Ep 38: Giving Advice to Teenagers

Episode Summary

Annie Fox, an online adviser to thousands of teens and the author of 12 books including “Teaching Kids to be Good People”, reveals the best ways to give teens advice when they need some guidance. Learn how to give teens advice they will actually listen to with these great tips from a true master.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Why Your Teen Doesn’t Talk to You

Watching your kid become a teenager can be a very awkward and strange experience––their hormones have kicked in, they’ve grown a foot out of nowhere, they’re suddenly so moody. Their social groups are shifting and they’re spending less time with the family. And whether they want to talk to you about it or not, you probably notice their increased interest in boys, girls, or both. What would make this experience slightly less awkward is if they’d just talk to you about all the changes they are going through. But getting them to actually do this can be like pulling teeth.

Regardless of whether your kid is going through good or bad times, as a parent you always want your advice for youngsters to be helpful and effective. But how will you get the chance to do this? For starters, teenagers don’t ask for advice all that often. On one hand because it’s natural for teens to want to forge their own path and find solutions of their own. But on the other hand, you might just be driving them away. Though this is hard to admit, it’s extremely common with parents of teenagers. Maybe they don’t want advice from you because when they ask, you talk way too much. Or your advice isn’t age appropriate. Or because of the time when they asked “Should I break up with my girlfriend?” and you said “No” because of the amazing Christmas gift their girlfriend gave you last year.

Parents need to make the most of these rare occurrences to offer advice for youngsters. If you’re wondering what to say when they finally ask for help, and how to get them to ask more often, you’re listening to the right podcast. On this week’s episode, I got some advice for youngsters from Annie Fox. She’s the author of 12 books including Teaching Kids to Be Good People, The Girl’s Q&A Book on Friendship, and the Middle School Confidential series. Annie has maintained an anonymous advice column for teenagers since the late 90’s where she’s answered thousands and thousands of onlines questions from teens all over the world. Needless to say, Annie’s a pro on giving advice for youngsters and has uncovered some amazing tactics that we discuss in this interview.

Being the Cool Mom

We start the podcast by talking about how Annie first began sharing advice for youngsters online. She tells the amazing story of how a dream she had brought her the idea to create one of the first online forums for teens. Annie was always the cool mom that her kid’s friends would go to with their problems. They felt comfortable around her––and from this interview you can see why. Annie is gifted at actively listening to people and making them feel understood. So when an opportunity presented itself to create a website where teens could anonymously ask questions and she could provide advice for youngsters, Annie had the foresight to see that this could turn into something big. 

The initial website that Annie developed, which was originally called The Insite, was a series of chat rooms where teens could talk to counselors who specialized in teen issues. Annie also served as an advice columnist of sorts; she had an alter ego named Terra that teens could send anonymous questions to. Though there was no marketing for the website prior to it’s launch, Annie was getting numerous questions sent to her everyday from the start. The website, now called Hey Terra!, still offers advice for youngsters today with the same mission as it had in the beginning: to help youth effectively manage their relationships and emotions so they can feel confident in who they are.

Listen More, Talk Less

Possibly the most shocking thing about Annie and her approach to advice for youngsters is this: she doesn’t tell the teens what to do in her responses. This might be confusing to you as a parent because isn’t telling your teen what to do the whole point of giving advice? Not exactly. Most of the time, teens already know what the right thing to do deep down. They aren’t looking for a lecture, just someone to listen to them and help them work out the best way to do what their heart is telling them.

When providing advice for youngsters, your ultimate goal should be to teach your teens how to manage their own emotions. To do this, Annie encourages parents to put themselves into the mindstate of their teen. Really focus on empathizing with them in the specific situation that’s causing them pain. As an adult, it’s easy to dismiss teen drama and think that whatever they’re going through this week will be forgotten the next. While this may be true, the overflow of emotions that make up a teenagers brain chemistry is what’s actually causing them to react so dramatically. For as long as you’ll have teenage kids, teen brains will always work like this. So if you really want to know the right advice for youngsters, you first need to acknowledge that what’s important is not the problem your teen is having but the way the problem makes them feel. 

After listening to how your teen expresses a problem to you, Annie suggests saying things like “sounds like you’re really upset” or “that must be very frustrating for you.” This is an effective first step to providing advice for youngsters because you are acknowledging their feelings off the bat. Often when you give your opinion on a teen’s situation right away, you neglect to see that what your teen actually wants is validation. In more cases that not, Annie finds that teens looking for advice already have a solution, they just want someone to confirm that it’s the right one. 

