Why The Pandemic Is Making Me A ‘Backseat Mom’

As a psychotherapist who has treated many mothers over the years, and as a mother myself, I’m fascinated by the history of maternal identity. How do American moms think about their role in raising their children, protecting them from harm, and helping them become well-adjusted adults? I’m seeing signs that the current pandemic is triggering a change in that identity, away from the “helicopter parenting” of the past 25+ years.

First, some context. In the 19th century, parenting was mostly authoritarian. Children were seen and not heard, doing lots of chores, always putting the family’s needs first. Most women didn’t worry about their kids’ emotional health, just their physical survival in a time of rampant child mortality.

The first half of the 20 century brought the Freudian revolution. Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts about adult disturbances and intrapsychic conflict didn’t offer a blueprint for parenting, but they got mothers worrying that they might give their children “a complex” if they did something wrong.

Benjamin Spock’s 1946 bestseller, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, launched an era of more active child-rearing – repudiating rigid toileting practices and feeding schedules in favor of positive experiences that allowed each individual child to lead the way. Over the next few decades, middle class American moms began responding to their children’s cues and parenting in more flexible ways.

By the early 1990s, the rising trend was “helicopter parenting” – a stronger focus on ensuring good grades and college admissions. Mothers worried more than ever about minimizing all kinds of risks, big and small – from drug abuse and teen pregnancies to skinned knees at the playground and heartbreaks at the 8th grade dance.

But in 2020, powerless against the pandemic’s devastating toll, I see mothers losing faith in their ability to shield their kids from any sort of harm – physical, emotional, academic, or social. Many are worrying about hanging onto their own jobs or trying to stay productive while working from home. Some are also feeling stressed out about their food supplies or their own elderly parents. And though it was always difficult to work while raising kids, the new challenges of homeschooling and isolation-induced anxiety have raised the bar dramatically. My patients are reeling from the sudden shift: instead of feeling like they can (and should) fix any problem for their kids, many are feeling like they can’t fix anything.

“COVID makes me feel powerless as a parent,” Colleen said when her daughter, Emily, a college junior, opted to remain halfway across the country, close to campus and her research lab. When Emily began feeling stressed and experiencing chest pains, her mother begged her to see a doctor. But she became angry, saying she was busy and it was hard to get a telemedicine appointment. The more her mother pushed, the more Emily resisted. While her symptoms eventually remitted, stay at home orders made Emily feel isolated, and she began lashing out.

In our sessions, Colleen agonized over whether to helicopter in to relieve her daughter’s misery. She lamented that Emily rejected offers to visit and shot down suggestions about finding ways to socialize. It all came to a head during one especially heated FaceTime exchange, when Colleen pleaded, “You can’t be alone all the time. At least meet friends in a parking lot. Stand six feet apart.” Emily threw her hands up and yelled, “Please stop! You can’t help! You can’t fix this!” When they hung up, Colleen retreated to her bedroom and cried over her helplessness. “It was as if mothering as I’d known it was gone forever.”

These sorts of questions about how involved to get rang true in my own home, where my teens had also been struggling since the onset of the pandemic. I had always prided myself on being helpful – listening, understanding, guiding, and stepping in when necessary. I’d tried not to hover, but had been active and present, seeking tutors or fighting for medical specialists. I encouraged my kids to fight their own battles, to get back up when they stumbled. Whenever they faced something they couldn’t handle and asked for my help, I was there.

But recently, amid closures and cancellations, it has become harder to help my teens cope. My suggestions and empathy often aren’t well received. I can’t protect my kids from a potentially lethal virus, or even fix their disappointments or repair losses they’d suffered. That strikes at the core of my identity as a nurturing and protective mother.

I’ve been worrying lately about the re-opening now underway: Will the virus come steamrolling back, forcing a second round of school and workplace closures? Can our already fragile economy handle this additional stress? How many more lives will be lost to the pandemic? The only certainty right now is uncertainty, which takes its toll on people of all ages.

While my high school-aged son has adapted, taking on household challenges like figuring out to snake a backed-up sink and reboot the WiFi, my daughter has had to deal with mounting losses, including an early return from college and the loss of a coveted summer internship. Despite repeated suggestions of walks, TV time, cooking, and reading material, my every outreach brings an angry smack-down. After each K-O, like a boxer on the ropes, I head back into the ring. My job as a mother is to show I care: survive the attacks and set limits while being present and loving, and help her integrate painful emotions, without rushing in to resolve the difficulties.

Following a particularly charged weekend, I found myself questioning my approach. Feeling terrified that months of disappointment and isolation had taken a permanent toll, I considered arranging a telehealth consultation or booking online meditation classes for my daughter. Would she ever be okay again? Would I?

After we started venturing out, first only for necessities like groceries and doctors’ visits, then for socially distanced visits, I noticed that tensions appeared to be settling. My daughter found a virtual research position, brought home stellar grades, and practiced social distancing without being reminded. When a new challenge arose – her school cancelled all in person classes and on campus engagements – she cried bitterly, and I worried that her already negative outlook could not survive another blow. But within a day she’d contacted friends, taken virtual tours of off-campus apartments, and proposed a plan to use savings to offset rental costs.

