Ep 55: Build Resilience & Capability in Teens

Episode Summary

Author Katherine Lewis speaks with Andy about why kids lack resilience and capability more than ever. By rescuing kids from every micro stressor they may encounter, parents are doing more harm than good – and when it comes to behavior, we want the good stuff! 

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

There are teens out there that have NO idea how to do the laundry, cook a meal, manage their time, pay bills–the list goes on. And that’s not even mentioning the poor behavior and attitude they throw at their parents and other adults. It’s frustrating to say the least! When will they “grow up”?? When will they listen?

Katherine Lewis wondered the same thing after a run in with some rowdy boys on a playground. They were throwing a ball around without any regard to the littler kids nearby. When she asked them to stop, she says they looked at her…and then carried on exactly what they were doing. She was shocked. 

Katherine came to the conclusion that the way we are told to raise kids and teens has had detrimental effects on how they turn out. 

After more than a year researching current trends for her book The Good News About Bad Behavior, Katherine had some answers. 

One thing that stood out to Katherine in her research was that all the “saving” parents have been told to do is actually working against our kids. Rather than rescue our teens from stressful situations, the science shows that kids who muster through conflict and minor trauma, come out more resilient on the other side. Katherine believes it’s no coincidence that behavioral and mental disorders are at epidemic levels: we haven’t given our kids the opportunity to manage their minor stressors on their own! And so all the small things become overwhelming. Maybe to the point that a teen might give up on trying to balance it all (eating, sleeping, doing laundry, getting good grades, cleaning, etc) in favor of doing nothing. 

The Apprenticeship Model that Katherine teaches in her coaching sessions helps parents to shift their mindset and  parenting practices toward helping their kids acquire skills and knowledge necessary for them to become happy, healthy, contributing adults. 

Let teens fail and mess up when they’re young, Katherine argues. That’s a teen’s job!

In addition to walking going through Katherine’s Apprenticeship Model for parenting, you will discover:

  • Why minor traumas are good for your teen
  • How to impose logical consequences when natural consequences aren’t an option
  • The problem with Perceived Criticism
  • Why teens should do homework on a timer
  • How to draw out a reluctant teen

Parenting Scripts

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

1.  How to give start your relationship on a new path:

“You know what, I have to apologize because, for the first 15 years of your life, I thought I was in charge of making you be a certain way. And I thought if I just planned your life perfectly that everything would turn out great and you would be thankful. And I [read this book, listened to this podcast, saw an article] that told me I’m actually really wrong and I’m not in charge of you. You’re actually supposed to be gaining more and more control of your own life. So I’m asking can we reset? Can we go back to the basics of our relationship, have some time together, and can I start to teach you the things you’re going to need in three years when you go off to college? And where would you like to start?”

-Katherine Lewis

2.  Before you give your teen feedback start with:

(Members Only)

3.  Instead of “no” you can use a “when-then” statement:

(Members Only)

4.  When you need to talk about a difficult/sensitive subject, and your teen keeps putting it off:

(Members Only)

5.  When you ask what’s going on and your teen resists with the classic “I dunno” + shrug:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

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

1. Your Future Teen:

A great technique Katherine uses in her own coaching practice includes sitting down a parent to have them make two lists. One on what they want their teen to be doing now and the other how they want their teen to look at 18. There’s often a pretty big discrepancy in the two lists!! For this exercise, grab a piece of paper & pen, or open up the notes app in your phone. Create two columns. One will be “Things I want my teen to be doing in the next 4 months.” The second column should be title “How I want my teen to be at 18.” Once you exhaust the space you have, take a look at the lists. Do the things you want your kid to be doing in four months match up with how you want them to be at 18? What things from the first column could you alter to be more in line with how you want your teen to be at 18? For example if you want your teen to be “self-sufficient” at 18, maybe it’s time to have a discussion on how you can help your teen acquire new skills.    

2.  Family Gratitude Session:

(Members Only)

3.  Observation Week:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: There’s a lot of really cool research that you talk about in here, and it’s clearly so well researched. You go and interview all these people, and you even take part in some studies yourself, with your daughter as part of the book. So it’s super cool to see kind of how you really just dive into that whole world and bring kind of the science, but in a really accessible way. So I was curious kind of why you found this to be the topic that you wanted to write a book about?

