Interview by Susan Borison
It’s not just teenagers who feel peer pressure—parents of teenagers feel stressed by other parents. Your Teen asked psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., bestselling author of The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, to help us understand what has changed about parenting teenagers. Mogel offers insight into how we can learn to follow our own parenting compass.
Why do parents get stressed by other parents?
We’re so worried about our children’s future, much more than our parents were when we were teenagers. When I ask school counselors what has changed over the past 10 years, they all tell me there is a lot more anxiety.
We live in a world of both perceived and actual diminished resources. The Onion had a great headline, “Nation Sick of Looming Stuff,” that points to our pervasive sense of uneasiness. Parents displace their fears onto their children which then leads to unrealistic expectations of ultra-high performance. Parents now hope their teenagers will be in the upper third at least, in most every area, regardless of their abilities or inclinations.
So stressed parents turn around and pressure their teens. How can we break the cycle?
Recognize what your teenagers really need, starting with eight or more hours of sleep. They need to be able to unwind before bedtime (which means not staring at a screen that delays melatonin production). If they don’t get enough sleep, it’s easy to mistake irritability for depression or lack of concentration for ADD. Also, limit stress that is optional, like a heavy load of extracurriculars, tutoring, or coaching.
It’s helpful to find at least one down-to-earth, old fashioned friend, especially someone with an older child. Don’t surround yourself with parents who have been curating their children’s lives since kindergarten to get them into an elite college. I see these teenagers in my practice and the pressure they feel is both impossible and heartbreaking. They are smart, articulate, and funny, and they are going to be fine. I say to them, “How are you going to deal with your very loving, but kind of nutty, deluded parent?” Well, the boys just go on strike and give up because they know they can’t meet their parents’ standards. And the girls do all this perfectionistic stuff. They believe that if they get any grade less than an A, the planet will stop rotating on its axis. Some cut themselves, some develop disordered eating.
Thoughts on the role of social media here?
Social media doesn’t help because people often present themselves and their families in an idealized, “Facebragging” way. Reading those posts can make you stressed. On the flip side, if social media helps you connect with a sane parent—for example, your cousin in Indiana—it can be helpful.
Are you saying that we should follow our own internal compass and not feel stressed by what other parents are doing?
Yes. One of my favorite pieces of advice is to be reflective, instead of reacting too quickly. Just wait. There’s an inspiring line in the T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday: “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.”
Let’s talk about our teenagers. What’s your advice on parenting through this stage?
Well, for starters, know that it starts earlier now. For example, it’s now normal for girls to enter puberty at 8 and 9, boys at 9 and 10. My advice is don’t get too caught up. Psychologists call adolescence the second toddlerhood. It’s normal for pre-teens and teens to wish to separate from parents. On the one hand, they replace parents with peers, while at the same time, the baby inside them wants your tenderness and support.
If your daughter comes to you and says, “My friend Jane is being mean to me,” what do you say?
You say, “Ouch.” And then you listen without jumping to conclusions or giving too much advice. In other words, listen without getting alarmed. Begin to move from the role of manager to consultant. You can also remind yourself that social ups and downs are not urgent or dangerous. Convey confidence in your daughter’s ability to figure it out. And the last thing you want to do is call Jane’s mom.