parenting

How to Talk with Your Teen

Contributor Dr. Elise Herman

We all want to feel connected to our kids, but as they become teenagers, it may seem harder to engage them in conversation. Between their appropriate need to become more independent, their frequent use of their phones and social media, and all of life’s distractions, how can you create opportunities to have an honest conversation with your teen? Here are some suggestions that might help:

Be a good listener: Ask open-ended questions, avoiding those which would have a short “yes” or “no” answer. Do not interrogate but ask with a desire to learn- about their school day, friendships, and interests. Avoid lecturing and try to reserve judgment unless there is a real safety issue. If you disagree with what your child says, ask why they feel a certain way; try to see things from their point of view. Often, teens want to chat about a concern but do not want you to “solve” it. Ask if they like your advice or help before offering. Remember to listen without the distraction of phones or computers.

Empathize: Your teen has a lot going on with social media, relationships, and school pressures. Life is likely more complicated for them than it was when you were their age. Listen and empathize; don’t discount their feelings and struggles.

Please respect their privacy: Do not share your conversations with others. You want your teen to feel safe and comfortable being open with you.

Location counts: The dinner table is an excellent place to chat casually about school, activities, etc. (research has shown that regular family meals decrease risky behavior in teens). Start the family dinner habit when kids are young and keep it going as much as possible through the teen years. Even if they are quiet at the table (don’t force anyone to talk), connecting as a family is essential. When driving, it is also a great time to chat, especially if it is just the two of you. Frequent brief conversations are more accessible than longer, more formal ones and can make you both feel connected..

Let your teen lead:

  • Be open to discussing things they care about, such as social media, music, trends, etc.
  • Try to be aware of what teens are viewing and discussing online.
  • Don’t try too hard to be “hip”; aim to be curious and informed.

Encourage confidence: You know your teen and their strengths. Let them know you believe them to be capable of handling challenging situations but that you are always there for them, too, to be a sounding board or assist if it is appropriate.

Having regular, non-judgmental chats with your teen can maintain open lines of communication and increase your emotional connection. In addition, this will make it easier if they need to come to you to discuss important issues such as relationships, sexuality, mental health, or substance abuse.

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Dr. Elise Herman

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Dr. Herman is passionate about community health outreach, school programs, and child/family health and wellness. She has more than 31 years of experience as a pediatrician in Ellensburg, Washington, the last 3 with KVH Pediatrics. In 2022 Dr. Herman retired from practice and continues to contribute blog posts and remain a visible advocate for kids in the community.

Curiosity in Children

Contributor Dr. Elise Herman

There are characteristics we hope to see in our kids such as kindness, intelligence, and perseverance. We may not put ‘curiosity’ high on this list, but in fact it is crucial to a child’s success in learning and school—and maybe, even in life.

Research has shown that those who are curious tend to be happier, less anxious, and have a greater sense of well-being. In children, studies connect curiosity to higher academic performance, and in adults it is tied to greater achievement at work.  When people are highly curious about a subject, they are more engaged with it and more likely to remember what they have learned. General memory is also improved for information unrelated to the original area of interest. It seems curiosity primes the brain to absorb and retain new information better.

Being curious has been shown to improve one’s patience. Those who are very curious seem willing to do the work themselves to figure something out as opposed to needing an answer immediately. Curiosity can lead to increased creativity, more original ideas, and a willingness to ‘think outside the box’. It also translates into greater empathy and stronger interpersonal relationships.

So despite the sometimes endless “why?” questions from our kids that can be a bit much, curiosity is a very good thing. There are lots of ways we can encourage this important trait:

  • Express curiosity and wonder yourself, e.g., “I wonder why the moon looks so big tonight?”  Have a back-and-forth discussion about possible explanations. Together with your child find resources to get answers (and not just online) such as books, the library, and knowledgeable individuals.
  • Ask your child questions about things from the everyday to the more fantastical and encourage them to go deeper with their theories and ideas.
  • When your child asks you questions, avoid the “just because” response and research together if you don’t know the answer.  You do not need to know everything, and it is valuable to show your child that you are still learning, too.
  • Encourage your kids to be aware and mindful, to be thinking about what they experience, and to use their full senses to engage completely.
  • Limit “screens” including TV, smartphones, and social media which generally are passive entertainment, though quality programing such as nature shows can encourage curiosity. Watch educational programs (on PBS and National Geographic for example) together so you can have discussions about the content.
  • Explore new things such as ethnic food, museums, and new cultures either through travel or online resources. This promotes not just curiosity but an openness to people different than us.
  • Encourage books about subjects that inspire curiosity such as history-making individuals, exploration, and science fiction.
  • Help your child to follow their interests and learn more about what they are naturally intrigued by.
  • Embrace outdoor activities, especially in nature such as walking in a park, hiking, birdwatching, and camping. These immerse us in the natural world and foster curiosity and wonder.

And enjoy being a bit of a kid yourself as you marvel and explore the world we live in with your child!

more about The contributor

Dr. Elise Herman

Blog Posts
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Dr. Herman is passionate about community health outreach, school programs, and child/family health and wellness. She has more than 31 years of experience as a pediatrician in Ellensburg, Washington, the last 3 with KVH Pediatrics. In 2022 Dr. Herman retired from practice and continues to contribute blog posts and remain a visible advocate for kids in the community.

Update: Talking to Your Child about Traumatic Events

Note: This article was first published in 2017 after the Las Vegas mass shooting. Other than updating the location of recent mass shootings, little else was changed. A sad statement that these horrific tragedies continue.

Contributor Dr. Elise Herman

In the wake of the most recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, we all feel sad and stressed.  Parents also wonder if they should discuss traumatic events such as this with their children, what they should say and how to best reassure their child. Depending on the age of the child, how to do this will vary. 

