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Archive for February, 2012

Following the recent school shooting in Ohio where 3 students were tragically killed and others injured,I thought this was a timely blog post to write.  It is scary for parents (and for everyone for that matter) to think about something this horrific happening at a school which should be a safe place for children.  Following events like this, it is normal for there to be a lot of speculation about why this happened, for people to want to know who the shooter was and what they were like and to want to be able to identify what is wrong with them so that we can measure other children up against them and gain some reassurance that this will not happen in our communities.  There are always differing opinions about why school shooting occur but one thing we know for sure – they have occurred and have continued to occur which brings about a lot of fear in each of us.  I was reading in an article following the incident in Ohio this week that some of the teachers initially thought it might have just been a drill.  We certainly did not have these kinds of drills when I was in school so clearly this is sign that times have changed.

So, back to the frequently asked question – “How Does This Happen”?  Sorry to say that I do not have a clear answer, however, I do know some things having worked directly with many juveniles who have been accused of and convicted of murder and manslaughter.  One thing I know for sure if that there is not a clear profile of a “teen murderer”.  The term “Superpredator” was used often in the 90’s to describe teenagers who killed.  The term painted a picture of a big, scary, evil, heartless individual to describe who society should be scared of, however, this term has faded since then.

Teenagers are complex and have many layers to them so we cannot put them into boxes labeled dangerous and not dangerous I have worked with teenagers who have murdered other individuals and who have admitted to this.  I have spent time with them and talked with them for countless hours in individual and group therapy sessions, played cards with them while they had free time out of their cells and met with their families in an effort to understand them, help them process their actions and for some, help them understand the severe consequences the will face for their actions including what “life without the possibility of parole” means.

Each individual I worked with had a different story.  Each individual I worked with had their own struggles or heart breaking story.  Each individual I worked with was a very different person.  Each individual I worked with had their own set of strengths despite the crime they committed.  Strengths including being very intelligent, amazing writers, poets and artists, outstanding athletes, great comedians, avid readers, great friends and hard workers just to name a few.  I remember sitting in a therapy session with a teenager boy accused of murder and talking about the book The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks which he had recently read.  He talked about crying while reading about the tremendous love the main character had for his wife and he wrote down quotes and phrases from the book which struck him as he was reading.  He wanted to talk about whether life could really be like this and wanted to be connected with someone in the way that the main character was connected with his wife in this book.  In other therapy sessions he talked about feeling like at 13 he had no choice but to join a gang because otherwise he was assaulted and robbed while walking to his house after school because of the neighborhood he lived in and how that resulted in his current situation.  I also worked with a teen who prayed and cried for his victim each night before going to bed and another who shot a gun while he was robbing someone to get money for his mother who was addicted to crack because he wanted her to stop prostituting herself.  He did not have any trustworthy adults he could open up to without fear of being taken away from his mother and did all he could think of doing out of desperation in hopes of keeping his mother safe from the many men who were abusing her and raping her when she put herself out there on the streets.  There are so many complicated stories, however, I share these few to exemplify that things are not so black and white in trying to define who will kill and who won’t or to define who is” good” and who is “bad”.

I read an article on CNN.com today by Dr. Frank Ochberg where he talks about why the US leads the world in school shootings.  He believes that it is not many of the reasons that often are brought up (bullying, mental health issues, drugs, violent role models) and argues that the US is not worse off than other countries in terms of these issues.  What he does see is being different in the US is the access teens have to guns.  This got me thinking about a book I read many years ago which was first published in 1995 by Geoffrey Canada called Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun.  This book talks about how many years ago, when two individual got into an altercation they would fight with their fists, usually one on one.  Then someone may have introduced a stick so in order to keep oneself safe the other person introduced a knife.  Then when someone was not feeling safe because their rival or opponent had a knife, they turned to a gun.   It was about fear of one’s safety and trying to beat out one’s opponent who may have a weapon.  So – in thinking about our times today – a gun is the ultimate weapon and if someone is feeling desperate, threatened or like they will be defeated AND they have access to a gun – they may very well use it.  Remember, teenagers brains are not fully developed and they do not necessarily have the ability to think through or understand the consequences of their behavior.  They cannot imagine life in prison or the finality of death – they can barely think past what they are going to do on the weekends sometimes.