Throughout the interview, Annie always comes back to the idea that parents should listen more and talk less. As a parent, you should be guiding your teen towards making the right choice, not choosing for them. Annie elaborates on how your role in offering advice for youngsters is to provide reinforcement for what they already know. To hear more about how you can offer suggestions to your teen without overstepping, tune into the episode. 

Pay Attention!

Annie reminds parents that though you may struggle to get your teen’s attention, teens might feel the same way about you sometimes. Your teen can tell when you’re distracted and aren’t fully listening to them. Maybe there’s a hectic situation going on at the office and you’re still in work mode. Maybe you’re really mad at your spouse but don’t want your kid to know about it. Annie reminds you to try your hardest to not let these distractions prevent you from opportunities to connect with your teens. Focus on eye contact and let them know that feedback is a two way street—you’re always open to advice from them on how you can be a better parent and listener. 

In this interview with Annie Fox about advice for youngsters, we also discuss…

  • How to Own Your Mistakes as a Parent
  • Giving your Teens the Tools to Process their Own Problems
  • Teaching Teens to Confront and not Avoid Issues

In this conversation with Annie Fox, we discuss a handful of the incredible accomplishments she’s made in her multifaceted career. She had the foresight to create one of the first teen advice forums on the Internet and has written remarkable books that can teach anyone, parent or not, the importance of empathy in any relationship. Hope you thoroughly enjoy this interview with Annie, it’s a great listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  What to say when your teen tells you one of their friends is being mean:

“Let’s take a step back and think just a little bit about why she might be behaving in this way. What might be going on with her? It might have nothing to do with you and you’re just getting the brunt of it. Is there something you could do to let her know what your needs are, but also to be a good friend by giving her an opportunity to talk about what’s going on?”

-Annie Fox

2.  When your teen is complaining about their friends or kids at school:

(Members Only)

3.  Any time you want a closer relationship:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Make sure your teen is getting what they need from you:

When you were a kid, what was it that you most wanted from your parents but weren’t able to get? Spend a few minutes brainstorming a list of all the things you remember wanting from your parents in the space below. Then circle the one that feels the most intense or emotional to you. Now grade yourself. How are you doing on giving this thing that you wanted from your parents to your own teenager today? Keep in mind that your teenager is not the same as you and you aren’t the same as your parents so things may be different. Are you doing a good job of providing for your teen the things you wanted at their age? If you aren’t sure, ask them. Have a conversation about what you never got from your parents and say you want to improve. Ask your teen for help giving them more of what they need from you. Maybe they need something different than what you needed from your parents!

2.  Get what you need from your teenager:

(Members Only)

3.  Live the values you want your teen to learn:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you have written a massive number of books, including publishing some of them yourself. The list is like an entire page of all the books you’ve written. I’ve read five of them, myself, Teaching Kids to be Good People, The Girls Q & A Book on Friendship and the three Middle School Confidential books. But I know there’s more than that. So can you just talk a little bit about what propelled you into this whole massive thing.

Annie: This whole massive thing of writing or this whole massive thing of writing for kids and giving advice?

Andy: It seems like it’s more than writing because you talk about how it kind of, there’s all these questions that you have in these books from teenagers all over the world who have emailed them to you and you’re responding to them. So there’s some sort of an online presence that you seem to have going and you seem to have just built this whole big online community and are also writing the books about it. And I am fascinated by where it came from, you know?

Annie: It’s a cool story I’ll tell you, Andy. Way back in the fall of 1996, I was doing some writing, software reviews and screenplays. I was also working on some CD ROM scripts with a partner. And in the afternoon, I would take a break from my computer and do my stint as the after-school carpool mom. And we had a big honking mini van, had a lot of kids there. My son, at that time, was in sixth grade. My daughter, at the time, was in 12th grade. And so I found myself kind of immersed, every single, day in the conversations that really were bookended by those two grades, sixth through 12th grade, which is middle school through the end of high school. And the kids knew me really well and trusted me, and so I wasn’t just eavesdropping, they were all often conversations that included me. They were asking for advice.

Andy: Sure.

Annie: And it’s natural for me to tell people what to do but I do it in such a charming way that it’s very accessible. Anyway, what I found out was, much to my surprise, hey, the girls in the back of the minivan, and this is nothing nefarious, all of a sudden that fall started talking about where they were applying to colleges. Now I knew very well that at the end of 12th grade these students are on their way to the next chapter of their lives, but it hadn’t really hit me in quite a visceral way that they were no longer focused on the day-to-day stuff of high school. They were now looking into the future.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Annie: That night, I literally had a dream of being in a carpool that was a virtual carpool, it was a place where I could continue to give advice and counsel to tweens and teenagers after these girls moved on.