It was then I knew that amidst the deprivations, losses, and challenges of the past few months, I’d been given a gift: a unique opportunity to get to know my children in ways that might have eluded me had daily life been as frantic as usual. Seeing my teens on a daily basis, shepherding them through their fears and bleakest moments, I’ve had the privilege of watching them build resilience and strengthen their inner reserves.

Parenting through sadness, fear, and adversity has shown me that I can’t fix everything for my kids, and that’s okay. After watching them in action over the past few months I know that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way, and I no longer feel a pull to repair every single thing that goes wrong.

Hearing echoes of this same theme from patients, neighbors, and friends, I think we’re starting to see a new version of maternal identity, winding down the era of the overly obsessed helicopter parent. After living through so much loss and disappointment,I can’t imagine seeing moms stressing out nearly as much about excessive screen time, a B on a report card, or too many snacks between meals. Involved mothering won’t go away, of course. We’ll still have huge investments in the health and happiness of our children, and we’re not going to ignore them when they need help. But I think we’ll bring a more balanced perspective to the post-pandemic world. Call us backseat moms.

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When Your Child Becomes A Teenager, It’s A ‘Coming Of Age’ For Both Of You

He’s thirteen. I can’t believe it. Seems like only yesterday (okay, not yesterday, but recently) that I was chasing him in the park, in the street, in the supermarket. I feel almost nostalgic about those days, but not quite because, as many of you who are in the thick of it right now know, they weren’t all snuggles on the couch and lullabyes. They were breastmilk-pumping, bottom-wiping, hand-holding. More like grabbing actually, since in those days he was constantly trying to wiggle his little fingers from my grasp and run away. I imagine if I tried to hold his hand now I’d get a similar reaction.

Birthdays are milestones, and there are a few that seem to be particularly critical turning points. Five (you can go to real school now), ten (double digit age), sixteen (hand me those car keys!), eighteen (legal adult), twenty-one (pass the bottle of tequila), forty (the list becomes less fun from here). And of course the birthday in question here: thirteen, the passing into adolescence.

It’s an awkward stage that certainly doesn’t start when you become a teenager. In fact, puberty seems to be happening much earlier than it did when I came to it. We even had to give that stage between ages ten and twelve a new name. No longer are those just kids who pass to adolescents when they turn thirteen. Now they’re tweens. But tween he isn’t, and child he isn’t, for starting today he is officially a teenager.

Do you remember the year you turned thirteen? For me, it was the summer before 8th grade. That summer is only memorable because of Roger, my first boyfriend. I wonder if this past summer will be memorable for my son. Not for the excitement of a “first” like I had, but for the utter lack of excitement. The quarantine summer. I shudder to think that perhaps this summer is not an anomaly, but rather the first in a string of new normals, and so won’t even be memorable for its peculiarity.

But it’s not actually his coming of age I was thinking of when I began writing this post. It’s mine. I’m now the mother to a child who is taller than me, wears a bigger shoe size, and can pretty much care for himself. He’s not as independent as I was at his age, but if I died in my sleep, he could go about his day with very little break in routine. He might wonder why I was still in bed, and might be a little annoyed at having to toast his own waffles and microwave his own pizza, but life would not be profoundly interrupted.

I know those thoughts are pretty morbid. I think they go hand in hand with this getting-older, son-becoming-a-teenager thing. It’s like I just realized I’m no longer a young mom. Similar to my son’s growth, this phenomenon did not occur overnight. It was a slow process of changes that I never even noticed. But I should have seen the signs. For example, I’ve become that mom at the playground watching toddlers and saying things like, “Treasure these moments,” to the worn-out first-time mothers who smile politely but inside are thinking, “Lady, I’m just trying to survive ’til nap time.”

And I want to follow my own advice and not take these days for granted, but that’s hard because I’m insanely busy. It feels like women these days can’t win. You either establish your career early on in life, getting all your schooling done and paying your dues in your twenties and thirties and then work on making a baby, or you establish a family first then go back to school and work your way up the chain when the kids aren’t quite so dependent. Both scenarios involve major changes right when life is getting comfortable.

When I’m lying in bed at night I sometimes wonder if I chose the better path or not. But I’ve come to realize that there is no better path, and no lesser one either. Whether you’re thirty or fifty when your child becomes a teenager, it’s still going to be a coming of age for the both of you. As my son enters this awkward stage of life, I too enter into an uncomfortable time of higher education and career-building. As his body stretches and aches from growing pains, I also experience discomfort from extending beyond the person that I thought I was, the woman I thought I had become. And as it turns out, it’s been happening all along, my growth and his, all in tiny increments so small we didn’t notice.

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I’m A Life Coach For Teens — This Is My Advice For Handling ‘Mean Girls’

October 3rd is just around the corner. That’s right; it’s almost Mean Girls Day! While my obsession with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler may have something to do with my affinity for the movie, I still think the cult classic is one of the best depictions of how brutal high school can be. (As a life coach for teen girls, I’m also reminded of this weekly.)

Even though I can laugh at the movie now, suffering the likes of Regina George during adolescence was unbearable. And bullying is no laughing matter. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, 23% of female students report being bullied, and “students who experience bullying are at increased risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression.”