I am not an expert in knowing how kids can access guns but I do know that I have worked with over 100 who had access to them and many of those individuals used them – some on themselves.  I once worked with an individual who was with a group of friends and someone had a gun and they decided to play Russian Roulette “for fun”.  This individual held the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger and shot a bullet through his face.  He was lucky enough to survive but certainly did not think through the potential, real consequences of engaging in such risky behavior.   I am not suggesting that all desperate or troubled teenagers will seek access to a gun and I am not suggesting that some don’t have the ability to think through the real consequences.  What I am saying is that teenagers do not have fully developed brains, they can be impulsive, that there are things that put teens at increased risk and that the reality is that this kind of thing is happening and there is no clear formula to know when it will happen.  If there was, what happened this week in Chardon, Ohio would not have happened.

I have tried to illustrate the complexity of teenagers who have killed and demonstrate that there is not a clear profile for who will act out in such a violent manner and who will not. I want to be clear that I do not believe that kids are all good or all bad but that I also believe that anyone who behaves in a violent manner should be held accountable for their actions with all circumstances being taken into account.  With all of this said, although there is not a clear profile for a “Superpredator” there are certainly risk factors which may predispose someone to act out violently that should not be ignored which I will outline in my next blog post.

My heart goes out to the entire community in Chardon, Ohio as they work to heal from this tragic event.

For more parenting tips, advice and support go to How To Parent A Teen where you can also download our free audio program which reviews in detail 3 strategies for parents of teenagers to help you deal with your teens behavior.

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The teenage years involve many changes, both emotional and physical, which can result in a lot of confusion for teens themselves as well as for their parents.  One of the major tasks associated with adolescent development is that of gaining increased independence.  This means you may notice your teenager disagreeing more, becoming more defiant, looking differently and trying to push you away.  Many parents of teenagers struggle with trying to determine what changes are “normal” or “healthy” and what changes should cause them concern.

Below can be used as a guide for parents who are wondering if the changes they are seeing in their teenager are a normal part of the developmental process or if they should be considered problematic.  Unfortunately there is no black and white answer but by thinking about the information below as well, as listening to what your gut tells you, you should have a pretty good sense of whether you may want to consider some outside intervention or whether your teenager is “just being a normal teenager”.

Normal Behaviors of Teenagers: 

Expressing a difference of opinion more often / Arguing more with you.  Unfortunately this is very normal (but certainly not fun!).  Teenagers are starting to think more independently and like to assert this independent thinking when they can.  This is not a bad thing much of the time and should be considered normal.  When you may start to be concerned is if the arguing is constant, they get out of control when arguing or their opinions or ideas could lead to dangerous behaviors.

Change in appearance.  This is also very normal.  Teens usually start to dress differently and may push the limits with their hair, makeup, piercings, etc.  Generally teenagers are struggling with both how to fit in as well as with figuring out who they are.  This is very confusing for teenagers and they may go through a couple different “styles”.  You may not always like their choice of style but should allow some freedom of expression during this time.  When you may start to be concerned is if they are getting excessive piercings, tattoos, dressing very provocatively or in a way that is against a school or potential job dress code.

Mood swings.  Unfortunately this is also typical during adolescence and parents are most often on the receiving end of such mood swings.  During adolescence, your child is experiencing many hormonal changes which impact their overall mood.  In addition, they are experiencing many changes, pressures and a lot of confusion which further contributes to these mood swings.  Often, teenagers see their lives as all good (someone they like paid attention to them) or all bad (a friend was talking about them behind their back).  When you may start to be concerned about these mood swings is if your teenager seems to be angry most of the time or is being aggressive.  In addition, teenage depression can be very concerning so it is important to watch for signs of excessive isolation, crying, sleeping or eating a lot and especially if your teenager is having any thoughts of death or of hurting themselves.  Any increase in violence, aggression or any instance where your teenager is hurting themselves should be addressed immediately with outside support if necessary.