Katherine: Oh, thank you for the kind words. I truly just became obsessed with this topic, trying to figure out my own kids. I had spent 15 years in journalism before I started really deeply writing about kids and behavior. And so much of it came from having children who are wired very differently than I was, and raising them in a context that was so different. And one of the great things about being a writer and especially being a journalist, they always say, write what you know, so you just use your own questions about life and your own puzzles as inspiration. And I often go back to this day on the blacktop at my kid’s school, where I had volunteered for playground and recess duty. I wanted that good school-home connection between my precious darling who was the first of my little ones to go off to kindergarten.

Katherine: And I was standing there watching all these kindergartners play and my baby making new friends, and these giant fourth and fifth grade boys nearby sort of whipping balls across the blacktop. And I waved at them and asked them to stop. And they just look through me like I was a ghost. And this to me was just the first big, something’s different here. I don’t remember kids behaving that way when I was little. And then my journalist brain got interested and I started diving down that rabbit hole of research, as you say. And I was going into Google scholar and interviewing one researcher that led me to another 10 researchers, and really making the case that we have different kids today than we had 20, 30, 40 years ago. And so we need different tools and strategies and a different mindset to approach them.

Andy: So when you say we have different kids today, what do you mean by that?

Katherine: So that is my shorthand for what I believe is a crisis of self-regulation. And the book makes the case that it really is epidemic level. So one in two kids will have a mood or behavioral disorder by age 18, according to the national institutes of health. So that’s ADHD, anxiety, depression, suicidality, self-harm, substance addiction. And then it’s no longer, Oh, this one kid has a problem, it’s; every other child in my kid’s kindergarten class, by the time they graduate high school will have something pretty significant going on in terms of managing their behavior, thoughts and emotions.

Katherine: And to me, that just calls for a whole different mindset because it’s not this small group of special needs kids who deserve some kind of different approach, but really the majority of children in this generation even if they don’t have a diagnosis, are just struggling to manage their behavior, thoughts or and emotions, because they are growing up in such a different context. They don’t have the self-control of their emotions and their behavior. They don’t necessarily have the confidence and the sort of resilience that you gain when you grow up with a more freeform, less structured, less micromanaged childhood.

Andy: And you’ve actually back this up with a lot of really cool evidence in the book. One thing that I found fascinating was a study that you talk about by a researcher named Richie Poulton.

Katherine: Yes.

Andy: From New Zealand. And it’s one of those kind of counter intuitive findings where it’s kind of the opposite of what you maybe think it’s going to be or what common sense would tell you that was going to happen. Do you remember that? Or could you talk about-

Katherine: Yes. Yes. So this is the Deneden longitudinal study, and it’s one of the longest running studies of human health and behavior. I think it’s been going for 30 or 40 years. And every few years they check in with this group of people, and they sort of have this whole checklist of health and mental health, behavioral health, lifestyle circumstances. But the fascinating piece that I found was that they looked at kids who had early negative experiences, and then looked at them as adults to see if they had developed a phobia, which is sort of what we all think of. If you know of B.F.Skinner, or Pavlov, or sort of the things that we intuitively feel are going to happen. If you have a bad experience with a dog as a child, you might be scared of dogs as an adult, right?

Katherine: So we sort of have this in so much of our unconscious, but in fact, they found that it was the opposite reaction. So kids who had a fall from heights as a child, were actually less likely to be fearful of heights. Kids who had a negative experience with waters, near drownings, sort of what we would think of as traumatic, actually were no less likely to be scared of water as adults, same thing with early separation from their parents, and separation anxiety as an adult. So we think we’re protecting our kids from all these negative experiences. And of course, nobody wants their child to fall from a tree and break a leg, but if that happens to happen to your child, you can actually say, “Oh great. My kid is growing resilience, and my child is learning their limits. And they’re learning, I can climb this far, but I can’t quite climb that far. Or if I do climb that far, I need to hold on better or look for footholds.” And the act of taking those risks is in and of itself, what protects our children from anxiety as adults.