While I was never physically bullied in middle school, 6th and 7th grade were miserable because I was the victim of what’s now termed relational aggression. There were two ringleaders within a group of about ten girls who would routinely ask me to hang out. Sad thing was, they’d invite me to places and then wouldn’t show up, or everyone would hide while the mom would tell me no one was home. I could literally hear the gaggle of girls hissing at each other to be quiet and stifling their laughter from another room while she blocked the doorway. (Yes, these mothers were complicit with the behavior, which I have plenty to say about, but I’ll save that for another article.) Since this was pre-cellphones, my mom eventually got used to dropping me off and then waiting down the street so she could drive by again a few minutes later, generally to find me sitting alone outside, crying on the stoop.

It was AWFUL. There’s no other way to put it. But did I still try hanging out with them? Yes. Did any other girls come to my defense? Nope. Did I ever confront them personally to let them know how much they were hurting my feelings? I wouldn’t dare. And mind you, this was before the age of social media, which now announces to the world who is included and who isn’t—it’s essentially social exclusion on steroids.

My mom always told me things would get better, and they did. But those words didn’t matter at the time; in fact, nothing really made me feel better until I eventually moved on and found friends who actually treated me like one. Upon entering high school, those girls were suddenly small fish in a big pond who weren’t worth my time or energy. Looking back now, I can see that they were possibly jealous of me, or at a bare minimum, highly insecure, and looking for a scapegoat to help them feel bigger while solidifying their social status.

Regardless, here is what I wish I’d known then and what I regularly tell my teen clients now who are suffering at the hands of mean girls. Regina George, be damned!

Cliques are, unfortunately, a by-product of teenage brain development.

As teens seek to develop their identities and establish independence from their parents—two critical milestones of adolescence—they experiment with who they are and who they want to spend time with. It doesn’t make cruel behavior acceptable, but it partially explains why middle school girls dump girlfriends as often as Leonardo DiCaprio.

Focus on friends who make you feel good. For brain development purposes, adolescents are trying to find their new squad as they leave their families and enter adulthood. But with squads comes significantly more drama. So if your daughter is obsessed with being part of a group (which is totally normal), it’s also important for her to have even just one or two friends who can be her “people.” While those friends may not be as popular as the girls she’s trying to fit in with, these are the girls she can truly be herself with, have fun with, and rely on, which helps a lot when times get rough.

It’s so much easier to be nice than it is to be mean.

While it may feel better to fight fire with fire in the heat of the moment, dealing with fall out of hurling nasty comments back and forth (especially if those are public online) or regretting how you acted drains so much more emotional energy than simply being nice, or at least plain neutral, and moving on. I suggest following Gloria Steinem’s advice for when someone calls you something mean: smile, say thank you, and walk away. It’s so confusing that that mean girl’s pretty little head might explore.

Letting others decide if you’re likable gives all your power away.

In the famous words of Dita Von Teese, “you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” Truly. You can spend your entire life trying to make other people like you, and they may never come around. It’s a losing battle because it gives all of your power away to other people to determine your worthiness. It’s why helping girls build self-esteem during adolescence is crucial to living a happier life—the more you can validate yourself, the less likely you spend your life seeking validation and approval from others.

Karma is a biatch.

Girls always laugh at this one, but I’ve found it to be profoundly true. I’m a firm believer in Madeleine Albright’s saying that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Be good to yourself and others, and it will come back to you tenfold.

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Nothing Prepared Me For My Teen’s Drug Addiction

*trigger warning: suicidal ideation

On the top shelf of my walk-in closet sits a shoebox wrapped in striped, metallic wrapping paper. What’s inside are pieces of notebook paper written to my son when he was going through a difficult time. These notes not only have words of encouragement on them, but were also an exercise in letting go and having faith.

According to the American Addiction Centers website, 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017. It also states that teenagers and people with mental health disorders are more at risk for drug use and addiction than other populations.

I grew up in the ’80s. There were D.A.R.E programs in our schools and “Just say no to drugs” campaigns. We even had after school specials and Saved by the Bell episodes that touched on addiction. I also grew up with a father who battled alcoholism. I knew all about what that looked like. But none of this would prepare me for my son’s addiction.

In 2014, when Michael was beginning his sophomore year of high school, our world crumbled. It began unraveling when he was in middle school. He was struggling in school, had uncontrollable anger and wasn’t making the best choices, nor was he hanging out with a stellar group of kids. When he was in eighth grade, he came to me and said he thought he had ADD. My response? “Work harder.” My thoughts up until this point were that ADD was overdiagnosed and a crutch for parents who were too preoccupied to discipline their children.

It was during this time that I found pot in my son’s room. I was shocked. Sure, I smoked pot as a teenager, but my son? No way! I’ll never forget that fall day. I confronted him after he got out of the shower about the resin all over his desk. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the dried leaves.

“It’s marijuana,” he responded frankly.

I couldn’t believe he was telling the truth. He was 14 years old and wasn’t scared of anything. That day I made a bargain with Michael: “If you promise you won’t do it again, I won’t tell your dad.” To which he responded, “I won’t do it anymore.”

I was 35 years old, a single mom, and didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, I should have called his dad right away. I knew it was wrong, but I kept telling myself Michael was just experimenting and it was normal teenage behavior.