Withdrawing from family or from activities they used to enjoy.  Wanting to spend less time with family members is very common among teenagers.  Friends become the center of their world and they generally become consumed with what their friends think of them, who is doing what and with wanting to spend as much time as possible on the phone, computer, texting or hanging out with friends.  In addition, they may have a shift in things they enjoy doing.  This may be a genuine change of interest that is a result of maturity or may be an effort to fit in more with a group of peers or wanting to explore new interests.  This is all normal and exploring new things (as long as they are not dangerous or unhealthy) is a good thing.  However, if your teenager is not speaking to you at all, outwardly refuses to do anything at all with family members including major holiday events and / or has stopped showing an interest in any activities, this could be a warning sign of depression, anxiety, substance use of some other deeper issue.

Experimenting with drugs or alcohol.  The bad news is that this is very common during the teenage years.  Most teens do some sort of experimentation with drugs or alcohol.  While this should not be ignored by parents (parents should issue consequences, review their rules, provide education about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, etc), it does not automatically warrant the need for professional help.  Signs to look for that may indicate your teenager is doing more than experimenting with drugs and alcohol include:  decline in academic performance, increased difficulty getting up for school or missing a lot of school, loss of friends or significant change of friends, missing money, significant behavioral changes.

As I have stated, it is difficult to give any clear cut answer for when outside parenting support or consultation or intervention for your teenager are warranted.  As a parent, you know your child, so it is important to gather factual information, but to also listen to your gut which could be telling you something is wrong.

For more ongoing parent tips, sign up for our free ezine at How To Parent A Teen and follow us on Twitter

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Does it feel like your child turned into a different being once adolescence hit?  Well, they very well may have.  The good news is that there was not an alien take over, the bad news is that this is unfortunately very common and you, as the parent, feel the brunt of it.  Understanding it does not completely change it, however, it can make it better and it does seem to help parents better manage their own emotional responses to the behaviors of their teenagers. The information I am sharing does not describe every teen boy or may not describe your teenager 100%, however, it is meant to offer some feelings of normalcy about what you may be experiencing with your teenager as well as an understanding of why some of these behaviors are typical of teen boys.

Why is my son so different since he hit adolescence?

Do you lack communication with your teen son?  Do you feel like they live in their room and you hardly see them let alone know anything that is going on in their life?  Are they constantly out with friends yet you have no idea who thesefriend are, who their families are or what they do when they spend time together?  Do they decline your offers to spend time doing family things?  If any or all of these scenarios apply to your son, you have a pretty typical teenage boy.

So what is going on?  The first and strongest reason for boys behaving in this way is that they are working towards achieving independence and in order to do this, they need to separate from you, who they have depended on for so many years of their life.  They do not know how to do this thoughtfully or gracefully (or may not even really realize they are doing it) so they just isolate from you as a way of not feeling so dependent on you.  It kind of makes sense if you think about it in this way, although it does not make it any less frustrating or concerning when you are on the receiving end of it.  Secondly, it is normal for boys to be embarrassed about changes going on as their bodies mature.  Boys also experience an increase in sexualized feelings which can be overwhelming and not something they want to discuss with their parents.  Finally, it is very normal during adolescence for friends to become more important than parents or other family members.  This is not a negative reflection on the family but rather a shift from seeing the family as the center of the world to really wanting to discover the larger world that is out there as a way of establishing independence.

Often times mothers feel this pulling back more than fathers do.  This is because mothers are generally seen as the nurturers and the caretakers (although not always) and therefore sons need to push their mothers away in order to begin to create their independence.  This is obviously very concerning for a mother who may try harder to reach out to her son in an effort to increase communication and to remain actively involved in his life.  This, however, is actually not helpful and can create and increase in opposition, isolation or family discord.  Understanding the reason for the behavior can be helpful for mothers so that they do not take this pulling back personally and can allow their son some space to begin to develop independence.  Sometimes this pulling back is not so obvious with fathers, however, it still exists.  Sons may connect with their fathers around other things (playing sports, a game on the TV, a project in the house) while maintaining an emotional distance during this time of developing independence.