Katherine: So when we’ve created a childhood that is over-protected, everything is safe, where our kids are observed, supervised, and kept safe from the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep, they miss the opportunity to have those small negative experiences that teach them something about themselves, about the world, about interacting with other kids, and about their own resilience. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the biggest problem that children and teenagers face today is anxiety. So nearly a third of kids have anxiety in that NIH study I mentioned. And just looking at the headlines and anyone who’s interacting with teens knows this is a huge problem. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also a generation that has been protected and kept from any dangers by their parents in many of our middle class and upper middle class communities. And so they don’t have that opportunity to develop resilience, to feel courageous, to understand their own limits and develop the ways to keep themselves safe, because they’ve always had an adult doing it for them.

Andy: Another one that you talk about in here that I thought was just also kind of mind-blowing is about perceived criticism by Jill Hooley, at Harvard. What is perceived criticism, and how does it affect teenagers and kids?

Katherine: So this is a whole really fascinating area of research that hit home for me because I was raised with a somewhat critical mother, and I have a tendency myself to look for the ways to improve my children instead of just sort of my first reaction just being this love, and everything is great kids. So Jill Hooley was building on really fascinating research out of I think the 1950s in England. This group of scientists were following men who were released from an inpatient program for schizophrenia, and looking at where they were placed, whether they were living at home with family members, or if they were living with strangers in a boarding house. And again, this is one of these things that’s counterintuitive. You think if you’re cared for by a parent or spouse, you would have the best chance of recovery.

Katherine: But in fact, they found those men were much more likely to relapse. And they dug a little deeper. They did very intense, long qualitative interviews with all of these patients and their family members. And they discovered this correlation between the level of criticism in those close family relationships, and the person’s likelihood of relapse. And since the 1950s, when this was first discovered, researchers have again, proven this relationship, not just with schizophrenia, but with eating disorders, with depression, with all these other conditions that are psychiatric in nature, where you get treatment and then you go home and you think you’re with your loved ones who are going to support you, but often those are the people who themselves are very stressed by your condition. And so they’re likely to kind of pick at you or nag you, or inadvertently express this enmeshment with you where they just know you’re going to fail again.

Katherine: And that sadly often leads to relapse and readmission into hospitals. So Jill Hooley had this brilliant strategy for testing this, where she plays criticism into your ear from the closest family member, usually your mother, sorry to say, for those of us who are moms, and she would play the critical loops that many of us can pick out; “You’re so disorganized, why didn’t she send these thank you notes?” The sort of the things that you know your mom wishes were different about you, and she can show inside of the subjects’ brains, that when they hear that criticism, their brains are likely to flip back into a depressive mode of operating, and for anyone who had a history of depression, much more likely to relapse. So this I think is a very profound and important finding for us as parents.

Katherine: Many parents have heard, we’re not supposed to spank our kids because in the brain it’s experienced as the same thing as corporal punishment, as abuse, right? So many of us, whether or not we were raised with spankings, we are trying our best not to strike or hit our kids, but we don’t understand often, yelling and criticizing has a very similar negative impact. And it also has been tied to these longterm negative impacts on mental health, and even physical health. If you look at cardiac health, if you look at even unemployment rates, a lot of those adverse early childhood experiences are tied to negative longterm ramifications. So I’m not saying if you want to time lose your cool and yell at your kid or criticize them or call them lazy or whatever the negative criticism is, that you’re going to damage them for life, but if there’s this repeated interaction where they are just constantly getting negative feedback from the person that they’re turning to for comfort and for connection, then that, for our most vulnerable kids, it can have really negative impacts on their mental health.

Andy: Well, I just was really struck by this Hooley research because it’s easy to think, “Okay, well, I’m not critical.” But she says, and you quote her in the book saying, “This happened without… The participants weren’t even aware of it.” So this isn’t something where the kids were like, “Oh, my mom is so critical of me, yada, yada, yada.” It was happening below the radar. She says, “They don’t even feel like it was terrible.” They were just like; “Yeah. Yeah. That’s my mother.” It’s like they were mildly annoyed, but they were just, “Oh yeah, that’s just normal. That’s my mom.” And she calls it micro-stresses. It’s like really kind of subtle things that we just do, that we just consider reminding, or kind of nagging a little bit, but that kind of add up to a lot when they’re stack on top I think.