The next few years are a bit of a blur to me. There was lying, cheating, stealing, cutting and drug use. I’ll never forget the day Michael told me he didn’t want to live anymore. He was 15 years old. We were sitting on my bed and tears streamed down my face. I told him we would get him help, and I didn’t know what it was like living in his body.

That evening, I called his dad and told him I was afraid Michael was going to do something to hurt himself. A week later, following a confrontation with Michael at his dad’s house, we were driving home and again he told me he wanted to kill himself because he knew he let his father and me down.

I immediately pulled the car over and saw the pain in my son’s eyes. We sat in the parking lot of a local pizza place and he cried and I promised him everything would be okay. I have found in my years as a mother that blind faith is better than no faith. I didn’t know for sure everything was going to be okay, and I was scared as hell, but I leaned in and I said it anyway. I clung to those words for the next two years.

A week later, we admitted Michael to an inpatient facility. He was there for a week, and we visited every other day. He was completely withdrawn. However, I truly believe that move saved his life. I learned something about our healthcare system during this time: We do not have the appropriate resources needed to help teens fight drug addiction and depression. Most of the doctors wanted to prescribe medication to fight his depression that was caused by addiction, which itself was caused by self-medicating for ADD and depression initially. It’s a vicious cycle.

We were lucky enough to find two psychologists who were dedicated to treating our son and officially diagnose him with ADD. They were instrumental in helping us realize Michael needed a combination of medication and talk therapy to work through the problems he was facing.

Following his hospitalization, in the spring of his sophomore year, Michael went to live with his father and attend a new school. That was the hardest, yet best decision of my life. That kid was my world, but I knew I could no longer provide for him the way his father could. I felt like a failure, but I also knew he needed to be with his dad.

It was during this time that I started the shoebox. It contained encouraging notes in it dedicated to Michael. His sister and I would write, “We love you and miss you. You are strong. You got this.” It was therapeutic for us, too, as we were grieving not having him around.

Flash forward to 2020. My son is the most level-headed young man you’ll ever meet. Sure, he still has his battles and is far from perfect, just like anyone. But he is strong and he is a fighter. He’s 22 years old now, and living with his girlfriend.

We don’t talk a lot about those high school years anymore; these days, we’re focused on the future. Every time I run across that shoebox, I read the notes to remind myself life isn’t meant to be easy. Sometimes when you’re going through a difficult time, it’s hard to think about the future. But if you ask for help and stay the course, there is hope. My son is a shining example of that.

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5 Things You Probably Shouldn’t Ask A Teenage Boy

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being the mother of teenage sons, it’s this: be careful what questions you ask.

Of course, any questions to a teen are usually met with frustrating answers, ranging from an irritated explosion of “Mom!” to some sort of hmmph-ing noise from their throat area. But I speak from (hard-earned and sometimes unfortunate) experience when I say that there are some areas of teenage boy life where ignorance is truly bliss. And if you want to remain blissful, Mama, you’re best to steer clear of the following inquiries.

Why so many showers?

When your bath-averse child suddenly seems eager to jump in the shower — daily, even — you’re initially proud that all those parental lectures about personal hygiene have paid off and he’s finally on board with being, you know, acceptably clean. You may be tempted to remark about his new bathing habits, and maybe pose a question about what made everything click into place. But trust me: it isn’t a sudden revelation about stinky armpits that compels him to lock himself in the privacy of the bathroom with increasing frequency. Sure, he may be soaping himself, but he’s also … soaping himself. Know what I mean? The less you ask about it, the better. Just be glad you don’t have to nag him about showering any more, and leave it at that.

Besides, you’ll know it’s not about good hygiene because of the inevitable answer to the following question you probably shouldn’t ask:

When is the last time you brushed your teeth?

If being neat and tidy were truly the concern, your son’s breath wouldn’t smell like the inside of a butthole, because he’d make friends with the toothbrush that’s collecting dust in the holder. But alas, though his skin may be squeaky clean, his teeth are wearing fuzzy yellow coats. You thought that once he was old enough to be self-sufficient, he could be trusted with his own oral hygiene. You were wrong. Don’t ask him outright when he last brushed if you can’t bear to hear that it’s been days or even weeks. Just start suggesting it again, daily.

Where did all the cups/plates/silverware go?

If your teenage son has a bedroom — even if he shares it with a sibling, even if you’ve made a “no eating in the bedroom” rule — I promise, he’s eating in there. And you’ll notice a steady dwindling of your kitchen utensils and dinnerware, and wonder briefly if they’ve gone the way of all the socks the dryer has “eaten” over the years. But you’ll quickly realize that it isn’t a coincidence, and the likely culprit is the one who practically lives on the ramen noodles you swear you’re going to stop buying. You can ask the question, and you can search for the answers yourself — but beware. Entering into a teen boy’s room in search of missing dishes is like entering into a bacterial house of horrors. You’ll find the dishes, all right, with science experiment-worthy amounts of mold or cereal milk congealed into the bottom. You’ll find forks and spoons inexplicably stashed in drawers and wedged between the mattress and the bed frame.

Author photo, and you can’t tell, but that spoon was stuck to the bowl.

What’s that smell?