Boys more often than girls will isolate and avoid confrontation when possible.  However, that is not to say that boys do not display strong, negative emotions towards their parents which can be scary and very problematic.  Yelling by adolescent males can be very aggressive and threatening in nature and at times the anger turns physical which can result in their throwing things, breaking things and at times even lashing out physically at a parent.  As is already stated, this can be very scary – for both the adolescent who has likely grown in size and strength and for the parent.  It is never acceptable for children to break things or cause harm to others in the household.  It is also never acceptable for parents to become physically aggressive with their children (it is illegal for starters) which can leave parents feeling like they are ineffective and helpless.  In such situations, the use of outside support may be necessary in order to prevent further aggressive outbursts and to keep everyone in the home (including the individual who was demonstrating the aggression) feeling safe.  Sometimes (although every situation is certainly different) giving your teenage boy a little bit of space and alone time when they are feeling upset is helpful in preventing such an outburst.  This does not mean that you do not ask them to follow through with certain expectations or that you avoid having difficult conversations with them…it just means that you do it at a time where they are more in control of their emotions which ultimately leads to a more productive interaction for both you and your son.

There is certainly much more information related to what makes teenage boys tick, however, this overview is meant to help you, as the parent, gain an understanding about what may be going on for your child which will help you make decisions that are best for you and your family regarding how to deal with your teenage son effectively.  I do want to stress that while most boys go through this process of isolation or distancing safely, there are others who experience significant difficulties during this difficult period of transition.  Some adolescent boys begin to use drugs and/or alcohol as a way of gaining confidence in social situations or for managing their confusing emotions.  Others become involved in negative peer groups and succumb to the peer pressures associated with criminal activity.  As is stated above, some become emotionally out of control and become aggressive and violent.  If you have real concerns about such behaviors, you should consult with an expert who can help you determine if additional support or help is needed.

As the parent, you know your teen the best.  Trust your instincts while allowing yourself to be open to understanding what might be going on for them.  And, one of the most important things to remember while enduring the stress that can be associated with parenting a teenager while dealing with everything else in your life, is that you need to take time for yourself, do the things you enjoy and practice good self-care on a regular basis.

Follow us on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/KarenParentTeen or go to our How To Parent A Teen website for additional resources and programs designed specifically for parents of teenagers.

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I can remember being a teenager on a luxurious vacation with my family in the Caribbean and caring about nothing more than what I was missing with my friends due to being away from home.  In the summertime we would go to Nantucket on our boat and I remember being so angry with my parents that they MADE me go on a summer vacation because it meant I might be missing out on something with my friends at home.  What I wouldn’t give now to have those problems!!!

The point is that for most teenagers, nothing is more important than having friends and fitting in.  Especially for teenage girls – often their moods are dictated by what is going on with their friends.  When they are having successful relationships with their friends they are feeling good and are in good moods.  When they are struggling with friendships, feeling “out of the loop” or inadequate – watch out!  They will often present with an intense negative mood regardless of what else is going on in their lives.

As most people are aware, teenage girls can be cruel, jealous and quite vicious at times.  Relational Aggression is a term which refers to the way in which girls can be mean to one another through low-level bullying, gossiping, ignoring and excluding and through verbal attacks.  The result of this relational aggression can be devastating for teenage girls.  Being excluded from the lunch table, the weekend outing, the online chat group, etc. can cause teenage girls to feel worthless, alone and extremely insecure.

Teenage girls often judge their value by where they stand in social groups which can cause significant stress, anxiety and uncertainty.  Once teenage girls are able to form solid, longer lasting friendships, their reaction to this social pressure decreases.  Being in with the most popular group becomes less important as girls get older and as they begin to form solid relationships with a smaller group of friends who they trust and care about as individuals.

As a parent, this can be a very difficult stage to witness.  It can be heartbreaking to witness the sadness of your teenage daughter if she is feeling like she does not fit in or if she is on the receiving end of bullying or exclusion.  What can be helpful is to know that this is a stage that will usually pass as girls reach their 20’s and into their mid 20’s (sometimes earlier).  Parents should not interfere in these friendships  (unless there are true safety concerns) since this will likely create further problems for their teenager or result in their teenager resenting them.