Andy: And this is 1996.

Annie: Yeah.

Andy: Or… So this is before the era of smartphones and Facebook even, and all of that. So how did this virtual carpool look to you?

Annie: To me, it kind of looked like chat rooms, only instead of chat rooms where people would kind of… I always picture chat rooms as a room without lights, where you kind of wander in and you bump into people and nothing very substantive ever happens in any of them. And then you pop out and like that.

Andy: A lot of just talking about nothing and yeah.

Annie: Yeah, what if there was actually something to chat about? And I know what teenagers are interested in talking about. They’re interested in talking about relationships, peer relationships, romantic relationships, issues with their parents and siblings, the unfair teacher or coach. And so I thought I could, I could probably do this. This would be kind of fun. I could be the carpool mom for the world. And so as it happened that, I woke up that morning and said to my husband, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” As it so happened, he was working for a company called Talk City, which was an earlier iteration part of Apple’s eWorld, is one of the first online community things. Yeah, and so at that point Talk City was looking to actually create some [inaudible 00:04:27] meaning for specific audiences. So I pitched the idea to David, and David took it to work with him that day and came home and got a thumbs up, green light for me to develop a teen website.

Andy: Wow. And so when you mentioned earlier that you had been working on CD script…

Annie: Yeah.

Andy: So you had some software kind of development experience at that point.

Annie: I’m a designer. I’m not a programmer, or my husband’s a programmer, but we were working for Electronic Arts and Sony and Disney, all of those. So what my writing partner and I would do is, we’d hand over an interactive script that would say, “On this screen there are these objects when a player clicks here or some dialogue that triggers, et cetera, et cetera.” So I understand the way software works, but I’m, no, I’m not a programmer.

Andy: Sure yeah, okay.

Annie: I had a vision. I figured I could imagine anything and let the programmers tell me what’s possible

Andy: Kind of figure it out, the technical aspects of it over there. Yeah, sure.

Annie: And they did. I spent nine months developing the site. It’s called the insite.org. That’s T H E I N S I T E, the insite, like in the cool site.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Annie: It’s for teenagers to log into, at that time chat rooms, where we had hosted topical chats run by responsible adults who were public health educators, substance abuse awareness educators, people who did their thing with kids brilliantly in the real world, but they had never been online before.

Andy: But then there’s also an aspect where you have a personality on there and are kind of an advice columnist, almost, or people are sending you questions.

Annie: Yes, I created a character named Tara and, T A R A, kind of like mother earth. And Hey Tara was just really, it was like a panic button. The image is this young woman just screaming her head off, like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, it’s like, “Help, Hey Tara, I need some help.” And if you clicked on that button, you got to a form that invited you to ask me a question. And so all those emails started coming in, Andy, from all over the world. And it was pretty overwhelming because we never advertised. I had no idea where these emails were coming from, but I just started answering them. And that was 22 years ago and I’m still answering emails.

Andy: Wow. It’s funny because I had a similar thing where, as a researcher, we’d done a lot of research on adolescent risk behaviors and I just wanted to kind of get it out there to parents. I made a little website and started getting emails from parents, these long emails with this whole situation and asking me, “Hey, what do I do? And what do you think?” And it really fueled me, that there’s people out there that, this is really important to them. There’s something cool about just getting those candid questions from people.

Andy: But then you took these questions from the kids and turned it into both books on advice for teenagers and then, also, more stuff for parents or educators. That is so cool. So what came first, where would we dive first in these books, you think?

Annie: Well, there was actually a book that came before the ones that you’re holding that’s no longer in print. It’s called The Teen Survival Guide to Dating and Relating. And it now exists on my site as a free downloadable PDF.

Andy: Ooh, okay. So that’s cool, teen survival guide and that’s on anniefox.com?

Annie: Yeah, under books. And so, The Teen Survival Guide to Dating and Relating was the first book. It came out in 1999 and it was a compilation of some of these handpicked emails, obviously anonymous. And I only chose the ones that I felt would have universal appeal.

Andy: Yeah, would resonate with people.

Annie: It’s not something really specific. It’s one that I thought any kid would probably be able to relate to, on some level or another. And hey, I’m an educator. I do this because I want to teach kids to make better decisions, to calm down so that their brains don’t flood them and they end up doing or saying things they later regret. And so the letters that I picked, I felt, were most educational, which sounds very dry, but it’s not. The book is really cool. And I included some quizzes in there and some quotes from teens and that’s a really popular book. And when it went out of print, I thought, “Hey, I’m just giving this away. This is good.”