Another reason you should think twice about venturing too deeply into a teenage boy’s room: the odor. There are always damp towels mildewing in a heap in the corner, and dirty laundry scattered everywhere. That musty, oniony fragrance currently making your nose hairs shrivel — is it armpits? Feet? The moldy towels? The aforementioned crusty dishes? A sandwich rotting in a duffel bag? The possibilities are endless, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

What does that mean?

If you want to feel like the oldest, uncoolest person on the planet, then by all means ignore my advice and ask this question. Because that’s exactly what will happen when you inquire after an unfamiliar word or phrase you’ve just heard coming from your child’s mouth (typically yelled during some kind of video game chat with his “bros”). You ask innocently, for example, “What’s ‘no cap’ mean?” and you’re met with — at the very least — an eyeroll of epic proportions, if not an outright accusation of being elderly and out of touch.

Yes, it’s our job as parents to be in touch with our teens: their online safety, who they’re hanging out with, whether they’re turning their homework in on time. But when it comes to certain things, it’s best to just put our blinders on and focus on getting through the teen years without that awful smell wafting into the rest of the house.

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Parents Are Human, And Other Lessons We Need to Teach Our Kids During The Pandemic

Wow. This is a lot for us, let alone for the kids, right? So much of what we thought would make this particular time in our kids’ lives special is just not possible right now. To make up for it, we parents are doing our best, setting aside our own disappointments and worries to remain calm and positive in the hope of making this totally abnormal situation feel normal for our kids so they can be…kids.

We’re good at this. By the time our kids are tweens and teens, we have this whole happy-face-for-the-kids thing down. We’ve picked up our angry or devastated children after brutal practices, nitpicky exams, and sleepovers gone wrong. We’ve optimistically welcomed our hungry, frustrated, or tired kids home, only to realize they are just plain not having it—or us. We are The Brunt and, frankly, it’s hard duty.

Here’s the thing: Part of what kids need to learn (and preferably soon, before sheetcaking becomes a regular thing for you) is that if they treat someone poorly enough for long enough, eventually that person will not keep showing up with a smile. Unconditional love is real. But unconditional love means that parents are the ultimate backstop, not the ultimate doormat.

I’m not recommending that you give up on educating, sheltering, and feeding the children who live under your roof in the middle of a pandemic because they’re throwing tantrums in your general direction. But it’s going to be a problem if your kids don’t eventually realize that you are a person. And I’m sorry about this—I know you’re going through some stuff of your own—but in addition to being the person your kids are dumping on, you are also the person in charge of teaching them (1) that you are human and (2) what respect for humans means.

So if every time the kids make retching noises at dinner, we hustle back into the kitchen for Round Two instead of acknowledging our actual human feelings, we’re doing a disservice not only to ourselves, but also to our kids. Just like we taught them when they were small, we need to use our words to express how their behavior makes us feel. If you have tweens or teens, toddler talk was a long time ago, so in case you forgot, here’s an example of how it works: “When you [make puking sounds at the delicious miracle dinner I magicked up from pantry scrapings, while simultaneously responding to emails, texts, and calls from work], I feel like [it’s time for you to learn how to make your own grilled cheese].”

Our human children need to learn that lashing out at other humans has consequences. They may (fingers crossed) learn this faster if we consistently create consequences of the sort that put a pause on the stompy, door-slammy proceedings and create an opportunity for everybody to slow down and think. If the consequence happens to give your son or daughter exposure to a new life skill, it’s a bonus all around. For example, if your teen routinely and eye-rollingly expresses the view that you don’t know anything about anything, you might not particularly feel like helping with remote Algebra today. (Life skill bonus: self-directed learning!) Or if everything you do this week is unacceptable in every possible way, you can reasonably predict that your dearest won’t be satisfied with how you wash their clothes, so go ahead and add that to the list of things you won’t be spending your time doing. (Life skill bonus: laundry!)

These consequences may not be well received (i.e., expect some drama, but what else is new). They may not even be effective, especially at first, or even at all until your child’s brain matures enough to grasp the concept that other people (including GASP parents!) are humans. Still, we have to try. We need to calmly and rationally express our feelings—yes, we are allowed to have feelings! Then we need to give our kids the opportunity to reflect on how their behavior impacts others. These things are hard work, but we owe it to our children to teach them to do better, so they can (eventually) get out there and do better, too.

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My Teens Are ‘Bored’ While I Work My A** Off, And I’m Over It

I realize my teens’ lives have been stripped down to hanging out with their mother and having Zoom calls with their friends. 

I also know being a teenager can be somewhat boring, and there are days you have to dig deep to amuse yourself — because I lived it. My mother used to laugh when we said we were bored and gave us more chores; I do the same. But my mother also worked outside of the home and wasn’t parenting through a global pandemic where everyone was up each other’s asses, so there’s a difference.

And no, I wasn’t a budding young adult during the time of a global pandemic so I don’t know their truth, but there is something on my chest I need to scream off: If my three teenagers say they are bored one more time while I run around like a rabid hyena because there’s so much shit to do I can’t see straight, I’m gonna lose it.

When the middle of March came and everything was put to a halt, I was fine with all the lounging and laziness. It was chilly outside. I was happy my kids were safe and we didn’t know anyone who was sick. I was fine with letting things go — the dishes, the laundry, my kids not changing their clothes– because all I could do was mentally get through the day. Everything else seemed so minimal to me.