A few helpful suggestions for parents who have teenagers experiencing difficulties due to social pressures are:

  • Be there to listen to them when they are ready to talk about what is going on with their peers or to talk about how they are feeling.
  • You can gently offer suggestions but being too directive or telling them what they should do could result in their shutting down from you.
  • Don’t try to minimize what they are reporting or feeling.  Don’t say, “things aren’t that bad”,  “people DO like you”, etc.  If they are telling you it is really bad then that is what it feels like for them so you should validate how they are feeling about the situation.
  • You may want to offer them an opportunity to have different exposure to social situations.  This may give them an opportunity to have some success with a different peer group while they are trying to sort out the difficulties they are experiencing.  For example, if you daughter is having trouble with peers at school you may want to explore finding her other, out of school activities where she can meet a new peer group.  A dance class, sports league, YMCA, music classes and art classes are all great places for teens to become involved in group activities with their peers.

As I stated above, witnessing your teenager experiencing difficulties with peers can be very painful to watch.  Even with the most connected and loving family, a teenage girl will experience significant distress if she is not feeling connected to a group of friends.  The good news is that this phase will inevitably pass and generally girls are able to form solid, trustworthy social networks as they move into adulthood.

For more information related to Parent Teenagers, go to www.HowToParentATeen.com where you can access our audio program designed specifically for parents of teenagers.

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As divorce is a reality for many families these days, an important question for parents  who are considering divorce is “How will our teen deal handle our divorce”?  Unfortunately there is not a simple answer to this question.  As with any difficult life situation, each person responds differently in their own, very individual way to challenging life circumstances.  Some teenagers are able to mange the divorce of their parents without much apparent difficulty while others noticeably struggle for a lengthy period of time.  If your adolescent appears to be struggling significantly (becomes significantly withdrawn, begins using alcohol and drugs, becomes aggressive and violent, starts running away or engaging in other potentially dangerous behavior) you should consult a professional for advice regarding their behaviors.  Regardless of how it “seems” your teenager is dealing with the divorce, it is likely impacting them in some way since it is a major life change for the entire family.

This blog post will offer advice to parents whose teenagers are not engaging in dangerous behaviors but who are still struggling with the loss and many changes that come with divorce.  One thing that frequently happens when parents divorce is that the children blame themselves.  It is critical that parents tell their children that they are not the cause of the divorce in any way.  If at all possible, it is helpful for parents to relay this message to their children together in a supportive way so that the children are hearing a consistent message about this from both parents.  If it is not possible for both parents to meet together (which is not a good idea if there is tension, arguing or strong negative emotions between the two), then each parent should relay this message to their children separately.  Teens may still question whether their arguing, yelling, missing curfew, dropping grades, etc. contributed to the divorce, however, hearing that it was not their fault, directly from their parents in a sincere manner, will help.

A parent who speaks negatively about the other parent to their children or in the presence of their children can cause significant and lasting emotional damage.  Putting children in the middle of a divorce is never okay.  Of course parents can have very strong emotions when going through a divorce and may feel betrayed, rejected, angry or bitter towards the other parent.  A parent may also hear that the other parent is speaking negatively about them and feel the need to defend themselves while sharing some of the negative things the other parent has done.  This is never helpful for the children.  Teens are more aware than we give them credit for and they will begin to resent the parent who does the “bad mouthing” and will see through a parent’s attempts to put them in the middle of their own battles.  As I already stated, putting children in the middle is extremely unhealthy for them and can result in damage that will follow them for years.  Teens (or any children) should never hear parents saying things like, “all men are no good”, “all women are lazy and try to live off men”, etc.  Every parent should want their children to grow up and have healthy, adult relationships without bringing ideas like this into these relationships.   Hearing such statements from parents could significantly impact a child’s ability to form healthy, happy relationships in their adult years.  (Of course, if there are ever concerns that your child’s other parent is harming them in any way physically or emotionally, you should seek professional help immediately)

If moving is part of the divorce process, it is important for parents to know how disruptive this can be for a teenager.  Teens are already very insecure and uncomfortable with themselves.  Asking them to uproot their lives, lose a parent in the home and change schools is a lot of change and will likely result in some strong emotions.  Of course there are times when moving is necessary, however, it is important for parents to appreciate how disruptive this can be for their teenager and they should make every effort to help them adjust to their new community and school setting.