Katherine: Right. Exactly. And I’m not saying that we can never have those conversations, I’m just saying that the cumulative effect as you say, of this all piling on top of each other, it can be very negative for our kids. Even if you walk into the room and your first instinct is, why are your feet on the couch? Why is there chocolate on your mouth? All of the things we notice that we want to criticize, if we can connect with our children, that will be the best thing for their mental health, and truly for them to learn to cure those behaviors. So connecting first and then giving whatever correction is needing is another strategy I talk about in the book, and it doesn’t need to happen in a negative, critical way.

Katherine: It can even be, “Hey, I’m noticing something about the scenario here, would you be open to some feedback?” And many children, if they are being raised in a supportive and connected household, will say, “Okay.” And then you can say, “When you put your feet on the couch, and you’ve just come in from outside, it leaves mud on the couch, and it’s very hard to clean off. And would you like me to show you how to clean those stains?” And kids who are being raised in apprenticeship model that I talk about, you know what? They’re very likely to go for it.

Andy: One thing I get asked a lot by parents is how to find the best therapist or counselor for their teenager. And what I’ve been recommending people do is check out teencounseling.com. They will connect your 13 and 19 year old with a licensed professional counselor, right where they spend most of their time on their smartphone. All you’re going to do is fill out a few quick questions and you’ll get matched immediately with the therapist that’s right for your teen. Teen Counseling is committed to facilitating great therapeutic matches, so they make it easy and free to change counselors, anytime you need. It’s more affordable than traditional counseling and financial aid is available. So visit teencounseling.com/talkingtoteens, and help your teen take charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced professional. Talking to teens listeners get 10% off your first month at teencounseling.com/talkingtoteens.

Andy: So I haven’t talked about this much on the podcast, but one of my big interests is nutrition. And specifically how to eat food that is good for your brain. And I actually wrote a cookbook a few years back, full of recipes that boost your IQ. So I’ve done a lot of research about the best nutrition companies out there. And I wanted to tell you guys about one called wild foods. It’s a company that specifically puts quality sustainability and health first in all their products, which is hard to find. They have everything from coffee to fish oil, and all their products are painstakingly sourced from small farms around the globe. They take their mission really seriously to fix the broken food system. And they believe like I do, that real food is medicine. So they’ve partnered with us to give you guys an exclusive discount. If you use the code ‘talking wild’ you’ll get 12% off your order @wildfoods.co.

Andy: So one question that I think a lot of parents have is how do you get your kids to do what you want? And you talk about this kind of throughout the book really, but something that I thought was really insightful was, you talk about a class that you were teaching, where you have parents kind of list, Hey, when your kid’s 18, how do you want them to be? And they started listing words and it’s like, independent, compassionate, self-confident, responsible, honest, optimistic, resilient, dependable. None of it is, ‘follows the rules without questioning them’ but for some reason, as a parent, it’s just the most common thing that we want is, how do you just get them to just follow the rules and just do what you want them to do? So I guess, what’s the solution to that?

Katherine: Yes. I’m glad you picked up on that, because to me, this is really the central question of my book. The reason I went into all of this research is, how do I just get my kids to do what I want? And I went into it thinking that was the question I needed to answer. And I learned that actually the question I should have been asking is, how do I teach my children to control themselves and do what’s needed in a situation, so that I remove myself from the equation. It’s not do it because mommy wants you to, it’s do it because when there’s a mess on the floor, someone needs to clean it up, and I’m a responsible contributor to my household, so I’m the one who’s going to do it. And that’s the big goal that we want. And I think we’re fighting it in so many things. So first of all, is the dominant parenting narrative, that we are good parents if our kids come comply, if they behave, if they do what they’re supposed to at every single moment that public people are watching us. Right? And so often-

Andy: And also do with it a ‘yes sir.’

Katherine: Yes. Yes. Do it with a smile and then we leave it to be [crosstalk 00:18:36] like twinkle. Right. Right.

Andy: Yeah.