But hello, people living in this house — that was six months ago, and never wearing shoes, and lying horizontal on the sofa, and telling me you are bored isn’t a way of life.

I had sympathy for them early on. I did. But they’ve had plenty of time to reflect and make some changes. They know by now that when I’m busting out the vacuum and yelling about the empty glasses hanging in every corner, there’s shit to do and they can do it. 

My children are young, but they aren’t so young they are at a loss for how to handle these times. At this point they know if they tell me they are bored, they look bored, or they smell like any type of boredom, I’m going to hand them something to do. Like wash a dish or scrub a toilet.

As the mother in this house, I feel like I am losing my ever loving mind. 

I feel like no matter what I do I simply can’t catch up, and every morning I’m propelled out of bed by my to-do list.

I’m not asking my kids to be an full-on adults or take on my responsibilities, but I am frustrated with the three teen-brains walking around this place thinking there’s not much to do when all I see are a million things that could occupy their time — and save me some sanity in the process. Win-win, right?

My patience has worn out. I no longer have suggestions for them.

If they say there is nothing to do, instead of getting angry (okay, I still get angry but I deal with it better now), I go down the list of the things they could be doing. Like cleaning their bathroom and emptying the dishwasher that’s full of the dishes they didn’t rinse off even though I’ve told them one-thousand times, or to at least grab a fucking book.

I have good kids; I do. But they are still kids, and like most, their go-to if they’re feeling like they need a project isn’t to clean up after their asses or anyone else’s. Most teens don’t swing that way.

And as a parent who is trying to balance it all, like so many of you are, I’m straight out of willpower. When my kids are lounging in their hoodies acting like the world will keep spinning just because mom will keep that wheel in motion, I’m not sure what I clench harder: my jaw or my ass cheeks. 

I know I’m not alone here. I know the folks who are working from home have already done away with regular body-odor checks and monitoring their kids’ screen time because dammit it all to hell, some things have to give.

I’m losing steam, though. One second I’m so glad my kiddos are home safe and sound with me, and then the next second I blow a gasket because someone left tuna fish on the counter, and for fuck’s sake am I the only one who knows where the sponge is?

To the parents who are have been fizzling fast trying to keep things normal and fun and oh-so-peppy throughout this new normal, I feel you. I know you are not okay, because I am not okay either.

I guess the only thing we can do is conquer one day at a time and keep giving these teens something to make TikTok videos about. Because if they don’t want to do that, I’ve got a toilet they can scrub.

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As A Therapist, Let Me Tell You — Your Teen Wants To Talk To You

“My teenager is self-harming and won’t talk to us”… “My teenager has lost a lot of weight and we don’t know what is going on”… “My teenager got caught with substances and won’t answer any of our questions”… “My teenager is having anxiety attacks and needs to see someone.”

These are examples of emails or phone calls I get regularly from parents seeking therapy — and that was pre-pandemic. Now that parents are spending even more time with their teens, they are noticing even more concerning behaviors.

As a therapist, I work with a lot of teens. This has been one of my niche areas since beginning private practice, and it is difficult for me to refuse a teen who wants to talk to someone. While I am long past my teen years and even having teens at home, it is not difficult for me to remember what it was like to be a teenager.

I remember writing in my journals and keeping my thoughts between myself and those hidden notebooks. I did not have the courage to talk to someone about my innermost feelings, and when a teen comes into my office, I work really hard to ensure a safe space for those conversations to happen.

I start out my first session with the usual confidentiality and safety notice, but I also tell them that I won’t judge them, nor will I be mad at them. That they need to trust me in order to talk to me, and I take that trust seriously. I explain the Code of Ethics that I follow as a social worker, and I make promises about what I can and can’t share with others. After that, we are typically on our way to a long-term therapeutic relationship where we both get to know the authenticity of who they are as they grow and reflect and learn.

Oftentimes, though, the strife at home does not end. If the teen is evolving, that does not mean the parents are changing along with them. I have even heard therapists say comments along the lines of “I am done working with selfish (or unstable or unsupportive) parents.” Are parents more selfish? Or are they the same as they (we) have always been, but our kids are more compassionate and empathetic?

I think of 10-15 years ago when teens would tell me their mom was nagging them about putting on deodorant, or not extending a curfew. I have not spent time in sessions talking about these typical battles the past few years. Now the battles are over how much time is spent in bedrooms alone. That battle might sound familiar to you, along the line of “parents just don’t understand,” but that is not what I am referring to.

Teens are spending time alone in their room wishing their parents would miss their company, that they would put down their cocktail and listen to them talk about their day, their friends, their problems. They want to feel considered and important and the “seen and not heard” is quite the opposite of their desires.

Our teens want better from us. They want to process their choices and watch our faces for reactions, and then be trusted to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. They cringe when we ask too many questions about school because they really don’t want us to helicopter any emails to teachers. And they are teaching us to be kinder to people, more tolerant, and more forgiving.

In fact, when I talk about values with teens I learned pretty quickly that “open” was a common word teens used when talking about qualities they value about themselves and others. As a therapist, I initially assumed they meant vulnerable and expressive. Nope. They mean open to others: Gender, race, class, intelligence, basically anything at all; be you, and they accept you for that.