Under age 2 years, kids do not understand exactly what is happening but often pick up on the emotions of the adults around them, and may cry more often, be fussy and be less social. Preschoolers may have some understanding that something bad happened and will look to their parents for reassurance and a sense of normalcy.  Kids in elementary school may develop fears depending on the trauma (especially a school shooting) and not want to go out to school or other activities. Regressive behavior and wanting more help from their parents are normal.

Preteens through teens, often very informed due to their exposure to media, may feel very worried and overwhelmed. They may minimize their feelings, withdraw, or not want to talk about the event. Their stress could come out in being more argumentative or they may have more physical complaints such as headaches.

Parents are crucial in helping their kids through a traumatic event such as a mass shooting. For the child old enough to express themselves who asks about the event, find out what they know or have heard. Keep your discussion age appropriate, and don’t volunteer additional details that may add to your child’s distress. For a preschool child, a simple explanation that a bad person hurt people but can’t hurt anyone anymore is enough. Of course, reassurance that they are safe is vital.

With their access to the news via their phone or computer, older kids may have more specific questions and worries.  They may have heard misinformation from their friends and social media. Give them your full attention and listen carefully. Address their concerns and correct misperceptions. Remind them of the plans in place to help prevent these events and plans that go into action if /when such events occur- and that as tragic as a mass shooting is, it is very rare.

Kids of all ages benefit in these situations from parents being very available, whether it is for questions and conversation or just warm hugs and time together (take your lead from your child). Keeping the family routine including school, activities, and family meals is important.

It is healthy to express your emotions and encourage your child to do the same but process your own feelings before addressing the event with your child. Seeking help from a counselor, health care provider, or clergy member is appropriate for anyone feeling distraught and overwhelmed weeks later, or if you are worried about how your child is coping. 

We have ‘screens’ everywhere and younger children may think every photo or video is actually another tragedy happening. Children with Internet-connected devices should avoid overexposure to the event- the same goes for parents. Younger kids (some say under age 11) should not watch the news or news videos online at all because the visuals can be too overwhelming.

In the face of such incomprehensible tragedy, we can remember PBS’ Mr. Rogers recalling what his mom told him:

Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

Good advice for all of us. Highlight the bright spots—the first responders, the heroes, average people doing what they can, be it donating blood or giving money to help. Tweens and teens may want to get involved to help promote social change; the non-profit website DoSomething.org is a fine place to start. There is a lot of the good in the world, and we can be the good and an example to our children. Be extra kind, help your child do something nice for someone else, and make your corner of the world a reassuring place for your child. 

Resources:

more about The contributor

Dr. Elise Herman

Blog Posts
Profile

Dr. Herman is passionate about community health outreach, school programs, and child/family health and wellness. She has more than 31 years of experience as a pediatrician in Ellensburg, Washington, the last 3 with KVH Pediatrics. In 2022 Dr. Herman retired from practice and continues to contribute blog posts and remain a visible advocate for kids in the community.

Sibling Rivalry

Contributor: Elise Herman, MD, KVH Pediatrics

If we have more than one child, we hope they will get along and be good friends, and more than likely that will happen one day. But before that time and almost as soon as the second child arrives, sibling conflict and rivalry can start. Especially now with so much family together time given the COVID pandemic and its restrictions, it is helpful to understand sibling rivalry and to have strategies to help your kids live (somewhat) peaceably together.

Sibling rivalry occurs because kids are vying for their parents’ attention, and negative attention (attention for bad behavior) is better than none. Often times, parents give much more attention when behavior is troublesome than when it is ‘what is expected’.

Children also want to ‘become their own person’; to stand out and make a name for themselves within the family. Squawking the loudest and trying to be better than their siblings accomplishes this. Sibling rivalry is more common if family members don’t have functional ways to solve conflicts and resort to yelling and getting very angry. If life is stressful and parents are tired (thanks, COVID!), behavior may worsen. Likewise, hunger and fatigue may contribute as well.

So how can we our help kids get along?

  • Give lots of positive attention to functional behaviors and they will increase– being kind, helping a sibling, letting someone else go first, etc. Practice these skills as they take time to develop.
  • Teach kids to use “I” messages (“I feel upset when…”) instead of “you” messages (“You make me so mad!”) which make people feel defensive.
  • Help kids understand that things may not always be exactly equal, but they will be fair. For example, kids at different ages will have different chores and privileges.
  • Do not compare your children as this just fuels competitiveness.
  • Establish ground rules: no name-calling or physical aggression, etc. and clear consequences if these rules are broken.
  • Try to stay out of conflicts and let kids know that if you do step in, it will be the same ‘solution’ for all. Turning off the TV if they can’t agree what to watch solves the problem and teaches kids that they are better off resolving their own conflicts.
  • Have routine family time that is positive like family meals and getting outside regularly as this helps minimize the negative impact of occasional conflicts.
  • Try to have at least 10 minutes alone with each child daily and let your child choose the activity (within reason). Even a few minutes of your time one-on-one helps that child feel valued. No cell phones or distractions during this precious time.
  • Help kids learn to resolve conflict by discussing the issue when calm, troubleshooting what happened and having strategies to do better the next time
  • Teach your kids to say 3 nice things to each other every day; simple things like, “Good morning!” with a smile counts, as does “Thanks for helping me with…” and “You are nice to be with!”. Remember to do this for your kids as well, and everyone will have a more positive attitude.
  • Take heart that most siblings do become friends as they get older. Learning how to solve conflicts with siblings is very useful for future relationships be they with a coworker, spouse or boss. These important lessons from growing up certainly come in handy later in life.