Katherine: So we have this idea of what we want to see, and that will give us the stamp of approval, good mom, good dad. Right? But in fact, childhood is a learning process. So we should expect our kids to be a little messy, to mess up, to get things imperfect, and that it’s a learning opportunity the entire time we’re with them. So if we can make our home sort of this learning lab where we’re just teaching them how the world works. So when you leave a dish in the sink, and you don’t put it in the dishwasher, it’s there at the end of the day when you come home, and everyone contributes in the household. So in the book, I talk about all of the research underlying self-regulation, and it’s really powerful. There’s multiple disciplines that have shown over decades, that the key to being able to manage yourself, to manage your emotions, thoughts and behavior, is connection with another person. So we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we feel seen and validated. So that adult-child relationship is the foundation that has to happen first.

Katherine: Number two is communication around what is needed here, that’s not, as we talked about before, not critical or you’re bad because you didn’t pick up the dish, but we need dishes to be cleaned so we can eat on them later. Right? It’s very straightforward and hopefully non-emotional. And then the third is this focus on capability building, that we are all works in progress, that kids are expected to mess up, and that our job as adults is not for them to be perfect out of the gate, but to always be challenging them a little bit more to grow their social and emotional skills, to better manage their thoughts, behavior, and emotions, and to get more skillful, helping around the house, managing their own belongings.

Katherine: I hope managing finances, dealing with their budget, so that when they’re 18, and they head off to wherever they head off to after high school, that they can succeed in the world. They don’t need us anymore. And truly our job is to work ourselves out of a job, but I think many parents feel being needed is valuable, and that’s what we should cling to. When in fact we should be trying to shed that as much as possible and pushing more responsibility onto our children in exchange for privileges. And if we tie them together that way, then our children actually are really eager to take on more, if they feel it also comes with respect and freedom.

Andy: So those three steps you mentioned, it was connection, and then communication, and then competence, and that kind of forms the heart of the apprenticeship model. And you talked a little bit earlier about connection, but I wonder maybe if we could just talk a little bit more about that because I feel as a parent, naturally, you’re going to be thinking, Hey, I connect a lot with my kid. We watch Netflix at least twice a week, we eat meals together all the time. So what is so special about connecting and how do you do that as part of the apprenticeship model?

Katherine: Glad you started with this because I think many parents do feel, I spend a lot of time with my child, so we’ve got to be connected, but a lot of our time more and more these days is distracted time, and we’re sort of with our child physically, but we’re doing a task or we’re checking our email or on the phone with someone. So what I’m talking about with the connecting time, it’s really important to have dedicated one-on-one time. The organization where I’m a certified parent educator, the parent encouragement program calls it ‘special time’ because it’s the child’s activity that they choose, it’s directed by them, it’s without a screen, so Netflix does not count. It’s fine to watch Netflix with our kids, it’s fine to do video games with them, but this filling the bucket time needs to be sort of outdoor play activity or a board game or something where you’re really engaged in the real world with each other.

Katherine: And that is so bucket filling for our children. It really gives them more reserves to then do the challenging things we’re going to ask of them. The other really wonderful connecting tool that I write about in the book is family meetings. I hear a lot of parents ask about sibling rivalry and backtalk and entitled kids, or sort of kids who don’t feel they owe anything to the family. Family meetings are a great cure for that, because you start every family meeting with appreciations of each person in the family for what they did the previous week that you really are grateful for. And at first, our children are challenged by this because it requires a different lens. And even myself, I have to write during the week, and I notice something that I’m really grateful for, I write it down so I can say it at the family meeting, but over weeks and weeks of doing this, you build a culture of gratitude, and everyone starts noticing how much everyone else in the family does contribute.

Katherine: So you don’t feel as much sort of put upon or entitled. And then the next step is you talk about old business, new business. So whatever problems have come up in the previous week, whether it’s bedtime or screen times or chores, you solve it in this designated family meeting. You’re not going to be negotiating it on the fly. And that’s a real gift to families when you don’t feel like… At the moment of having to do the chores is when you’re going to have a ray of negotiation of the terms. That’s never good, right? And then family meetings and with allowance. So all of these connection tools… The last one I will just mention is that the research around neuroscience and connection is really powerful that we are so connected with our kids that our physiology will mirror each other.