So parents, what can we do?

I would suggest we start by listening more and assuming less. We were not trusted when we were teens, and many times for good reasons, but also oftentimes because we were not communicating. While far from perfect, our kids are honest. They don’t like the burden of secrets and lies and manipulations. They want our trust, and they want to feel trusted, so they can in turn trust themselves.

If you are not sure how to even begin, start with this: I noticed you have been (quieter) lately. Whatcha been thinking about? Or… I know this year is not what you wanted, and I just wanted to tell you I am so sorry about that. What can I do to make things easier?

In reality, the words are not as important as the safety you create in the conversation. Relax your posture, focus on your child, make eye contact. Pay attention, be patient when they speak, remind yourself that there are no right answers to their thoughts and you are not responsible for fixing any problems they did not ask you to fix. Most importantly, validate them. If you never agree with any words they say, that is OK! Acknowledge their points, let them know they were heard, and just like us, that is enough.

When all else fails, remember to avoid the words “at least.” When our kids tell us what is wrong, the last thing they want to hear from us why they should not feel so poorly because “at least…”(By the way, it usually doesn’t help adults either.)

Our kids are not depending on us to define them. How many of you chose a college major based on what your parents thought you would be good at? Our kids are “woke.” They take our suggestions and then decide whether to accept or discard them. The bigger question is: Will they come talk to you about what they want?

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Why Teens Are Less Likely To Follow COVID-19 Safety Rules

I’m going to be honest here. Since March of this year, I’ve been faced with a number of challenges. I’ve had to figure out how to work from home while also educating my children. I’ve had anxiety about everything — from the health and safety of family and friends, to the very real risk of losing my job. There has been the stress on my marriage of living through a pandemic, and the stress of paying bills after a salary reduction. But at the top of the list of all of these challenges has been trying to get my teenage son to understand the importance of following COVID-19 related safety guidelines.

He’s 13, and let me tell you, he knows how to make his own pancakes, and that somehow translates to him knowing a lot about everything, and informing the whole family about his opinions on what is and isn’t safe. He likes to point out contradictions, because you know, that’s what teenagers do. And he is always on the push to move the rules around so he can spend time with his friends. And you know what, on the whole, he’s not a bad kid, and nothing he’s doing is atypical behavior for his age, but when you are looking down the barrel of a pandemic, keeping your teenager safe can be a real stressor.

So why are teenagers struggling so hard with following COVID-19 rules?

Well… according to the experts, there are two things to consider, and the first and foremost is brain development.

And according to Dr. Judith G. Edersheim, co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, most teenage actions and disinterest in following COVID-19 safety rules can be blamed on the developing teenage brain. “Adolescents are programmed to seek independence. Pushing limits and taking risks are the evolutionary way in which they master these challenges. Blaming teenagers for their illicit socializing is like faulting a bird for leaving the nest — it runs counter to a basic biological imperative. But ignoring this risky behavior poses a grave threat to themselves and the rest of us.”

As maddening as it is to try to get our teenagers to stick to the basic rules of mask wearing and social distancing, it obviously goes in direct contrast with their need to socialize and push up and out into the world. This is the reason you are seeing college campuses implementing a long list of safety measures, only for students to disregard them by throwing a massive mask-free party, and ending up with an outbreak. This is why you are having one argument after another with your teen about staying away from friends, only for them to lie about where they were because they just really, really, needed to see their friends at the beach.

So what’s the second reason? Well… it’s grief.

According to psychologist Robin Gurwitch, from Duke University, in Durham, N.C., a lot of kids are experiencing loss. “Many teens aren’t getting to participate in typical rites of passage–getting your driver’s license at 16, sports competitions, proms, graduations, and even younger children have activities they’re not doing. We need to acknowledge that there is grief and anger and frustration and sadness,” she said. And those feelings are causing teenagers to act out in strange ways to make up for those losses. They are being more impulsive than they might be otherwise, and they are pushing boundaries even at the risk of further spreading the infection.

In the case of my son, I must say, his soccer season was canceled. He hasn’t been able to see his friends for months, and he won’t be able to anytime soon because our school district just went online. And it’s in moments like this where it’s good for me, and for all parents, to acknowledge that hardship when approaching our children about why they are fighting us so hard on this whole social distancing thing.

So what are parents to do? Well… going back to Gurwitch, acknowledging that, “It’s part of their normal developmental trajectory to try to make their own decisions, and now, the response to the virus is taking all their sense of control away.” It’s also good to discuss with them the loss that they might be experiencing due to COVID restrictions. Being understanding can really go a long way when it comes to getting your teen to follow along. And I know this might be a tall order with how inconsistent COVID-19 regulations have been up to this point, but trying to be consistent with your expectations can really make a difference when explaining the COVID-19 safety rules.

But I must say, as frustrating as it has been personally to get my son on board with COVID-19 safety, knowing that this is typical teenage behavior, and that he is struggling with his own grief, does give me some insight into his mindset. And sometimes, figuring out how to meet your child in the middle can be a huge advantage.

