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Getting Kids to Tune In...Before It's Too Late

With two highly publicized cases of runaway teens in the news recently, Patch sat down with a local therapist to find out about what parents can do to engage with their kids and help them make good choices

There are many reasons a teen can run away from home—a desire to assert their independence, to escape a stressful situation or simply to have an adventure.

With two highly publicized cases of runaway teens in the news, Patch asked Petaluma-based family and child therapist Dr. Fenella Das Gupta for thoughts on what parents can do to engage with their teenagers, how to talk about sex and raise happy and confident.

Dr. Das Gupta has a PhD in neuroscience, previously worked as a school counselor and currently runs a private practice in Petaluma, where a third of her clients are under 21 years old.

Patch: How can parents get through to teens who are often in their own world and don’t want to listen to anything their parents have to say?

Dr. Das Gupta: Mostly, teens tune their parents out because think they won’t understand or that they will try and fix their problems.  Another reason is timing: in today’s world, teens are completely over stimulated on very little sleep. Cell phones are on constantly, texting is a must, school starts early, homework is intense and relationships are complex. Their brains are constantly on. So a lot of the time they need down time to simply rest their brains, as we all do.

Each teen is different, but some guidelines might help:

Consider if you want them to talk to you about school more and they tune you out, don't expect them to suddenly start talking about school with you... it will be an evolutionary process that you must not give up on. Initiate conversations about things that interest them. Allow them to share what they want. Be careful not to ask too many questions and remember what they say.

When appropriate share from your experiences things that relate to what they are talking about, especially things you goofed up in!!! It’s really important that teens can laugh at their parents and that they see them as not being perfect... they too can’t be perfect!

It’s also important to treat teens with respect.... many teens tell me that they wish their parents inquired about them genuinely. Be attentive to what your children are saying. It is important your children know you are interested in order for them to want to share with you.

When you are genuinely impressed, show it. If you don’t know how they did something, get them to teach or show you. So praise, praise, praise and ask them if they feel satisfied with the end results. Tell the other parent  and have them ask about it too. Teens need to feel important and valued.

Patch: What are some good, healthy ways to talk to young teens about sex and sexuality?

Dr. Das Gupta: It’s important to start talking about sex, sexuality and sexual health early on with your child. In an ideal world you will have started this conversation well before they enter teenhood, but more like when they first ask where do babies come from.

Of course you will do it in an age appropriate way.  It’s important to start early because teens often feel embarrassed about talking about this topic with their parents, they slam doors and roll their eyes... so starting early is part of normalizing the process for them. What is most important is that you want your child and teen to know that sex is not a bad thing, but a normal natural thing born out of love and attraction.

If you feel embarrassed to talk with your teen, practice with your partner or rehearse in front of the mirror. In short, think about what you want to say beforehand. The goal is to give your teen information, not extract it from them.. and teach them the differences between how boys and girls view sex…that for girls it is intertwined with emotions because the female sex is relational by nature. 

You also want to teach them about STDs, planned parenthood, that they can always come to you if something goes wrong and contraception. For boys its highly important to teach that ‘no’ means ‘no’ and teaching boys about date rape and stopping if the girl changes her mind.

Another important thing to talk about it is how a teen knows they are ready to become sexually active, that they understand the physical nature of sex (how it all physically works) and they prepared to deal with all of the responsibilities that come with sex, such as protecting yourself against STDs and unwanted pregnancies?

For some people having sex at a young age or before marriage goes against family, cultural, or religious beliefs. If this is the case for you, are you prepared to go against the beliefs of other people in your family and/or community?

Also parents should NOT share their sexual history here. It’s not appropriate. Your kids don’t want to know!

Patch: What can parents do to make their child feel loved, protected and wanted? It sounds pretty straight forward, but are there specific things that could/should be said, done and also avoided?

Dr. Das Gupta: First, it’s important to understand that developmentally teens want and need, psychologically to separate from their parents. So, all the social stuff that teens get wrapped up in, in part helps them learn to navigate the larger world when they fully enter it. Its important to know that their brains are still developing rapidly and research has shown that teens brains do not work in the same way as adult brains.

Instead, they respond using their gut feelings and respond from the amygdala, whereas adults use their frontal cortex, which governs reason and planning. These are two really important facts to know before engaging with your teen. So, in short, don't take what they say personally, know that there will be emotional ups and downs and know that social interaction is their way of learning how to be in the world.

With that in mind, ask more questions, open-ended ones will lead to more conversation. Instead trying to fix their problems, think of guiding them to fix them themselves by asking questions that lead to what you want them to think about.

For example: Tell me what would happen if___were to happen? What would you like to change about this situation? What do you think your options are in this situation? If you were to do _____ , what would the ramifications be? These types of investigatory questions help them slow down, think about the situation and rationalize the impact of their decision.

You may also find that teens need to recount every detail of a story. Tempted to yawn? Well, don't. It’s really important that they are able to do this as much as they need. The reason lies partly in the fact that their brains are trying to integrate the material and the emotions that go along with it.

If you need to criticize, try to sandwich technique. Say something genuine about the situation, or remark on a positive attribute and then add "and I think that…” Don’t use the word ‘but’ since often that’s the only thing that’s heard. Close up "the sandwich" with something positive about the situation and their efforts.

Be consistent in your actions and the limits you set with them. Set boundaries, but remember to also be flexible, unless they have to do with safety. Be the model.... one of the biggest complaints I hear from teens is that their parents don’t practice what they preach. That makes teens lose respect for their parents and their choices for them. You never want your child or teen to lose respect for you, so PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH.

For more information about Fenella Das Gupta, visit her online at www.innermirror.com

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