Katherine: So if our kids get excited and they’re yelling, or they’re having a tantrum and their voice is high, it’s really natural for our voice to want to go up, our heart rate to speed, our breathing to speed, our bodies to start to want to mirror that. And if we can take a deep breath instead and find our Zen, calm our physiology down, we have a better chance of connecting with that child, and bringing them back into a regulated state, than if we then give into those impulses and start yelling or arguing back at them, and then everyone spirals out of control, and we’re all dysregulated and nobody’s using the higher order brain functions that actually will help us to solve problems and plan.

Andy: So I hear that. I think that as a parent listening, I’m sure this all sounds good. We can start doing the family meetings, get the special time happening, but I can also see, if you’ve got a teenager, and you haven’t been kind of implementing this yet, it might just be a little bit difficult. Mom shows up all of a sudden like, “Hey, we’re going to start having special time, and we’re going to play games together and what do you want to do?” I could see that conversation not going super well, or the teen not necessarily being super interested in all of a sudden now going and starting special activities with mom. So I wonder if there’s anything that you would do differently with a teenager or how you would like sort of baby-step towards that or engage them to get them interested in special time like that.

Katherine: Yes. Yes. So I get this question a lot. People say, “Oh my gosh, I love these ideas, but it’s too late for me. My child’s already 13 or 15 or 16.” I once got a call on a radio show for a 36 year old who was living in her mom’s basement. I would actually think it’s never too late because even adults can repair our relationships and renegotiate how we stand with each other. So with teenagers, you really want to own your piece of whatever has gone wrong in your family or your relationship. And of course they had a piece too, but you can only control yourself and you’re modeling taking responsibility for your actions. So one way to start is to say, “You know what, Emma, I have to apologize to you because for the first 15 years of your life, I thought I was in charge of making you be a certain way. And I thought, if I just planned your life perfectly, that everything would turn out great and you would be thankful.

Katherine: And I read this fabulous book by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, or I listened to this amazing podcast by Andy Earl, that told me, I’m actually really wrong and I’m not in charge of you. You’re actually supposed to be gaining more and more control of your own life. So I’m asking, can we reset? Can we go back to the basics of our relationship? Have some time together, and can I start to teach you the things that you’re going to need in three years when you go off to college? And where would you like to start? And let the child start. So they may say, “You know what? I really want to know how to write a check and to have a bank book and how to balance my check.” They’re going to ask for things that are adults, because they actually are really eager for those opportunities, or maybe they want to learn how to cook a full meal, or they want to learn how to change the oil in the car. So start with those things that they want, and then-

Andy: And all those are activities that, “Hey, we can take an afternoon and go to the bank together and open a checking account and learn how that works.” And that’s just a whole activity that doesn’t involve screens.

Katherine: Right.

Andy: That probably meets the definition of special time there. Right.

Katherine: Right. And you’re also teaching, so you’re building their capability. And I think that you’ll find that once your kids start doing things that are meaningful, that really do contribute to the family, they will want to do more. So you never know where it’s going to come. My 13 year old, for whatever reason, loves to weed the front lawn. So whenever she’s run out of screen time, and she’s sort of underfoot and bugging me, I’ll say, “You do what? The lawn looks kind of weedy again.” And she just zips out. She doesn’t ask for money for it. She just loves to have that satisfaction of a job well done. And of course we appreciate it and we give her kudos for it, but it’s that intrinsic motivation that we want to foster, where our children recognize that these are things they’re going to need to know how to do if they want to be homeowners someday or be independent.

Katherine: So I would start with that. And another way is; in the back of my book I have a list of age appropriate chores. And you can just show the list of your child and say, “Hey, would you like to try one of these?” But wherever you can get traction, it may be with the activity, it may be at 10:30 at night when they finally collapse in a bed. And often that’s when their defenses are down, they’re getting ready to sleep and they are processing the day, and that’s when we really can have an impact. So that’s another way to think about rebuilding that relationship and sort of reach resetting with your teen.

About Katherine Lewis

In addition to being an author, Katherine Lewis is a journalist for The Atlantic, Fortune magazine, Parents, USA Today’s magazine group, the Washington Post, and Working Mother magazine. She teaches parents through the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, MD.

Want More Katherine Lewis?

You can find Katherine through her website as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.