When parents are going through a divorce, they often feel very alone and feel an increase in their parenting responsibility since they no longer have a spouse in the home.  One of the significant things that parents feel is that they are alone in making decisions without the other parent to fall back on or reach out to for support.  If a divorce is amicable, it is ideal for the two parents to continue to parent their teenager closely together (kids are good, they will look for the holes and inconsistencies and go for them!).  If this is not possible, it is extremely important and helpful for parents to get the support of others (friends, relatives, etc) who can help them or who can simply offer an ear when their teenager’s behaviors become challenging.

Finally, any parent who is going through the process of divorce is experiencing significant stress and changes themselves.  It is important to practice good self-care during this time and to not give up this practice due to feelings of guilt about the divorce or because of feeling overwhelmed.  Taking care of oneself allows us to be able to take care of others so remember, regardless of how busy, stressful, emotional or uncertain things become – take care of yourself!!!

For additional parenting tips, follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/KarenParentTeen or go to our website and sign up for our weekly ezine at www.HowToParentATeen.com

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While being the single parent of a teenager can be very challenging, there are some fairly simple steps you can take to help reduce the overall stress you may be experiencing on a daily or weekly basis.

1. Make sure you take time for yourself.
It is very easy to get caught up in all the demands of work, family, appointments, etc. but it is critical that you take time EACH week for yourself. Whether taking walks, a warm bath, having a favorite hobby or going out for dinner with a friend, you need some time for yourself where you are not responsible for the needs of others.

2. Schedule a time to discuss bigger issues / decisions with your teenager.
This can help the “on the fly” demands that your teenager may place on you. I have worked with parents who have found it helpful to schedule one or two times per week where they are available to just focus on talking with their teens. This could be over dinner, while going for a walk or while driving to a schedule appointment. I have also had parents tell me they have their teenager email or text message them if they need to talk so that they can set up a time later in the day that is convenient for both (this is a sign of the times!). This allows for the conversation to take place when they can be fully focused on their teenager’s needs and reduces the instances when their teen badgers them about something while they are in the middle of doing something else.

3. Allow other adults into your teenager’s life.
All parents, but particularly single parents, should welcome appropriate adults into their teenager’s lives. This should not been seen as a weakness or as a sign that a parent cannot do “their job” effectively. Teens benefit from different perspectives and from learning from different adults. Allowing other adults (a coach, neighbor, Aunt, Uncle, older cousin, etc) to play a role in your teenagers life not only takes some of the burden off you but also allows them to have a richer experience in general. You will always still be the parent and make the final decisions!

4. Have your own support network.
Nobody can do everything on their own. As a single parent, it is important that you have your own support network. As a parent, you don’t want to burden your children with your fears or worries but you do need some outlet for yourself. Using extended family, friends or other single parents for support and advice is invaluable and can really help reduce your overall stress. Being socially connected to others has many positive benefits for all adults and can be especially helpful during the unpredictable teenager years.

Go to the How To Parent A Teen website for additional parenting resources, to access our FREE audio program and to sign up for our newsletter and to get information on our coaching packages and specials!

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A normal part of adolescent development is the shift from thinking in a very concrete manner to being able to think abstractly. Because there is significant development going on in the adolescent brain, it is a critical time to help shape behavior patterns and overall brain wiring. This change in thinking is one of the reasons why parents begin to notice that their teenagers start to question or resist things that were never questioned by them before.

Consultant Parents ask questions and offer choices to their teenagers whenever possible. The goal is to have teens engage in the decision-making process when possible and in a safe manner so that they can learn and build upon decision-making skills. Parents who are in a consultant role use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I am wondering what you would think would be a reasonable curfew on a school night when there is an exam tomorrow” instead of “You will stay in and study since you are not getting good enough grades”. In addition to using “I” statements, consultants ask a lot of questions (not accusatory questions but rather curious questions) which foster thinking more than lectures will ever do.

Consultant Parents hold their teenagers accountable to the consequences of their decisions.  Whether positive or negative, it is critical that teenagers experience the consequences of their decision-making.  This is an important life lesson that they will need as they transition into adulthood.  Despite wanting to, it is important that as a parent, you do not “rescue’ your teen from the more difficult consequences of poor decision-making.  If you do this, they will never learn and will expect this to occur for the res of their lives.

Go to the How To Parent A Teen website for additional parenting resources, to access our FREE audio program and to sign up for our newsletter and to get information on our coaching packages and specials!

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