Andy: It’s juicy stuff that kids want to know. And I feel like something about being able to get it from an anonymous chat like that is sometimes easier than asking your parents or talking to your parents about it. Or even as the trusted parent in the carpool, you kind of are in that role of the trusted adult, but just not my parent. And there’s something, there’s something about that, that kind of opens it up.

Annie: I think what blew my mind the most when these emails started pouring in, is that the need, and maybe you saw this as well, that the need was so great that it’s superseded any fear or embarrassment of actually committing one’s problem into words. Now, the internet is great that way and these emails were anonymous. They weren’t going into a school counselor’s office and looking at someone in the face and talking to them, or have someone, have one of your classmates see that you’ve just stucked into the counselor’s office. This is, it was a medium that encouraged, for better or for worse, anonymity.

Andy: And also, something about reading that someone else had the same question that you had, is so affirming, just knowing that you’re not alone. And then it allows you to read the answer in a much more open way than you would if it was just someone who had told you, “Hey, you should work on this,” because now you feel more okay reading it and knowing that, “Oh, other people are asking about this too, it’s okay for me to kind of ask about this.”

Annie: It’s absolutely true. And you know, I was kidding before, I say I tell people what to do, the truth is, in these emails I never tell people what to do because I’m not a therapist. And even if I were a therapist, I think it would totally be irresponsible for me to try and do therapy with somebody, anonymous person via email. That’s not what I do. I’m an educator. And my focus really is learning how to manage your emotions so that you could communicate your needs. And to listen to other people so that you can get where they’re coming from. That’s the key to healthy relationships, which as far as I’m concerned are the only kind worth having. So what I say to kids, when they write to me, I reflect back, “It sounds like you’re really upset about this. I can totally understand that must be very frustrating for you not to have your best friend believe you when you tell her the truth and she insists that you’re lying. You might say something like this.”

Annie: So I encourage them, instead of too rude about it, to talk about the friend behind her back, to lash out, to actually have that conversation and give her some words she might use. And then I always say, “Good luck. Let me know how it goes.” Most people never write back to me a second time, but sometimes they do and that’s very gratifying. And they get to see that by calming down and actually saying, “Hey, I didn’t really appreciate when you did this and this is why.” And they find that they get some success. They go, “Wow, you gave me a magic spell or something.” And they are more likely to approach things more directly in the future.

Andy: So I love this little book, The Girls Q & A Book on Friendship, that you have. It’s 50 of these questions that we’re talking about right now, that were submitted by girls about, specifically dealing with friendship related problems between them and other girls. And it was really interesting to me reading it, noticing… It was, you said you don’t tell them what to do and it’s, a lot of times, they are already coming to you knowing what to do. And they’re just looking to you to give them permission and to kind of pump them up a little bit. And so many of your answers seem to say, “Well, it kind of sounds in your question you already know what the right answer is.” Right?

Andy: It just really hit me going through the book that it’s what so many of these girls need is just someone to tell them, “Hey, yeah, your needs matter and you should go tell her, you should go advocate for yourself.” And then, like you said, you kind of give them a little bit of strategies for how to do that. And I wonder, since we’re talking about parents, what things there are that parents can do to teach those skills or to make themselves like someone that their daughter thinks they could talk to about those kinds of questions or that kind of thing.

Annie: I love that you asked that question because in the intro to that girl’s book, there’s the suggestion that you might read this with your parents. When I am out talking and those books are in the back of the room for sale, after my presentation, I encourage the parents, not only to buy it for their daughters, but also to read the book. Not necessarily read it over her shoulder, but read the book. Because what I’m doing, in my answering to each of those 50 questions, is I’m modeling what I think is effective parenting.

Andy: It’s like, after you read this, you feel like, “Wow, man, if my daughter asks me any questions about friendship, wow, I know exactly what to say because I just read 50 great answers.” And as you go through them all, you start to notice themes of, “Oh, I see what Annie’s kind of doing here and yeah, that is really effective, how she does that.”

Annie: You know, there’s another piece to it as well, which I think a lot of advice givers maybe miss, and it has to do with taking the antagonists point of view. It’s like, “I’m having a fight with my friend, she’s totally to blame, how do I get her to stop doing this?”

Andy: Yeah.

Annie: And let’s take a step back and think for just a little bit about why she might be behaving in this way. What might be going on with her? It might have nothing to do with you, but you’re the brunt of it. Is there something you could do to let her know what your needs are, but also to be a good friend? Which would be to give her an opportunity to talk about what’s going on, that all of a sudden she’s treating you like you’re invisible.

