what the consequence is without discussion. For example, let’s say your child is caught vandalizing property. No need to yell at them and no need to lose your cool, but stay calm and talk with them respectfully. The consequence should have something directly related to the behavior, if possible, and allow them to try to make things right. In this situation, they might need to help clean up what they vandalized. This may be all the consequence that is needed to change their behavior. No grounding needed. If they refuse to do this, then grounding works by restricting all privileges such as cell phones or screen time on computers or other devices or going out with friends. The amount of time for these restrictions depends on the behavior, but typically it’s best to keep the restrictions to no more than one week. You have to give them hope of getting back on track. Having consequences that last too long can put a teenager in despair, which will actually work against the desired outcome of changing behavior. They may test your will, but you need to remind them that you are in charge and will follow through on what you say. If you don’t follow through, they will take advantage of this in the future. One more thing: It’s important to remember that “good kids” sometimes do “bad things.” It doesn’t mean that they are a bad person! Communicate that we all make mistakes; it’s what we do about our mistakes that matter.
Eric Unruh is a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 20 years experience working with children and families. He is the owner and clinical director of Peak Counseling, an outpatient mental health office in Eagle River. For more information, visit peakcounseling.com.
Many teens get pimples that are handled with over-the-counter treatments. But what is the difference between mild teen acne and something more serious that would benefit from a dermatologist’s help?
If teens are getting permanent scarring, I definitely recommend a visit to a dermatologist. By permanent scarring I mean depressions in the skin or ice-pick like scars. Pimples often leave brown, purple or red discoloration after resolution, but I worry less about this since the discoloration eventually fades over the course of several months. We have very effective treatments that can put a halt to scarring that these teens would have for the rest of their lives.
I also recommend seeing a dermatologist if over-the-counter treatments have been tried without satisfactory control. Acne can have a big impact on self-image. Some teenagers don’t want to go to school or social events because of their acne. Often they are embarrassed and hesitant to seek care. Frequently, I’ll be seeing a teenager in the clinic for another reason such as a mole and will notice that he or she has acne. When I ask if the acne is bothersome or if they would like to try prescription treatments, about nine times out of 10 they will say “yes.” There are effective prescription treatments that can help teens get acne under control, prevent scarring and improve self-esteem.
Dr. Gina Brown, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and pediatrician at the Alaska Center for Dermatology with specialized training in the diagnosis and management of pediatric skin conditions.
For more information, visit dermalaska.com.
It’s hard to get more than two words out of my teen. Do you have any conversation strategies to help me communicate with my son?
Getting more than two words out of your teen may seem like the metaphorical tough nut to crack. Shared interests may diverge as teens become more occupied with peers and activities outside of home. Developmentally, teens begin to forge their own identities as they start exploring the world around them. Boys may be more difficult to connect with due to their type of communication style and using fewer words than females. However, not all is lost. From my experience I have narrowed down three keys to making communication easier with adolescent boys.
First is making opportunities to enter your child’s world. Throughout your child’s life you have been their world but now as they enter adolescence, their world is changing. Take time to find out what your son is interested in and what activities he enjoys. I think the mistake some parents make is expecting our teens to continue to enter our world for connection and we don’t take the time to learn about theirs. Take the time to listen to what they are interested in without criticism or teaching. Teens may quit sharing if what they tell you becomes a lesson on how they need to make better choices.
Secondly, when possible, make statements rather than ask questions. A common complaint with parents is that they will ask their child how their day was and receive the response “okay.” When we ask a question we are asking the child to move from their emotional center of their brain to a cognitive center. This means that they are attempting to put words to an emotion and that feeling may be difficult to explain. However, when we respond with an empathic statement, “You look tired,” you are allowing them to communicate from an emotional level. You may find they are better capable of responding with a longer response than “fine” or “okay.”
Finally, boys tend to be more tactile and engage in more physical activities. It may be unnatural for your teen to sit quietly and engage in a long discourse with you. However, if your teen has something to do with his hands during your time with him, you may find that he will open up and begin communicating with you more easily. Passing a ball back and forth, playing the guitar, working on a vehicle together or simply squeezing a stress relief ball are a few examples of tactile activities that may open up conversation. As a side note, since boys may be more tactile and may not engage verbally in communication as much as girls, you may see their communication occur more nonverbally. A hug, high five or punch on the arm may be their way of communicating “I love you.”