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Girls Are Undergoing Labiaplasty, And We Need to Talk About It

For the vast majority of cisgender girls, the physical changes in puberty can feel downright uncomfortable. We get periods, grow breasts, sweat more, discover hair in spots we didn’t expect. Compounded with this is the gross lack of information presented to us about the awesome individuality of our bodies. Not only have we been cheated out of some kickass female empowerment lessons as kids and teens, but we’ve also been conditioned through the media and beauty industry to see skewed images of women that give us a ton of anxiety if our physical parts didn’t match up to them.

There are two really important topics in my high school health class that no one ever covered, and I really wish they had. They are the sexual pleasure we as females deserve to receive and experience, and that it’s normal AF to have your labia look unique to you. Can you imagine if our teachers had been given free rein to openly discuss the undeniable magic of the clitoris and how female orgasms have unexpected health benefits, or if they had shared with us this nifty photo gallery courtesy of The Labia Library? I know I personally would’ve been getting my big O on a little earlier had I known how to actually make it happen and felt totally cool to doodle underneath that poster of my teenage crush Angelina Jolie hanging in my bedroom. Instead, I was taught to see my reproductive parts as two main things — the source of my generationally stigmatized menstrual cycle, and that spot where the unprotected sex need never happen. 

Seriously though. Maybe, just maybe, if our educational institutions acknowledged the very real and very deserving perks of having a vagina, the right to choose what to do with it, and the confidence that comes with allowing ourselves the pleasure of enjoying it, we might not have a growing number of teenage girls feeling so ashamed of their vaginas that they’re going to extreme lengths to surgically alter them. 

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. According to the BBC, over the past five years in particular, girls as young as nine have been seeking out cosmetic labiaplasty and going under the knife to voluntarily trim their labia in an effort to make it appear closer to what they think one is “supposed” to look like. And yes, our adolescents are most definitely being exposed to images of vaginas online and taking mental notes, I can assure you. They’re also looking at their own body parts in confusion and potential disgust, because they don’t have the necessary resources around them to understand that each labia is different in its size, shape, and composition. Hell, there’s even a surgery available to fuse the outer labia together like a clam shell called “The Barbie,” and it’s gaining popularity among teens. 

This is obviously a terrifying reality, considering that Barbie is completely made of plastic and doesn’t even have a vagina. 

“Labiaplasty, which is the trimming of the inner and outer labia, is the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery among teenage girls,” says “Girls and Sex” author Peggy Orenstein in her 2016 Ted Talk. “It rose 80 percent between 2014 and 2015, and whereas girls under 18 comprise two percent of all cosmetic surgeries, they are five percent of labiaplasty.”

Between 2013 and 2018, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that labiaplasty surgeries have seen a 53% increase, with more than 35 million dollars spent in 2018 on the procedure and 12,756 total surgeries performed. Of those documented procedures, 491 had been performed on girls under the age of 17.

Between 2018 and 2019, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons noticed a 9% increase in cosmetic labiaplasty procedures, and I can only imagine that girls and teens may very well still be an active demographic for those seeking out the procedure. There are also few extensive guidelines for screening adolescents prior to surgical approval. This poses a huge risk to our girls in more ways than one. Since their outer labia doesn’t finish growing until they turn 18, there is the great potential for scarring and even asymmetrical genitals if an adolescent surgically alters her vulva before it’s had a chance to properly grow.

“The labiaplasty trend has become so worrisome that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement on the procedure, which is rarely medically indicated, has not been proven safe and whose side effects include scarring, numbness, pain and diminished sexual sensation,” explains Orenstein. “Now, admittedly, and blessedly, the number of girls involved is still quite small, but you could see them as canaries in a coal mine, telling us something important about the way girls see their bodies.”

Just months before the author’s groundbreaking Ted Talk, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published an article stating that the surgical alteration of the labia is not necessary to the health of an adolescent girl, and it can even be considered a violation of federal criminal law in many cases. And yet, girls under 18 have still been getting this procedure, with one of the only major screening guidelines suggested being the examination of whether a young patient has body dysmorphia

For these impressionable young girls, the desire to cosmetically alter their genitals can often stem from our society’s impossible beauty standards and the media imagery they compare their bodies to, along with the infuriating lack of positive sex education available to them in school. According to Orenstein, this assuredly results in female adolescents feeling shame and the fear of humiliation if their anatomy does match up with what they may see online, keeps them from prioritizing their own pleasure during sexual encounters, and leads a bunch of girls to even avoid self-exploration. 

“Kids go into their puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy,” she says. “And they see that internal diagram of a woman’s reproductive system — you know, the one that looks kind of like a steer head — and it always grays out between the legs. So we never say ‘vulva,’ we certainly never say ‘clitoris.’ No surprise, fewer than half of teenage girls age 14 to 17 have ever masturbated. And then they go into their partnered experience and we expect that somehow they’ll think sex is about them, that they’ll be able to articulate their needs, their desires, their limits. It’s unrealistic.”

Obviously, a major fucking shift needs to happen here. It’s ridiculous enough that there is still an overwhelming amount of stigma around periods and postpartum bodies, not to mention living with racist and discriminatory industries that constantly pick apart our perceived physical “flaws” in order to profit off of the self-loathing they helped to create. We don’t need to add into this harmful mix the damaging reality of teens thinking that their vaginas are a problem to be fixed or an area devoid of pleasure. And we certainly don’t need them seeking out a cosmetic genital surgery named after Barbie.

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