Andy: Yeah. They talk about, Psychology 101 Class, you learn about the fundamental attribution error, that we’re just so much more likely to attribute other people’s bad behavior to their character, to being them, rather than to the situation, you know? And we make dispositional, rather than situational, attributions. It’s so helpful to just, we’re teaching metacognitive skills, as parents, and getting our teenager in the habit of thinking from the other person’s perspective. “Wow, well, let’s just put ourselves in their shoes for a second and dah, dah, dah.” And making that part of their process of deciding, “How should I respond to this situation? Let me take a moment.” And modeling that, if you, as a parent, kind of do that with them every time they come to you or a situation like this comes up.

Annie: I think, an overall good tip for parents, is to talk less and listen more. It’s like those letter writers that you said, “Hey, it seems like these kids are coming to you and they already know what the answer is.” So instead of saying, “Oh, my kid is sitting here asking me a question. I’m going to jam all my [crosstalk 00:16:19] knowledge down their throat.” Wait a minute, just stop for a second and see if you could figure out what exactly they’re asking, what they actually need to know or what they might just need reinforcement for, because they already know it.

Andy: Don’t they though, right? It’s just doing the right thing. But it’s amazing how many of these quotes in this book, you get the feeling like this kid A is not going to talk to their parents about this decision, right? They’re going to make this decision on their own and then be, that they really are kind of on the border, that they are trying to decide, “Should I do the right thing and stand up for my friend who’s getting picked on? Or should I not and just kind of go along with the bullying because it is making me more popular?” And they’re wrestling with that.

Andy: And for you to go in and help them make the right choice, there, is huge. And it makes me wonder, how we can train those things if we feel like we haven’t done this yet? Because a lot of stuff with parents, I think, is easy if you start early, from the beginning. But if you realize, “Hey, my teenager is 15 and I haven’t really done much of this coaching about this kind of stuff.” Is it too late to get started, you think? Or how do you crack that nut open, you know?

Annie: Yeah. But, here’s the thing you need to walk the walk. That seems cliche, but you may not have had these conversations in such a pointed way, but hopefully the way you’ve lived your life has been a great role model for your kids. And I think that you shouldn’t, as a parent, think that you’ve kind of missed the train because you haven’t had these sit down conversations. You use the phrase, “Do the right thing.” And everyone seems to know what that means, but it may mean something different to different people, which is why I wrote the book for parents, Teaching Kids to be Good People. I thought, “Well, I have an idea of what it means to be a good person, but maybe I should actually, before I start writing this book, see if there’s some kind of universal consensus of what that actually means.”

Annie: So I sent out about 1200 emails to people I knew, to people who’ve contacted me over the years via email. And just said, “When someone’s says, ‘He’s a really good person’ what does that mean to you?” It was really an open ended kind of question. And I got some amazingly thoughtful responses that really reflect the eight chapters that I put in that book. People talked about honesty, reliability, being responsible, being a good citizen, being empathetic and compassionate, caring about others, being generous of spirit and time. So I thought, okay, this is not just me deciding what makes a good person. This is a whole bunch of people who are pretty much in agreement, at least in these data points. If we can all agree that not all teachers are parents, but all parents, on some level, are teaching something. And if we can all agree that the world needs more good people, then how do we as parents go about teaching those attributes that we say would be a really fine thing to transmit?

Andy: Right. Isn’t that what we all want to know.

Annie: Yeah, and so that’s why I wrote that book.

About Annie Fox

When Annie Fox’s first book People Are Like Lollipops was published, she wasn’t old enough to legally sign the contract! By the time she turned 21, though, she decided that helping kids was going to be her life’s work. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies then completing her Master’s in Education from the State University of New York at Cortland, Annie set off on a teaching career. After a few years in the classroom, computers changed her life as she began to explore ways in which technology could be used to empower kids.

In 1977, Annie and her husband David opened Marin Computer Center, the world’s first public access microcomputer facility. Her work there led her to write her best selling book, Armchair BASIC. After a detour into the world of screen writing, Annie returned to computers as an award-winning writer/designer of children’s CD ROMs. (Putt-PuttMadelineGet Ready for School, Charlie Brown; and Mr. Potato Head Saves Veggie Valley are just a few of the titles on which she has worked.)

In 1996 Annie dreamed up the idea for The InSite, a place “for teens and young adults to turn their world around.” For 3 years she served as creator, designer, writer, and executive producer of that award-winning site. One of The InSite’s most popular features was Hey Terra, a Cyberspace Dear Abby. Her book The Teen Survival Guide to Dating & Relating is based on hundreds of emails to Terra and Annie’s responses to them.

Want More Annie Fox?

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